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The Power of Persuasion: Eight Ways to Get Exactly What You Want

By Dan Jones and Alison Motluk
New Scientist

Cajole your boss into giving you a raise, win someone round to your point of view, or persuade your partner it's their turn to put out the trash - getting people to do what you want can be very handy.

Persuasion is a key element of all human interaction, from politics to marketing to everyday dealings with friends, family and colleagues. "Persuasion is a basic form of social interaction," says Eric Knowles, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. "It is the way we build consensus and a common purpose."

Unfortunately persuasion is both notoriously difficult to pull off and almost impossible to resist when done well. Psychologists have long been fascinated by persuasion - why some people are more persuasive than others and why some strategies work where others fail. Over the next six pages we bring together some recent insights into the science of persuasion.

For those who don't want to be persuaded, there are lessons here too. Knowing the strategies charmers and advertisers adopt can help you resist their guile.

1. Be a mimic

When you're aware of it, it's one of the most infuriating behaviours imaginable. Yet mimic someone's mannerisms subtly - their head and hand movements, posture and so forth - and it can be one of the most powerful forms of persuasion. That's the conclusion of a number of recent studies.

William Maddux at the INSEAD business school in Fontainebleau, France, explored the effect of mimicry on 166 students in two role-play experiments, one involving negotiation between job candidates and recruiters, the second between buyers and sellers (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol 44, p 461).

In both cases, the outcome of negotiations was better for the would-be persuaders when they employed subtle mimicry. For example, in the buyer-seller experiment, 67 per cent of sellers who mimicked their target secured a sale, as opposed to 12.5 per cent of those who did not.

Another study by Robin Tanner at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, asked students to discuss a new soft drink with sales reps (both the reps and the drink were fictitious, though the students did not know this). Half of the reps were instructed to mimic the physical and verbal behaviour of half of the students they spoke to.

These "chameleon" reps elicited more positive ratings of the drink, and volunteers they mimicked consumed more of it during the chat. "Ours is the first study to show that mimicry can essentially enhance persuasion in interpersonal interactions," says Tanner. Intriguingly, people felt especially positive about the drink and its market prospects when the mimic explicitly stated their vested interest in the success of the drink (Journal of Consumer Research, vol 34, p 754).

It is possible, though, that the reps in the "no mimicry" group subconsciously resorted to mimicry. Jeremy Bailenson and Nick Yee of Stanford University got round this by using virtual reality avatars. They asked 61 students to watch and listen to an avatar arguing that students should carry ID cards at all times - an unpopular proposal. For one group, the avatar moved in a pre-programmed human-like way. In the other, computers tracked the students' head movements, which the avatar mimicked after a 4-second delay (previous studies suggested a delay of 2 to 4 seconds works best). Students who had been mimicked were more likely to respond favourably.

But be warned, overt mimicry can backfire on the mimic, or at least be very embarrassing if detected, says Tanner. "It's far from a free shot at persuasiveness."

The crucial factors are: be subtle, leave a delay and, whatever you do, if you think there's even the slightest chance you've been rumbled, stop.

2. Look at it this way...

If you want to bring people round to your point of view, try "framing", a favourite tactic of spin doctors. "Framing is about leading people to think about an issue or opinion in a way that is advantageous to you," explains George Bizer of Union College in Schenectady, New York. "For example, opponents of inheritance taxes prefer to frame them as 'death taxes'."

Framing is a key tactic in election campaigns, so Bizer wanted to see whether voters were more or less persuadable to change their views when asked to frame them in different ways.

He asked 69 undergraduates to read an article about two fictitious candidates' views and policies (one candidate, Rick, was conservative, while the other, Chris, was liberal). Half of the students had to choose between the two statements: either "I support Rick" or "I oppose Rick"; the other half chose between equivalent statements about Chris. Participants also rated their preference for both candidates on a sliding scale from "strongly support" to "strongly oppose".

They then read another article, this time arguing against the merits of their preferred candidate, and then had their opinions reassessed. Overall, people whose preference for a candidate had been expressed in terms of opposition to the other candidate were less likely to modify their opinions (Political Psychology, vol 26, p 553). "A simple change in framing - leading people to think of their evaluations in terms of whom they oppose instead of whom they support - leads to stronger, more resistant opinions," says Bizer.

These findings fit with a broad body of research suggesting that negative information frequently has a more powerful influence than positive messages. So if you want to sway someone when they choose between two options, a good tactic is to be negative about the option you don't want them to pick.

3. Less is more

In most battles, outnumbering your opponent will hand you victory, and it would seem common sense that the more arguments you can call on, the more persuasive you'll be. Yet, the evidence suggests otherwise. A number of studies have revealed that the more reasons people are asked to come up with in support of an idea, the less value they ascribe to each. The result: asking people to "think of all the reasons why this is a good idea" is likely to backfire, and may serve to harden their views.

Zakary Tormala and Richard Petty of Ohio State University, working with Pablo Briñol at the Autonomous University of Madrid in Spain, demonstrated the effect in 2002. The researchers told 59 university students that there was a plan to introduce new exams into their courses - an unwelcome prospect. They then asked half the students to produce two reasons why this was a bad idea, and the other half eight reasons. On average, students who supplied just two arguments against the proposal were subsequently more opposed to the exam policy than those who gave eight.

Tormala and colleagues argue that the ease with which we can summon up thoughts affects how much confidence we place in them, and it is generally easier to think of two reasons for believing something rather than eight. This finding has some clear practical implications. "If you want to persuade people by getting them to think positively about your message, idea, product or whatever, ask them to generate just a few positive thoughts - three at most - because that's easy and they'll feel confident about their positive thoughts," says Tormala.

Conversely, next time you're in an argument, avoid the temptation to spin the "give me one good reason" line; it'll only strengthen your adversary's hand.

4. Grind them down

Hunger is a powerful thing, but how many times have you reached for a quick snack, only to regret it when it's lying heavily in your stomach? Just as your standards for food quality can slip when your stomach is empty, so you should avoid engaging in argument or doing battle with sales people when your mental batteries are running low. Conversely, if you're trying to be persuasive, strike when your target is running low on mental energy.

Edward Burkley of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater studied the impact of cognitive exhaustion on the resistance levels of 78 students. The plan was to try to convince them to accept one month's summer holiday instead of three. Half the students came to the study fresh. But the other half first had to complete a self-control task in which they wrote down all thoughts that came into their heads while suppressing any thoughts about a white bear.

This task, Burkey argued, would use up some of their reserves of self-control. He found that the students who had performed the white bear task were less resistant to the idea of giving up two months of holiday.

Burkley also studied the flip side of this effect. He asked a different group of 72 students to rate the plan to shorten their holidays. Half were told it would be implemented within two years, making it personally relevant. The other half were told it would not be implemented for 10 years. He wanted to test the hypothesis that students presented with the two-year scenario would use up more of their mental resources, because they would be more motivated to argue against that unwelcome suggestion.

The students then had to try to complete an (unbeknown to them) unsolvable puzzle - a technique commonly used in such studies to measure how much self-control a person has. On average, students in the 10-year group persisted for more than a minute longer before giving up, suggesting they were less mentally exhausted than those in the two-year group (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 34, p 419).

Of course, there is a form of mental exhaustion that doesn't require thought: nag them into submission. Children have got this technique sussed, says Burkley.

5. The medium is the means

In this fast-paced world, we seldom have time for face-to-face meetings. You are just as likely to conduct your personal and business negotiations by email, or some other electronic medium, as you are in person. How does this impact your powers of persuasion?

The question intrigued Rosanna Guadagno of the University of Alabama and Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University, who have been comparing the persuasive power of online communication with face-to-face meetings.

In a study published in 2002, Guadagno and Cialdini had a group of students discuss the introduction of new exams (Group Dynamics: Theory, Research and Practice, vol 6, p 38). The group was split into same-sex couples. Unbeknown to the subjects, each pair included an accomplice of the experimenters whose role was to provide arguments in favour of the idea. Half the discussions took place in an online chatroom, the other half sat face-to-face.

While overall men rated the proposals similarly whether they participated in the electronic or face-to-face sessions, women in face-to-face sessions rated them more highly than those who only took part online. Guadagno and Cialdini suggest this is because groups of women tend to form communal bonds and reach agreement. Electronic communication disrupts the exchange of social cues women use to establish a communal bond and is therefore less conducive to persuasion.

On the other hand, groups of men typically try to establish their competence and independence, which can lead to competitive encounters. When two men who have not met before debate a point, online interaction is about as effective and persuasive as face-to-face.

But if they have met and had a competitive exchange, subsequent face-to-face meetings are less productive, whereas online exchanges fare far better. So while online communication can prevent women "connecting", it can help men suppress competitive urges that hamper persuasion.

So, if you're a woman and want to persuade other women you'd be better off meeting face-to-face, while men are less confrontational if contacted by email. The researchers are now studying these effects in mixed couples.

6. Style over substance

It was midnight when the knock came at the door. It was "Paul", a "neighbour", who'd "just moved in". He spoke non-stop, without pause or hesitation, detailing a problem with a truck that had run out of gas and his need for $20, which he would, of course, return first thing in the morning. Later, Kurt often looked back and wondered just how it was he got taken in so easily.

"Paul" was a master of his craft: Kurt later learned that four other people on the street had also been taken in by the con.

Maybe we shouldn't be so surprised when things like this happen. Persuasion, it turns out, may have as much to do with how you say something as what you're saying. And the less time you're allowed to think about the content, the more the style of delivery matters. At least, those are the findings of two marketing professors who decided to tease style and substance apart.

John Sparks at the University of Dayton in Ohio and Charles Areni at the University of Sydney, Australia, knew from earlier work on courtroom transcripts that people equated certain kinds of speech with lack of credibility. In particular, hesitant phrases such as "I mean", "you know" and "isn't it?" reduced a speaker's power. But no one had looked at the exact relationship between style and content.

The researchers asked 118 undergraduates to read a transcript of a testimonial about a scanner. In one version, the speaker used hesitations like "I mean" and "ummm"; in the other, he used none. They also gave half the students enough time to read it thoroughly, while the others got just 20 seconds, to see how limiting a person's understanding of the substance would alter the persuasiveness of the style.

The researchers found that in both versions style was important. When hesitant language was used, people were less easily convinced that this was a scanner worth buying - even when it was a better scanner at a lower price. Style was especially important, the researchers found, when time was limited (Journal of Applied Social Psychology, vol 38, p 37). "If you can't pay attention to what the speaker is saying," Sparks says, "you pay attention to how they say it."

So take a lesson from Paul, the conman. If you want to be persuasive, don't stumble, pause or use language that shows hesitation. And for goodness sake, don't give your listeners time to think about what you're really saying.

7. Get them angry

Angering people may seem like an odd way to go about persuading them, but according to Monique Mitchell Turner, a communications professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, it is seriously underrated as a tool of persuasion.

Much study has gone into how emotions aid persuasion. The best known and most studied is fear. It serves well in campaigns that try to steer you clear of certain activities, like smoking or unprotected sex.

But fear doesn't always work, says Turner, and over time, people become more resistant to scare tactics. The same applies to guilt. It can be effective (think of maternal guilt), but not once people clue into the fact they're being manipulated. Worse, it has to be carefully calibrated: too much and people resist. "We don't want people telling us we're bad people," says Turner.

Anger is different. For one thing, it's focused on someone else's misdeeds, not your own. Also, it's a very utilitarian emotion, she says, usually in response to a perceived injustice. "Anger makes people feel empowered," Turner says.

There has been a long debate, she says, about whether anger can be constructively harnessed. In studying groups that employ anger as a tactic - most notably animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, as well as environment organisations and even political campaigns - she has found that, given the right conditions, it can.

First, people have to be convinced that the issue is relevant to them, that it affects them or their children or their community. At that point, says Turner, you need to hammer home what's wrong with the world as it is. Once you have got people roiled up, you can offer them a way to remedy the situation (Public Relations Review, vol 33, p 114).

"When those feelings of anger are accompanied by the feeling that there is a solution to this problem, then the message is more likely to be persuasive," she says.

8. Resistance isn't futile

Historically, psychologists studying persuasion have concentrated on what makes certain messages more appealing than others. But over the past few years researchers have begun revising that idea. A growing body of evidence suggests that breaking down people's resistance to persuasion can be even more important.

The reason for this is that people are naturally suspicious of attempts to persuade them. This is especially true if they think they are being duped.

In laboratory studies, merely reminding people that they are vulnerable to manipulation - for example, showing them magazine adverts with celebrities or models endorsing products they clearly know nothing about - makes them generally more difficult to persuade (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 83, p 526).

So far so obvious, but there's a useful point here. Resistance means that very persuasive arguments can backfire. People who successfully resist persuasion often become even more entrenched in their wrong-headed opinions, and the stronger, more credible or authoritative they perceive the attempt at persuasion to be, the more certain of their opinions they become when they resist it (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol 83, p 1298).

At first blush, this seems paradoxical. You might think a strong, authoritative argument would hold greater sway. Not necessarily. It seems that if people resist good arguments presented by an expert, they conclude their own arguments must be even stronger.

This sets up a bit of a catch-22. "If you want to change people's attitudes, it's good to have strong arguments," says Zakary Tormala of Stanford University. "But if they manage to resist your message, they might become more certain of the very attitudes you want to change."

How to overcome this deadlock? Tormala's colleague Richard Petty of Ohio State University says: "Present positions closer to your target's views, then move them towards your goal a little at a time." You could also try charming them by boosting their self-esteem. "When people feel good about themselves, they are more open to challenging messages," he says.

RELATED ARTICLE: 5 Ways to Persuade Anyone to Do What You Want

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