A view from Dave Trott: We don't control the conversation
A view from Dave Trott

We don't control the conversation

We like to think we control the conversation, but that isn’t how it works in the real world.

For instance, in 1973, there was a run on the Toyokawa Shinkin bank: two billion yen was withdrawn in a matter of days because of a rumour of bankruptcy.

The police investigated to see if a crime had been committed.

They traced the rumour back to three schoolgirls on a train.

On 8 December, the girls were discussing where they’d be working after graduation – one said she had a job at the Toyokawa Shinkin bank.

The other two, teasing her about bank robberies, said it sounded dangerous.

Later, the girl asked her mother if the Toyokawa Shinkin bank was dangerous.

Her mother misunderstood and asked a relative, who worked at a beauty salon, if she’d heard if the Toyokawa Shinkin bank was in danger.

On 10 December, the relative asked the ladies who came into her beauty salon if they’d heard about the danger of the bank going bust.

One of them owned a dry cleaner, she asked her customers if they heard the rumours.

Now confirmation-bias began to kick in, people heard the rumour back from people who had also heard the rumour, which proved it must have some foundation.

On 13 December, the dry cleaner overheard a customer on the phone withdrawing 1.2 million yen from the bank (for a business expense).

She assumed he was withdrawing his savings, so she withdrew her own 1.8 million yen.

She warned friends who warned friends, and 59 depositors withdrew 50 million yen.

A taxi driver said his passengers escalated from 2.15pm “The bank might be in danger”; to 2.30pm “The bank IS in danger”; to 4.30pm “The bank is going bankrupt”; to 6.00pm “The bank will not open tomorrow”.

A policeman was sent to control the crowd but confirmation-bias just proved his presence was further proof of the crisis.

On 14 December, the bank announced they’d pay all withdrawals, but they’d round them down to make repayments faster.

Confirmation-bias interpreted this as proof that the bank couldn’t even pay interest.

On 15 December, Toyokawa Shinkin bank held a press conference displaying a pile of money, one metre high and five metres wide, in the vault.

The national TV station, NHK, denied the rumour, as did newspapers: Asahi Shimbun, Yomiuri Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun, plus the Bank of Japan, the Shinkin Central Bank and the National Association of Shinkin Banks, all had to publicly deny the rumour.

The Japanese financial authorities had to officially deny what began as a joke between three schoolgirls on a train.

What is the learning there for us in this?

The learning is negativity bias: bad news is more credible and spreads faster.

Richard Shotton quotes Hans Rosling on the subject: “People think the world is more frightening, more violent and more hopeless – in short, more dramatic – than it really is.”

And Shotton’s worry is: “This negativity bias doesn’t just affect the public, it affects professionals too, and it’s alive and kicking in marketing today. Think about the headlines and opinion pieces in the trade press. Whether it’s the death of TV, declining attention spans or the trust crisis, there’s an apocalyptic bent to them. And, if our perception differs from reality, we’ll make suboptimal decisions.”

So, next time you hear TV is dead, or advertising is dead, or interruption is dead, remember how rumours spread.

And remember the old Indian expression: “When a man has been bitten by a snake, he is frightened by a coil of rope.”

And remember bad news is more dramatic: when we don’t control it, it controls us. 

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three