Review of The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others

Tali Sharot is the author of The Optimism Bias and professor of cognitive neuroscience with degrees in economics and psychology. She is the founder and director of the Affective Brain Lab at University College London.  She has been published in Nature, Science, Nature Neuroscience, Psychological Science, and many other journals. She has been featured in numerous outlets and has written for The New York Times, Time magazine, The Washington Post, CNN, and the BBC, among others. Before becoming a neuroscientist, Sharot worked in the financial industry for a few years and completed her national mandatory service in the Israeli air force. She lives in London and Boston with her husband and their children.

As I side with Lisa Feldman Barrett’s model of the societal basis of most emotions I admit when I read the above I approached this book with a high degree of scepticism.  I could not have been more wrong.  My conversion began after I read the first chapter on Priors and Confirmation Bias.  This is the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.

Sharot demonstrates how the Internet with its wealth of available information makes us more resistant to change, because it is so easy to find data that support our own vision. This is true even for extreme views, such as believing that your own race is genetically superior to others. We carefully read blogs and articles that support our opinions, and we may avoid clicking on links that offer a different take.

This is only half the problem, though. What we are not aware of is that cherry-picking information is done for us under the radar. We are oblivious to the fact that often we are presented with filtered information to suit our preestablished beliefs.

This is how it works: when you enter a search term into Google or another search engine, you get results that have been customized for you, according to your past searches and Web activity.  In other words, if you are a Democrat searching for the latest stats on the presidential debate, your search will most likely spit back news articles and blogs from Democrats who think the Democratic candidate did superbly. The links will include news websites and opinion blogs you have visited previously and others associated with them.  Given that the first twenty results you get all praise the performance of the Democratic candidate, you are left with the impression that, indeed, she or he delivered an outstanding performance.  Everyone thinks so. In fact, your Twitter and Facebook feeds provide further evidence of the superiority of your candidate, making you more and more confident of the upcoming election result. Here is the thing, though: if you are a Republican, your feed will be quite different.

When I read the above, I had a massive moment of epiphany.  I have since been asking people do they realise they receive individually tailored Google results when they search about 3/4 say no.  It causes as big a shock as it did to me.

Where Sharot really shines in this book is explaining how she sets up experiments to test various beliefs and instincts.  To her credit she always acknowledges her co-workers and practises true science in her various studies.  In addition, her explanation of how the brain possibly works in creating various beliefs and emotions for the mind are exceptionally clear.  I cannot recommend this book more highly.

She demonstrates how a deeper understanding of how the mind and brain function can therefore help us in creating impact and avoiding systematic errors when trying to change others. Many of our instincts about influence—from insisting the other is wrong to attempting to exert control are ineffective because they are incompatible with how the mind and brain operate.

An attempt to change will be successful if it is well matched with the core elements that govern the working of our brains. She demonstrates these factors—priors, emotion, incentives, agency, curiosity, state, and other people—work and affect us.

Sharot is particularly good in telling stories, plots, and characters that provide a vivid emotional tale that you can make sense of and retrieve easily.   Among the most memorable are:

  • The next time you encounter a sign saying, “Employees must wash their hands,” remember that immediate rewards work better than threats for motivating people to act.
  • The next time you water your plants, remember that offering agency and control is a stronger tool for influence than giving orders.
  • The next time you listen to a preflight safety briefing, recall the power of reframing a message to highlight the possibility of progress, rather than doom, for getting people to pay attention.

If you know the 7MTF you have a particularly useful tool to follow her advice on appealing emotionally to people.

For more information watch this 4-minute video introduction to the 7MTF.  If that whets you appetite sign up to my Introduction to the 7MTF online-video course that takes only 5 hours to complete and an investment of only A$25.  The 7MTF model of temperament is the secret to lifting your emotional intelligence.  If you complete the basic 7MTF course you will dramatically increase your EQ competency in days.

This blog was first published on LinkedIn on 25 April 2024.



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Chris Golis - Author


"Put in a sales perspective, I loved your presentation! I got a lot from what you talked about and I will read your book."

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Your presentation on 'Lifting your Level of Emotional Intelligence" to 10 CEOs scored an average 8.9 out of 10 for the topic and 8.5 for the presentation which is great. A couple of the attendees gave you a 10 out of 10, and the comments were:

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