In a recent experiment, Robert Cialdini, one of the world’s foremost experts in the science of influence, examined two potential TV advertisements for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. One of these adverts focused on the popularity of the museum. Its tagline was: “Visited by over a million people every year.”
This is a classic advertising ruse. If so many people think a product is worth buying or engaging with, then it must be good. This is why book covers often proclaim “No 1 bestseller”. This approach to influence has an additional advantage: social connection. If we buy a product that others are buying, we feel part of a community.
And yet advertisers also know that people like to be distinctive. Some products, such as prestige cars, make a play on this aspect of our psychologies. We are often told that buying this brand will help us to “stand out from the crowd”.
So which of these contrasting approaches is going to work best for a museum? Should it play on the social or the individualistic? Is a museum more like a book or a prestige car? You may have thought that, to find out, you would conduct a test on each of these approaches and see which works best. You would be wrong.
When the “visited by over a million people every year” version was played during an ad break for a violent film, it made the viewers more inclined to visit the museum, while the “stand out from the crowd” version reduced attraction. However, when these adverts were played during a romantic film, the finding reversed.
And this turns out to be the core of Cialdini’s new book, Pre-Suasion. He argues that the content of an advertisement or selling strategy is less important than the context. You can try to improve your core pitch as much as you like, but if you haven’t paid attention to background circumstances (such as the film people were watching at the time), you won’t get anywhere.
Why? Well, when people are scared, as during a violent film, they want to be a part of the crowd. It makes them feel protected. Adverts that emphasise “belonging” therefore win out. When people are feeling more distinctive, as during a romantic film, this changes. Those who are the best persuaders, Cialdini argues, are the best pre-suaders. They frame the message in such a way as to command assent before it has even been heard.
When a shop’s website background was changed to a picture of coins, cheaper products became more popular
To take a different example, when two researchers armed with clipboards asked shoppers for help with a survey, only 29 per cent agreed to participate. Why would people volunteer their time to take part in a boring questionnaire? Yet when the researchers asked, “Do you consider yourself a helpful person?” before making the request, it shot up to 77.3 per cent. By changing the psychological context, they gained assent.
Cialdini also cites a study that shows that background wallpaper of fluffy clouds on a website for home furnishings increased the popularity of expensive sofas and home products. The clouds primed people to think about softness and quality. When the background was changed to dimes, cheaper products became more popular. The background subconsciously made cost more important than comfort.
A key aspect of persuasion is salience. After 9/11, pictures of planes hitting buildings dominated coverage. This is why many American travellers turned to driving between states rather than flying. It is estimated that 1,600 Americans lost their lives in additional road accidents as a result, six times more than the number of passengers killed in the only US plane crash in the 12 months after the terrorist attack.
Or take the Iraq war. The decision by the US military to allow journalists to embed with the armed forces on the front line increased the salience of operational issues. Much of the coverage became about tactics, and American newspapers asked fewer questions about the overall purpose of the conflict, such as whether it was in the interests of the US or why the principal justification had turned out to be false.
One study found that embedded journalists received 71 per cent of front-page war coverage during the conflict, but did not report “in any meaningful way on the broader political issues . . . the absence of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] was mentioned in just 2 per cent of reports”. Cialdini argues that, by reducing the salience of strategic failures in favour of tactical successes, embedded journalists dramatically affected US public opinion towards the war.
Reading this book is a reminder that academic psychologists have exerted a huge influence over recent decades. By bringing their research into the public arena, they have altered the way people think about leadership, advertising, teamwork, etc.
Psychology is now turning to deeper questions, such as why do we have the biases we do? It is noteworthy that many of the experiments that reveal such biases were conducted on US psychology undergraduates, because these are the people most readily available to psychology professors in Ivy League universities. However, just because American psychology undergraduates behave in a particular way doesn’t mean that Kenyans, or Inuits, or even history students will behave in the same way — whether in relation to an advertising campaign, or in their willingness to share resources, or whatever. Indeed, research is revealing that supposedly universal psychological norms are highly influenced by culture.
It turns out that subtle differences in cultural history exert large effects on the way people think, and how they can be influenced. Combatting the tendency of psychology to infer universal truths from particular experiments may turn out to be the next leap forward in what remains a relatively new subject.
Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade by Robert Cialdini, Random House Business, 432pp, £18.99