How sure are you? Preventing Norm Cascades by Helping People Acknowledge Uncertainty
It is still very common to hear offhanded negative remarks about GMOs from friends or acquaintances. As more gene-edited products hit the market, friends and clients may soon find themselves at dinner parties where someone starts raising concerns about much newer technologies as well. Initial concerns can escalate in social groups, especially if a few group members develop strong opinions, informed or otherwise.
Pushing back in such situations can be difficult or awkward. People tend to prioritize agreement and conversational flow over accuracy. This is normal and appropriate – no one likes a dinner guest who quibbles over every detail in a conversation. At the same time, these friendly conversational habits can allow dangerous and false ideas to perpetuate unchecked through social networks. Cass Sunstein, author of Unleashed and co-author of Nudge, calls this process a “norm cascade,” and he illustrates it with the example of GMO’s:
“If A is unsure whether genetic modification of food is a serious problem, he may be moved in the direction of alarm if B seems to think that alarm is justified. If A and B believe that alarm is justified, C may end up thinking so too, especially if she lacks independent information to the contrary. If A, B, and C believe that genetic modification of food is a serious problem, D will have to have a good deal of confidence to reject their shared conclusion.”
Can such norm cascades be prevented? Can we coach friends and clients to gently push back at the right time? Annie Duke, author, and former professional poker player, suggests a nice, simple tactic. Simply, ask an alarmist (or anyone), “How sure are you?” Duke explains the idea in a March 18th tweet:
“Instead of asking, ‘Are you sure?’ Try asking, ‘How sure are you?’
‘Are you sure’ is a yes or no question. It demands unreasonable certainty.
‘How sure are you?’ allows for shades of gray. It says uncertainty is okay.
How often in a day do you casually ask, ‘You sure?’”
This change in semantics can help nudge people towards reevaluating the sources of their opinions on their own. It’s a nice option, when you’re looking for a gentle way to pushback.