Biologists call a small male fish who darts in to fertilize eggs a “sneaker,”, a medium male who resembles a female a “female mimic,”, and a large aggressive territorial male a “parental,” to place a positive spin of his egg guarding. Both the sneaker and the female mimic are “sexual parasites” of the parental male’s “investment” in nest construction and territorial defense. The sneaker and the female mimic are said to express a gene for “cuckoldry,” as though the parental male were married to a female in his territory and victimized by her unfaithfulness. In fact, a territorial male and the female who is temporarily in his territory are not pair-bonded. Scientists sneak gender stereotypes into the primary literature and corrupt its objectivity. Are these descriptions only harmless words? No. The words affect the view of nature that emerges from biology.
You might think that the things that get people to change their behavior are things that are memorable, that they can use their analytical brain to set down a long-term trace, or even just emotional, but surprisingly what we see is the brain regions that seem to be involved in successful persuasion. We can predict who will use more sunscreen next week based on how their brain responds to an ad today. The brain regions that seem to be critical to that are brain regions involved in social thinking, in thinking about yourself and thinking about other people. So this seems to be more about our identity and the identities that we’re capable of trying on. If I can’t try on the identity that you’re suggesting to me—being a sunscreen-using person, or a nonsmoker, or something like that—the ad is much less likely to stick.
William James said long ago that we have as many identities as people that we know, and probably more than that. We are different with different people. I’m different with my son than I am with you. We have these different identities that we try on, and they surround us… I’m really interested in looking at that as a mechanism of persuasion when it comes to regular old persuasion, when it comes to education, when it comes to public health, and when it comes to international issues as well. It’s finding that latitude of acceptance and finding out how to use it successfully.
UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, studies "latitudes of acceptance" to understand what makes us change our minds – something we’re notoriously reluctant to do.
Also see Dan Pink on the psychology of persuasion.
Lieberman’s full Edge conversation is well worth a read.