May 2nd 2002
From The Economist print edition
Scientists are uncovering ways of making messages more persuasive. Politicians and salesmen use such tricks already. Who can afford not to read on?
YOUR correspondent was not sure whether to write this piece. But Eric Knowles, a professor of social psychology at the University of Arkansas, was very convincing. He said that he had experimental evidence to support a new approach to persuasion—one that works on removing people's inhibitions, or lowering their resistance.
Dr Knowles is so compelling that he has managed to persuade America's National Science Foundation to give him $163,000 to find ways of making messages and appeals more persuasive. Recently, he and a number of other researchers outlined their work on resistance-reduction at a meeting at the University of Arkansas.
Resistance is useless
When somebody is torn over a decision, some aspects will be attractive and encourage acceptance; others will be displeasing and create resistance. Researchers refer to persuasive strategies that work by making an offer more attractive as “alpha” strategies. Those that work by minimising resistance to the offer are called “omega” strategies. Dr Knowles operates at the omega end of the alphabet.
Resistance is in some sense a thing and can thus be used up and replenished, says Dr Knowles
His main insight into omega strategies is the idea that resistance is in some sense a thing, and that it can thus be used up and replenished, rather like water in a tank. Such changes in resistance level are not necessarily the result of logical or rational argument. Once the level drops, the tank is topped up gradually until it is full again, rather as a water-closet cistern refills itself after it has been flushed. The task of the persuader is to drain the tank. That of the consumer is to keep it full enough to resist undesirable changes.
In collaboration with Jay Linn, a colleague at Arkansas, Dr Knowles recently set out to test this idea in the context of political advertising. First, the two researchers asked a few questions which they used to divide their subjects into groups that might be described (although they did not use such terms themselves) as “sceptical” and “gullible”. They then redivided them into four groups and subjected each group to a different experimental “treatment” that involved watching a series of seven video-clips showing unfamiliar candidates for office talking about where they stood on a particular issue.
One group was asked to pay special attention to the first clip; the other three had to concentrate on the last. Two of the latter three groups were also shown a short travelogue about Fiji before the final clip. One of those two groups was asked to think positively about Fiji, and the other was instructed to make a list of all the things that could go wrong on a trip to the islands. Finally, all the subjects had to criticise each advertisement and candidate.
“Gullible” subjects used up their resistance to the advertising early on. They became less and less critical of both the policies and the candidates as the experiment proceeded. Since the clips were shown in different orders to different subjects, that could not be due to some inherent lack of worth in the message or the messenger. Subjects' reactions to the final clip depended on the approach that they had been asked to take to the travelogue. They showed greater dislike of the final candidate when allowed to “replenish” their resistance by watching it in a positive frame of mind than if they had been asked to worry about the trip's difficulties. This result fits well with Dr Knowles's model.
“Sceptics” behaved differently. They were least critical of the initial candidate, but became increasingly negative as the advertisements progressed—no matter how they were asked to view the Fiji tape. In this case, repetition seemed to build up resistance, rather than draining it. Fitting that result into Dr Knowles's model is harder. To pursue the cistern analogy, it suggests that the ballcock which detects water level is being moved upwards. The idea of resistance as a variable quantity is still there, but the relationship between its initial level and its tendency to rise or fall from that level needs further investigation.
Je ne regrette rien
Another powerful part of decision-making is anticipated feelings of regret. This is why people are, for example, reluctant to trade lottery tickets—they think about how awful they would feel if their numbers came up. Addressing such fears directly can be a way of increasing or reducing resistance, and is thus another example of an omega strategy.
Steven Sherman, a researcher at Indiana University, and his colleagues, recently demonstrated the effects of anticipated regret by offering two groups of participants in an experiment a choice between two trivial and, on the face of it, equally attractive alternatives: which of two football teams to place a bet on. A “ringer” planted among the subjects by the experimenters pushed them to choose one team rather than the other. One group was also asked, using a questionnaire, to consider how much regret they would feel if they did not take the proffered advice. Those in this group were much more likely to choose what had been recommended than those in the first group. That result gives marketers a powerful fear to play on.
There are other tricks that can be employed to lower resistance. It can, for example, be “disrupted” by the unexpected. In an experiment a few years ago, students posing as beggars found that they received small change 44% of the time that they asked directly for it without specifying a sum. If they asked for a precise sum that was a single coin (25 cents), they got it 64% of the time. But if they asked for an apparently arbitrary number (37 cents) they got it 75% of the time. The more precise and unusual the request, the less people were able to resist it.
We have control
All this talk of resistance is, of course, rather fuzzy—though it is still of great interest to advertisers and salesmen. But Dr Knowles thinks that alpha and omega strategies may be more than mere phrases. They may correspond to the separate neurological systems that animals have for behavioural activation and inhibition. According to this model, omega strategies work by reducing inhibitions to action.
Is resistance “hard-wired” into the developing brain, or can it also be learnt?
This suggests that the resistance mechanism is “hard-wired” into the developing brain. But researchers such as Brad Sagarin, a psychologist at Northern Illinois University, think that levels of resistance can, to some extent, be learnt—and that they can be built up by exercise. In other words, the tank itself is capable of either temporary or permanent enlargement, in response to circumstances and experience.
For example, people often do not resist advertising, because they have the illusion of invulnerability to its effects. They believe that advertising is something that only affects everybody else. But, says Dr Sagarin, if you demonstrate to somebody that this is not true by showing them that they have been fooled, this causes a powerful increase in resistance.
People want to avoid being duped or cheated. Indeed, results from evolutionary psychology, a discipline that tries to elucidate the origins as well as the nature of human emotions, suggest that detecting and avoiding cheats is one of the strongest driving forces of human psychology. That supports the idea that the resistance mechanism has been wired in by evolution.
Whether the world really needs to know more about making messages more persuasive is a different question. Needless to say, all the researchers are convincing on the subject. It is true, as Dr Knowles admits, that such knowledge can be used coercively. But he points out that it can also be used to educate. In any case, he says, “By minimising a person's resistance, you'll decrease the chance that they'll experience future regrets about the decision.” Not convinced about the science of persuasion? Readers are asked to consider how regretful they may feel if they later conclude that it was right all along.