Scott Adams - the creator of the Dilbert cartoon - gained notoriety for vocally predicting a Trump 2016 win way back in 2015. I saw him make those predictions in real-time and have since struggled to determine whether he was just lucky or whether he was on to something. I figured I'd read his book about the election, "Win Bigly", and decide one way or the other. But I've got to say, I'm now more uncertain than ever. Adams says provocative and compelling things about how Trump stomped Hillary in the world of "3-D" persuasion. But he also comes off as a bit of a nut with wild conspiracy theories about living in a computer simulation and illusions of his grand personal impact on the election.
Before we get into all that though, the first thing you need to know about Scott Adams is that he is a trained hypnotist. This is seriously important. Or at least Adams think so, because he mentions it every 5 pages. At times, I wondered if I was reading a book about the election or a pick-up artist book like "The Game" - Adams claims to have the hypnotic power to "induce massive orgasms in a willing subject just by choosing the right words in a private setting."
But if you can get past the nuttery, Adams does a reasonable job summarizing some findings from behavioral psychology. He makes clear recommendations for how to apply these insights to develop a "weapons-grade" persuasion capability. The main takeaway is that we're way less rational than we think we are and that visual persuasion is far more important than I had appreciated.
Adams did succeed in changing how I viewed the election. His analysis of the different persuasion techniques used by the opposing campaigns left me with no doubt that Trump had indeed thoroughly outclassed Clinton in persuasiveness. His breakdown of the "Make America Great Again" slogan vs. "I'm with Her" was particularly compelling and I loved his bit on "Linguistic Kill Shots." (Looking at you Lyin' Ted)
Overall, "Win Bigly" is a short and entertaining read that did win points for changing my view of the election. But it's credibility is seriously hampered by Adams' extravagant claims of his own impact on the election and his zany conspiracy theories.
My highlights below:
PREAMBLE: THE DAY MY REALITY SPLIT INTO TWO
I had become toxic for any kind of mixed crowd. But I was okay with my situation because I expected to be right in my prediction that Trump would win it all. Winning fixes most problems.
INTRODUCTION (WHERE I PRIME YOU FOR THE REST)
Trump is what I call a Master Persuader. That means he has weapons-grade persuasion skills. Based on my background in that field, I recognized his talents early. And after watching him in action during the election, I have to say that Trump is the most persuasive human I have ever observed.
I knew that candidate Trump’s persuasion skills were about to annihilate the public’s ability to understand what they were seeing, because their observations wouldn’t fit their mental model of living in a rational world.
To put it in simple terms, the only way Trump could win was if everything his critics understood about the true nature of reality was wrong. Then Trump won. That’s what I mean by “ripping a hole in the fabric of the universe.”
PERSUASION TIP 1: When you identify as part of a group, your opinions tend to be biased toward the group consensus.
I also have a BA in economics and an MBA from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley.
No one becomes Hitler at age seventy. We would have seen lots of warning signs during his decades of public life. And I kept in mind that most Republican candidates for president have been painted with the same Hitler brush, and it hasn’t been right yet.
I saw it as a thoroughly impractical idea that served as a mental “anchor” to brand Trump as the candidate who cared the most about our porous borders and planned to do the most about them. Never mind that his initial deportation plan was mean, impractical, and — many would say — immoral. Trump’s position gave him plenty of room to negotiate back to something more reasonable after he was in office. That’s exactly what happened, even if you don’t like where he ended up.
But when it came to communicating what I knew, I had one enormous advantage that almost no one else covering the election had: I wasn’t doing it for the money. I’m already rich. No one owns me. The common business term for that situation is having F-you money. And I have it. That gave me the freedom to say whatever I thought was both useful and true. And thanks to my popular blog at Dilbert.com, I had a direct channel to the public.
Oh, I also have one more thing going for me: I don’t feel shame or embarrassment like normal people.
PART 1 - WHY FACTS ARE OVERRATED
If you watched the entire election cycle and concluded that Trump was nothing but a lucky clown, you missed one of the most important perceptual shifts in the history of humankind. I’ll fix that for you in this book.
Before the Master Persuader was done with the election, he would also remake the Republican Party in his own image, eviscerate the mainstream media’s credibility, and leave the Democratic Party in ruins. The Clinton and Bush dynasties would be charred wrecks on the sides of the road.
PERSUASION TIP 2: Humans are hardwired to reciprocate favors. If you want someone’s cooperation in the future, do something for that person today.
You saw Trump use the intentional wrongness persuasion play over and over, and almost always to good effect. The method goes like this: Make a claim that is directionally accurate but has a big exaggeration or factual error in it. Wait for people to notice the exaggeration or error and spend endless hours talking about how wrong it is. When you dedicate focus and energy to an idea, you remember it. And the things that have the most mental impact on you will irrationally seem as though they are high in priority, even if they are not. That’s persuasion.
PERSUASION TIP 4: The things that you think about the most will irrationally rise in importance in your mind.
Master Persuaders move your energy to the topics that help them, independent of facts and reason.
PERSUASION TIP 5: An intentional “error” in the details of your message will attract criticism. The attention will make your message rise in importance—at least in people’s minds—simply because everyone is talking about it.
If you have ever tried to talk someone out of their political beliefs by providing facts, you know it doesn’t work. That’s because people think they have their own facts. Better facts. And if they know they don’t have better facts, they change the subject. People are not easily switched from one political opinion to another. And facts are weak persuasion. So Trump ignores facts whenever they are inconvenient. I know you don’t want to think this works in terms of persuasion. But it does.
PERSUASION TIP 6: If you are not a Master Persuader running for president, find the sweet spot between apologizing too much, which signals a lack of confidence, and never apologizing for anything, which makes you look like a sociopath.
good general rule is that people are more influenced by visual persuasion, emotion, repetition, and simplicity than they are by details and facts.
The High-Ground Maneuver is a persuasion method that involves elevating a debate from the details on which people disagree to a higher concept on which everyone agrees.
A linguistic kill shot is a nickname or short set of words so persuasive that it can end an argument or create a specific outcome.
Moist robot is my framing of human beings as programmable entities. If you provide the right inputs, you get the right outputs.
Thinking past the sale is a persuasion technique in which a subject is prompted to imagine what happens after a decision has been made, to bias the person toward making the decision.
PART 2 - HOW TO SEE REALITY IN A MORE USEFUL WAY
Humans think they are rational, and they think they understand their reality. But they are wrong on both counts.
I moved to San Francisco at age twenty-one, and a friend talked me into trying psychedelic mushrooms. It was the best day of my life, at least in terms of pure joy. And that isn’t an exaggeration. No other experience has ever come close.
That awareness never leaves you. Once you understand your experience of life as an interpretation of reality, you can’t go back to your old way of thinking. After taking psychedelics, you might stop seeing your old interpretation of reality as the only “true” version. That’s what happened to me. Kids, please don’t take drugs. Drugs can be dangerous. I don’t recommend trying marijuana or psychedelics. You’ll get a similar perceptual shift by reading this book. I designed it to do exactly that. In other words, I took all of those drugs so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.
Hypnotists see the world differently. From our perspective, people are irrational 90 percent of the time but don’t know it. We can be rational in trivial situations—such as deciding what time to leave the house to drive to work. But we are almost never rational when it comes to matters of love, family, pets, politics, ego, entertainment, and almost anything else that matters to us emotionally. When our feelings turn on, our sense of reason shuts off. The freaky part is that we don’t recognize when it is happening to us. We think we are reasonable and rational most of the time. But what hypnotists have long known, and scientists have in recent years confirmed, is that our decisions are often made without appeal to the rational parts of our brains. We literally make our decisions first and then create elaborate rationalizations for them after the fact.
The Persuasion Filter’s view of the world is that we’re irrational 90 percent of the time. And one of the biggest sources of this irrationality is cognitive dissonance.
They were so wrong that Republicans came to occupy the White House, control Congress, and eventually control the Supreme Court. That is wrongness on a scale you rarely see.
If you have a situation that can be explained with one reasonable explanation, that reason might be close to reality. But having lots of different explanations is usually a clear tell for cognitive dissonance.
PERSUASION TIP 7: It is easy to fit completely different explanations to the observed facts. Don’t trust any interpretation of reality that isn’t able to predict.
And I had a very big problem to help solve. I don’t normally turn up my persuasion powers to weapons grade. But I can. This time, with the republic in the balance, I felt I needed to. And so I picked one of the strongest persuasion tools: the High-Ground Maneuver (described more fully in its own chapter later in the book). I used my social media platform to remind Trump supporters that they are patriots first, and their country needed them for the healing. I asked them to take punches from Clinton supporters and not fight back. I asked them to avoid gloating in public. I asked them to be the better people. I asked them to earn the leader they believed they elected. In other words, I took them to the high ground.
When your debate opponents retreat to analogies, it is because they have no rational arguments. You won. There’s a reason your plumber never describes the source of your leak with an analogy. He just points to the problem and says it needs to be repaired or replaced. No one needs an analogy when facts and reason can do the job.
When people realize their arguments are not rational, they attack the messenger on the other side. If you have been well behaved in a debate, and you trigger an oversized personal attack, it means you won.
Now add to that situation the fact that scientists who oppose the climate change consensus have a high degree of career and reputation risk. That’s the perfect setup for a mass delusion. You only need these two conditions:
- Complicated prediction models with lots of assumptions
- Financial and psychological pressure to agree with the consensus
In the 2-D world, the scientific method and peer review squeeze out the bias over time. But in the 3-D world, the scientific method can’t detect bias when nearly everyone including the peer reviewers shares the same mass delusion. I’m not a scientist, and I have no way to validate the accuracy of the climate model predictions. But if the majority of experts on this topic turn out to be having a mass hallucination, I would consider that an ordinary situation. In my reality, this would be routine, if not expected, whenever there are complicated prediction models involved.
Do you remember when citizen Trump once tweeted that climate change was a hoax for the benefit of China? It sounded crazy to most of the world. Then we learned that the centerpiece of politics around climate change—the Paris climate accord—was hugely expensive for the United States and almost entirely useless for lowering temperatures. (Experts agree on both points now.) The accord was a good deal for China, in the sense that it would impede its biggest business rival, the United States, while costing China nothing for years. You could say Trump was wrong to call climate change a hoax. But in the context of Trump’s normal hyperbole, it wasn’t as wrong as the public’s mass delusion believed it to be at the time.
PERSUASION TIP 8: People are more influenced by the direction of things than the current state of things.
PERSUASION TIP 9: Display confidence (either real or faked) to improve your persuasiveness. You have to believe yourself, or at least appear as if you do, in order to get anyone else to believe.
It might also surprise you that a hypnotist can sometimes induce massive orgasms in a willing subject just by choosing the right words in a private setting. But that won’t work unless the hypnotist and the subject have some sort of chemistry and a shared desire for that outcome. I know this is possible only because a coworker asked me about it while I was in hypnosis school. At the time, I didn’t know if such a thing was possible. But I needed the practice, and she volunteered to be my test subject, so I gave it a try. After about one hour of hypnosis and twenty or so screaming orgasms — no touching involved — she declared the experiment a success.
PERSUASION TIP 11: Guess what people are thinking — at the very moment they think it — and call it out. If you are right, the subject bonds to you for being like-minded.
Where the confusion comes in is that only about 20 percent of the public can experience what hypnotists sometimes call “the phenomena.” The term describes any situation in which the subject experiences a full-blown illusion, such as seeing something that isn’t there or feeling something that isn’t real.
PERSUASION TIP 12: If you want the audience to embrace your content, leave out any detail that is both unimportant and would give people a reason to think, That’s not me. Design into your content enough blank spaces so people can fill them in with whatever makes them happiest.
Liars also use predictable patterns of language that you can pick up once you know what to look for. For example, if you accuse an innocent person of a crime, the accused generally responds by immediately denying the accusation and asking what is wrong with you for even asking. But the first reaction of guilty people, usually, is to ask what evidence you have. They need to know what you know so they can either double down on the lie or confess. Liars confess only if the evidence against them is airtight.
A far better seduction strategy would involve participating in any kind of coed group activities at which you happen to excel. When you display any kind of talent, it triggers other humans to want to mate with you.
A common misconception is that because nice guys seem to finish last and jerky guys seem to get the women, being a jerk must have some sort of seduction advantage. It doesn’t. That’s an illusion caused by the fact that people who have other advantages — such as wealth or beauty — have the freedom to act like jerks because they can attract mates no matter what. If you don’t understand what motivates people at a deep level, you might be fooled by your observation that jerks often do well in romance. If being mean were useful to getting sex, you would see ugly people doing it more often with great success. But keep your eyes open and you’ll notice that attractive people can get away with being mean, and ugly people can’t. Attractiveness is the key correlation.
PART 3 - HOW PRESIDENT TRUMP DOES WHAT OTHERS CAN’T
PERSUASION TIP 13: Use the High-Ground Maneuver to frame yourself as the wise adult in the room. It forces others to join you or be framed as the small thinkers.
PERSUASION TIP 14: When you attack a person’s belief, the person under attack is more likely to harden his belief than to abandon it, even if your argument is airtight.
Most of us believe we have common sense. And yet we disagree with one another about what that looks like. That’s all you need to know about common sense.
One of the ways I make myself more persuasive is by telling people I’m a trained hypnotist and that I am familiar with all of the tools of influence. I learned in hypnosis class that it is easier to persuade people when they expect to be persuaded.
PERSUASION TIP 16: It is easier to persuade a person who believes you are persuasive.
If Trump had tiptoed into the election, the mainstream media would have owned him. And they would have treated him like a clown, before moving on to talk about his competition. So Trump didn’t tiptoe. He went in so hard, and so provocatively, that the media had no economic choice but to focus on him. He was pure gold for the press. And because of that, he came to own them, at least in the limited sense of dominating their news cycle.
Trump deactivated the incoming attacks by ensuring there were too many of them. The news business has to cover the newest stories, at the expense of the old ones. Trump could relegate any unflattering story to the back burner by introducing new provocations (often via tweet) every day.
PERSUASION TIP 17: People prefer certainty over uncertainty, even when the certainty is wrong.
In the 1970s, Fred and Mary Trump and their kids started attending Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, which had a famous pastor named Norman Vincent Peale. Young readers of this book might not recognize that name, but people above a certain age know him as the author of the super successful book The Power of Positive Thinking. It was a mega–best seller. Peale is one of the most important authors and thinkers in American history. He influenced millions. Including me.
PART 4 - HOW TO USE PERSUASION IN BUSINESS AND POLITICS
Trump’s nicknames were designed for strategic contrast. Many voters didn’t trust Trump’s honesty and motives, so he labeled his main primary opponent Lyin’ Ted and his general election competitor Crooked Hillary. That reduced the contrast between his credibility and that of his competition.
PERSUASION TIP 18: Visual persuasion is more powerful than nonvisual persuasion, all else being equal. And the difference is large.
PERSUASION TIP 19: In the context of persuasion, you don’t need a physical picture if you can make someone imagine the scene.
In business, always present your ideas in the context of alternatives that are clearly worse. Don’t just sell your proposed solution; slime all the other options with badness.
Cialdini is Godzilla.
Over the summer of 2016, Clinton’s persuasion game went from laughable to weapons grade. She painted a picture of Trump that was dark to the extreme. Clinton and her surrogates tirelessly repeated the pre-suasion word “dark.” The word came to represent all of Trump’s alleged flaws. “Dark” meant racism and authoritarianism. It meant reckless behavior. It meant inappropriate language and actions. It meant he was mentally unbalanced. It meant whatever the voters wanted it to mean, so long as it was something negative.
PERSUASION TIP 22: People automatically get used to minor annoyances over time.
PERSUASION TIP 23: What you say is important, but it is never as important as what people think you are thinking.
But there was only one best word for this situation. Trump probably found it. He once famously said he “has the best words.” In the second dimension, that claim is false. In the third dimension, Trump does indeed have the best words. He proved it once again with his choice of the word “contempt.”
One of Trump’s most entertaining persuasion strategies is what I call “Two Ways to Win, No Way to Lose.”
PERSUASION TIP 24: If you can frame your preferred strategy as two ways to win and no way to lose, almost no one will disagree with your suggested path because it is a natural High-Ground Maneuver.
Did I read too much into Jobs’s handling of this customer-relations nightmare? It’s possible. But if you read the Walter Isaacson biography Jobs, you’ll discover that Jobs personally forwarded my blog post to his subordinates. I don’t think he would have done that if he thought I was wrong.
PERSUASION TIP 25: If you are selling, ask your potential customer to buy. Direct requests are persuasive.
PERSUASION TIP 27: Match the speaking style of your audience. Once they see you as one of their own, it will be easier to lead them.
PERSUASION TIP 28: Simple explanations look more credible than complicated ones.
PERSUASION TIP 29: Simplicity makes your ideas easy to understand, easy to remember, and easy to spread. You can be persuasive only when you are also memorable.
PERSUASION TIP 30: “Strategic ambiguity” refers to a deliberate choice of words that allows people to read into your message whatever they want to hear. Or to put it another way, the message intentionally leaves out any part that would be objectionable to anyone. People fill in the gaps with their imagination, and their imagination can be more persuasive than anything you say.
PART 5 - WHY JOINING A TRIBE MAKES YOU POWERFUL AND BLIND
If you want to see the world more clearly, avoid joining a tribe. But if you are going to war, leave your clear thinking behind and join a tribe.
To be perfectly clear, if I heard the story I am telling you right now from someone else, I wouldn’t believe a word of it. I would assume I was hearing either lies or the result of selective memory. You are welcome to do the same.
But just for fun, I have a little trick I use to trace the impact of my persuasion. The method certainly isn’t foolproof, and it is more entertainment than science. But in the interest of painting a complete picture here, I’ll tell you how I do it: I use uncommon words and ideas and see if they enter the public conversation.
PERSUASION TIP 31: If you are trying to get a decision from someone who is on the fence but leaning in your direction, try a “fake because” to give them “permission” to agree with you. The reason you offer doesn’t need to be a good one. Any “fake because” will work when people are looking for a reason to move your way.
At the time of this writing I am trying to influence another national topic: climate science. My framing involves separating the science from the prediction models, and the prediction models from the economic models, and evaluating each of them separately. After all, economics is not science. Economics is more like astrology, at least when you’re predicting ten years out.
APPENDIX B How to Be a Better Writer
Humor writing is a lot like business writing. It needs to be simple. The main difference is in the choice of words. For humor, don’t say “drink” when you can say “swill.” Your first sentence needs to grab the reader. Go back and read my first sentence in this post. I rewrote it a dozen times. It makes you curious. That’s the key. Write short sentences. Avoid putting multiple thoughts in one sentence. Readers aren’t as smart as you’d think.