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Weapons of Mass Persuasion
Beware of influence.
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I invite you to imagine that you are the owner of a small antique watch and jewelry store in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It’s July, the heart of tourist season, which is usually the best time of year for your business. But things have been a little slow lately, and pieces aren’t selling as well as you’d hoped. In particular, there’s a set of vintage watches you’ve been unable to move for months now. They’re good, quality watches marked at a very fair price, but hardly anyone shows interest. You’ve even moved them right up front next to the cash register—prime real estate in the retail world, impossible to miss. But no dice. Disheartened, you decide to throw in the towel and put them back on a shelf with some other items that haven’t budged. You leave a note for your assistant before punching out for the weekend: “Everything this shelf, price × ½.”
When you return on Monday, you’re not surprised to find that the shelf is pretty much barren. But your lack of surprise turns to genuine shock when you discover that, because your handwriting was so poor, your assistant read the “½” in the scrawled note as a “2,” and nearly the entire shelf — including the stubborn vintage watches — sold at twice the original price.
Sometimes the best way to understand human behavior is through nature. We are, after all, very much animals. Ethologists (who study animal behavior) often identify regular, blindly mechanical sequences of action in a wide variety of species called “fixed-action patterns.” A fundamental characteristic of these patterns is that the behaviors that compose them occur in virtually the same fashion and in the same order every time.
In 1974, the animal behaviorist M. W. Fox conducted an experiment involving a mother turkey and a stuffed polecat that demonstrated just such a pattern. Like all animal mothers, turkey mothers do an exceptional job of protecting their offspring, spending much of their time tending, warming, cleaning, and huddling their young beneath them. But there’s something odd about their method. Nearly all of this mothering is triggered not by smell, touch, or even appearance, but by the “cheep-cheep” sound of young turkey chicks. If a chick makes the “cheep-cheep” noise, its mother will care for it; if not, the mother will ignore or sometimes even kill it.
The unusual reliance of maternal turkeys on this sound was demonstrated by Fox in his experiment. The polecat is a natural enemy to turkeys. When a mother turkey sees one approaching, it’ll flip out, squawking and pecking and clawing. Indeed, the experimenters found that even a stuffed model of a polecat, when drawn by a string toward a mother turkey, was immediately attacked. But when the same stuffed model had a small recorder placed inside it that made the “cheep-cheep” sound of baby turkeys, the mother welcomed the polecat into her brood, gathering it underneath her. As soon as the recorder was turned off, however, the polecat was again attacked.
Seems kind of ridiculous, no? Embracing a natural enemy just because it goes “cheep-cheep,” and neglecting and even killing your own chicks if they do not? But such robotic sequences of behavior are common among animals,1 and these fixed-action patterns are very effective the vast majority of the time. Moreover, we humans also engage in automatic sequences of behavior if presented with the correct triggers, and we, too, can be duped. As psychologist Robert Cialdini details in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, this parallel form of human fixed-action patterns was shown in an experiment by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer, changing our understanding of human behavior by revealing what’s now considered a well-known principle: When we ask someone to do us a favor, we’re more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do.
Langer’s experiment — “The Copy Machine Study” — involved having her research assistants cut in front of people waiting in line at a library photocopier. The researcher would approach an innocent bystander and ask them one of three questions.
Version 1 (request with real reason): “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine because I’m in a rush?”
Version 2 (request only): “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”
Version 3 (request with a fake reason): “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine because I have to make copies?”
Version one, the request-plus-reason, almost always worked: 94% of those asked let the requestor skip ahead of them in line. Compare this success rate to the results of version two: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Under those circumstances, only 60% of those asked complied. Analyzing the difference, it would seem that the additional information provided by the words “because I’m in a rush” was crucial. But version 3 of the request showed otherwise: It wasn’t the whole series of words, but the first one, “because,” that made the difference. Note that the third type of request uses the word “because” before simply restating the obvious. “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” Seems stupid. And yet, 93% of those asked acquiesced even though no real reason, no new information, was added to justify their compliance.
Just as the “cheep-cheep” sound of turkey chicks triggered an automatic mothering response from maternal turkeys — even when it emanated from a stuffed polecat — so, too, did the word “because” trigger an automatic compliance response from Langer’s subjects, even when they were given no subsequent reason to comply.
To be sure, some of Langer’s additional findings show that there are many situations in which human behavior does not work in a fixed-pattern fashion, but you’d be shocked at how often it does. Consider the example I illustrated in the beginning of this post—the customers who readily forked over the asking price for the difficult to sell vintage watches, but only after the items had been mistakenly marked at twice the cost. The purchasers used a heuristic, or stereotype, to guide their behavior: “Expensive = good.” The watches were deemed decidedly more valuable — more desirable — when the only thing that had changed was an increase in price.
“You get what you pay for” is a widely accepted adage. Translated another way, it’s the same as “expensive = good,” which, technically, is almost always true. So when touristy customers saw the vintage watches, they used that standby stereotype to conclude that higher price reflected higher quality.
Robert Cialdini uses a funny story from humorist Leo Rosten that highlights the power of this particular heuristic. According to Rosten, a pair of brothers named Sid and Harry owned a men’s tailor shop in Rosten’s neighborhood while he was growing up in the 1930s. Whenever the salesman, Sid, was with a new customer trying on suits, he’d tell the customer that he was hard of hearing and request that the man speak louder. Once the customer found a suit that he liked and asked for a price, Sid would yell to his brother, head tailor, at the back of the shop, “Harry, how much for this suit?” To which Harry would look up from his work and reply with an inflated price: “For that beautiful all-wool suit, $42!” Pretending not to have heard, Sid would ask one more time. Then he’d turn back to the customer and say that the suit was $22, at which point the customer would usually buy the suit in a hurry and skedaddle with his bargain before Sid could realize the “mistake.”
Automatic, stereotyped actions are much more common in human behavior than we realize. It’s a matter of efficiency, yes, but also necessary. We live in an incredibly fast-paced, digitally-saturated world premised upon the ruthless monetization of our attention. We’re practically suffocating in information and stimuli. It’s like trying to drink water from a fire hose. As Johann Hari highlights in his recent book Stolen Focus:
“We are soaked in information. The raw figures on this have been analyzed by two other scientists, Dr. Martin Hilbert at the University of Southern California and Dr. Priscilla López at the Open University of Catalonia. Picture reading an eighty-five-page newspaper. In 1986, if you added up all the information being blasted at the average human being—TV, radio, reading—it amounted to 40 newspapers’ worth of information every day. By 2007, they found it had risen to the equivalent of 174 newspapers per day. (I’d be amazed if it hasn’t gone up even more since then.) The increase in the volume of information is what creates the sensation of the world speeding up.”2
To deal with this, we need to shrink the world to fit our cognitive bandwidth; we need shortcuts. It’s simply impossible to psycho-analyze every interaction, event, and situation we come across each day. We don’t have the energy or capacity for it, let alone the time, and so we often have to rely on heuristics and rules of thumb when responding to certain trigger features. The problem, of course, is that this leaves us extremely vulnerable to savvy people who know how to take advantage of our robotic, unthinking behaviors.
Perception and Contrast
Exploiters of human fixed-patterned behaviors have the ability to manipulate without the appearance of manipulation, which is why they’re so effective. Under their influence, we tend to see our own compliance as the product of natural forces rather than by the designs of the person who profits from that compliance. We’d all do well to remember that our attention defines our reality as much as our vision.
There’s a psychological concept in human perception known as the contrast principle that affects the way we see the difference between two things that are presented one after another. Basically, if one of two items is different from the other, we tend to see it as more different than it really is. Examples of this principle in everyday life abound. For instance, if you pick up a heavy suitcase first followed by a lighter one, the second one will feel even lighter than it really is.
The contrast principle is well established in the field of psychophysics and applies to all sorts of perceptions besides weight, including physical attractiveness. In one study, college students rated a picture of an average-looking member of the opposite sex as less attractive if they had first looked through some popular magazines. In another study, male students rated the photo of a potential blind date. Those who did so while watching an episode of the Charlie’s Angels TV series viewed the blind date as less attractive than those who rated her while watching a different show, suggesting that the exceptional beauty of the show's stars distorted perception. At West Point this phenomenon is often referred to as “Grey Goggles,” and many a male cadet has fallen victim. Clinically speaking, because there are so few female cadets, this warps the male perception and makes otherwise less attractive females more appealing.3
Savvy clothing retailers regularly make good use of the contrast principle. If, for example, you’re a salesperson in a menswear store and someone walks in looking to buy a three-piece suit and some shoes, which would you show him first to make him likely to spend the most money? Clothing stores instruct their sales personnel to sell the costly item first. You might think this is backwards, and that someone who spends a lot on the first item will be more stingy on the purchase of added items. But if you take care of the suit to begin with, when it comes time to look at shoes, even expensive ones, the prices won’t seem as high. For a dude who just dropped $1,000 on a suit, $200 for a pair of shoes doesn’t seem all that bad, or at the very least is much easier to stomach. As sales motivation analysts Robert Whitney, Thomas Hubin, and John Murphy note in The New Psychology of Persuasion and Motivation in Selling, “The interesting thing is that even when a man enters a clothing store with the express purpose of purchasing a suit, he will almost always pay more for whatever accessories he buys if he buys them after the suit purchase than before.” Presenting the less expensive items first actually means the contrast principle will work against the salesperson.
By no means is clever use of this principle limited to clothiers. When showing new customers prospective buys, real estate agents often start with a couple of their less appealing houses. They call these “setup” properties: Run-down houses marked at inflated prices that are maintained by the company specifically to be shown — but not sold — so that the other properties in the inventory benefit from the comparison. And of course, car dealers are pros at this game. As soon as the price of a new car is negotiated, they pull out all the little options — one at a time, usually — that, when added up, balloon the price.
As a personal example, I had the contrast principle used against me some years ago when I purchased an FN-17 SCAR assault rifle. This was no AR-15. An AR-15 will usually run from $400 to $1500; an FN-17 SCAR is closer to $4000. After paying that much, the $500 Vortex scope and $280 bipod the guy behind the counter talked me into buying didn't seem like that big of a deal. I believe the kids refer to this as getting “hustled.”
Another example: Ethologists have shown that a male robin, acting as if a rival robin has entered its territory, will attack just a clump of robin-redbreast feathers placed there. And yet the same male robin will ignore a very lifelike stuffed replica of a rival without red breast feathers.
There’s evidence that a variety of important elements in our lives really are speeding up: People talk significantly faster today than they did in the 1950s, and in just 20 years, people have started to walk 10% faster in cities.
By no means is it only the male psyche that’s susceptible to this. It’s a two-way street. Either way, the fewer potential partners, the stronger the effect.