I walked out of the TEDx conference 20 minutes before my talk and I was planning on just going to the airport and flying home. I’m a quitter. I was terrified. I did not want to give my talk. My plan was to go home and just never return any of the angry calls from the organizers.
I was supposed to be the last speaker of the day, everyone was tired, and the woman speaking before me was amazing. She was incredibly inspiring and showed how, despite having extreme pain and medical troubles since birth, she was able to rise up and break a very physically demanding world record.
I only saw the beginning of her talk but there were already tears everywhere. Then it would be my turn and then there was going to be a special performance from the local ballet and then there would be a party.
I didn’t want to give my talk. I couldn’t even breathe. I was going to talk about my book, “Choose Yourself,” and the principles I had learned when I was repeatedly going broke and always had to bounce back.
But I was insecure: I wasn’t as good as any of the other speakers, particularly the woman speaking before me. And I wasn’t as good as the ballet. And I wasn’t going to be as fun as the party afterwards. So what was the point of me? I felt like a fraud. Like I was useless. Like 2,000 people would look at me and they would all be thinking, “Oh my god, can he JUST SHUT UP already?”
I went back and gave my talk.
Whenever someone starts talking to me about cognitive biases, I always want to ask, “But how would I use this?” Cognitive biases are shortcuts the brain uses to make decisions when things are complicated. But can I secretly use them to my advantage?
Here’s an example…
Negativity bias: Given many possible interpretations of an event, assume the worst-case scenario and act accordingly.
For instance, if you pass a bush and the leaves rustle, it could be one of two things: 1) The wind passing through (harmless), or 2) A lion ready to pounce (dangerous!).
Negativity bias kicks in and you RUN. The humans that did not have this bias wired into their brains probably died and did not become one of our ancestors. They were eaten by lions.
There are many cognitive biases. But it’s one thing to know them. It’s another to use them. You can use them to persuade people, judge people, and you can use them in high-stakes negotiations. But only if you know how. Most books, articles, talks I’ve seen on cognitive biases give zero guidance on how to use them to help create the world I want to live in. I’m not an academic in a laboratory. I live or die on these cognitive biases and their use to me.
This is where Eminem comes in.
With 220 million albums sold, Eminem is the top-selling rapper of all time. Drake is a distant No. 2, coming in at 150 million albums sold.
Let’s look at the final scene from the movie “8 Mile,” an autobiographical movie Eminem made and starred in. You don’t need to know the movie. I will break down the scene line by line so you will know everything there is to know about influence and persuasion, cognitive bias, and defeating your competition.
First, here’s all you need to know about the movie.
Eminem is a poor, no-collar, white-trash guy living in a trailer park. He’s beaten on, works crappy jobs, gets betrayed, gets beaten up, etc. But he lives to rap and break out somehow.
In the first scene, he is having a “battle” against another rapper and he chokes. He gives up without saying a word. He’s known throughout the movie as someone who chokes under pressure and he seems doomed for failure.
The scene I will show you and then break down is the final battle in the movie. He’s the only white guy and the entire audience is black. He’s up against the reigning champion that the audience loves.
He wins the battle using cognitive biases and I will show you how. With his techniques you can go up against any competitor.
After he wins it, he can go on to do anything he wants. To win any battle. But he walks off because he’s going to do his own thing. He chooses himself. The movie ends with him walking off after his victory.
First off, watch the scene (with lyrics) before and after my explanation.
Here is the scene:
Watch it right now.
OK, let’s break it down. How did Eminem win so easily?
Setting aside his talent for a moment (assume both sides are equally talented), Eminem used a series of cognitive biases to win the battle.
Here’s the thing: We no longer need all of these cognitive shortcuts to survive. There aren’t that many lions in the street. But the brain took 400,000 years to evolve and it’s only in the past 50 years, maybe, that we’ve become relatively safe from most of the dangers that threatened earlier humans. Our technology and ideas have evolved, but our brains can’t evolve fast enough to keep up with them.
Consequently, these biases are used in almost every sales campaign, business, marketing campaign, movie, news outlet, relationship, everything. Almost all of your interactions are dominated by biases and understanding them is helpful when calling BS on your thoughts.
Your brain is loving and wants to protect you. But it’s not smart enough because life has evolved faster than the brain. So you have to learn how to reach past the signals from the brain and develop intuition and mastery over these biases.
1) INGROUP BIAS
Notice Eminem’s first line: “Now everybody from the 313, put your motherf***ing hands up and follow me.”
The 313 is the area code for Detroit. And not just Detroit — it’s for blue-collar, black Detroit, which is where the entire audience, and Eminem, is from. So he wipes away the outgroup bias that might be associated with his race and he changes the conversation to, “Who is in 313 and who is NOT in 313?”
Now the entire audience is in his tribe. He has “ingrouped” them.
2) HERD BEHAVIOR
He said, “Put your hands up and follow me.” Everyone starts putting their hands up without thinking. The brain always assumes there’s a very good reason for everything it does.
So their brain tells them that they are doing this for rational reasons. The rational reason: They are obediently following Eminem.
Here’s one experiment behavioral scientists have done: If you are at a hotel and there’s a sign in your bathroom that says, “80% of our guests reuse towels to help the environment,” you are significantly more likely to reuse a towel because you want to follow the herd. Take away the sign and almost nobody reuses the towels.
3) AVAILABILITY CASCADE
The brain has a tendency to believe things even more if they are repeated, regardless of whether they are true. This is called “availability cascade.” There is a cascade of information that is available to you, and it’s all the same, so you feel the need to believe it. It must be true.
Notice Eminem repeats his first line. After he does that he no longer needs to say, “Follow me.” He says, “Look, look.” They are already following him and under his command. So he says “look” because he is about to point out the enemy. He is setting up the next cognitive bias.
4) DISTINCTION BIAS OR OUTGROUP BIAS
Brains have a tendency to view two things as very different if they are evaluated at the same time, as opposed to if they were evaluated separately. Eminem wants his opponent, Papa Doc, to be evaluated right then as someone different from the group, even though the reality is they are all in the same group of friends with similar interests, etc.
Eminem says, “Now while he stands tough, notice that this man did not have his hands up.”
In other words, even though Papa Doc is black, like everyone in the audience, he is no longer “in the group” that Eminem has defined and commanded: the 313 group. He has completely changed the conversation from race to area code.
5) AMBIGUITY BIAS
He doesn’t refer to Papa Doc by name. He says “this man.” In other words, there’s “the 313 group,” which we are all a part of in the audience, and now there is this ambiguous man who is attempting to invade us. People tend to prefer things where the brain thinks there is more certainty. In this rap battle, the reality is that the brain knows equal amounts about Papa Doc and the character Eminem is playing (named B-Rabbit). But when Eminem says “this man,” he leaves out information, creating a moment of ambiguity.
At that moment, without the crowd realizing it, ambiguity bias kicks in and they naturally begin to prefer Eminem.
Watch presidential campaign debates. A candidate will rarely refer to another candidate by name. Instead, he might say, “All of my opponents might think X, but we here know that Y is better.. The candidate is clustering everyone else into a group of “opponents,” and now there is — very subtly — less information about who the other candidates are. There is the one talking (certainty) and then there is this “other” group.
If you’re the last person to speak at a conference, you can use this technique. You can say, “I’m the last person speaking. Let’s give a round of applause for all the others who came up before me.” BAM! Ambiguity bias kicks in and for a microsecond, the audience can’t even remember who the other speakers were. You clustered them. Now they will remember you… and “the others.”
This was the technique that I used when I went back to the conference. Did it work? I don’t know. But I felt very good about my talk and the response to it afterwards.
You can also use this in sales. You go into a meeting and start off saying, “I know you’ve seen a lot of great presentations before me…” etc. Anytime you can cluster people into “you” vs. “the others,” you are using this bias.
6) CREDENTIAL BIAS
Because the brain wants to take shortcuts, it will look for information more from people with credentials or lineage than from people who come out of nowhere. So, for instance, if one person is from Harvard and told you it was going to rain today and another random person told you it was going to be sunny today, you might be more inclined to believe the person from Harvard. I hate to think that’s true, but it is.
Robert Cialdini, in his book “Influence,” calls this technique “authority.”
Eminem does this subtly two lines later. He says, “One, two, three, and to the four.” This is a direct line from Snoop Dogg’s first song with Dr. Dre, “Ain’t Nothin But a G Thing.” It is the first line in the song and perhaps one of the most well-known rap lines ever. Everyone in the audience has heard the line and knows exactly where it comes from.
By using it, Eminem directly associates himself with well-known successful rappers Dr. Dre and Snoop. (Trivia point: Eminem was actually discovered by Dr. Dre, who launched his career.)
He then uses availability cascade again by saying, “One Pac, two Pac, three Pac, four.” First, he’s using that one, two, three, and to the four again, but this time with Pac, which refers to the rapper Tupac. So now he’s associated himself in this little battle in Detroit with three of the greatest rappers ever.
7) INGROUP / OUTGROUP
Eminem points to random people in the audience and says “You’re Pac, he’s Pac,” including them with him by associating their lineages with these great rappers. But then he points to his opponent, Papa Doc, makes a gesture like his head is being sliced off and says, “You’re Pac, NONE.” Meaning that Papa Doc has no lineage, no credibility, unlike Eminem and the audience.
8) BASIC DIRECT MARKETING: LIST THE OBJECTIONS UP FRONT
Any direct marketer or salesperson knows the next technique Eminem uses.
When you are selling a product, or yourself, the person or group you are selling to is going to have easy objections. They know those objections and you know those objections. If you don’t bring them up and they don’t bring them up then they will not buy your product. If they bring it up before you, then it looks like you are hiding something and you just wasted a little of their time by forcing them to bring it up.
So a great sales technique is to address all of the objections in advance.
Eminem’s next set of lines does this brilliantly.
He says, “I know everything he’s got to say against me.”
And then he just lists them one by one:
- “I am white.”
- “I am a f***ing bum.”
- “I do live in a trailer with my mom.”
- “My boy, Future, is an Uncle Tom.”
- “I do have a dumb friend named Cheddar Bob who shot himself with his own gun.”
- “I did get jumped by all six of you chumps.”
And so on. He lists several more. But at the end of the list, there’s no more criticism you can make of him. He’s addressed everything and dismissed them. In a rap battle (or a sales pitch), if you address everything your opponent can say, he’s left with nothing to say. When he has nothing to say, the audience, or the sales prospect, will buy from you.
Look at direct marketing letters you get in email. They all spend pages and pages addressing your concerns. This is one of the most important techniques in direct marketing.
9) HUMOR BIAS
Eminem saves his best for last. “But I know something about you,” he says while staring at Papa Doc. He sings it playfully, making it stand out and almost humorous. There is something called humor bias. People remember things (and like things) that are stated humorously more than they remember serious things.
10) EXTREME OUTGROUP
“You went to Cranbrook.” And then Eminem turns to his 313 group for emphasis as he explains what Cranbrook is. “That’s a private school.” BAM! There’s no way now the audience can be on Papa Doc’s side but Eminem makes the outgroup even larger. “His real name’s Clarence. And his parents have a real good marriage.”
BAM and BAM! Two more things that separate Papa Doc out from the crowd. He’s a nerdy guy, who goes to a rich school, and his parents are together. Unlike probably everyone in the audience, including Eminem. No wonder Papa Doc doesn’t live in the 313, which was originally stated somewhat humorously but is now proven without a doubt.
11) CREDENTIAL BIAS (AGAIN) & SUNK COST FALLACY
Eminmen says, “There ain’t no such thing as”… and the audience chants with him because they know exactly what he is quoting a song by Mobb Deep, another huge East Coast rap group (so now Eminem has established lineage between himself and both the West Coast and the East Coast). And by using the audience to finish the line with, “Halfway crooks!” we’re all in the same group again while “Clarence” goes back to his home with his parents at the end of the show.
Also, when the audience finishes his line, they are susceptible to SUNK COST FALLACY. They are taking commands from Eminem at that point. The brain, to try to rationalize why it’s so easily spent that energy on Eminem (the sunken cost), rationalizes by saying, “It must be because we like Eminem.”
Benjamin Franklin used this technique to win over a political enemy. They were both in the Pennsylvania State Legislature and this enemy of Franklin’s was blocking all of the laws Franklin wanted to pass.
So Benjamin Franklin asked his rival if he could borrow a book from his rival’s collection. The rival was surprised but lent Franklin the book. A week later, Ben Franklin returned the book. The rival’s brain now thinks, “Oh! I am the sort of person who lends Ben Franklin books (the sunken cost) so I guess I like him.”
This rival never caused Benjamin Franklin a problem ever again.
The music stops, which means Eminem has to stop and let Papa Doc have his turn. But he doesn’t. He basically says, “F*** everybody, f*** y’all if you doubt me. I don’t wanna win. I’m outtie.”
He makes himself scarce. After establishing total credibility with the audience he basically says he doesn’t want what they have to offer. He reduces the supply of himself by saying he’s out of there. Maybe he will never come back. Reduce the supply of yourself while demand is going up and what happens? Basic economics. Value goes up.
He so thoroughly dominated the battle that now, in reversal to the beginning of the movie, Papa Doc chokes. He doesn’t quite choke, though. There’s nothing left to say. Eminem has said it all for him. There’s no way Papa Doc can raise any “objections” because Eminem has already addressed them all. All he can do is defend himself, which will give him the appearance of being weak. And he’s so thoroughly not in the 313 group that there is no way to get back in there. He can’t rebuild his tribe with the audience.
There’s simply nothing left to say. Eminem wins the battle.
And what does Eminem do with his victory? He can do anything.
Doesn’t it seem silly to analyze a rap song for ideas on how to be better at persuasion and influence? I don’t know. You tell me.
James Altucher is the author of the bestselling book Choose Yourself, editor at The Altucher Report and host of the popular podcast, The James Altucher Show, which takes you beyond business and entrepreneurship by exploring what it means to be human and achieve well-being in a world that is increasingly complicated. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.