By Stephen Martin, Visiting Professor of Behavioural Science , Columbia University Graduate School of Business, & CEO, Influence at Work, & Joseph Marks, Doctoral Researcher, Department of Experimental Psychology, UCL
The phrase ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ cautions that we may need to overcome a natural tendency to judge the person communicating information according to the valence of the information that is being delivered. The reverse is also true. Often when evaluating the worth of a policy idea, proposal or political speech people will rely on their impressions of the messenger when assigning value to what is being said.
It is a phenomenon that we encounter every day. We’ve all been in the situation where we’ve tried to make a point or express an opinion and been ignored, only to then watch as someone else presents the same idea a few minutes later and wins everyone over. All of a sudden everyone in the group thinks it’s the best idea since sliced bread, even though nothing has changed about the argument itself.
This commonplace scenario illustrates that it is not just the content of the message that matters, who is communicating also has an effect on how positively people respond to information. In other words, when it comes to messages designed to influence attitudes and change behaviours, the entity delivering those messages—a.k.a. the messenger—can be as important, sometimes more so, than the substance of the message itself.
When someone communicates an idea, people don’t just make judgments about the coherence and validity of their message. They make a whole host of judgments about the messenger, too. Does this person appear to know what they are talking about? Do they have relevant expertise or experience? Do they seem genuine, or are they trying to scam me? Are they tough enough to get the job done? Might they have an ulterior motive? Are they trustworthy? These are important questions, and how they are answered determines how people behave in their interactions with others.
The upshot is that we don’t always listen to people (or other sources of information) based on the content or accuracy of what is being said. Rather, we listen to those perceivedto possess particular traits or attributes that signal that their messages are worth listening to. This commonly overlooked insight suggests that the messenger has a much more fundamental role in the influence process than just communicating the message.
They are the message.
So what makes some messengers seem inherently credible and others less so?
The evidence suggests that there are two types of effective messenger: hard messengers and soft messengers. “Hard” messengers are listened to because they are perceived to possess some form of status over their audience. “Soft” messengers, on the other hand, are listened to because people feel a connectedness to them.
Messengers with high status are influential in groups and societies because they are believed to possess power and other useful qualities that would make them a good ally or a fierce foe. They are seen as higher up the pecking order than the person or people with whom they are interacting and are therefore awarded respect, admiration, and deference.
Typically, we associate status with hierarchies in the workplace because they provide a clear organizational structure, where those at the top make the important decisions, get paid the most, and wield the greatest influence. But status hierarchies are also found in our schools, family groups, our networks of friends and associates, and our local communities.
In contrast to society’s hard messengers, who win influence by getting ahead of others, soft messengers achieve influence by getting along with others. Humans are social animals and have a strong desire to connect, bond, and cooperate with others. This is why softer characteristics can also help people to carry sway. People don’t always look to those with status for information. Sometimes they prefer to hear from their friends, those they trust, and people who are ‘like them.’
Within each of these broad categories lie eight fundamental traits, four hard-related and four soft-related, which each reliably impact whether people will listen to a messenger or not.Status is awarded to messengers who are perceived to possess one or more of the following four traits: high socio-economic, competence, dominance and physical attractiveness. The four most potent drivers of connectedness, meanwhile, are: warmth, vulnerability, trustworthiness and charisma.
These messenger effects help people to get their way in job interviews, group discussions, and even courtrooms, despite the individuals having no real advantage in terms of the qualifications they hold, the knowledge they possess, or the rationale underlying the cases that they are making. Although this may seem like a problem that could easily be dealt with if individuals became a little more self-aware, the inclination to respond positively to messengers who signal certain traits is so deeply embedded in us that it seems the only solution available is for policy makers to better understand when and where messenger effects may be negatively biasing people’s judgements and decision-making in the public sphere, so that they can design and implement policies to attenuate or diminish them. The consequences of ignoring them may be more dire than we realise.
The book “Messengers: Who we listen to, who we don’t, and why” by Stephen Martin & Joseph Marks is available at: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/111/1116510/messengers/9781847942357.html