How to Win Friends and Influence People: Q&A #2
By Bryan Caplan
Next set of reactions for the Book Club:
I can practically hear malcontents sneering. On one hand, there are leftists who I suspect would (and likely have) denounced Carnegie’s whole project as what’s wrong with bourgeois, commercial civilization: it encourages us to sacrifice “authenticity”–whatever that is–in the name of persuading (or duping) people into helping us along our soul-deadening acquisitive journeys.
On the other, though, there are people who, I think, read too much into Atlas Shrugged. I recall a Will Wilkinson essay once in which he pointed out that most of us are most emphatically not John Galt, Dagny Taggart, and Francisco d’Anconia. At best, we’re Eddie Willers: people of great integrity but of no superlative talent.
I’d say that both leftist and Randian malcontents have a point. Many people do make themselves miserable by spending their lives trying to conform to the expectations of others. What Carnegie teaches us, in a sense, is how to make our compromises with society more fruitful. Armed with this knowledge, you can actually afford to conform less overall, if you’re so inclined. In economic terms, there’s an income and a substitution effect. You can combine Carnegie’s methods with extra effort to dominate the social world. Or you can use his methods to dial down your overall level of effort without messing up your life. A weirdo who smiles pleasantly can still prosper.
And yet it is still hard to remember what seem like super-obvious bits of advice, like “smile.” Within my family I’m famous as someone who is horrible at smiling on command, and every time I’ve done TV I’ve watched and winced at my tendency to give the camera a furrowed-brow glare of death.
To repeat: Practice does not make perfect, but practice does make better. We can all improve with effort!
I wonder what you think the “signalling/human capital” split is for the benefits of some of the techniques the Carnegie is discussing here. It’s seems clear to me that following Carnegie’s advice makes a person more pleasant to be around in an absolute sense, but if everyone started smiling more or memorizing names, to what extent would those techniques lose their value as ways to make friends and influence people? Remembering a person’s name and interests is less expensive for you if you do have that crucial genuine interest in them and is easily observable to the other person, which makes it a good signal.
The question comes down to: Is social skill zero-sum? My answer is: Not even close. Appreciation is much more like food than jewelry; people primarily enjoy the absolute amount of appreciation they receive, not the amount relative to others. Consider: Suppose groups A and B are identical, except people in group A receive twice as much appreciation. Which group would you want to belong to? Or consider this: Effective leaders try to build groups where everyone feels appreciated. This wouldn’t make sense if appreciation were zero-sum. Similarly, if you discover that your likable friend has numerous other friends, does this make you enjoy your time with him any less? I think not.
People will admittedly criticize “glad-handers” and such behind their backs. Glad-handers nevertheless dominate the social world.
I don’t know if I’d classify his anecdotal approach as a weakness here given what he seems to be trying to accomplish. I get the sense the book is written for people who have little to no experience or drive (or at least success) with respect to approaching social interactions explicitly strategically.
My guess is that Carnegie’s readers are actually above-average, just as people who read books about how to improve their golf game are above-average golf players.
I admit I may just be engaging in needless apologetics on his behalf–it wouldn’t have been that hard to put the caveats you mentioned in an addendum at the end of the book–but I think his approach is a little more virtuous than you suppose.
From a business point of view, I understand why Carnegie wrote the book he did. If we treat it as a work of social science, however, it’s an inaccuracy worthy of our attention.
A fascinating thread in nearly all your work is that you are espousing Judeo-Christian values even though you are not writing from a religious perspective. As a Christian and (mostly) a libertarian, I think it’s wonderful that the rigorous use of math and logic leads to the result of showing the strengths of Judeo-Christian values.
Dale Carnegie himself was a Christian. Biblical principles emphasize that pride is a sin and humble service toward others is a virtue. Modern secular values place some emphasis on service to others (as we see in volunteer requirements for high school graduation) but far more emphasis on ideas of self-actualization and self-expression. These ideas usually lead to selfishness and away from the idea’s Carnegie is advocating. Even though modern libertarianism arose out of the secular movement, it’s fascinating that the application of libertarian thought combined with economic thinking leads right back to Judeo-Christian values.
I can see why you’d read Carnegie this way. But his book really is one of the founding texts of the self-help movement, which seems almost synonymous with “self-actualization.” I take Carnegie as primarily an apostle of enlightened self-interest: If you treat people better, you will profit personally and materially. At least half of his examples involve getting ahead in business, after all.
We see this in your other works. You acknowledge in “Open Borders” that charity toward all is a biblical value. “The Case Against Education” asks people to think whether all the titles and credentials we hand out really do us any good. We see parallels in the Biblical teaching against vanity. And of course, “Selfish Reasons to Have More Children” makes the case to “be fruitful and multiply.”
I think you’ve brought a welcome new maturity to the libertarian movement.
Thanks, Jason! Above all, I try to listen and learn pluralistically. Especially because this does not come naturally to me.
It sounds like a signaling game. If everyone follows Carnegie’s advice, then the signal provides no advantage. Then, presumably, you would have to invest more heavily in showing that you care.
My point is that if ‘trying to show that you care’ is a signaling game to get ahead (“to win friends and influence people”), then we should inquire about (a) ‘ability bias’ (personality advantage) in the pattern of individual returns to ‘trying to show that you care’ and (b) differences between individual returns and social returns to ‘trying to show that you care.’
Your theory makes great sense: If everyone acts like Mr. Nice Guy, the social payoff evaporates. But I just don’t think the theory fits the facts well. We enjoy spending time with pleasant people – even if we know they’re pleasant to everyone. We prefer to be part of harmonious groups, even if we know that the treatment we receive is only average for the group. From a Darwinian perspective, I’d say we’re largely (though not completely) wired to value appreciation in absolute terms. Who would that be? I don’t know, but it seems true.
Then let’s say we proposed an RCT.
Find 1500 people interested in Carnegian improvement.
Group A: Randomly assign 500 of them to read the book and to participate in an AA-like group discussions. They read the book. They discuss the principles. They meet 2 times per month over 3 months of “treatment.” Cost is – the books; the group facilitators; renting the space to meet; some admin stuff.
Group B: Randomly assign 500 of them to receive the book, and, I don’t know, some light-touch check-in on whether they read it. Cost per participant is basically the book + 10% of admin.
Group C: Control.
a. Would you bet that, say, a year later, Group A would outperform the control group on the indexed measure?
b. What about Group B?
c. What about 5 years later, same q for both groups?
Honestly, I’m not confident that there’d be the slightest difference. Fade-out is very strong, and merely being “interested in Carnegiean improvement” is a pretty low bar. If you sampled people who were eager to improve and they met once a month for five years, I’d expect noticeable improvement.
The good news is that you can be the exception that proves the rule. Just start practicing every day.
I wonder how accurate point 4 is: Be a good listener.
One thing I’m increasingly struck by as I get older – so maybe it’s a feature of older people – is how people talk themselves up into a rage. Sometimes the more you listen, the more emotional and locked into a position people get.
For a while. Eventually, though, people get all their grievances off their chest, right? Especially if you take their side, as Carnegie advises.
Listening to someone’s concerns when you don’t fully agree and staying focused on the other person… how do you keep your brain from constantly critiquing… from thinking one or two steps ahead… from formulating responses in your mind… from trying to ‘win’… ?
What’s wrong with staying quiet for a while? You may not be able to stop yourself from thinking about how to “win,” but you can stop yourself from voicing your unconstructive thoughts.
A worthy experiment is to pick a person you’d like to get to know, pick one of the principles of how to be a friendlier person (if you choose “smile” pick a second one to go with it), and try it out. Give yourself two weeks for the assignment, tell a friend or colleague you’re doing this, and then give a progress report at the end of the two weeks.