Why you trust the wrong people

We're hardwired to prioritise the messenger over the message, say Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks. (Believe them, they're behavioural scientists.)

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2019

In the event of a sudden nuclear attack, who is the best person to deliver the warning to the public? This was a real conversation held in the House of Commons on 26 November 1981. Two names that were thrown into the ring by the MP John Wells were Kevin Keegan and Ian Botham. The choice of the then-captain of the England national football team and the man who had single-handedly battered the Australians in the most recent Ashes test as appropriate figureheads to deliver the news might seem odd at first. But when you put it into context, it makes much more sense – both were trusted and had status among the British public.

That, say behavioural scientists Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks, is because the messenger is always more important than the message. In Messengers, the pair explore the eight hard and soft key traits (socio-economic position, competence, dominance, attractiveness, warmth, vulnerability, trustworthiness, charisma) that subconsciously influence why we are more likely to pay attention to some people, irrespective of what they’re saying. It’s something that can have major implications for business and society.

Why are we likely to listen to some people more than others?

Marks: There’s a couple of things going on. One is associative, based on the person and what they’re saying. The other is based on inference; you know something about the person that biases how you react to their message. Often it’s not about someone’s actual competence, but how we perceive their competence.

Martin: What’s interesting about inference is that once we have decided that a person is an "expert" on one thing, it’s easy to infer that they hold competence in other, unrelated areas. Sometimes looking and sounding right can be more important than being right. And we see it play out in management contexts all the time.

Marks: The danger of not taking into account these messenger effects is that people will just think that their sole purpose is to focus on information and will neglect this other hugely important factor of whether people will listen or not – they may even dismiss it.

Surely the power of individual traits is dependant on context?

Martin: In any context, one or more traits will play out and the environment will likely shape which becomes more important. Does it seem more appropriate to follow the "attractive" person rather than the vulnerable one or the charismatic person over the considered expert? These are questions that we play out in our minds. 

I’m not entirely convinced that context is given as much attention as it should. Dominant leaders tend to thrive in situations where there’s conflict or uncertainty. In situations where things are more comfortable, that type of leader is required less and perhaps a warm, trustworthy leader will have more influence.

Can organisations overcome this bias?

Marks: There are several things they can do. One is to remove the trappings of the messenger effects. With a CV, for example, excluding the name or picture can help remove attractiveness bias. Martin: It is really hard to overcome these things, so recognise them and adopt strategies that work for you. That might be having an assessment process to ensure that you have the right balance of messenger traits in a team. One thing that drives me nuts is the way that people talk about each other in an organisation. Take new team meetings: we usually start with everyone going around the table, introducing themselves, saying what they do. It would make more sense for the person chairing to introduce everybody based on their experience. Studies show that if there is an endorsement of someone’s expertise, people are more likely to listen.

Business leaders talk about the importance of soft traits, such as vulnerability and trustworthiness. Do you see these becoming more important?

Martin: Expectations of what the work environment is like have shifted towards flexible working. That’s clearly had an impact on who you’re more likely to listen to, but that’s not to say that the other effects have gone away. We have an egocentric, dominant political leader, the US has the same, as do Brazil and China – all of these changes are occurring in a context where we’ve got increasingly divisive and dominant leaders who’re being listened to as well.

"Who is saying it?" seems to be the thing that matters. They can be saying outrageous things, but people still follow them. That’s what’s really unnerving about this – if there’s a broader message here, it’s to pay attention to this because it’s what is actually going on.

Image credit: Random House Business

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