Why Influence?

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16 Tactics
53 Tactics

Ethics I
Ethics II


Bad Info


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The Soc Psych Approach

You, the reader, may be an influence expert. You may work in politics, advertising, sales, law, or any number of other careers that require you to persuade people in the course of your daily life. You may be very successful, too. If so, you have an intuitive feel for what moves people. And you probably enjoy thinking about how persuasion works.

What does SP know?You may occasionally find yourself in the situation of the lawyer in the following story. Several years ago, California brought the issue of "no fault insurance" to a vote. (It was soundly defeated, due to a brilliant influence campaign led by a group of true influence experts: attorneys.) Using the auto accident as an example, no fault insurance proposes that when an accident occurs between two insured motorists, driver A is covered by his insurance and driver B is covered by her insurance. No suing, no lawyers. Without getting into the many arguments surrounding the issue, I'm sure it's easy to see why most lawyers were opposed to no fault insurance.

During the weeks before the vote, attorneys were volunteering to speak to just about any group of people who would lend them an ear. I happened to hear a lawyer addressing a room full of physicians, explaining why no fault insurance was a bad idea. He looked sharp, and he spoke rapidly and authoritatively. Let's assume this lawyer was a successful influence agent, and that he was also interested in the process of persuasion. Now, let's listen in on his thoughts as he walks out of the lecture hall:

I guess that talk went O.K. But I got a lot of arguments and disagreements from those physicians. Some were arguing points that I refuted thoroughly in my talk. I wonder why? When I started giving this talk to physicians a month ago, I didn't have as many good reasons and examples as I do now. Yet now, with my stronger arguments, I seem to get as much or maybe even more disagreement. Maybe I should pick up the pace of my talk, and thereby present more and better arguments.

Our lawyer friend is asking the right questions, but coming to exactly the wrong conclusions.

He is guessing that rapid speech makes one sound credible. That's a plausible hypothesis. Someone who knows what he's talking about would be able to speak rapidly, whereas an inexpert speaker would have to hunt for words and concepts.

What he doesn't know, however--what he can't know--is that there are several variables in this scenario interacting with each other that are making the relationship between his advocacy and persuasion a complex one. Speaking rapidly can both enhance and detract from persuasion, depending on the situation. Speaking rapidly interferes with critical acceptance, which is good if you have a weak argument, but bad if you have a strong one. As the lawyer develops his talk, and uses stronger arguments, he needs to speak more slowly--giving his audience a chance to cognitively process his arguments.


 The reason I used this example is to make a point: unless our lawyer friend is willing to don his white jacket, grab a clipboard and run about 200 subjects in a laboratory experiment, this non-intuitive relationship between strength of argument and rate of speech would remain a mystery.

It is the job of science, however, to examine seeming inconsistencies and test them in the laboratory. And thanks to researchers Stephen Smith and David Shaffer, we now know the answer to the lawyer's question. It was to his advantage to speak quickly when his arguments were weak, but to his disadvantage to speak rapidly when his advocacy was supported by strong arguments.


Back to our original question: what does social psychology know that isn't already known by those who use persuasion and compliance tactics on a daily basis? Why doesn't one learn the general principles of social influence in business, advertising, or law? Because the goals of social psychology are different.

Social psychology attempts to generate general answers and propose fundamental laws about how the human "hardware" functions, to borrow a term from computer science. It wouldn't ask, "What can we say to make people decide to buy a car?" but rather, "What makes people decide to say yes to all sorts of requests--to buy a car, to contribute to a cause, to take a new job?" Then, as a science, social psychology puts its hypotheses to the test.

The result is a body of knowledge that contains a constellation of repeatable, verifiable facts regarding human thought and behavior--and how those thoughts and behaviors may be changed.

Unfortunately, many of what I call "persuasion peddlers" have no scientific background and no systematic training in, or understanding of, how influence may be systematically applied (although many of them are savvy enough to make themselves sound scientific). And this leads to our next topic, Bad Information.

Copyright © 1997 by Kelton Rhoads, PhD
All rights reserved.

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