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Tom Gilovich on the keys to improving everyday wisdom

Thomas Gilovich

Jason Koski/University Photography
Thomas Gilovich speaks on social wisdom in Goldwin Smith Hall Oct. 22.

There are many different forms of wisdom, but apparently only one class of smarts can also qualify a person as being wise: “You can be smart in a whole bunch of different ways, but if you’re not smart about people, we’re not going to call you wise.”

This was the leading bit of advice offered by Thomas Gilovich, Cornell’s Irene Blecker Rosenfeld Professor of Psychology and co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics and Decision Research, in this year’s distinguished faculty invitational lecture, “The Wisest One in the Room: How Five Core Principles of Social Psychology Can Make Anyone Wiser and More Effective in Their Daily Lives,” Oct. 22 in Goldwin Smith Hall.

Gilovich’s lecture centered on the explanation of core social psychological principles: the importance of behavioral contextual analysis; changes in behavior lead to changes of attitude; rhetoric can be used to influence perception; and finally, the subjective nature of perception is so pronounced that conflict should be expected and not feared.

 According to Gilovich, analyzing the context of a person’s behavior is contrary to our natural human tendency. Our impulse is to focus solely on the individual and attribute behavioral outcomes to primarily internal factors, like motivation – or lack thereof. Sometimes people need additional motivation, but often the necessary motivation is already present even though the desired behavior is not.

“People react to the environments around them; therefore, you understand people’s behaviors better if you understand the environments they’re reacting to,” Gilovich said. “You can’t understand the behavior in isolation, you have to understand how it fits with all of the forces acting on the person.”

One such force is rhetorical appeal. Gilovich presented research showing that selective presentation and wording of facts can heavily influence the way people interpret information. People tend to respond more dramatically to information presented negatively. This is known as negativity dominance, and use of this concept can effectively dictate the way people act and think.

“The very same thing can be framed in a language of positive or negative, therefore influencing people one way or the other,” Gilovich said. “If you really want to get people motivated, you want to frame things in terms of potential losses, not in terms of potential gains.”

Gilovich said influencing changes in people’s behavior, rather than their attitudes, tends to result in changes of attitude.

“Often we try to get people to do things by changing their hearts and minds, but success on this front is frequently not enough to cause a change in behavior. … Behavior is primary. It’s often best to start there.”

Gilovich cited studies showing that people in situations where articulated attitudes don’t match manifested behaviors were much more likely to change their attitudes to match their behaviors than vice-versa.

However, the act of influencing – or even understanding – the behavior of others is made difficult because many elements of reality are subject to variable perceptions between individuals. As a result, Gilovich said, the usefulness and effectiveness of these four general principles is not unlimited.

Although people are highly sensitive to their surrounding circumstances, they don’t respond to the circumstances per se, but to their understandingor interpretationof the surrounding circumstances. Therefore, to influence other people’s behavior, a wise person needs to alter the environment with an eye toward how the alterations are likely to be interpreted by the person in question.

Gilovich wrapped up his lecture by describing how the principles of wisdom he talked about were used effectively by Nelson Mandela to deal with the challenges faced by South Africa in the transition from an apartheid state to a democracy.

The Cornell chapter of Phi Beta Kappa sponsored the lecture.

Robert Johnson ’17 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.