The Power to Persuade

The Power to Persuade - How masters of “supersuasion”...

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Unformatted text preview: How masters of “supersuasion” can Change your mind By Kevin Dutton “Nothing is so unbelievable that oratory cannOt make it acceptable, " ¥Marcus Tullius Cicero don’t know about you, but most of my attempts at persuasion end up going ’round in Circles: impassioned, long—winded affairs that seem as if they’re working. But aren’t. This is why I’ve become fascinated with something I call “supersuasion,” a brand-new kind of influence that disables our cognitive security systems in seconds. Animals'do it [see [9035 on page26]. Babies do it [see box on page 29]. But. for reasons that I’ve been exploring, most of us grownups seem to find it difficult. With one or two exceptions, of course. My journey to understand the art .of persuasion began a couple of years ago, With the simple idea that some of us are better at it than. others..And that, just as .with every other " "skill,"there’s'a“spectrume talenta'long'which“each"of'u's"ha's""“ our place. At one end are those who always say the wrong thing. At the other, the supersuaders, who always get it right. These black belts in influence hark back to the days of our an— ', cestors; their powers of persuasion effortlessly reeapitulating the immediate, instinctual response sets of our primeval, pre— clonscious past. Their elite, flashbulb influence suffuses all be- fore it. It is fast. It is simple. And itworks. Immediately. In- stantaneou'sly. NOW. You could call it the persuasion “hole in one.” Take, for example, the man I encountered on a flight (busi- ness class, thanks to a film company I was working for) from London to New York. The guy across from me had a problem with his food. After several minutes of prodding it around his - plate, he summoned the chief steward to his side. 24 SCIENTiFIC AMERICAN MIND V5," 2'. W0 I “This food,” he enunciated, “sucks”. The chief steward nodded and was very understanding. “Oh, we’re very sorry!” he replied. “It’s such a pity! How'will' Not bad, I thought. _ “Look,” continued the man (he was, one suspected, quite used to continuing). “I know it’s not your fault.‘But it just isn’t good enoughIAnd you know what? I’m so fed up with peo— ple being nice!” ‘ ' I But then came something that totally changed the game. That didn’t just turn the tables. It kicked ’em over. “IS THAT RIGHT, YOU F" ‘* *INGD" * *? THEN WHY THE F" *1 ‘* DON’T YOU SHUT UP, YOU F 3‘" "‘ * ING A * * HOLE?” Instantly, the whole cabin fell silent. Who the hell. . .? A guy in one of the front seats turned around. He looked at the fellow who was complaining about-his food, winked at him, and inquired, “Is that any better? Cause ifit ain’t, I can keep going.” March/Apr“ 2010 PHOTDILLUSTRATION BY AARON GOODMAN The Persuasion Instinct ‘ ‘ ou looking at my girl?" How many times has that par— ticular question drawn an evening out to a close? Not so with elephants. During the mating season young male elephants, when they inadvertently encroach on females in estrus, give off what is known as an innocentscent, an olfactory signal to adult bull elephants that they are going to toe the line. 7 How many times have houseguests outstayed their welcome, because despite all your hints they somehowjust didn't get that it was time to go? Not so with the thorny acacia tree of Central Africa. When insects start feeding on the thorny acacia too greed- ily. it produces a toxin that turns Michelin-starred leaves into pig swill. Not only that, it also gives off an odor, warning nearby aca— 'cias to put up the shutters themselves: an arboreal, chemical Twitter that there’s a freeloader doing the rounds. Examples such as these provide a pretty good'fiavor of how _ persuasion works in the animal kingdom. And it leaves what we humans do in the dust. There are no mixed messages, no’beating around the bush (unless that bush happens to belong to a casse- 6, wary, in which case the phrase takes on a different, more ominous meaning) and no sitting down over coffee to talk about it. instead, in the absence of consciousness and those ephemeral containers of meaning we call words, animals rely on what ethologists call key stimuli: environmental triggers (such as the innocent scent in el— ephants and the not so innocent scent in acacias} that initiate, when they are activated, instinctive behavioral responses. For a moment, nobody saidranything. Everyone, I quite literally, f—r-o—z-e. But then, as if some secret neural tripwire had been pulled, Our disgruntled diner -. . . smiled. And then he laughed. And then he really laughed, This, in turn, set the chief steward off, And that, of course, got us all started. Problem solved with just a handful ‘of simple words. And definitive proof, if ever any were need- ed, of what my old English teacher Mr. johnson used to say: You can be as rude as you like, so long as you’re polite about it. - Almost without effort, this connoisseurof curs- es (who also happened to be a famous musician) had used supersuasion to deflect an awkward situation and turn the tables another Way. And he did so by uniting biology, psychology and neuroscience in a model of influence with five constituent factors— factors that may be handily arranged in the acro- nym “SPICE”: Simplicity, Perceived self-interest, Incougruity, Confidence and Empathy. ' Studies have taken these five elements apart one by one to show us how each one works in building toward supersuasion. _ Si m pl icity “Easy to swallow, easy to follow” is the brain’s heuristic for influence. This is one reason Why the world’s great orators have always spoken in threes. Julius Caesar’s “veni, vidz', vici,” for example. or - Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address: “we .cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate,’ we cannot hallow this ground.” This device, known as the tricolon, is among a number of rhetofical secrets first identified by the speakers of the ancient world, classical orators such as Cicero, Demosthenes and Socrates (who them— “tats; fol-HE 'i'EiEElbfilTIE ni'agic'i'ie's'iiiitéEffiEiEfi- cy: a third word not only gives confirmation and FAST FACTS Would .You Like to Buy a Bridge? completes a point, it is also economical, constitut- ing the earliest stage at which a possible connec— tion, implied by the first two words, may be sub— stantiated. More than three, and you risk going on and on. Fewer than three, and your argument lands prematurely. I The bottom line couldn’t be any clearer: the shorter, sharper, simpler the message—tricolon again—the more amenable we are to its content. Imagine I were to hand you a recipe for Japanese rolls—and that it was printed in this typeface (Times New Roman, 12 point). Next, imagine I 1 Some people are masters of “supersuasion,” but the skill ' is not inborn; their techniques can be taught to anyone. : Humor is the key,'especially if it catches your listeners off guard, leaving them laughing and open to suggestion. 3 Make people believe you have their best interests at heart, - and you can persuade them to do almost'anything. 26 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND March/April 2010 ANDREW PATERSDN age rotostack were to ask you to estimate how long it would take you to prepare the recipe. And then, how inclined you were to do so. Question: Do you think you would rate the dish as being easier to cook if it were W66 (Brush, 12 point)? Or do you think that" the typeface would make little difference to your judgment? Psychologists Hyunjin Song and Nor- bert Schwarz of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor put exactly this question to a group of college students in 2008; And guess what? The 'fussier the typeface, the more difficult the students judged the I recipe. And what’s more, the less likely they were to attempt it. Even though the recipes were exactly the same in both cases, the students walked into a clas- sic cognitive ambush: they confused the facility with which they took in information with the re- ' sources required to Comply with it. Result? The group gave Brush the brush-off. Perceived Self-Interest Several million years ago, when social network- ing was even more important than Facebook and filled the promotional requirements and returned to the garage the stipulated eight times to claim their free car wash, compared with just 19 percent of the customers who weren’t on the empirical fast track. Even though the offer was exactly the same for both groupsucustomers had to visit the car wash on eight occasions to earn their freebie—those initial two to- kens created a powerful illusion: not only of some- : thing for nothing (a gesture of corporate goodwill triggering reciprocity) but also of client commit- ment. On receiving the vouchers that apparently gave them a two-point lead, customers thought to themselves: “Hey, I’m a fifth of the way there al- ready. lmight as well keep going.” And so they were far more likely. to continue with the scheme than those who had started supposedly from scratch. This voucher trick is all about the art of fram- ing—the presentation of information in a way that maximizes positive outcomes. And framing isn’t ' just confined to advertising. Politicians do it. Attor- neys do it. We all do it. The key, as a persuader, is to present things in such a way that they appear to be not in your own It helps if peoplefeel like they’re-being offered a good deal, especially if the good deal involves getting away with something. Twitter are today, the facility to be true to one’s word, and to return favors accordingly, was synon- ymous with group cohesion. With individual cohe- sion, too: in the days before-welfare and pest con— trol, being ostracized was fatal. But old evolutionary habits die hard—and the spectral remnants of exigencies past hover‘like neu- ral phantoms on the dark, primeval stairwells of the brain [see box on page 31]. Takerloyalty cards, for in?9.9érsrshslsaisn lsrsphlflunes and Xavier Dreze of the Wharton School of Marketlng at the University of Pennsylvania presented the pa- trons of a car wash with two different types of voucher—each of which, when completed, entitled the beneficiary to a free visit. In both cases, eight stamps {corresponding to eight visits) were required ‘ to redeem the offer. But the vouchers differed from each other in one important feature. One consisted ‘ of eight blank circles, whereas the other consisted of 10, with the first two circles already voided out. Which of the vouchers do you think proved the more effective? You got it—the one with the first two ' stamps thrown in ostensibly “for free.” Of the cus— tomers given the 10-circle voucher, 34 percent ful— www.5cientificAmerican.com/Mind Make people believe . that they will get an exceptionally benefi- cial deal by dolng 'what you want (even If they won't), and you , ‘ go a long way toward 'perst'lading them. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND 27 Humor plays an important part in supersuasion, most _ especially humor that- . arises from incongrui- ties‘ that catch the listener off guard. (The Author) The best jokes are the ones we don’t see coming. Our brains do a double take, and that’s when they are most open to suggestion. - best interests—but in those of whom you’re trying to influence._Take, for example, the story of King Louis XI of France, a staunch believer in astrology. When a courtier correctiy predicted the death of a member of his imperial household, the king worried that having such a powerful seer in his court might pose a threat to his authority. He summoned the man, planning to have him thrown to his death from a window ledge. But first he addressed him I gravely. “You claim to be able to interpret the heav- ens,” King Louis said, “and to know the fate of oth- ers. So tell me: What fate will befall you, and how long do you have to live?” _ The oracle thought carefully for a moment. “I shall‘meet my end,” he replied, “just three days before Your Majesty meets his.” A perfect, if apocryphal, example of the 'courtier using perceived self—interest on the king’s part as a way to save his own life.- KEVIN DUTTON is a Research Fellow at the Faraday Institute of St. Ed- mund's College at the University of Cambridge. He is author of Split-Sec- ond Persuasion: The Ancient Art and New'Seience of Changing Minds, to be published later this year by Houghton Miffiin Harcourt. In the U.K., the title will be Flipnosis: The Art of Split-Second Persuasion (William Heine- ‘man, 2009). 28 SCIENTiFIC AMERICAN MIND Incongruity The persuasive power of humOr is second to none. If someone can make you laugh while trying to change your mind, chances are they’re on to a Winner. Not long ago in London, I walked past a homeless man selling a-copy of the magazine the Big Issue, the proceeds of which go toward helping those living on the street. “Free delivery within 10 feet!” he called out. I baught one on the spot. Precisely why humor is so powerful an influenc- er is an interesting question. The answer lies in one of its key ingredients, incongruity. The best jokes are the ones we don’t see coming, and because we don’t see them coming, they violate expectation. Our brains do a double take. And in that fraction of a second, while their backs, so to speak, are turned, cur brains are open to suggestion. The-neurology of incongruity—what happens inside the brain as it is'doing a double takeuis well documented. Single cell recordings in monkeys show that the amygdala, the emotion center of the brain, is more sensitive to unexpected than expect- ed presentations of both positive and negative stim— ‘ uli. in humans, intracranial EEG recordings reveal increased activation in, both the amygdala and the temporoparietai junction, a structure involved in novelty detection, On exposure to unusual events. Such findings confirm that incongruity. not only gains our attention (a crucial component of any effective persuasion—just ask the guy in business class who complained about his dinner) but that it also iobs a stun grenade between Our ears. It dis- ables ‘cognitive functioning and compromises, for a brief but critical time window, our neural home- 'i'A'lid'Eéesnty. Yet-incongruity isn’t just about distraction. It’s also about reframing—as a study by social psychol- ‘ogist David Strohmetz and his co-authors at Mon- mouth University demonstrated rather fiendishiy in 2002. The study in question wasconducted in a res— taurant, and Strohmetz began by dividing diners up into three groups, according to how many candies the waiter handed out with the check, I To one group of diners the waiter gave one can- dy. To another, he gave two. And to the third—and this'is where it gets interestingmhe did the follow- ing. First he gave out one candy and then walked away . . . then turned back around, as if he had March/April 2010 2‘ Rm L. r. Fetal Attraction et's say you found a wallet on the street. What would you do? Take it to the nearest police station? Mail it back to the owner? Keep it? The answer, it emerges. depends less on a question of individual morality and a great deal more on our collective evolutionary heritage. In 2009 psychologist Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire in England left a bunch of wallets on the streets of Edinburgh. Scotland, each of which contained oneof'four photographs: a happy family, a cute puppy, an elderly couple and a smiling baby. Which ones, he wondered, would be most likely to find their way home? There was no doubting the- outcome: 88 percent of the wallets containing the picture of the smiling baby were returned, beating all .the others out of sight. The result, according to Wiseman, is not surprising. "The I baby kicks off a caring feeling in people,” he says. a nurturing instinct toward vulnerable infants that has evolved to safegUard the survival of future generations. ' underwent functional MRI. Using a special image- editing program, Glocker manipulated the pictures so that some of the infant faces incorporated high- er "baby schema" values (large, round eyes; round, chubby face) whereas some had lower values (smaller eyes; narrowerface). It wasn'tjust the pro" gram that was eye-opening. Results revealed that the faces with higher baby schema values precipi— tated an increase in activity notjust in the amygda- la (the brain’s emotional control tower) but also in the nucleus accumbens, a key structure of the ' mesocorticolimbio system that mediates reward. Similar findings to Glocker's have also been demonstrated acoustically. Kerstin Sander of the Leibnitz Institute for Neuro— biology in Germany compared amygdala responses to infants and adults crying and discovered something extraOrdinary: a 900 percent increase for babies. Additional research has taken things one stage further and revealed that although preverbal infant vocalizations do indeed increase amygdala activation, In 2009 Melanie Glocker of the institute of Neural and Be- havioral Biology at the University of Muenster in Germany flashed pictures of newborns to a group of childless women while they it is sudden and unexpected changes in crying pitch that convey the most emotion—further support for the role of incongruity in supersu'asion. ' It” and “I’m Loving It,” as opposedito ads that say “I’m Thinking about It” or “I Kind of Like It.” In- fluence without confidence is about as useful as an inflatable dartboard. changed his mind, and added another. So one group got one candy. And two groups got two. But the two who got two were given them in different ways. (I . hepe you’re paying attention—there’s a test later.)- Did the number of candies and the manner in which they were allocated bear any relation to tip size PrYou bet it did. Compared with a control group of diners who got no candies at all (charming), those who got one tipped, on average, 3.3 percent higher. Similarly, these who got two candies tipped 14.1 percent higher. But the biggest increase was shown by those who received first one candy, then another—a biblical escalation of philanthropic zeal .2?! ssrssstsrsstsrtheemassacredied brethren- " Thar unexpected change of heart completely re- frained the situation. It instigated a whole new way 7 of appraising the interaction. He’s giving us special treatmtént, the diners thought to themselves. Let’s give him something back. Context is everything: a fancyrlabel and a high price tag can fool people into thinking that a wine tastes better than glasses from seemingly cheaper bottles. Confidence Confidence, misplaced or otherwise, is catch- ing. It’s a privileged, though sometimes precarious, condition, fiercely independent of reality, that’s transmitted sub-radar from one individual to an- . other via language, belief and appearance. It’s'why con men enjoy their appellation, and why McDon- ald’s and Nike bring out ads that declare “Just Do LYDIE GIGERICHOVA age forestock (top); GLOW CUISINE afge fotastack (bottom) l= www.5clentificAmerican.com/MInd SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND 29 , Being a good listener is‘ not'oniy persuasive, it can be self-protec: tive: physicians who seem empathetic are less likely to be sued for malpractice. Exhibiting empathy helpsto convince people that you have their best interests at heart, a surefire way to get them on your side. Our reliance on confidence to help divine cor- rectness—our deployment, that is, of a confidence heuristic—has been demonstrated in the lab. In 2008 Hilke Pla'ssman, now associate professor of marketing at INSEAD Business School near Paris, sneakin switched the price tags on bottles of Cab- ernet Sauvignon. For some it was valued at $10, for others at $90. Would the difference in price be reflected in a - difference in taste? It sure would. Volunteers rated the $90 bottle considerably more drinkable than the $10 bottle—even though both bottles, unbeknownst to them, contained ex- actly the same wine. And that wasn’t all. Subsequent- ly, during a functional MRI scan Plassman found that this simple sleight of mind was actually reflected anatomically, in neural activity deep within the brain. Not only did the “cheaper” wine taste Cheap- er and the “dearer” one, well, dearer; the supposed- ' ly more expensive wine generated increased activa- tiOn in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain that responds to pleasurable experiences. Similar results have also been found with ex- perts. In 2001 cognitive psychologist Frédéric Bro- .Chet, then at the oenology research and teaching unit at the University of Bordeaux in France, took a midrange Bordeauxand served it in two different borrles. One was a labeled as a splendid grand cm, the other as a win du table. Would the wine buffs smell a rat? Not a chance. Despite the fact that, just as in the Plassman study, they were-actually being served the same vin- tage, the experts appraised the different bottles dif- ferently. The grand cm was described as “agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded,” whereas the vin (in table was evaluated less salubriously—as “weak, short, light, flat ahd faulty.” Confidence is a wormhole into truth. In ambig- uous, dynamic or fluid situations, not only does it _ have the right air—it also has the air of being right. Em pathy In the Summer of 1941 Sergeant James Allen Ward was awarded a Victoria Cross for bravery for _' clambering onto the wing of- his Wellington bomb- er and, while flying 13,000 feet above the North Sea, extinguishing a fire in thestarboard engine. He was secured, at the time, by just a single rope tied around his waist. , _ Some time later Winston Churchill summoned the shy and swashbuckling New Zealander to Num- ber 10 Downing Street,to'congratulate him on his exploits. They got off to a shaky start. The fearless, . daredevil airman, tongue-tied in the presence of the prime minister, was completely unable to field even ..._ the—simplest of. questions put-t0 him.---Churchiil tried- -- something different. “You must feel very humble and awkward in my presence,” he began. “Yes, sir,” replied Ward. “1 do.” "Then you can imagine,” Churchill said, “how humble and awkward I feel in yours.” A brilliant double stroke of empathy—feeling _ the discomfort of his visitor and recasting it as though begging for the visitor to feel his—showed ‘ Churchill at his most disarming and persuasive. A warm, empathetic style will often convince people of your best intentions and bring them onboard. Empathy has been shown robe important in the doctor-patient relationship, in which physicians March/April 2010 T». l i. i GETTY IMAGES cestral history. These core princlpies are as follows: 1. Reclprocity—we feel obligated to return favors. 2. Likingw—we have a tendency to say yes to people whom .we like. 3. Scarcity—we place more value on things that are in short supply. 4. Social proof—we look at what others are doing when we're not sure what to do ourselves. . 5. Authority—we listen toexperts and those in positions of power. 6. Commitment and consistency—we like to be true to our . word and finish what we've started. have to convince patients that they care about them and have their best interests at heart. This tactic not only makes for good medicine, it also has been shown to protect doctors from malpractice law- suits. In 2002 Nalini Ambady, now a professor of psychology at' Tufts University, divided physicians into two groups: those who’d been dragged through the court and those who hadn’t. She made audio- tapes of the doctors and their patients in session and then played the tapes to a group of students. The students were asked to determine which doctors 7 had been sued. ' But there was a catch. For each of the recordings the output was “content-fiitered .” All the students ' "iffi'fi'ld" hear" was"presedyr'inuffled; garble, as if they were listening underwater. How, linguistically, would the doctors measure up? Could the students, on the basis of intonation alone, somehow distinguish one group from another? The results'were unequivocal: they could tell them a mile off.‘ The doctors who had been sued'sounded way more self-important. They had a dominant, hos- tile, less empathic conversational style—«whereas those who had not been sued sounded warmer. - Forgive and forget? Live and let live? Only, it seems, if I like you. I The position of incongruity at the center of the SPICE model reflects its centrality to the idea of su- persuasion. From calming someone down to raising www.8cientificAmerican.com/Mlnd Programs of Persuasion sychologist Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University has spent his entire career observing influence techniques notjust in the lab but alsoin the real world. Cialdini has published his conclusions in a book, influence: Science and Practice, fifth edition (Allyn & Bacon. 2008), where he identifies six core principles of social influence—all of which, he argues, have evolutionary underpinnings reaching far- back-into our an- When in doubt, people naturally kick to figures of authorlty and experience for guidance. All of these principles tap (somewhat self-evidently given their evolutionary origins). one way or another, into issues of primeval survival—issues that in the 21st century are perhaps recapitu- lated a little more often than we think. What will happen if i don't fill up with gas? we mutterto ourselves in a fuel crisis (sparsity). Or at dinner: everyone else is using that'funnyeshaped spoon with the hook. so it's got to be right. Right? (Social proof.) Because of this evoiutionary lineage and of the strategies? explicit connection to ostensibly individual reward systems, they are all Subsumed within the supersuasion model under the broader, more generic principle of perceiVed self-interest. someone’s spirits, from closing the deal to trying to burn a quarter from strangers on the street, defi- ance of expectation, script reversal, antithesis—can it what you will—lies at the very heart of supersua~ sion. Not oniy does incongruity enhance the aesthet-- ic prowess of simplicity, it also knocks out the brain’s ' surveillance mechanisms and thereby enables the rest of' the SPICE task force to secretly slip in under the radar and hotwire our neural pleasure centers. ' / Humor is Key I Of course, incongruity is also the essence of hu- mor—one of the most effective toois in disarming your interlocutor and becoming a supersuader. _....I.fi.ké Jim stumbled out of a saloon right into the arms of Father McGuire. ' ' “Inebriated again!” the priest scolded him. “Shame on you! When are you going to straighten out your life? ” 7 “Father,” Jim asked. i‘Wihat causes arthritis?” “I’ll tell yo‘u‘what causes it,” snapped the priest. “Drinking cheap whiskey, gambling and carousing around with loose women! How long have you had arthritis?” I . “I don’t,” slurred Jim. “But the Bishop does.” Supersuasion doesn’t just bring the house down. It clears up the rubble and carts it off in a dump truck. M SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND 31 ...
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