Monthly Archives: September 2009

Bad Is Stronger Than Good: Persuasion Implications

Janus Mask of Comedy and TragedyI suspect that most readers not experienced in experimental psychology would still wholeheartedly accept the strongly supported principle that “bad” is stronger than “good” when it comes to human perception and evaluation.  When we encounter any “bad” news, whether about a potential friend, purchase, or even ourselves, we give it more weight, credence, and consideration compared to equally “good” news.

A few years ago, Roy Baumeister, Kathleen Vohs, Ellen Bratslavsky, and Catrin Finkenauer reported one of the best literature review and synthesis articles I’ve ever read.  They scanned the research looking at a wide variety of comparisons of the impact of bad versus good and found something fairly surprising in psychology:  a strong main effect.  In every area of application they investigated, bad always had greater impact than good.  (This is a  narrative review, so a general reader can easily understand it.)

Most interesting in this review was a particular absence – nothing specifically about persuasion.  While the review looked at areas that focus on attitudes – if you think about it the entire idea is about attitudes, the bad versus the good is nothing but evaluative responding – there was no section that looked at how bad versus good operates with the familiar persuasion WAC trinity of WATTage, Arguments, and Cues.

So, now we reach the pivot in this story:  How can we use “bad” to our persuasion benefit?  It’s trickier than you think.

First, you might recall a previous post on Dan O’Keefe’s meta-analysis of message framing on health behaviors.  O’Keefe and colleagues looked at the Bad is Stronger principle within a comparison of loss-framed health messages versus gain-framed health messages.  You’ll recall they found a pitifully small effect size of r = .039.  This is hardly a ringing confirmation of Bad Is Stronger, so what’s going on?

As I noted in that earlier post, I think the meta failed to confirm the obvious main effect that bad is stronger than good because in persuasion applications, at least, things are always more complicated than a simple main effect.  Basic dual process theory, whether ELM or HSM, always argues for interactions, that persuasion rarely depends upon a simple main effect, but almost always depends upon interactions within combinations of variables.  Health researchers typically do not measure or manipulate important ELM variables like WATTage (elaboration likelihood) or fail to include both strong and weak arguments within a gain or loss frame.  This absence creates an empirical mashup of outcomes where sometimes the study favors gain frames, then loss frames, then neither (a classic outcome in persuasion research prior to the elucidation of dual process theory in the 1970s).

A great illustration of this complexity with frames in persuasion is found in the Smith and Petty 1996 study of framing and the ELM.  In two lab experiments Smith and Petty manipulated WATTage, frames, and argument quality.  Their results did not show a simple main effect for frames (bad stronger than good), but rather an interesting interaction.  Study 1 demonstrated that frames operated as WATTage switches.  When participants read either strong or weak arguments in favor of recycling (Green alert!  Consider persuasion science rather than Mark Twain) WITHIN a gain frame, there was no difference in attitude outcomes.  This is crazy, of course, because it means that people weren’t reading and thinking about the arguments since weak arguments created as much attitude change as strong arguments.  By contrast, WITHIN the loss frame, argument quality mattered.  Strong arguments produced more positive change while weak arguments produced negative change (r = .27, a near Medium Windowpane effect), exactly what should happen if people are reading and thinking about the information.

Thus, while bad is stronger than good in many applications, using it in persuasion requires a bit of planning.

So, now, after all this ticky-tacking, what do we know about practical persuasion with bad versus good (let’s call it, BvG)?

First, BvG clearly can function as a WATTage dimmer switch.  If you want to dial up your receivers, alert them to “bad” news.  As the Smith and Petty studies demonstrate, that will cause people to look for argument quality, distinguish strong from weak, then elaborate on the arguments to guide attitude change.  Within this line of reasoning, one could expect that extremely high levels of “bad” news could turn objective processing into biased processing, too.  Thus, if you know your receivers are already pretty much on your side, hit them with an extreme statement of the “bad” news to elicit defensive, but favorable responding.  In both cases, the bad news demands that you have strong arguments.  If you do this and then provide weak arguments (or elicit biased processing against your position), you will kill yourself.

Second, the large remainder of the bad is stronger than good evidence from the Baumeister review clearly demonstrates huge possiblilities for persuasion Cues.  When receivers are Low WATT, bad news in all forms will typically produce negative change.  Consider these quick illustrations from the CLARCCS Cues.

Comparison – if everyone else says it is bad, it is bad.
Liking – if a liked source says it is bad, it is bad.
Authority – if an expert says it is bad, it is bad.
Reciprocity – if someone gives you something bad, give back something worse.
Commit/Consist – if you support bad, you must defend bad.
Scarcity – when bad is rare, it is even worse.

Third, using BvG for argument quality seems weird and unproductive to me.  I cannot easily construct “bad” strong arguments and “good” strong arguments and see how it could make a serious difference if they were both equally “strong arguments.”  Both would produce the same amount of change, but, of course, in different directions (“bad” strong args would produce negative change and “good” strong args would produce positive change).  The test of BvG is not direction, but intensity or amount of change.

[Research Sidebar:  It would be interesting to see if "bad" strong arguments required less information than "good" strong arguments.  Just hearing "ex-convict" within a string of otherwise positive attributes about a person is usually enough to produce a negative attitude.  It might be easier to construct "bad" strong arguments, but as long as "bad" and "good" args are equally strong, the BvG effect does not seem to hold.]

Canisius College, Buffalo, NY, September 2009

Melanie and I traveled to Buffalo, NY for our first visit to that fair city.  We were there to speak and consult at Canisius College, as hosted by our colleague, Dr. Melissa Wanzer.  We had a great time on the trip.  Here’s why.

We stayed at Beaufleuve Bed and Breakfast.  By the turn of circumstance and chance that occurs with a long and varied life, it happens that Beaufleuve is owned and operated by a former university colleague, Rik Witaker, and his wife, Ramona.  Rik worked at the University of Central Missouri in the late 70s when Melanie and I were there.  Small world, right?

Beaufleuve is a gorgeous restored Victorian home.  Rik and Ramona have spent the past 20 years bringing it to life and their love and attention shows.  Melanie and I both offer our highest recommendation for Beaufleuve.  Rik and Ramona provide a great experience and if you’re in Buffalo, consider them.  Just look at the main staircase.

Beaufleuve Staircase
On the second floor landing Rik and Ramona created a small service space with drinks and snacks to serve the public area that all upstairs bedrooms use.  They had one of those fast serve coffee machines as I demonstrate here.

SBB with Beaufleuve Coffeemaker

Our room was fabulous with plenty of space and a private bathroom.  Our Canisius hosts had left a large goodie box of treats to greet us upon arrival.  Melanie lofts a bottle and provides a fetching model for the sofa in our room.

MBB on Sofa

The first night we ate at the Left Bank restaurant just a few blocks from our B&B.  (Buffalo is quite easy to drive and we had great weather for our visit; everyone kept remarking upon it and quickly adding that while it is usually cold in Buffalo, It’s Not That Bad.)  The Left Bank was a nice place with lots of exposed brick and large windows.  Here’s the obligatory Martini shot.

SBB Left Bank Martini

We did work on this trip.  Melanie and I each spoke with several groups of undergrad and grad students on a variety of topics and we met with faculty and the college Dean, Dr. Leonid Khinkis, to discuss program development.  We also did an appearance together which is extremely rare for us.  We both think that we are the smartest person in the room and don’t tend to share nicely.  Plus, whenever I get next to Melanie I want to kiss and hug her which is not exactly the most appropriate professional response.  She is my Babe of the Western World and is hard to resist.  You’d think that after 30 years of marriage my ardor for her might dim, if only from age, but you’d be wrong.  I soldier on as in this shot.

SBB in Action at Cansisius

Looks like I’m ducking a thrown shoe, doesn’t it?  It’s hard to get a static shot of me speaking because I tend to move a lot.  Part of it is just good practice and the other part is being a moving target.

Melissa also had us over for dinner at her place with her family, Steve, Claire, and Ella.  We had a stupendous good time just laughing and being silly.  We brought gifts which Melissa and Ella model here.

Melissa and Ella Model

Melissa is a very high HO and so is the youngest, Ella.  And Steve and Claire don’t take a back seat, so we had a great time playing a fun card game where Ella slayed us all with her Crazy Eyes.  She also inflates her face.

Ella Inflates

It’s not easy being a consultant.

A New Look At the Routes: Association or Elaboration

Persuasion Dual Process theory holds that people take one of two routes to change, Central or Peripheral.  Central Route involves High WATT processors elaborating over Arguments that produces persistent, resistant, and predictive change while the Peripheral Route involves Low WATT processors who react to Cues that produces change that is comparatively less persistent, resistant, and predictive.

I think there’s an even simpler way to think about the two Routes.

The Peripheral Route is controlled by cognitive Associations while the Central Route is controlled by cognitive Elaborations.  Thus, all persuasion plays essentially, fundamentally, and basically operate as either Ding-Dongs (Associations) or Webs (Elaborations).

While I hesitate to reuse the term, “Ding-Dong,” for a new usage, it seems sensible and not overly confusing.  Classical Conditioning with Pavlov’s dog is the standard referent for “Ding-Dong,” and, as I’m claiming here, all Peripheral Route Cue processing is only a dressed up version of the Ding-Dong.  A Persuasion Cue merely triggers an easy, automatic, effortless, obvious, and simple Association with some other desirable thought, feeling, or action, and Boom!, you’ve got change.

With the other process, by contrast, persuasion targets actively build Webs of Elaborations (issue relevent thoughts in that “long conversation” in your head) when confronted with Arguments.  While various Ding-Dong Associations may also occur, High WATT processors easily move past those simple connections and spin deliberate, effortful, and controlled Webs of new thoughts that are inter-linked from the Argument to New Thoughts (Elaborations) to the Topic.

Now, our basic concept of WATTage still operates as a mental dimmer switch that moves us between High and Low WATT settings.  WATTage is how we move between the two processing modes of Association or Elaboration, the Ding-Dong or the Web.

You should also see that both Objective and Biased processing on the Central Route still work with Webs of Elaboration.  Objective processing builds new Webs while Biased processing stitches new Elaborations to fit with old Webs.

Thus, whenever you try a persuasion play, ask yourself whether you want your target to Associate or to Elaborate, then get busy with it.  If you want them to Associate, then everything you say or do is aimed at that simple goal and you do NOTHING that interferes with it.  When Associating, Associate!  If you want them to Elaborate, then everything you say or do is aimed at that more complex goal and you do NOTHING that interferes with it.  When Elaborating, Elaborate!

Déjà Vu All Over Again and Again

Secretary Chu of DOESteven Chu, Secretary of Energy, is launching an initiative that partners DOE with the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) to teach the youth of America about the perils and promise of energy.  Past all the obvious lines of criticism (communists indoctrinating the young; Teach Your Children Well and the 1960s), I see a larger problem:  This won’t work.

SBB 1970 YearbookI was a high school senior in spring of 1970 when the first Earth Day was held.  Along with a gang of my friends, the principal of the high school pulled us out of classes to develop Save the Earth skits for an all school assembly to be held at the close of the day.  We spent some time in the library doing scientific research on environment and energy threats and solutions, then worked up several overwrought sketches with clouds of smoke, gas masks, mutated animals, and other dramatized actions to illustrate the impending irreversible disasters we faced on Earth Day 1970 if we failed to act NOW!

Despite our best efforts, it appears that our work was in vain because a White House is once again feeling the need to Enlist the Young in our never-ending fight to save the world from ourselves.  Yeah, we’ll get a Nobel-prize winning physicist to teach the young and this time it will work!

I’ve got a thought problem to illustrate the failure.  Imagine you have an expert on physics and an expert on persuasion.  You want to change the way people think, feel, or act.  Who you gonna call?  Right, the physicist.  Secretary Chu is like so many bright, accomplished experts who think that because they are bright and accomplished in a difficult field like physics or economics or cardiology or even nutrition science, therefore they can easily handle an obvious thing like persuasion.  They cannot.

And, you see where it leads them.  As I’ve documented in this blog, these brights constantly propose interventions to Save the World that simply will not and do not work.  Chu, in this instance, would be better served to employ that most compelling influence tool:  The Push.  Just create a tax or regulation, widely communicate it, and ruthlessly enforce it.  That will produce the change to Save the World.  And, if indeed you are changing the world and saving us from ourselves, shouldn’t you be Pushing rather than Persuading?

Chu’s actions here create confusion and doubt.  If the problem is as vast, deep, and dangerous as he claims, why is he playing around with these goofy, ineffective, public relation spins like DOE-PTO-kids?  We face Certain Destruction and he wants yet another kid like me to get out of class for a day to prepare and deliver skits?

I know that DOE is doing more than this (and more than proposing the world whitewash rooftops globally – how’s that initiative going?) and that I am pulling one detail to criticize a much larger effort.  True.  And, if DOE efforts at the Big Picture are as inspired as this Little Detail, what do you think the Big Picture will be?

The Rules!

All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere.  (Yes, we know what Dr. Chu believes, so what?)

If You Can’t Succeed, Don’t Try.  (You missed my skit in 1970, I guess.)

It’s About the Other Guy.  (You’re preaching to the choir.)

Persuaders Can Be Famous or Effective, but Not Both.  (They don’t give Nobels for persuasion, you know.)

Argh! Anticipated in 1972

Blog readers know my primary Rule:  All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere.

Oscar WildeI discovered this Rule immediately after reading a Harold Bloom essay on the first modern bad boy, Oscar Wilde, who observed, as shortened by Bloom, All Bad Poetry Is Sincere.  I thought I was the first to make this transfer to persuasion, but alas, I am at least Second Place.  Today, in commemoration of the passing of Irving Kristol, the noted conservative thinker, the Wall Street Journal reprised Kristol’s brightest insights, including:

Symbolic Politics and Liberal Reform, Dec. 15, 1972

“All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling,” wrote Oscar Wilde, and I would like to suggest that the same can be said for bad politics . . .

It seems to me that the politics of liberal reform, in recent years, shows many of the same characteristics as amateur poetry. It has been more concerned with the kind of symbolic action that gratifies the passions of the reformer rather than with the efficacy of the reforms themselves. Indeed, the outstanding characteristic of what we call “the New Politics” is precisely its insistence on the overwhelming importance of revealing, in the public realm, one’s intense feelings—we must “care,” we must “be concerned,” we must be “committed.” Unsurprisingly, this goes along with an immense indifference to consequences, to positive results or the lack thereof . . .

Bang, zoom, to the moon.  Exactly the force behind the Rule.  And while Kristol applies it to liberal (or progressive) reform, the same could be said of many conservative reformers, too.  It is not the position, it’s the persuasion.  When the effect is less important than the expression, it is bad persuasion.

Irving KristolI tip my hat to Mr. Kristol.

Nudge or Push, a Soda Pop Tax Will Fail!

Soda Can Tax StampSurely you’ve heard that scientists are advising a tax on sales of all soda pop in America.  You can read the policy report here for the details, but the key claims are direct:

Soda pop consumption causes obesity.

Taxes will reduce soda pop sales and hence consumption.

Since people will consume less soda pop, they will lose weight.

While the folks involved in this claim hale from elite universities and own distinguished research records, they clearly know little or nothing about persuasion.  I’m telling you now – This won’t work.

Here’s why.

First, the science linking soda pop consumption to obesity then taxes to less consumption and less consumption to weight loss is weak at best.  It is based upon a chain of evidence that is poorly connected.  There is some good experimental evidence that links high sugar consumption with metabolic problems and obesity.  There is weak observational research linking human consumption of soda pop with obesity at the level of small effects.  There is no direct experimental research that demonstrates people facing higher taxes on soda pop buy less pop, consume less pop, and then lose weight; there’s only basic economics on the effects of taxes on purchase.

Thus, even if this policy proposal was immediately passed by Congress, signed into law by the President, and affirmed as constitutional by the Supreme Court, it would not reduce the obesity rate in the US.  There is no good science to support that direct claim.  There’s only Cool Table Science to support that inference.

Second, this will fail because of the difficulties in enacting the legislation.  The Obama Administration has already indicated that it wants to Nudge people to do the Right Thing and now comes along this group of Allies that wants to use that stronger government tactic, the Push.  Hey, jerks are getting fat because they drink pop and they won’t listen to our Nudges, so dammit, Push Them with Taxes!  I’m betting that the Obama loyalists will not want to associate with a Push on lifestyle changes since they’ve already signed up for the Nudge.  Thus, this group of Food Police is starting a Civil War with other Food Police.  A Food Police divided cannot stand!

Consider now the Rules.

As always and eternally:  All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere!  The Food Police really mean this.  It is crucial to their collective self concept.  They are authentic.  You should drink less Evil Soda!  Thus, we know more about them than science or you.

Power Corrupts Persuasion!  We haven’t seen the Food Police ascendant since Mr. Clinton was President.  If the nutrition experts really had indisputable Science on their side no one could resist their persuasion.  But, the science is weak and they need Power, not Persuasion, to make change happen.  Now that they have a sympathetic White House and Congress, the Food Police may act like scientists, but their success depends not on science or persuasion, but mere power.

It’s About The Other Guy, Stupid!  The Soda Taxers aim only at convincing themselves and their Fellow Travelers of their correctness.  Nothing in the policy report convinces the unConvinced.  All the arguments are technical, elite, and Cool Table.  Hey, those guys are already on board.  You need to convince some Other Guys.

If You Can’t Succeed, Don’t Try.  Proposing the Push of a tax is the desperate gambit of an arrogant loser.  This failed attempt will do nothing but further polarize people and strengthen the resistance of those who oppose a soda pop tax (and other Food Police forays).

Soda with tax stamp image from

Dissonance Creates Terrorists

The New York Times reports on the death of Noordin Muhammad Top.

He did not set out be become a bomb maker but began working with explosives when another militant, who had been hiding them, said he no longer wanted to keep them, Ms. Jones said, speaking by telephone from Jakarta.

“It was only when he was forced into a decision about having explosives that he became a leader and turned into a bomb maker,” she said.

Give a boy a bomb and he becomes a bombmaker.  Really.

This is a possible demonstration of dissonance at work.  Assuming as the quote implies that Mr. Noordin was not violent before this event, he clearly changed after this action.  The behavioral act of taking the bombmaking materials would be a “counterattitudinal” behavior for a nonviolent actor that would produce dissonance.  To resolve the dissonance, Noordin would change his attitudes and beliefs to become consistent with the behavior.

That’s the theory.

Obama Goes Long

Foreign Policy put up a copy of President Obama’s metrics for the Long War.  With these standards he’s going long on the Long War.  Of course, this is from a Congressional briefing and is the starting point for an ultimate statement of goals and aims, but his first offer is all in and consistent with his March 2009 statement.

While everyone can quibble with any element on the list, it is hard to read this and not see the former Bush Administration proposing much the same.  Those who support the Long War will have to feel support for Obama on this.  Those opposed will be looking for something.

All of this obviously plays into the current politicking with health care reform and other big ticket legislation like energy, labor, and financial reform.  I’m kind of surprised the Obama would publicly do this without first trying to secure Republican support for that other legislation.  It’s an interesting line of persuasion and pretty obvious, too.

I’m reading the metrics in detail now and will post later on the persuasion applications.

All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere – the Crook of Sebelius’s Arm

Secretary of HHS Sebelius once again demonstrates her tone deaf persuasion skills.  The Wall Street Journal notes:

Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was in the middle of a pointed exchange on the Obama administration’s new malpractice pilot projects when a cough rang out in the White House briefing room.

Not just any cough, but a cough into the hands of NBC White House reporter Chuck Todd. Without missing a beat, the Obama administration’s point person on swine flu shot him a withering look. “What’s up with that?” She asked, quickly demonstrating proper procedure — cough into the arm!

She suggested Sesame Street’s Elmo would have to do an additional consultation with NBC.

Secretary Sebelius Coughs into her SleeveFirst, the effect of coughing into your sleeve offers some slight improvement over coughing into your hands, but is not a cure-all, yet Secretary Sebelius acts as if all that stands between the world and a grand killer epidemic is the crook of her arm.  Her persuasion analysis lacks proportion.

Second, persuasion plays accompanied by scolds only work with mean second grade teachers and, even then, not so well.  Modeling a new behavior during a “teachable moment” is a good play.  Adding a mean face (like Mrs. Douglas, my fifth grade teacher, would do) is a bad play.

Consider the Rules!

Power corrupts persuasion.

It’s about the other guy.

If you can’t succeed, don’t try.

And, finally . . .

All bad persuasion is sincere.

I thought the Obama Administration was Persuasion Central?  This is great communication?  I’m not even taking sides on health care, finance reform, Afghanistan, or soda pop taxes.  This is just bad persuasion.

Presidential Strategic Persuasion on Afghanistan

SWJ points to a 23 minute interview of Secretary Gates with Al-Jazeera with a focus upon Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran.  Gates is consistent with recent prior statements, but most particularly notes that in his view, America will not withdraw from Afghanistan, will remove all troops and bases from Iraq by next year according to treaty, and has great faith in Pakistan as a partner.  Gates also suggests he hasn’t made up his mind about the exact change in strategy with Afghanistan.

This is a powerful interview that contains many important persuasion points for President Obama.  If you read, for example, the comments at the Washington Post on this Gates interview, you can already see the early response of the Left and its concern about the Long War.  It’s hard to imagine that this Gates interview is going over well with progressives.  How can Obama stay with Gates on this and not start a riot in a key political constituency?

Gates provided some likely lines of persuasion.  He frankly accepted or admitted mistakes in past American policy going back as far as the Reagan withdrawal from Afghanistan following the defeat of the Soviet Union.  Thus, Obama’s own “conservative” Defense Secretary acknowledges not simply that things could have gone better, but that mistakes were made.

I predict that Mr. Obama will employ this as justification for his continuing support of the Long War.  He will castigate Republican errors, including the fabulous Mr. Reagan whom Obama himself has praised in the past.  These criticisms will have to assure the activist Left, although a common sense analysis of Obama’s actions clearly grieves progressives.

This is a triangulating move in the grand style of Mr. Clinton.  It appears that Mr. Obama can assuage these key allies with rhetorical attacks (for now) as opposed to significant, observable policy change.

[It will also be interesting as hell to see how different countries react to this interview, especially in Iran, Iraq, Israel, and Afghanistan.  If Gates is right in his analysis, there should be fairly positive, if somewhat private response.  I cannot believe that Mr. Obama let this interview go without his support and he must have a strong feeling about how it will play.  Get ready to go long on the Long War.]