Insert Controversial Title Here

Yale Professor Amy Chua is at the center of a firestorm of late, but I contend not because of what she wrote in her book but thanks to a time honored practice that has grown decidedly more aggressive: giving articles controversial titles.

Her editor at the Journal, no doubt to make waves in the vast sea of information readers are forced to wade through every day, entitled an excerpt from Ms. Chua’s book, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.” While the title did its job, it also did a great disservice to the author.

The problem with titles is that people assume they are written by the author and therefore what the author believes. Psychologists Edward Jones and James Harris, as summarized by Dr. Robert B. Cialdini in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, demonstrated this with an experiment where they showed people a pro-Fidel Castro essay and asked the participants to guess the true feelings of its author. The result was that even when participants were told that the author was required to write the pro-Castro essay, the participants believed the author was pro-Castro.

Every author has to expect a certain amount of opposition, but I’ve been surprised by the level of vitriol aimed at Ms. Chua – a level that only a judgment could produce. The wording of the title turned a reflective excerpt into a scathing indictment. No one likes to be looked down upon which any mention of “superiority” automatically implies. And when a reader is defensive a reader’s cognitive abilities are focused mainly on managing his emotions, leaving precious little to actually glean the message – she has a different style of parenting the consequences of which she is negotiating.

Nowhere, in interviews or her book, does Ms. Chua say that she believes Chinese mothers are superior to anyone. Her tone, in fact, is quite self-mocking and the book far more nuanced then the excerpt allowed. Yet that is all blown away by an editorial fanning of the flames as it were.

It’s enough to give any other person with a different viewpoint great pause – which is the cause for concern. As it is women voices in national media, even Wikipedia are grossly underrepresented. While headlines have been tweaked since time immemorial to sell newspapers, it can go too far and subvert the very voices it aims to promote.

Still I hope for more from voices not traditionally represented in media. The issue is will they be heard above the roar?

Books in 5 Quotes: Robert B. Cialdini

Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D.

Cialdini's book explains with alarming insight all of our human foibles and how they are so easily exploited. Given the new year and the focus on change, I thought I would highlight his quotes on commitment and consistency, in particular, and how the value humans assign to them can be leveraged for behavior change.

1. “It is, quite simply, our nearly obsessive desire to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have already done. Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressure to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.”

2. “Whenever one takes a stand that is visible to others, there arises a drive to maintain that stand in order to look like a consistent person. For appearances’ sake, then, the more public a stand, the more reluctant we will be to change it.”

3. “The more effort that goes into a commitment, the greater is its ability to influence the attitudes of the person who made it.”

4. “It appears that commitments are most effective in changing a person’s self-image and future behavior when they are active, public, and effortful.”

5. “Social scientists have determined that we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressures. A large reward is one such external pressure. It may get us to perform a certain action, but it won’t get us to accept inner responsibility for the act. Consequently, we won’t feel committed to it. The same is true of a strong threat; it may motivate immediate compliance, but it is unlikely to produce long-term commitment.”

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.