Three Science-Backed Ways To Influence Other People’s Decisions

If you want to influence others’ decisions, you’ve got to understand the mental shortcuts they use to make them.

Three Science-Backed Ways To Influence Other People’s Decisions
[Photo: Camerique/Getty Images]

Your brain takes mental shortcuts all the time in order to make decisions efficiently. Because that takes place unconsciously, we can never fully control these “cognitive biases” that help us deal with the outside world–and, ultimately, survive in it. As practical as they may be, though, some of these biases can be problematic.


But the first step toward gaining a little more leverage over how your brain–and others’ brains–make judgments is simply to understand the rules it follows to do so. Getting better acquainted with these three may help you become more influential with others.

1. Show Confidence To Win Trust

Who is the brain more likely to trust: someone who has a proven track record but doesn’t communicate confidently or someone with a weak history but who confidently shares their ideas? The answer may not surprise you. Carnegie Mellon researchers recently found that people are far more likely to trust someone who projects confidence, even if they don’t have much of a track record to show for themselves.

Though it’s alarming that we may not be as adept at judging leadership qualities as we might hope, the reason why is understandable: In order to make decisions efficiently, our brains look for signs of certainty and tend to assign our trust to those who project confidence. In effect, confidence becomes a shorthand for trustworthiness.

So the more confident you are (or even just seem) when you’re presenting an idea, the more likely others are to assume it’s a reliable course of action; deciding to following it will feel less risky.

This is pretty intuitive, after all. We all know that how we communicate is important, but it’s easy to forget just how much it can sway perception. Often the idea that gets chosen isn’t necessarily the best, it’s the one that’s presented most confidently.

2. Sound Upbeat

Does the tone of voice doctors use with patients predict how likely they are to be sued for malpractice? One groundbreaking study found that surgeons who sounded glib and unconcerned were far more likely to have litigation brought against them than were those who used an empathetic tone.


Someone’s tone of voice shapes our perception of what they’re saying in other ways, too. In fact, my research analyzing the science behind the process of selling has found that one of the key predictors in how compelling potential customers find a sales presentation is the salesperson’s voice inflections.

One of the reasons why tone of voice matters so much is because it influences how we feel, not just what we think–something researchers call “mood contagion.” For instance, behavioral scientists Roland Neumann and Fritz Strack found that when listening to a speech, subjects felt more optimistic if the presenter spoke in an upbeat tone compared to a somber one.

So if you’re looking to influence and persuade, it may be more effective to sound positive than to speak in a tone that suggests you’re warning, criticizing, or cajoling.

3. Make It Clear There’s A Decision To Make

There’s now a wealth of scientific data suggesting that people make decisions contextually, which means that influencing others’ decisions means framing their choices properly. And one of the best ways to do that is simply to prepare them to actually make a choice.

To prime the brain to make a decision, you need to focus someone’s attention on the concepts you’d like them to base their decision on. For instance, a salesperson can ask potential customers, “Does it make sense why so many companies, similar to yours, choose to do business with us because of our customer satisfaction ratings?” After thinking through that question first–and reflecting on a prospective partner’s satisfaction rankings–a client is now ready to make a commitment that’s consistent with the value they’ve just affirmed.

Most of the research on how our brains make choices points to a pattern that would-be influencers need to bear in mind: The way something is presented shapes how it will be perceived and whether or not it will be acted on. If you can square your behaviors with the mental shortcuts that impact perception, your influence is likely to grow.