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Now showing items tagged persuasion

Can you explain the difference between ‘used cars’ and ‘pre-owned vehicles’? What about ‘wire tapping’ and ‘electronic intercepts’? Or ‘impotence’ and ‘erectile dysfunction’?[1]

The difference? Semantics!

The holiday season is here. While rest is undoubtedly and necessarily a priority for most of us this year, the holidays can be a stressful time for many. The bustle of Christmas gift shopping and the logistics of family trips and get-togethers can eat away immense energy. Then, once the gatherings have begun, await the universally dreaded conversations arising when someone unwittingly raises a political opinion that divides the family dinner table.

The human being is a tribal creature. We operate as a ‘we’ far more reliably than we operate as an ‘I’, and our compulsion for conformity is consistently stronger than our impulse towards individuality. This revelation has been key to the last century of psychological findings, and offers vital insight to the social and trends of our day – and how we might influence them.

Intuitively, we all know we operate as a group. Anyone who has been caught up in the energy of a sports match or immersed in the atmosphere of a concert has witnessed firsthand the striking power of the herd. The group’s influence on the individual has been proved over and over in psychological studies, often to rather comical effects.

Good news: human beings are better than we think. Finding ways to motivate people has bewildered leaders for centuries. Long gone are the days of motivating people by the ‘stick’, with the psychological findings surrounding the effects of punishment expelling it from the dominant paradigm. Leaders for the last few decades have relied heavily on the dangled ‘carrot’ as a motivator, or in other words, rewards and incentives offered to people who perform in the desired way. However, research increasingly suggests that the psychology of the incentive is more counterproductive than we think.

Despite our protestations otherwise, we all have a conformity compulsion. If we sense that the herd is going in a particular direction, we instinctively fear being left behind or stranded. Part of this is likely a hangover from our tribal past as humans.

The compulsion to mimic and copy others is deeply rooted in our need to belong. By complying with social norms and collectivist views, we gain the acceptance of the tribe. Breaking social norms or dissenting is dangerous as it can see us expelled from the group. Or at the very least, shamed and embarrassed.[1]

There are few things more frustrating than an opponent who won’t budge. We’ve all experienced those conversations with a voter on the other side of politics or a friend who is endlessly stubborn, in which any amount of evidence is insufficient in moving their position. Our natural impulse is to do just this: begin big in our persuasive efforts, believing that a barrage of information and evidence will knock someone from their position instantly. But, contrary to our aim the result of this approach is usually the other’s deeper entrenchment in their beliefs and a defensiveness that inhibits any further dialogue.

Far from being the rationally operating, pragmatic agents we like to believe we are, more often than not our decisions arise from the seat of our emotions. Our sense of certainty in reaching conclusions and making choices is far more connected to our impulses, emotional reactions and bodily sensations than we think. Rather than being quickly overridden by rational analysis, our emotions are a driving force in our behaviour, and are often the surest guarantee of our response.

The human instinct to avoid social humiliation is deep. Psychologists point to shame as being one of the deepest fears held nearly universally by human beings, coming close to the fear of death. We all have the impulse to save face, and many of us get particularly defensive, aggressive or withdrawn when that impulse is challenged.

This fear of losing our dignity plays out in important ways in our everyday conversations. It is this very fear that is often the cause of us advocating opinions long after we have abandoned them, for fear of embarrassing ourselves by acknowledging our prior ignorance.

At some point in history, the ideas and assumptions we take for granted were controversial. Now, their opposing idea would be the one considered extreme, and those who hold it are likely to be rejected or simply remain silent. Majority opinion feels stable, but it is constantly in flux.

Back in the 1930s, French historian and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, suggested that “As long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent, and the friends as well as the opponents of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety.” Known as the Tocqueville effect, this dynamic in human behaviour is alive and well today.[1]

If you have ever found yourself believing that humans only use 10 percent of their brain, that vitamin C cures a cold or that eating carrots improves eyesight, you have experienced the persuasive impact of repetition.[1]

The reality is that none of statements above are true, but we have each heard them so many times throughout our lives that we naturally come to believe that they must be. This is something referred to as the “illusory truth effect.”

Politicians and marketers know well that if we hear something long enough and repeated often enough, we are likely to believe it to be true. The reason repetition is so effective is that it plays to the two variables by which we assess whether something is true or not: whether the information concurs with our understanding; and whether it feels familiar.

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