“I don’t know anyone who…” can be persuasive because we instinctively desire to fit-in but think about the messages associated with that statement. When I heard a talking head on TV begin his reasoning with “I don’t know anyone who…,” I immediately discounted his message. In my experience, “I don’t know anyone who…” is often the messenger’s unwitting admission that he has a limited frame of reference or thinks little of his audience’s intelligence.
The aforementioned television host was making a disparaging political argument, so I shrugged off the report as partisan commentary. The attempt to persuade using bandwagon reasoning; i.e. “everyone is…,” is faulty, yet the tactic is used often. Just look at the vast and varied amount of polling data used and skewed in an attempt to sway popular opinion. If polling didn’t work, it wouldn’t be repeated every election cycle.
I began wondering if I had ever used the bandwagon fallacy to persuade. In my public speaking courses, I caution against the use of bandwagon and other such fallacious persuasion tactics like red herrings and ad hominem attacks. I certainly have used the bandwagon fallacy on myself—that negative internal chatterbox that begins with, “What are you thinking? Everybody….” It’s the type of faulty reasoning that instills fear and prevents growth through risk-taking.
What happens when that type of reasoning is used in business, when one professional disregards an idea based on his or her limited frame of reference and inadequate understanding of the target audience?
Years ago, I overheard a mid-level marketing manager review ad copy with an entry-level subordinate. The novice balked at the use of a word she had never heard. “I don’t know anyone who uses that word,” she said, and she held fast to her opinion that the word was archaic simply because she had never heard it in her two decades on the planet. The manager second guessed her, and then himself. She used the bandwagon fallacy to convince her boss, and he ended up replacing the word in question.
I was crestfallen because he missed a teaching opportunity. The word was not obscure. The manager could have asked her questions about her personal network, leading her to conclude that the sampling to which she referred may not have been representative of the target audience. He could have coached the recent college grad on audience analysis methods. Instead, he validated her limited world view and vocabulary by changing the word. Unfortunately, it was not an isolated instance.
When the bandwagon fallacy dictates business decisions the organization’s brand suffers.
These fallacious arguments affect our personal brands, too. In an effort to avoid the negative results of having a limited mindset, I’ve been working on my self-talk. When I hear that inner voice making assumptions about what “everyone” is or isn’t doing, I try to immediately come up with an alternative possibility. As Brené Brown advises in Dare to Lead, change the story. There are a million possibilities in addition to the ones we conjure in our minds based on our frames of reference and, yes, fears and insecurities.
Should you find yourself going down the “I don’t know anyone who…” rabbit hole in a discussion, quickly bail yourself out by following up with “…but I’m certain there are plenty of people who do….” Be sincere and watch how such a display of humility will inspire a spirited exchange of ideas with a positive outcome.