You’re in the middle of a training session, when someone pushes back, citing an example from their own experience:

  • “I knew somebody once who died because he was wearing seat belts and couldn’t get out of a burning car.”
  • “I tried that closing technique once and the customer threw me out of her office.”

Citing facts and figures to the contrary (“Statistics show that seat belts save more lives”) isn’t likely to work, because of a phenomenon known as the “availability heuristic.”

One bad experience …
About 40 years ago, psychologists discovered that people gave disproportionate weight to an idea when they could call to mind an example that supported it.

Researchers further discovered that this “availability heuristic” caused evaluative misjudgments – if they could remember a bad experience on public transportation, they’d tend to judge all public transportation as unpleasant.

How to address it
The best way to counter the availability heuristic: more examples.

A few years ago, a UCLA psychologist attempted to see how the availability heuristic affected teacher evaluations. He created course evaluations for Duke MBA students.

Half the class received evaluations that included this item, “List two ways this course could be improved.” The other half were told to list 10 ways.

Those who had to call to mind 10 examples gave higher marks to the course than those who listed two.
Here’s why, the researchers concluded: Those who struggled to find numerous examples focused more closely on what actually happened. That helped them to fairly consider all the evidence.

Those who just had to cite a couple of examples quickly generalized them, concluding that the entire course was poor.

When you’re getting pushback based on anecdotal evidence, don’t try to argue. Instead, counter examples with examples:

    1. Ask for more examples. This forces people to think more deeply past their initial anecdotal experience and puts the example in perspective: “Can anyone cite other examples where not wearing seat belts saved someone?”
    2. Ask for positive counter-examples. Balance these against the negative examples. Ask, “Okay, can anyone tell me about a time when seat belts saved a life?”
    3. Acknowledge the example and dig deeper. You don’t want to dismiss or minimize the example. That will just increase resistance.Instead, go the opposite way: Delve into the details to get a full understanding of the example: “No closing technique works with everyone. Let’s look at why it didn’t work in that situation.”

      Then pursue a deeper and more discussion of closing: “Did you see signs the prospect wasn’t prepared for the close?”

Source: Fox, Craig, The Availability Heuristic in the Classroom: How Soliciting More Criticism Can Boost Your Course Ratings,” Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 1, No. 1, Pp. 86-90.

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