The Surprisingly Positive Power of Deception

By Jon Miller Updated on May 30th, 2021

Recently I wanted to persuade an acquaintance to try something. It was a simple solution that I was pretty sure would work for them. There was very little practical downside. And yet as anyone who has ever tried to present a solution to someone has experienced, there is a mysterious force called resistance. This is as true in seemingly simple personal issues as it is in more complex organizational matters.

In the absence of data, in these situations we look for words to persuade. A handy Japanese expression popped into my head. The expression is damasareta to omotte(騙されたと思って). It’s one that some Japanese kaizen sensei would fall back on when all other means of persuasion failed.

Let Me Fool You

As with many expressions when they cross cultures, there seems to be no exact English equivalent. The word “damasareta” means to have been tricked, fooled, or deceived and “omotte” means “think of it as” or “think that” or “imagine that.” It’s used as in “(expression) and give it a try” or “(expression) and have a taste of this.” Putting it together, in English this would be something like, “Just pretend that you’ve been tricked into it and give this a try.”

Parents may trick a young child into eating their vegetables by disguising it, eating it themselves and making yummy sounds or by other tricks. This may work once or twice but kids catch on. The expression “damasareta to omotte” is common between adult friends who are eating out together, when one wants the other to taste a new food. Try this, as if I’ve tricked you into eating it.

Although there’s nothing positive about the idea of manipulating another person, there’s something light about this expression. An English equivalent might be, “Humor me.” When we use that phrase, we’re asking the other person to indulge or oblige us by accepting what we are saying, without arguing. Two parties recognize that there is disagreement on the issue, but one asks the other to go along with it, as if they had been tricked into it.

Lowering the Price of Being Wrong

However, this expression removes the agency of one person causing the other to believe. When we ask damasareta to omotte, nobody is actually fooling anyone. But pretending it is so allows us to do something we otherwise wouldn’t do. Perhaps “suspend your disbelief” is close enough. In effect, we are not trying to persuade at all, just asking the other person to give it a try. It’s an attempt to encourage learning by doing.

People don’t like being tricked or manipulated. We feel foolish. It lowers our sense of self-worth and confidence. When we try to sell an idea, or persuade, it can create a you-versus-me or win-loss situation. Using this expression communicates, “Make me the bad guy. You aren’t wrong. But let’s say I got you to give it a try anyway. If it doesn’t work, you can be mad at me for wasting your time, and you’ll still be right.” This expression relies on a relationship of trust. The person asking to fool you is trusted. This person would not put us in harm’s way or lead us astray.

The idea of saying “humor me” is that the person doing the persuading no longer needs to be right. For the persuaded-tricked person, this lowers the price of being wrong. If the idea doesn’t work, you went along with a trick. If it works, you never admitted you were wrong, just a willingness to suspend disbelief for a moment. It’s a way of asking people to take a leap of faith, but without requiring the faith.

Disprove This Null Hypothesis

There is an analogous situation in the context of continuous improvement and practical problem solving. When we present something that may not be true as if it is true, and we’re asked to believe that it’s true, it’s called hypothesis testing. In statistics, a null hypothesis is a statement assumed to be true unless it can be demonstrated to be false beyond a reasonable doubt. The general idea is that the null hypothesis assumes there is nothing surprising in the population being sampled. In the scientific method we run experiments, collect evidence, and seek to disprove our null hypothesis. We don’t try to prove an idea. Instead, we trick ourselves into trying something.

Perhaps I’m thinking too deeply about a simple phrase. It made me nostalgic for the days when senseis could get away with saying, “Don’t ask questions and do as I tell you.” But I don’t think that’s the way of the future. So if you find yourself struggling to persuade someone, first establish some trust, then give your own version of damasareta to omotte a try. Humor me.

  1. John McCarron

    June 11, 2021 - 8:14 am

    This is indeed a wise strategy and will be useful when I hit a sticking point in workshops or trying to win hearts and minds.

  2. susan runge

    July 1, 2021 - 1:46 am

    I agree, trust is a mainstay forthe daily jaob as a lean/ six Sigma expert.

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