February 4, 2011
News & Opinion: Split Second Persuasion
In psychologist Dr. Kevin Dutton's new book Split-Second Persuasion: The Ancient Art & New Science of Changing Minds, he explores that very question. Dutton's research shows that not only do we often try changing other people's minds, but our own minds are nudged to be changed every day. How often per day? 400 times, found Dutton, and his book reveals how we can better manage that influence, and also use it in our interactions with others.
A fascinating read, I sent Dutton a few questions to give our readers a glimpse into some of the ideas within the book. Here's our exchange:
Can’t people make up their own minds?
The question of whether social influence techniques are ‘ethical’ is an interesting one. I think it very much depends on how, precisely, you view persuasion. If you see persuasion as a drain on free will, then you might, quite justifiably, have yourself a case for prohibition – depending, of course, on where the persuasion is leading! However if, on the other hand, you see influence techniques as informing free will rather than debilitating it, then there’s no case to answer.
My own position lies somewhere in the middle. Generally speaking, there are two main ways we can approach the idea of shaping behaviour. Firstly, we can influence what people consciously think about. In other words, we can inform free will. Here, the underlying assumption is that individuals cognitively evaluate incoming information - and then act in their best interests. This we might call the ‘rational’ model. Say, for instance, that you’re a company CEO and put a deal out for tender. Two rival candidates give presentations in an attempt to win your business. When you have listened to them, they each go away and you are left to make a decision based on what you have heard. Do the presentations detract from your ability to make up your mind? Or enhance it? Do they add to the quality of your decision-making? Or reduce it?
On the other hand, the contrasting model of behaviour change – let’s call it the ‘context’ model - focuses on the more automatic processes of decision-making. Here, the emphasis is less on the provision of facts and information and more on manipulating the context in which people act. It’s a fact of life that we humans often think that we’ve come to a rational decision, often think that we’ve made up our minds with due care and attention, when in reality our choices have been dictated by simple quirks of circumstance.
Take what’s known as the ‘default bias’, for instance. Our brains have an in-built tendency to take the path of least resistance – a tendency so strong it sometimes leads us to behave irrationally. Example: It’s rational (especially if you don’t already have one) to opt in to a pension plan when you join a new company. Yet strangely, the majority of us choose not to. Not because we think pension plans are a bad idea. Not at all. But rather because the brain’s default setting is to go with the flow - and the flow is to do…that’s right, nothing.
So, how do we get more employees to participate in pension plans? Easy. We make signing up to the plan all part of the deal, but add in a facility whereby employees may ‘opt out.’ In other words, we simply reverse the default setting.
It’s interesting to note that both the ‘rational’ and ‘context’ models of influence do not affect the ability of an individual to make up his/her mind. The ‘rational’ model enhances it, while the ‘context’ model seeks not to change minds, but rather behaviours. Which is different. Most people believe pension schemes are a good idea, right? So nothing changes there. All that changes is that they act on those beliefs. Whether or not individuals have a ‘right to be wrong’, of course – especially when their actions have a deleterious effect on both their own well-being and that of others - is a separate matter entirely.
Another consideration to bear in mind here is whether, when it comes to influence, there is any such thing as a neutral gesture. The question ‘Can’t people make up their own minds?’ implicitly assumes that their exists, in some secluded neural zip code deep within the brain, a computational realm of pure, disembodied decision-making, partitioned from context and the impurities of spin. But even if I elect not to try to persuade you into taking a course of action I am still, inadvertently, informing your actions: sending you a message of ambivalence, noncommittal or uncertainty (delete as appropriate) which you will take into account when making your decision.
Influence and inference often go hand-in-hand.
Finally, like it or not, we have to face up to the fact that we’re pretty much stuck with persuasion. Estimates hover around the 400 mark when it comes to how many times a day someone tries to persuade us. Comes as a bit of a shock, doesn’t it? And it starts even before we get out of bed in the morning. With our radio and cellphone alarms.
Could it really have been any other way? Probably not.
In the animal kingdom, before natural selection invented language and consciousness, courtship rituals, threat displays and submission postures constituted the currency of persuasion. And still do, of course. Consider, for example, the peacock’s preposterous tail – the ultimate in evolutionary bling.
Without it, how else would the peahen ‘make her mind up’?
What are some of the ways we nonverbally persuade people?
“When you’re trying to influence someone,” says Lindsay Meredith, professor of marketing at Simon Fraser University, “you want to hit them on as many perceptive neuro-pathways as you can.” For most people, in everyday life, that usually means just the one: the gridlocked neural interstate to the brain’s linguistic quarter. But there are, as Meredith’s observation suggests, a number of others to choose from.
Probably the best known conduit of nonverbal persuasion is body language. Much has been written about body language over the years. And not all of it, it has to be said, is worth reading. Nevertheless, there is strong scientific evidence to show that certain nonverbal techniques, such as mirroring for example, do actually make a difference to how others perceive us – and hence ‘smooth the way’ for whatever comes out of our mouths.
One study, for instance, conducted in 2007 and published in a respected, peer-reviewed journal, demonstrates this in an arbitration setting. Negotiators who strategically mimic the mannerisms of their opponents (e.g. rub their noses when their opponents rub their nose; lean back in their chairs when their opponent leans back in their chair) achieve better outcomes, are more successful at uncovering underlying compatible interests, than those who do not engage in such mimicry.
In many ways, this is not surprising perhaps. Although negotiations are often restricted by numerical parameters, final outcomes often depend on feel-good factors such as liking, trust and familiarity – and mimicry (so long as it goes unnoticed!) builds rapport.
Yet there are other nonconscious routes to persuasion aside from body language. On the subject of rapport, for instance, we are more likely to spend time studying a prospective employee’s resume if their name happens to be similar to our own. And on the subject of feel-good factors, we are (i) more likely to put money in a charity box if we have just come up an escalator than gone down one; and are (ii) more likely to think of a stranger as warm and friendly if they offer us a hot drink rather than a cold one.
This latter pair of observations, both empirically demonstrable and both scientific proven, are artefacts of something called metaphor-enriched social cognition: the representation of abstract concepts in bodily, or physical, states. So, next time someone accuses you of taking the moral high ground, you might want to stay away from escalators.
In fact, talking of metaphors and physical states, persuasion can sometimes, quite literally, be ‘in the air.’ Since launching in 2008, in the wake of growing interest in the field of neuromarketing (a hybrid of marketing and neuroscience), ScentAir UK is picking up clients by the dozen. Its ‘scent delivery system’ has been installed in a wide variety of venues including nightclubs, hotels, theme parks…even fast-food outlets. In the US, a scent specially formulated for McDonald’s called ‘Apple Pie’ has seen a hike in sales of an incredible 30%, while at Legoland, in the UK, the fragrance of ‘Chocolate Chip Cookies’ pumped into the doorway of a café has had a similar effect on ‘dwell time’, mainly by appealing to children who are often turned off by the more ‘adult’ aroma of coffee.
Influence, you could say, not to be sniffed at.
How can we, as those being persuaded, be on better guard for scams?
I can remember as if it were yesterday: the moment I realised that if a scam is good enough it’s pretty much going to outfox anybody. In 2001, at a busy train station in London, I noticed the cops had put up signs alerting commuters to the fact that pickpockets were at work in the area. About time too, I mused indignantly. Several hours later, down at the local police station bemoaning the disappearance of my wallet, I discovered that it wasn’t the cops at all who had put up the signs. But the pickpockets themselves. The cops, it turned out, were forever taking them down. Why? Duh! Because as soon as people noticed them they, like me, would automatically pat down their pockets, just to make sure that whatever it was they had in there was still in there. And the pickpockets would be watching them like hawks. I might as well have just handed them my wallet on a plate.
There’s not much you can do about scams like that. And so, somewhat begrudgingly, I doff my cap to the architects of my misfortune and defer to its fiendish simplicity. Eventually, thank goodness, they become common knowledge - as has this one. And the spell is broken. But there are always new ones waiting in the wings, ready to take advantage of our brains’ evolutionary blind-spots. To whip the rug of expectation from underneath their feet. To sneak up on them from behind.
Many scams take advantage of the brain’s hardwired reliance on mental rules-of-thumb to make decisions. A warning sign informs us that pickpockets are in the area, and so we give ourselves a quick once over – just to be on the safe side. And why on earth wouldn’t we? We can’t spend hours on every single decision we make. Life, as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, happens too fast for it to be any other way. So, we prioritize.
Scams fan out along a continuum of sophistication. Some, like the barely literate and impenetrably confused requests to deposit precarious, tropical inheritances into your bank account (just supply the digits), are risible. If you can’t spot them I’d be amazed if you can even spell IQ, let alone have one. Others, like certain sales techniques (who said all scams were illegal?) are a little more nuanced. Most of us, for example, have a strong desire to behave in a manner consistent with our self-image. What this means, amongst other things – one of the corollaries of this need for consistency - is that we’re far more likely to acquiesce to a subsequent, larger request from someone if we’ve previously agreed to a previous, smaller one from them. Any idea why so many sales pitches include a ‘free trial period’? If you didn’t before, you certainly do now. It’s called the ‘foot-in-the-door’ effect. Once we’ve made a small, seemingly innocuous commitment to a product, we’re far more likely to sign up for a bigger, more serious tour of duty. Cha-ching!
But what about the rogue traders, bogus callers, email scammers, and direct mail fraudsters (to name but a few) out there? Is there anything immunological we can do? Can we fit our brains with virus protection software? Fortunately, the answer is yes – although, as with all vaccinations, nothing is 100%. Scams, like bacteria, are evolving all the time. And will always be one step ahead.
That said, there are two golden rules when it comes to dealing with scams:
1. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is.
2. Stop and think. Get your brain off autopilot, and take over manual control.
Bearing that in mind, here is a simple ‘scams checklist’:
• Was the offer unsolicited?
• Do you have to respond quickly? What’s the rush?
• Do you have to pay for a prize or ‘free’ gift?
• Do you have to ring a premium rate number?
• Are you being asked for your bank or credit card details?
• Is the business reluctant to give you its address or contact details?
• Are you being asked to keep the offer confidential?
If the answer to any of these is yes, you have been warned…
Is social media dangerous?
The history of opinion is exponential. For millennia, it was delivered exclusively to live audiences…until the clever Chinese were rumbled, and paper came along. After paper came radio. And after radio came telly. Now we’ve got the web.
The gargantuan global amphitheatre that engulfs and encircles our personal ideological stages is one thing. But how we perform on those stages is really quite another. In days gone by, “Commonsense Conservatives and lovers of America: Don’t retreat – instead RELOAD!” would have reached only a fraction of those who both received, and passed on, that biblically portentous tweet at 9.31 am precisely, on March 23rd last year. Which means, by the simple law of averages, that the chances of it ending up in the mailbox of a juvenile, gun-toting megalomaniac, with a psychotic, self-referential soft spot for anti-government rhetoric - like Jared Loughner, for example - are considerably higher.
On the other hand, playing to a big audience can also be a force for the good.
In recent years here in the UK, it’s become as predictable as a Bernie Madoff hedgefund scam. Performer wins X Factor, performer's debut single goes to No 1. So when Joe McElderry won the TV talent contest in December 2009, he had reason to believe that his song, The Climb, would be top of the charts at Christmas. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Instead, following a powerful and concerted internet campaign, a ditty very nearly as old as he was pipped him to the post.
Killing In The Name, an expletive-rich funk metal song first released in 1992 by the Californian rock band Rage Against the Machine – and nothing whatsoever to do with Sarah Palin - outsold McElderry's simpering ballad by 50,000 copies in the all-important lead-up week to Christmas, thanks mainly to the volume of downloads.
Of the campaign that gave them victory, the group's guitarist, Tom Morello, had this to say: “It's trying to save the UK pop charts for this abyss of bland mediocrity. I don't believe it has anything to do with Simon Cowell personally. I like that guy. He's a great entertainer. He's going to do fine with his No. 2 this Christmas. What you're seeing is real democracy.”
Morello further elucidated that the band would be donating the unexpected royalties to the homeless charity Shelter.
'We graciously extend the same invitation to Simon Cowell,' he added.
Depending on your view, Rage Against the Machine’s feisty festive heist was either a delectable demolition of the X Factor No 1 juggernaut or an asinine assault on the cuddly Christmas charts. Me? I’m with the Rage. But wherever you’re coming from, there’s no getting away from the moral of the story: the behemothic power of the internet as a vehicle for social change.
Social media is as dangerous as a 9mm Glock pistol: the gun which took down Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on January 8th, and which ended the lives of six of the people who were with her that morning in Tucson.
It depends where it’s pointing and whose finger is on the trigger.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.