You want to convince someone to do something: back your ideas in a meeting, let you take on a big project, buy your product. What tactics are effective?
The answers aren’t always intuitive, says Steve J. Martin, coauthor with Noah J. Goldstein and Robert B. Cialdini of the new book The Small Big: Small Changes That Spark Big Influence. Here are the most common mistakes, and why these strategies don’t work.
Lectures are less effective than we think. “We live in an age now where we’re just overwhelmed with information,” says Martin. “The idea that we can influence and persuade simply by giving more information is naive.” When people feel bombarded, “we fall back on our habits and patterns that largely get us through the day,” he says. After all, “we’re still here.” Why change?
Humans do respond to rewards and fines. Nonetheless, “we respond to incentives in ways that are shaped by psychological mechanisms,” says Martin. You can be fined for speeding, and yet people still speed. Being late seems more painful in the moment. Wellness programs give rewards for losing weight, yet people find it hard to ditch pounds. Incentives help, but often there’s more in play.
Humans are social creatures. “We want to be part of the crowd but we want to stand out from the crowd at exactly the same time,” says Martin. A program in the U.K. that informed taxpayers that most residents in their town paid their taxes on time increased compliance considerably. But in some cases, we want to be different from others, so it’s important to define the crowd correctly. A teenage hipster will not want to buy your product if it’s pretty clear his parents and parents’ friends are using it too.
“Small changes do have an extraordinary impact,” Martin says. People are more inclined to follow health advice if the person giving it wears a stethoscope. People who vote at polling places located in schools are more likely to support school funding initiatives. We make decisions based on all kinds of inputs, and failing to think about these factors can undermine attempts to persuade.
Even if people agree to something, there’s a big space between agreeing and actually doing it. One experiment found that people were far less likely to miss their medical appointments if they wrote down the dates themselves. You might think that having a receptionist print out the date on a card would make life easier for people, and hence they’d be grateful, but in this case, it had the opposite effect. Writing becomes ownership; true persuasion requires people to have skin in the game.