February 27, 2008
The all out attack on Barack Obama by competitor Hillary Clinton ahead of the crucial Ohio and Texas primaries risks violating the fairness bias of the undecided voters. It’s a risk that anyone in business runs when they decide to go at their opposition – whether at a shareholders’ meeting, a community forum, or through the media.
Why? Two reasons.
First, “life may not be fair, but humans have a strong bias for fairness,” says Lucas Laursen in the Feb/Mar issue of Scientific American MIND magazine. He notes that studies have found that relationships matter when people judge fairness. “Humans accepted unfair deals from computers but not from people.”
So, Clinton’s supporters (strong relationship) will likely accept unfair treatment of Obama, but the undecideds (neutral relationship) probably not. That may then be the deciding factor in how the undecideds vote.
So fairness is a key factor. It’s also very subjective and the perpetrator is usually a poor judge of fairness.
Second, Clinton may misstep in regard to the concept of relative credibility. Simply put it says that you should be very careful attacking someone with more credibility with the target audience than you because, rather than driving them down, you drive yourself down and they go up in credibility. She better have objective data that says that with the undecideds she has more credibility or else she might just deliver the undecided vote to Obama.
I wrote a piece on relative credibility a few years ago and have replayed below the example I used for illustration.
Relative credibility in actionParty A, my client, was involved in a complex conflict involving litigation, grievances, and harassment with Party B. My client found the situation intolerable. Both parties finally agreed to appoint an experienced mediator to try to reach a settlement of all actions and issues.The mediator selected had vast experience as a litigation lawyer and mediator. He was not sympathetic to Party A as far as we could tell, but we thought he might be partial to Party B.Party A was eager to reach a settlement, but was also very emotional about the treatment its members had received at the hands of Party B and tended to show their emotions in any discussions involving Party B. Because of this, Party A’s credibility was diminished except with its supporters. The other party had enormous credibility because of historical goodwill.Once we had agreement within Party A that Party B probably had more credibility with the mediator starting out, we were able to devise a strategy to overcome this deficit. It worked better than we could have hoped.Party A stifled its instinct to “attack” Party B. Instead, Party A signalled through words and actions to the mediator that its goal was to reach an agreement – but not at any cost – and that Party A could and would provide the mediator with all of the information on the issues he might need to mediate the dispute.The members of Party A sat on their emotions and delivered the facts, the context and the co-operation that the mediator needed. Party A raised its credibility by their professionalism, candour, and co-operation. Party A also got a boost because an arrogant, uncooperative Party B destroyed the credibility it had.As Party A surpassed Party B in credibility with the mediator, Party B — probably not realizing that the relative credibility of the two parties had changed significantly– lost even more credibility and boosted Party A further by attacking it.The conflict was finally resolved and for the most part in Party A’s favour. Party A held a victory party. I doubt that Party B did. While the resolution took a very long time and many factors came into play, there was one constant: The mediator worked tirelessly and doggedly to get a settlement, which was his victory. By doing so, he was apparently driven – consciously or not – by the credible position and actions of Party A. This resulted in victory for Party A.