Friday, July 15, 2011

Persuasion and Persuasive Speaking: Various Techniques (A continuation of a series)

Please look above (to more recent posts) for the preceding parts of this article. I am posting them backwards.
Social proof.  If you were in Atlanta walking down the street near Five Points or Underground Atlanta, and a middle aged man was lying on the side walk, moaning in pain, what would you do?  You might think you would immediately stoop to help and get a call into 911 for the man.  Amazingly, this is not what happens most of the time.  People walk on by.  Not everyone, of course, but the vast majority.  Researchers have shown that a person in distress is more likely to be helped by a single person in an isolated place than by a number of people in a crowded place.   Why?  The power of the majority.  It is very hard to buck the majority, or more likely, the perceived majority.  It is especially hard to buck the majority of people you’ve known or interacted with for a while.  Social proof (we might call it peer pressure) is stronger than we want to admit.  Let’s be honest, though.  Bucking the majority often does have its costs.

Advertisers use social proof all the time, specifically in statements such as “90% of ____ preferred ____ over other leading brands.”  And in person-to-person situations, the more who are in line, the more it must mean something is worth it.  Recently I was at Biltmore Estates.  There was an offer of a wine tasting at the winery on the estate.  Even though it was ten minutes to closing time, the line was extremely long, over fifty people, and getting longer.  I abstained because I was on a tight schedule and I’m impatient, but I can’t help thinking a lot of people were in line simply because so many others were in line—reasoning it must be worth it if so many people are in line (in fact, that’s why I was at Biltmore in the first place, because so many friends  had told me how great it was.  I didn’t have any innate interest in the Vanderbilts, Asheville, or Gilded Age architecture.)

The fifth principle is the liking principle.  People we like persuade us.  No great revelation there, but why do we like them?  Because we perceive them as like us, or that we are like them.  (Funny that the English language uses the same word with those two meanings.  Other languages do not).  Physical attractiveness is the most common example here.  Studies also show we are more likely to help those who are dressed like us.  Compliments, expressing personal approval and “liking” for another, matching behaviors of others, and cooperation are all very persuasive tools related to liking. 

The sixth principle is that of authority.  The famous Milgram experiments (bring this up in class if you are not familiar with the reference) are the scariest example of how persuasive symbols of authority are.  White coats, uniforms, badges, certain types of hats, stethoscopes, etc.  Even in the hospital, those colorful little scrubs the CNAs wear give them authority the patient doesn’t have.  People will bow to authority symbols in amazing ways. 

The seventh principle is that of scarcity.  When people think that an item is scarce, rare or about to be nonexistent, its value goes up immensely, even if the item is not necessary or even desirable.  And we think we have to have it. Of course, sometimes that scarcity is simply perceived.  Diamonds are the perfect examples.  The diamond companies can charge those prices because they have all the diamonds, and can make them look scarce.  They really aren’t.  But we pay thousands for a small rock. 

Cialdini says that these seven principles work almost automatically with people, in a click-whirr fashion.  So, if they do, does that mean that our free choice is limited?  Does that mean they are unethical because they bypass critical thinking? (or do they?)  Is persuasion a matter of caveat emptor, let the buyer beware?  What makes some persuasion ethical and some unethical?

I often tell my freshman the following, putting it in simple terms.  Motivation is not something you do to people, it’s something you facilitate others to do to themselves when they realize they are out of balance, in need, or have a problem.  We have already seen that people are naturally moved to get back into balance and remove dissonance.  You do this in three ways.  By showing them they are out of balance or inconsistent, dissonant when they didn’t realize it; by showing them they are more inconsistent than they realize, and by showing them that what they are doing to relieve their dissonance is not working.  However, we have the countervailing factor; we hate change, and getting rid of dissonance means some form of change has to be made. 

The key word in the preceding paragraph is balance.  Balance, whether physical, emotional, or cognitive, is different for each person; that’s one reason why not everyone is persuaded equally by certain messages. 

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Attention, Ego, Spirituality, and Drugs

This title may seem really odd coming from me, but this article has some interesting things to say.