Want to change someone’s attitude? Get certainty with consensus, repetition, ease, and defense

Establishing Certainty

A big part of life — and a huge part of work — is the ability to change someone’s attitudes or beliefs when they seem entrenched in one direction (say, on a particular project or course of action).

I wrote before about this idea of potential mattering more than achievement, and now here’s something from the same researcher/professor — Zakary Tormala at Stanford — on this idea of “certainty,” which people don’t often discuss but underlies a lot of how decisions and actions ultimately get processed. (Kind of like habits in that regard.)

Here’s the primary article with Tormala discussing certainty, and here’s an older video (six years back or so) with him discussing real-world persuasion for context:

Here’s how Tormala contextualizes this idea of certainty:

When people hold their attitudes with certainty, they are more likely to defend them, more likely to engage in behavior that is consistent with them, and more likely to advocate or try to convince others to share their view. So if I feel more certain of my attitude toward some issue, that attitude will last longer, be more resistant to attack, and drive my choices and behaviors.

That has a lot of powerful implications, if you think about it — especially in the modern era, when brands are rushing to find more “brand ambassadors” because of the new-school funnel. If you can establish this idea of certainty around people and a brand, you’ll get more buy-in from them, they won’t budge on using your product, and their certainty will drive other choices and behaviors.

This is a little bit a microcosm of how Microsoft dominated the tech world for years — then how Apple came and took it back.

Tormala says there are four key attributes to establishing this certainty:

  • Consensus: If a majority of your peers share the same attitude on a topic, you feel more certain about it. Consensus —- > social validation —- > feeling correct —- > certainty.
  • Repetition: If you want to build opportunities for certainty in others, give them chances to repeat what they said about something in the first place.
  • Ease: The easier it is to process an argument or idea, the more valid it seems.
  • Defense: People tend to feel more certain about their attitudes immediately after defending them to others.

What are the implications for business, marketing, and brands based off this?

  • If at first you don’t succeed… You can run an ad or send a sponsored tweet or whatever the platform/channel may be. It may not work immediately, but it could be building repetition or ease of argument in a potential consumer. That’s a good thing and could be fostering certainty about your brand/idea, which has long-term benefit.
  • Think about storytelling: The whole idea of marketing and branding is really “storytelling.” If you believe this research on face, then the idea is telling stories that are easy to understand (conceptualize the value proposition in an easy way), provide opportunities for repetition (but please don’t over-share on Facebook or something), and target demographics that you think will drive sales. If you’re targeting like-minded people in similar areas, their internal consensus will create certainty, and you’ll gain lifelong customers.


Ted Bauer