Friday, July 15, 2011

Persuasion and Persuasive Speaking: Various Techniques (Continuation of a Series)

Please see more recent posts for the preceding parts of this article.  

Understanding these human characteristics, and seeing that some of our common systemic ways of trying to motivate are really counterproductive, let’s move to a way of thinking about persuasion that I’m going to call the “martial arts method.”  In some styles of martial art and self-defense, the idea is to use the opponent’s strength or momentum against him.  The following discusses how common human characteristics can help one to be persuasive.  These are backed by volumes of research that seek to explain why these persuasive behaviors work.  If you are interested, this material comes from Robert Cialdini’s Influence:  The Psychology of Persuasion (1993, William Morrow, Revised Edition).  Be prepared to discuss if these are ethical, and why or why not. 

The contrast principle.  If I walk up to you, engage you in a conversation, and ask you to donate $20.00 to the Salvation Army, you will probably say no.  That’s a lot of money to just give someone, even if you know they are a true representative of a very worthy organization.  So we talk some more.  Then I ask you to give $5.00.  In contrast, that seems like a lot less, and you can handle that.  But what the research has found is that if I had originally asked for $5.00, I would not have gotten it.  The contrast makes you think it’s more reasonable and doable.  The contrast principle has a lot of ramifications, most notably sales.  I know women who shop at Dillards and Profits only when there is a sale.  A dress that cost $90 might now be $30, and is thus a bargain. But did they need the dress, and was it really a bargain?  Maybe, but the difference in price would be proof enough for most people.  Coupled with this is the cultural expectation that expensive = good.  We don’t question that.  A Mercedes is a better car than a Hyundai.  Why?  Many would conclude the Mercedes is better because it costs more, and people would only pay more if it’s better.  Therefore, expensive = good.

A variation of this is called the “fear, then relief” example.  If a police officer pulls you over and only gives you a friendly warning or informs you that something is wrong with your car, you will probably feel your blood pressure go up and then a great sense of relief.  If someone then asked you to donate to a cause or do a favor, you are more likely to comply.   This reaction is documented, but why does it happen?  Perhaps the relief puts us in a sense of mindlessness, letting our barriers down; we are distracted, and there is a great deal of research to show we are more compliant or persuasible when distracted.  That’s why humor works to persuade people; it causes a distraction that lets down defenses.

The reciprocity principle.  Basically, payback, but in a good form.  You do me a favor, I (have to, want to, am obliged to, choose to, will) do you a favor.  Social obligation, the Golden Rule after the fact, you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours—the rule is overpowering, as Cialdini says.  Have you ever gotten anything unsolicited in the mail, such as address labels, and been asked to send a donation to the group.  I did this for years until I realized the principle was being used against me.  I have enough address labels for the rest of my life!  The reciprocity rule is so ingrained and powerful that it doesn’t matter if you like the other person, and it doesn’t matter if you really want the object that’s been given you.  Free samples from marketers, even the samples of food they give you at Sam’s Club, works on this principle.  It wouldn’t be worth it to a cost-effective business like Sam’s if it didn’t work to sell the merchandise being sampled. 

Consistency.  The need for internal consistency is very strong.  We don’t like the ambivalence I wrote about earlier.  It’s uncomfortable.  We especially don’t like inconsistency between a public statement or action and our attitudes.  Because of the consistency principle, we will change our attitudes and future behavior to remain consistent. For example, if someone walks up to you at a public festival, such as Prater’s Mill, and asks you to sign a petition to put a referendum on the ballot for the next election, you might sign it because the person speaks to you nicely, seems sincere, is an attractive person of the opposite sex, gives your child a balloon (reciprocity), or because you agree generally with the issue.  Because you sign the petition, a very easy thing to do, no obligation, you are far more likely to vote in favor of that referendum when it shows up on the ballot. 

This principle is one aspect of cognitive dissonance.  A persuader creates dissonance by getting someone to make a public statement or perform a public action that contradicts his or her true beliefs or position.  Because the receiver wants to avoid inconsistency, or dissonance, between his or her thoughts, attitudes, and actions, he or she will be more likely to change positions.  Here are some common examples: 

  • Right after you buy something, you will rate the quality of the item higher than you would before buying.  Canadian researchers found that bettors at the racetrack rated the chances of their horses higher after they had placed the bet!  (Think of how that has affected the use of the lottery in Georgia!). 

  • A professor may ask you to write an essay in support of the side you oppose in a controversy, or to give a speech for the side with which you disagree.   You will in a sense persuade yourself.  You have made yourself understand the other side in order to get a good grade; you also don’t want to be inconsistent in public and private utterances.

  • Research has shown that this is a very persuasive tool in changing attitudes; it was used by the North Vietnamese captors on American soldiers.  Even though the soldiers wrote the essays just to get by, it did affect them because we don’t like to make public statements and then not be consistent with them. 

  • The practice of low-balling, where a car salesperson will get the buyer to agree to a low price but then incrementally add options or raise the price.  The buyer doesn’t want to change his or her mind, even though he or she is being deceived.

  • The thing to remember is that the preliminary action does not have to be big; just signing your name and address can do it.  The professor in charge of study abroad came to one of my freshman speech classes to sell the study abroad program.  He had the interested people fill out a short (not the formal one) application in the class that day.  That was much wiser than just spreading the information indiscriminately.

There are many uses of cognitive dissonance in marketing and business.  Can you think of any?

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