Leadership & Management

Zakary Tormala: Why Certainty Matters in Business

A psychologist explores what makes our attitudes change over time.

January 14, 2015

| by Elizabeth MacBride


A person's hands gesturing while he or she is speaking at a meeting

When people hold their attitudes with certainty, they are more likely to defend them. | iStock/aerogondo

Most people do not think much about certainty, but it governs most of what they do. “Certainty is the catalyst that turns attitudes into action,” says Zakary Tormala, a psychologist and associate professor of marketing in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. His research, with Derek D. Rucker of Northwestern University, among others, has applications for executives, pollsters, and anyone who has an interest in spurring people to action. Managers who understand certainty can better groom leaders in their organizations. We talked with Tormala about the research.

Much of your work focuses on what you call “attitude certainty.” First, what is attitude certainty?

Attitude certainty refers to the subjective sense of confidence or conviction a person has about an attitude or opinion. Along with others who have worked on this over the years, my collaborators and I have found that your attitude certainty can be independent of the actual attitude you have. For instance, imagine that you ask two people to tell you their attitude toward an airline on a scale ranging from 1 to 10, and they both express a negative attitude — say, a 3 out of 10.

These two people look the same on the surface, but they could be very different in their underlying certainty. Perhaps one has flown the airline many times, and it’s always unsatisfying. That person would likely be very certain of the negative attitude. The other person might be substantially less certain if she has only flown the airline once and recognizes that future experiences might be different.

Why is certainty important?

Mostly we care about certainty because it has implications for lots of other important outcomes. When people hold their attitudes with certainty, they are more likely to defend them, more likely to engage in behavior that is consistent with them, and more likely to advocate or try to convince others to share their view. So if I feel more certain of my attitude toward some issue, that attitude will last longer, be more resistant to attack, and drive my choices and behaviors.

What does this mean in the business world?

Assuming people have a favorable attitude toward the object, issue, or person in question, more certainty means they are:

More likely to buy, buy sooner, and spend more in consumer contexts.

More likely to sign petitions and vote in political settings.

More likely to recommend, advocate, and seek to persuade others.

Less likely to change or yield to influence.

How do you go about increasing this sense of certainty, so people will take action — like buying — and defend their opinions to others?

It starts with understanding the origins of certainty. Some of it has to do with the information underlying the attitude. Does a person believe she has complete and accurate information? Does all the information hang together in a coherent way? Does a person have direct experience in the field she is thinking about? If so, she is likely to feel more certain of the attitude. In some of the work my colleagues and I have done, we looked at a variety of other factors. We have found that perceived consensus, repetition, ease, and defending an attitude all contribute to attitude certainty. And each of these holds potential value for executives.

OK, let’s start with consensus. What is the key takeaway and how might you apply that?

The key insight with consensus is that if you learn that a majority of your peers shares your attitude on a topic, you feel more certain about it. Relative consensus provides social validation that makes the view seem more correct, which in turn fosters certainty. There are lots of ways to apply this insight, but it all boils down to letting people know their beliefs and opinions are shared. For instance, if you and your colleague discuss a candidate for a job, explicitly telling him that you agree, or that others do, can boost your colleague’s certainty. Later on, he might be more likely to advocate on behalf of that candidate. Let’s say that you are running an online satisfaction survey for a particular product or experience and a customer gives you a positive rating. Her attitude might be where you want it to be, but how certain is she? You could follow that positive rating with a message saying that 88% of respondents agree.

Next on your list was repetition. Does this mean that someone hears a message more than once or repeats his or her own attitude?

The takeaway here is that one way to build certainty is to build in chances for people to repeat themselves. So, if someone expresses an opinion that you want them to have, try finding ways to get that person to repeat it. Say: “Tell her what you told me earlier,” or “Can you say that again so everyone hears it?”

On to ease. What does that mean?

In general, the easier it is to process an argument, the more valid it seems. In 1991, Norbert Schwarz and colleagues uncovered what is known as the ease-of-retrieval effect, showing that people rely more on their own thoughts and arguments when those thoughts and arguments come to mind easily. In some of the studies my colleagues Richard Petty [Ohio State University] and Pablo Briñol [Universidad Autónoma de Madrid] and I have done, we applied this to persuasion.

Our core finding was that when people had an easy time generating arguments in favor of a new policy — because just two arguments were requested — they felt more certain about those arguments. When people had a hard time generating arguments — because many more arguments were requested — they felt less certain about those arguments. There are lots of other examples of this same underlying idea. For instance, rhyming statements are easier to remember and, therefore, can seem more valid and be more persuasive. Johnnie Cochran famously used this technique in the O.J. Simpson trial when he said, “Remember these words: If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Even visual ease — such as easier-to-read color combinations in a PowerPoint presentation — can produce similar outcomes.

OK, what about defense? What’s the insight there?


People often feel more certain of their attitudes after they defend them. So, if you want to boost someone’s certainty about a belief or opinion before a big meeting, you could gently push back.
Zakary Tormala

We have found that people often feel more certain of their attitudes after they defend them. So, if you want to boost someone’s certainty about a belief or opinion before a big meeting, you could gently push back (“That’s an interesting view. Why do you think that?”) or play devil’s advocate (“One argument against you would be X. What would you say to someone who raises that?”) to get people to defend their position. This not only can increase certainty; it also boosts the likelihood that people will take action down the road.

This technique would be easy to implement in an online survey. If you are trying to improve voting intentions for a particular candidate for public office, for instance, asking voters to imagine and write down what they would say to someone who disagrees with them could be an effective means of doing so. Again, defending our attitudes can build our certainty in them, and attitude certainty leads to attitude-relevant action.

Do these ideas apply to self-certainty as well? Could a manager use these insights to help coach and mentor people?

If an attitude is personally important, yes. My collaborators and I have found attitude certainty promotes self-certainty when the attitude is central to one’s identity. So, in theory, asking a team member to defend an idea that he or she is passionate about could help develop his or her self-certainty.

Do different personality types also predict differences in certainty?

There is some evidence for this. As one example, Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck developed a scale for measuring people’s general views of, or theories about, human malleability over time. A few years ago my collaborators and I adapted this scale. We found people who believe attitudes are relatively fixed tend to be more certain than those who believe that attitudes are inherently malleable. So, certainty and uncertainty are a fundamental part of the human experience, and some people do appear to be generally more certain than others, but it remains malleable. Even people who tend to be high or low in general can show situational changes depending on the kinds of factors I’ve mentioned, like perceived consensus.

So even stubborn people can be open-minded sometimes?

People who seem stubborn certainly can be opened up in some instances. On the flip side, people who seem to blow with the wind can be steadied using some of these same principles.

Anything else you want to add about attitude certainty in general and its applications in the business world?

In some ways the most important point is simply that when you are trying to change someone’s attitude or behavior, even if you don’t see immediate impact from an ad campaign, a personal appeal, or any other kind of message, you might have had an underlying effect on attitude certainty. This effect, in turn, can be crucial to predicting and understanding a person’s future behavior and openness to change. By understanding certainty, you gain access to a previously hidden layer of persuasion strategy.

In other words, you’ve softened someone up.

Or maybe you’ve hardened their conviction in exactly the way you didn’t want to — but that’s why it’s so important to understand certainty and the factors that drive it.

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