Cognitive Dissonance in Client Communication

The Multiplexed Brain
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The most advanced communication networks on the planet and the human mind are analogous in many ways, and the root of their power is what also gives rise to some seemingly irrational thoughts and discussions we have with clients.  Let’s explore the concepts of  cognitive dissonance and wavelength division multiplexing as the source of the seemingly irrational conversations and dumb decisions our clients apparently make repeatedly.

Wavelength Division Multiplexing (WDM) is a concept that has enabled the explosion of telecommunications over the past two decades, driving data transfer costs down to the point of allowing essentially unlimited movement of information and the productivity and wealth that it engenders.  By being able to send many slightly different signals simultaneously through a communication fiber that do not interact nor interfere with each other, WDM empowers multiple individual discussions to occur simultaneously over the same physical space in a way that would have been incomprehensible two generations ago.  A single optical fiber can carry 1.6 TERRABITS of information a second, the equivalent of about four thousand books or fifteen minutes of Netflix streaming.  This is being pumped through a sliver of glass thinner than a human hair every single second.

Cognitive Dissonance on the other hand is “a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors.  This produces a feeling of mental discomfort…” as stated by Simply Psychology.  It arises because the incredibly powerful processor between our ears, capable of one thousand trillion calculations per second (a petaflop), or over 10,000x the computational power of the best computers doesn’t rectify all information.  There are disparities we hold in our heads (like believing murder is wrong but supporting the death penalty, or that all politicians are corrupt except your buddy the local politician, or the cancer doctor that smokes), and because of the power of our minds we can construct a reality where two oppositional ideas are non-contrary depending upon how we look at them.  In scenarios where two unaligned belief systems come into contact for a situation (say, like “I don’t give referrals because all people that ask for them are slimy salespeople”, but then they meet highly professional You and You are asking for introductions) it is difficult to rectify and somewhat painful when two opposing thought systems interact internally.  Essentially the WDM in our head has broken down and there is interaction of the different thoughts/beliefs that were previously siloed.  It is this interaction that often leads to irrationality and apparently dumb decisions from smart people. Attorneys, medical professionals, and insurance agents see this on a daily basis.

When we work with a client we are having a discussion that is essentially on a single wavelength in their head.  But there are simultaneously hundreds if not thousands of other processes going on, from as routine as breathing to as intellectually engaging as trying to figure out where they met you before and what they want for dinner.  As Stolk and Templin discuss in Choices: Creating a Financial Services Business, most people have the capacity for seven plus or minus 2 active cognitive processes operating in parallel.  Many of these are engaged with issues we are not seeing such as trouble with a teenage child, work related stress, and other unseen issues that literally fill some of their major bandwidth.   This creates opportunities to influence and control the remaining major channels in ways we won’t discuss here, and the opportunity to intentionally cross communicate channels and force cognitive dissonance to yield an outcome favorable to the advisor.

When a client goes through cognitive dissonance, the thought that has the greatest current emotional grounding will dominate in the short term.  “I don’t give introductions”, even if based upon some rationality of experience, will crumble (at least temporarily) in the mental bath of positive emotions from your interaction with them, supplemented by a logical explanation breaking down that argument and the If/Then upfront contract we discussed in a previous post.  Forcing cognitive dissonance is like having a totally overpowered signal going through the fiber optic telecommunication cable that for a brief moment overwhelms all other signals that are there, swamping the WDM and getting through the system.  This is your intent: to force a cognitive dissonance so that they feel the discomfort from the multiple signals and temporarily accept your overdriven message on your professionality and worthiness of introductions.

Even after the fact the supercomputer in their head will build a rationality around why You deserve introductions even though they don’t give introductions.  If this rational framework is built on sound logic around your professionality and the disproportionate value you have delivered (as we discussed here) reinforced with positive emotions and hope for them achieving the relevant and visceral  goal with you, the memory will strongly encode in their brain and belief system.  This could create a further incongruity in their thoughts: no one deserves introductions except You.  Don’t doubt the power of this to protect your client from less professional potential competition.  The opposite can also be true: if they feel you used sales trickery to weasel introductions out of them without giving them an incredible experience and delivering on your initial promises to them, the client will feel taken advantage of and build an internally coherent rationale around you manipulating them for your own benefit.  The secret is to make sure you do what you said you would do and be the archetype of professional and helpful.  Do your job so well that they can not doubt you, and they will turn you into the hero you are.

One of the greatest assets you can develop is the capacity to create cognitive dissonance in your clients to force them to grow, re-evaluate, and rectify their outlooks in a more positive manner, to get them to align their disparate beliefs into a more cohesive whole. It doesn’t matter what your area of expertise is, clients across all professional disciplines have seemingly bipolar and incongruent behavior patterns because of their internal mental wave division multiplexing. By forcing a guided internal conflict, you can assist them in building a rational framework within your knowledge base that is more consistent and long range healthier for them. This is the calling of a true professional, to improve their clients’ future outcomes and outlooks even when they are no longer your clients. Recognizing out of alignment patterns of thought and action, often based upon erroneous assumptions or previous poor experiences, is an early step in the process of improvement.

We as human beings are complex stitched together experiences and thoughts that are all unique, yet more similar in our thinking than different. We are emotional and logical, scared and greedy and confident all at once. As economist Tim Harford says in his book The Logic of Life: I’ve claimed that we are smart, but I’ve admitted that we make mistakes. A rational economist (or Advisor of any form reading this) will quickly agree that many of our clients have made mistakes in the past that continue to influence their decision making today. But we can help them to understand this and alter their perceptions and thought patterns, at least long enough to straighten them out. And once the pain of the dissonance fades, they can clearly hear the message we are trying to transmit to them. This is our mission as professionals: to be clear as a fiber and as bright as a laser to help them understand and achieve their goals.

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