November 22, 2017


Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter. By Scott Adams. Portfolio/Penguin. $27.

     This is a book that has absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump and absolutely nothing to do with the Dilbert comic strip, even though the front cover shows Dogbert from the strip wearing Trump hair, and even though the whole thing is written and illustrated by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams. If all that causes cognitive dissonance, well, that’s good, because this book is all about cognitive dissonance (a specialized form of rationalization in which incompatible beliefs and actions, when they are our own, are forced to merge and mesh) – so it might as well provoke some. Win Bigly is also about confirmation bias (the tendency, once we have a belief, to see later information as supporting the belief even when it doesn’t). If it gives you some of that as well, so much the better.

     Win Bigly is a book about Trump that isn’t about Trump at all. It is about some themes that have appeared piecemeal in previous Adams books – he repeatedly refers to How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, but The Dilbert Future also struck similar chords, as did Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain! Actually, there are themes developed in Win Bigly that date back nearly to the start of Dilbert, which means they have been percolating in Adams’ brain (monkey-type or not) for over a quarter of a century. Now that’s percolation.

     Win Bigly is not about Trump because it uses Trump as an example (and exemplar) of outstanding persuasiveness – ignoring his policies (which don’t matter in this context), his missteps (which also don’t matter), his bluster (doesn’t matter), his pigheadedness (ditto), and his hair (well, actually this last does matter, and Adams explains why). Adams made an early prediction that Trump would win the presidency, thus vaulting himself immediately into the higher reaches of the punditocracy when Trump did win. What he does in Win Bigly is to explain how and why he made the prediction and how and why it had nothing to do with anything specific being espoused by Trump (with whose policies, Adams freely and repeatedly says, he generally does not agree). This is a book about victory, not the victor.

     A few of the things Adams explores here will not (or should not) surprise anyone who has been in the upper reaches of business. Trump’s early and loud “build a wall” proclamation, for example, is recognizable as the initial gambit in a negotiation process, an attempt to set the stage for walking back the bid later but still getting fairly close to what one really wants. Adams points out that Trump surely knew a straightforward wall along the southern U.S. border could not be built – in some areas, fencing or careful monitoring or some other approach would be needed – but by insisting repeatedly on the wall, he created an image in people’s mind and took control of the situation and the debate about it, making it easier for him to walk back the extreme position later (which is exactly what he did). But if this is familiar territory, some of what Adams puts forth is less so. There is, for example, the concept of the “talent stack,” which Adams has discussed before (in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big). This is, in effect, an example of the whole being much greater than the sum of its parts: using himself as an example, Adams says he is not a great artist, has never taken a traditional writing class, and is not the funniest person in his own social circle. But the combination of being good enough in all these fields is what has brought him success, wealth, fame, and so forth. By the same token, he says that Trump is a Master Persuader (yes, with capital letters) who has abilities in the fields of publicity, reputation, strategy, negotiating, persuasion, public speaking, sense of humor, being quick on his feet, being thick skinned, having high energy, having a certain size and appearance (the hair is part of this and is a positive thing, because it is so distinctive), and being smart. Trump is not tops in any of these fields, Adams argues, but he is good enough in all of them so he can masterfully persuade people to go in the direction he wants them to go even when he makes a large number of seemingly serious policy gaffes and other specific errors.

     Some of this analysis, for both Trump and Adams himself, is arguable, or at least overstated: would Dilbert have been successful or Trump have been elected in, say, the mid-1950s? There is a matter of timing, of society being “ready” for certain people and concepts, that Adams neglects. On the other hand, he correctly observes that the Trump “talent stack” matters far more than any policy Trump may put forth, any method he may choose to use to advance his cause (Twitter vs. conventional media being an obvious example), and any countervailing facts put forward by his opponents. Adams says that Trump and other Master Persuaders exist in a world beyond facts, able (in effect) to “push the buttons” of large numbers of people in order to get what they want. Think you don’t have buttons that can so easily be pushed? That belief is one such button – making you easier to manipulate because you believe yourself immune to manipulation. Adams gets into this topic from two complementary angles, his “moist robot” concept (which says that people, like the robots they make, are programmable, provided you know which inputs will produce the desired outputs) and what he learned through a professional study of hypnosis (which does not at all mean what most readers of Win Bigly will likely think it means). Adams’ point, which he makes repeatedly and sometimes subtly (sometimes less so, to push different buttons), is that even people who are not Master Persuaders can learn a number of Master Persuader techniques and use them for personal advantage in business, personal life and even, if they wish, politics. Some people will search this book (vainly) for proof that Adams is a big Trump supporter and maybe even helped engineer his victory, perhaps with assistance from Russians or aliens or something. Other people will search (also vainly) for assurance that Adams agrees with them that Trump is the greatest president since John Hanson (first president of the Continental Congress, which takes us back way before that latecomer George Washington). A few people, though, may actually get past the Trump window-dressing of Win Bigly and find the substantive thoughts inside. Watch for them – and watch out for them – in your next business meeting, or a couple of election cycles hence.

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