DSK: How emotions beat logic every time

Soon after Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK), then head of the IMF, was arrested in New York on sexual assault charges, a poll found that 57% of French respondents felt that he had probably or certainly been set up. In other words, they did not want to believe that he had committed those crimes, and they preferred to believe that one of his many enemies had somehow fabricated the incident to take him out of the picture.

Whatever the truth, it’s an amazing story with many open questions, and so much we do not know, yet many people already believe they know whether the allegations are true or not. Only 11% of respondents in that poll stated they did not have an opinion.

What’s this doing on a presentation blog? There are two important lessons in here for storytellers and presenters.

1. People don’t like being told they are wrong.

In this poll, it is noticeable that supporters of DSK’s Socialist party were far more likely than opponents to believe he had been set up. So it’s not just about holes or improbabilities in the logical story. It’s always far harder to believe that “one of us” could have done something wrong than “one of them”. Accepting that one’s preferred candidate could be capable of such an unpleasant crime is accepting that one was wrong to consider voting for him. And while logically we might believe it’s possible he assaulted the maid, emotionally we don’t want to believe that we were wrong. A conspiracy is a convenient deus ex machina to explain the situation while comforting our own emotions.

Lesson: Don’t tell your audience they are wrong. If they disagree with you, start by acknowledging their position, respecting it, and addressing the reasons why they feel that way. They will only come over to your point of view if you can appeal to their emotions and make them want to change their minds. Tell them they are wrong, and they will simply firm up their positions and become even harder to convert.

2. Emotion makes our decisions; logic justifies them.

There are different ways of looking at the DSK case depending on what you believe. If emotionally you don’t want to believe DSK could have done such a nasty thing, then you will look at things in a particular way, asking questions like:

  • Why would he have done something so idiotic just when he was about to announce his candidacy for the Socialist presidential primaries?
  • Why would he assault a maid when he could (and allegedly did) pay for high-class prostitutes?
  • Why would he have called the hotel from the airport to tell them where he was if he was afraid the police might be after him by that time?

You will find ways to ignore or downplay pieces of information which don’t support your emotional point of view. The allegations by Tristane Banon of DSK attacking her like a ‘rutting chimpanzee’ would just be seen as the recycled rubbish of an opportunist looking to make a buck out of DSK’s troubles. The suggestions that certain New York prostitutes refused to see DSK again because he was too rough with them would be pure fabrications, or perhaps just irrelevant because treating call-girls roughly does not mean a gentleman would treat other ladies similarly.

And you will overplay any piece of information which supports your emotional point of view. The number of the suite, 2806, representing the date of the first Socialist presidential primaries on June 28th, would be a sure sign that somebody set him up. The fact that a few weeks before, DSK had mentioned in a newspaper interview that he was concerned his opponents may take him down, using his weakness for women, would be a sign that he was on his guard and therefore would not have committed such a crime. The suggestion by the alleged victim that she did not recognise DSK can only be rubbish since surely everyone knows the head of the IMF, and surely every hotel employee has been shown a photo of every VIP guest. Etc etc.

Likewise, if you are emotionally sure he is guilty as charged, you will tend to defend the alleged victim, and give little importance to information which would either call her account into question, or make the whole situation seem unlikely. Therefore the fact she entered the room alone while it was occupied, extremely unusual or so we are told in VIP suites where maids go in pairs and never while guests are there, is of little consequence: she was doing as she was told. There is no way she would take one look at this old naked man and spontaneously drop to her knees. And the account of Piroska Nagy, who felt pressured into having an affair with DSK at the IMF, would be clear evidence that DSK had an unhealthily coercive attitude towards women.

Whichever emotional angle you take, you will find the ‘facts’ to back it up, and disbelieve the ‘facts’ that inconveniently disagree. Thus Barack Obama’s birth certificate could have been falsified, and he could still be a closet Muslim. Facts don’t change people’s minds. Logic does not define your point of view: logic is used to justify your point of view.

Lesson: you will never convince an audience by appealing only to their logic. Appeal to their emotions, create emotional desires, and then give them the facts to allow them to justify their desires – both to themselves and to others.

CONCLUSION

There we have it: two important communication lessons from this troubling story. Don’t tell people they are wrong; and remember that emotion is more important than logic.

So before you start churning out slides for your next presentation, stop for a moment. Think who you are presenting to. Work out how they feel about you, your objectives and your key messages. Then find a way to appeal to their emotions, to make them want to believe you / follow you / do what you ask. If you’re only appealing to their logic, you will fail. If you create positive emotions, you’ll get results.

POSTSCRIPT

Time will tell – hopefully – what the truth is in the DSK case. Perhaps his emotions did take control over his logic. Or perhaps not. Only two things are certain.

Firstly, no conspiracy will be officially discovered, because if there is a conspiracy here, it’s run by people powerful enough to have it properly covered up.

Secondly, because of this, the conspiracy theorists will continue to believe in a conspiracy regardless of the verdict.

Anyway, until the verdict, let’s have the good grace to presume DSK innocent (and stop the defamatory headlines which assume his guilt), and also to presume that his accuser is telling the truth and is therefore deserving of respect. Logic states they can’t both be telling the truth. But better to believe wrongly than to disbelieve – and disrespect – unfairly.

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