Malcolm Gladwell explains how to get someone to make the right decision when they don't want to

Malcolm GladwellBryan Bedder/Getty Images for The New YorkerJournalist Malcolm Gladwell speaks on stage at Malcolm Gladwell: A Tolstoy Problem at the MasterCard stage at SVA Theatre during The New Yorker Festival 2014 on October 11, 2014 in New York City.

We live in a world where big data is idolized. By analysing the data, we’ll be able to find answers to just about every problem known to man, whether how to improve a pro basketballer’s free throw to which new product your company should launch next.

There’s just one problem: People often ignore the data and do what they want to do anyway.

They do this even if the data clearly shows they’re wrong, points out New York Times best selling author Malcolm Gladwell.

He was speaking at the Qualtrics Insights tech conference in Salt Lake City this week.

He offered many examples: people who smoke, knowing full well it could kill them; affluent parents who refuse to immunize their children, even though the research that started the anti-vaccination wave has been discredited.

He even talked about Wilt Chamberlain’s poor free throw record. After the data showed an underhanded style would help him, he tried it for a season and it worked and his free throw record went through the roof. The next year, he went back to the overhand method, anyway.

Why? An in interview Chamberlain explained that he “felt like a sissy” and “silly” shooting underhanded and couldn’t keep doing it.

At issue could be a concept known as “thresholds” — the idea of how many people need to be doing a thing before you feel comfortable doing it yourself. A radical is a person with a threshold of zero — they will do it no matter what, even if no one else is doing it. A person with a threshold of 100 has an extremely high threshold, meaning they will be the last to follow a trend.

Chamberlain apparently had a relatively high threshold level. So one solution would have been to train more players to use the same style to make him feel less alone, Gladwell suggested.

Wilt ChamberlainWikimedia CommonsWilt Chamberlain

This idea carries forward in any situation where you are using data to make decisions.

Sometimes the data will show that the conventional way to do something is the worst way.

Will your leaders follow the data?

“When people turn their back on the data, it’s not because they are ill informed or stupid, or that they do not have the proper incentives. It’s because we are social human beings,” Gladwell says. In other words, humans want to feel part of the crowd.

So, when it’s your job to convince someone in a more important role to try a new approach, based on the data, your job is to really make the decision-maker “feel socially comfortable,” Gladwell explains.

“Make it clear to them they are not alone. So when, that in pivotal moment, they are aware that if they do the unexpected thing, they are not first person to try it.”

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