# of Tactics?
Richard Petty & John Cacioppo, at Ohio State University,
have described what is to date one of the most fundamental differences
in receptivity to an influence attempt: the target will respond
either centrally or peripherally. Shelly Chaiken's research is
similar (New York University), although she uses different terms:
she says subjects will respond systematically or heuristically.
In a sentence, this means that the target of influence will respond
either mindfully or mindlessly.
This fundamental division requires some background explanation,
so you might want to print this page now and read it offline.
are vastly underpowered to deal with the pace of modern living.
Thinking is their job, but they don't really want to do it (reminding
me of some employees I've had). You see, you are the owner of
a hunter-gatherer brain, which was just the machine for the job
of hunting and gathering, which we humans did to survive thousands
of years ago.
But now, you must use that same model brain to set your VCR,
create a computer spreadsheet, read a map, and figure out how
to set your watch once you land at the London airport. You might
even call on it to speak a foreign language, take a course in
biology, perform a math calculation, or repair an electronic
circuit. It's like using an old Apple II computer--one of the
first widely-available home computers--to perform handwriting
and voice recognition! Your geriatric Apple II wouldn't like
that task any more than your brain likes deliberating over which
brand of laundry detergent to buy as you rush through the supermarket.
Hence, humans are cognitive misers, to borrow a term from the
noted influence researcher Ellen Langer. We humans conserve cognitive
energy whenever we can.
Considerable evidence has amassed
showing that humans don't like to think. Here's an example. Cognitive
scientists were interested in the types of brain waves emitted
by a person who was thinking hard-- as when a person attempts
to solve a math problem. They found that, under such conditions,
humans emitted a distinctive pattern of brain waves. Those waves
were nearly duplicated by asking subjects to thrust their hands
in buckets of ice water. Your brain has a similar response to
thinking hard as it does to physical pain! Your brain doesn't
like to do it, and avoids it when it can.
Thinking hard burns about three times more calories than does
idling. So how do we avoid effortful thinking? By finding shortcuts
that work most of the time. For instance: let's say you're shopping
for a stair climber, because you want the convenience of working
out at home. You enter a sports store and start looking at the
different models. Some have what look to be shock absorbers,
some have chains and sprockets, some have cables and pulleys,
others have levers that balance on a fulcrum. Which is best?
Which will stand up to the wear and tear of your vigorous workouts?
you wonder. At this point, you have a choice. You can process
centrally--you can go to the library and find a book on mechanical
engineering. With several months of concerted effort and concentration,
you may be able come to your own conclusions about which mechanical
system is best. Or you can process peripherally--find some sort
Various shortcuts might entail
1) asking the salesperson which is best; 2) bringing along an
opinionated friend; 3) choosing a stair stepper based on the
color; 4) choosing a stair stepper based on your recognition
of a brand name; 5) choose a stair stepper based on the attractiveness
of the model in the advertisement ("She looks gorgeous!
Look at how small her waist is."); 6) deciding to purchase
the stair stepper marked "SALE;" 6) deciding that the
most expensive model is the best model ("Why would they
charge so much if it weren't really good?"). And so you
give your brain a break by relying on a quasi-thinking strategy
called a "heuristic." Heuristics work pretty well most
of the time.
But sometimes you have to think in order to survive. You had
to think hard when you took the LSAT or the GMAT or the GRE tests--
because you were attempting to improve your station in life and
your ability to survive at a comfortable level. You had to think
when you invested your savings (unless you, like I, opted for
the mindless approach of paying someone else to think about it),
and you had to think about what could be wrong when your car
broke down on the freeway (unless you once again decided to skip
the learning and thinking and simply called a mechanic). Sometimes,
you just have to think in order to get yourself out of a jam
or improve your state in life.
You may have noticed that people who think for a living (lawyers,
doctors, investors, consultants) are paid a lot of money. That's
because they are doing something for you that you'd rather not
do for yourself--learn, memorize, and think!
Do you notice a pattern here? We tend to idle, even when we should
be thinking. One of my colleagues, Dr. Gregory Neidert, says
that we humans are running our brains at idle about 90% to 95%
of the time. Only when a topic is important to us and actually
requires effortful thought do we engage our brains and make them
do some real work. The rest of the time, we're coasting, baby.
Back to Petty & Cacioppo and Chaiken's basic division. They
argue correctly that people will process incoming information
in two entirely different ways. We humans will think carefully
about a decision when it is 1) important to us and 2) we have
the ability to think.
For instance, I process centrally when I am ready to purchase
a computer. A computer is an expensive, important purchase. So
I compare features, operating systems, capacities. I deliberate
for weeks before purchasing. And I will need some uninterrupted
thinking time to come to a decision. Under these circumstances,
the way in which the argument is presented becomes very important.
A high quality argument from a computer manufacturer may include:
a point by point comparison of features, benchmark speed tests,
a list of compatible software, and so on. (Interestingly, some
evidence shows that when people make large, complex decisions--when
they most need to think centrally--the task may become overwhelming
and decision makers once again revert to simple heuristic strategies.
"Why did you buy all these expensive options on your new
car?" "Because the salesman said I could buy them at
this price only at the time I bought the car." But that's
a topic for another time . . .)
But when it comes to purchasing a box of laundry soap, I will
spend little time thinking about it. I'll probably purchase the
first one that has the words "unscented" printed on
the box. Or perhaps I will use some other heuristic that will
allow me to choose quickly, like price or brand recognition.
And lest you think heuristics are only used to decide about unimportant
things-- think again. Even laundry detergent gets costly. Over
the course of a lifetime, I calculate I'll spend more on laundry
detergent than I would on a new computer.
To learn more about mindless behavior and persuasion, proceed
to the "Mindless" page.
(My students can learn more about mindful behavior and persuasion
by entering the URL for the "Mindful" page.)
Copyright © 1997 by Kelton Rhoads, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
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