Monthly Archives: March 2010

Persuasion in Print vs TV

Richard Besser is a medical correspondent for ABC News who is an MD.  He knows a lot about a lot.  He knows, for example, that bone density drugs actually cause rather than prevent severe bone fractures.  He says so, right here.

Gina Kolata is a science journalist with the New York Times who has a master’s degree in mathematics.  Her article on this same problem concludes there is no established cause-and-effect relationship between these drugs and the severe bone fractures.  She quotes other medical experts in the article.  She does not quote Dr. Richard Besser, MD.

Who do you believe and why?  Which position are you more likely to even know about?

This is an interesting persuasion situation that looks at the “same” problem, yet provides opposite conclusions.  Besser’s work will reach several million people from his broadcast position with ABC News, while Kolata’s article may be read by just a few thousand, perhaps not even one hundred thousand people.  Viewers of Besser’s report will be different compared to the readers of Kolata’s report.  Compared to print readers, TV viewers tend to be older, less educated, more likely to be female, and from a minority ethnicity.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize that if you are delivering information on TV compared to print, appearance makes a difference.  Here’s Dr. Besser and Ms. Kolata (and even that “Dr.” vs “Ms.” figures in here, doesn’t it?) with standard head and shoulder portraits.

Kolata Besser

It’s also interesting to note that Besser worked with my old crew, the CDC, in a variety of tasks before joining ABC News.  Most importantly he handled some public affairs duties along with his work in epidemiology.

What’s most intriguing to me is that Besser ran an epi research group at the CDC, yet he seems either unable or unwilling to read the basic research on these bone density drugs to see that these fractures are no more likely in women who take the drug versus those who don’t.  According to the balance of expert analysis from Kolata’s article, the rate of fracture is extremely low anyway and there’s no difference between users and nonusers.  Makes one wonder how Besser ran a government health statistics research group.  That must have been interesting for the Counters in that unit.

Yet, Besser knows the Truth, speaks the Truth, and honestly, looks pretty good doing It.  He just can’t count the Truth, it seems.

Not that that matters.  What matters is that he will reach a larger audience that tends to process TV news in a Low WATT fashion compared to Kolata who will reach a smaller audience that tends to process newspaper news in a High WATT fashion.  An attractive expert on TV says a drug is bad while a faceless writer in print quotes experts who say it appears the drug has no effect here.

Why wasn’t this addressed in the health care reform legislation?  Not that I’m saying . . . I’m just saying.

Nuance, Nudge, Nada

Today a lesson on Persuasion Rules from the Secretary of Energy, Dr. Steven Chu.  A current Administration policy is taking stimulus money to create jobs, but some of the jobs are being created overseas.  This consternates Congress who wishes to terminate the practice and Buy American!  Chu replies.

“There are unintended consequences by just coming out and saying, Buy American,” Dr. Chu said. “I do not want a moratorium. We have 9-10% unemployment. You do not want to stop these projects if 2/3 [of the hardware] is American and 1/3 is foreign.” In remarks on the sidelines of the conference, Dr. Chu said he will “work with people in Congress to explain the subtleties” of the global wind-energy market.

Explain the subtleties?

There is nothing subtle about communication with Congress or the American people.  It violates my Rule:

More Is the Enemy of Less.

Being subtle is Less; Explaining subtle is More.  A subtle distinction.

Conditioning Nonsense or Making Something Out of Nothing

Staats and Staats ExperimentPersuasion researchers are stone cold maniacs.  They employ testing procedures that rival anything nuclear physicists use and all to make the world go Boom! but with words.  Consider this baroque masterpiece Professors Staats and Staats conducted.  (Professor Staats is standing at left while Professor Staats is standing at right.  The seated woman is not being shocked nor is her mind being read, but that control panel looks like something from Flash Gordon.)

They tested how you can take nonsense words, XEH or YOF, and make people have either positive or negative attitudes towards them by associating the nonsense with positive or negative words.  They hid this test within a larger task called “verbal learning of paired associates.”  They gave people a long list of “paired associates,” two words that had to be learned together and would be measured on a later memory test.  You would get each pair one at a time, be given some time to study, then given the next pair to study.  If you were in the test you might get a list that looked like this.

XEH – dirty
LAJ – pen
YOF – beauty
GIW – key
LAJ – car
YOF – gift
GIW – paper
XEH – sour

Now, the actual list of paired associates was much longer than this, 108 pairs.  And, remember, you are getting these pairs one at a time and are studying each pair for a memory test.  If you’re sharp, you’ve picked up on the trick.  In this list, the nonsense syllable of XEH is always paired with a semantically negative word (dirty, sour) while YOF is paired with a positive term (beauty, gift).  The other nonsense terms have neutral word associations.  Now, if you do this experiment rather than read about it, virtually no one picks up the trick.  The situation is simply too complicated and the researchers will give you a sweet, simple, but deceptive cover story that makes you look at the wrong hand while they pull the trick from the other sleeve.  And, just to demonstrate how stone cold they are, Staats and Staats ran the experiment twice.  First, XEH got the negative words and YOF got the positives.  Second, they reversed the association and XEH got positive words and YOF got negative words.  This handled the remote possibility that, hey, you idiots, don’t you know the XEH is an inherently NEGATIVE sounding word, so don’t need to pair it with NEGATIVE words, because it’s already a NEGATIVE attitude, you fool.  And, they also replicated these experiments two more times using different attitude measures.  Like I said, stone cold maniacs.  Boom!

Before they give the memory test after your study session with the 108 paired associates list (dammit, aren’t you sorry you didn’t get to do this experiment!), they ask you to provide your attitude toward the nonsense syllable, and so you rate it on a 7 point scale from good to bad.  According to Ding-Dong theory, the nonsense syllable XEH should have a negative attitude because of the repeated pairings with semantically negative words while YOF should have a positive attitude because of the positive semantic pairings.  And, that’s exactly what Staats and Staats found.  Here’s the attitude means from their Table 2.


The first row indicates results for people who had XEH with negative words and YOF with positive words while the second row shows the reverse pairing.  The means can range from 1 to 7 with a higher score indicating a NEGATIVE attitude.  The numbers in the parentheses are the d effect sizes and all of them are large, larger than that 25-75 Windowpane effect.

These results are exactly what Classical Conditioning predicts.  Take a neutral thing, XEH or YOF, then repeatedly associate it with either positive words or negative words, and the attitude toward that neutral thing will change in the same direction.  And, we can take this neutral thing and move it in either direction.  And, the effect sizes are large, unusually large for most social science studies.  And, nobody in this experiment realizes what is going on.

This study provides a great illustration of what low WATT processing means.  Imagine how hard your mind is working as you are trying to learn these crazy paired associates with 108 trials.  You’re really concentrating.  Yet, you are forming an attitude without any elaborative processing at all, at least not at a deliberate, controlled, and self aware sense of it.  There’s no “long conversation” in your head about XEH or YOF.  So, you are clearly doing a lot of cognitive work, just not persuasive cognitive work here in the Central Route sense of it.  You’re on the Peripheral Route, Ding-Donging your way to a new attitude, making something out of nothing.

The practical persuasion here is direct.  Just combining two things at the same time delivers change.  This study is the empirical basis for most brand and image development, maintenance, and change.  Sometimes you can fool yourself on the creative side thinking you’ve got to invent the greatest new execution when the Main Point is Ding-Dong.  Just associate early and often.  Slick, cool, groovy, and even fab is nice now and then, but make sure you ring the bell.

This research, even though it is insanely complex, demonstrates two persuasion Rules.

More Is the Enemy of Less.

There’s a Difference between Persuasion, and Smoke and Mirrors; With Persuasion the Illusion Lingers.

And, if you want to read more about it:

Staats, C. K., & Staats, A. W. (1957). Meaning established by classical conditioning. Journal of  Experimental Psychology, 54, 74-80.

Greed Is Good . . . for Persuasion Rules

Pillow TagMelanie hasn’t bought new pillows recently, so I had no unread manufacturers tags to read and thus found myself in a WSJ article about great Wall Street blogs.  I read through several, particularly enjoying a blog by, about, and for Investment Bankers (plus the guy is clearly a Constant Reader).  As I read a couple of posts that focused on other issues, it dawned on me that Investment Bankers pursue their work in line with persuasion by my Rules.  They demonstrate that relentless focus on the Other Guy with a cool and calculating eye hidden behind a friendly and relaxed smile aimed at one goal:  Change.

If you are not an Investment Banker, you might find learning about them and their work for the persuasion implications.  If you are an Investment Banker, you might enjoy the Rules.

Persuasion Is Strategic or It Is Not.

If You Can’t Count It, You Can’t Change It.

Persuaders Can Either Be Famous or Effective, But Not Both.

You Can Get Farther with a Kind Word and a Big Stick Than with Either Alone.

Great Persuaders Don’t Need Rich Uncles, Kindness from Strangers, or Third Party Vote Splitters.

There’s a Difference between Persuasion, and Smoke and Mirrors; With Persuasion the Illusion Lingers.

And most importantly,

Power Corrupts Persuasion.

Self Persuasion for Surviving College

If you or someone you know is struggling in college consider, once again, Implementation Intentions as a self persuasion tactic for winning the fight.  Here’s what you do.

Get a sheet of paper, close the door, clear your head, and take some uninterrupted time to write.

Step 1.  Take a few minutes and write your answer to the following questions.  Think about this.  You don’t need to write a Book, but you need more than a couple of sentences.

A. What is your ideal future?
B. What qualities do you admire in others?
C. What things could you do better at?
D. What kind of future do you see for your college and your work careers?
E. What areas would you like to learn more about?
F. What personal habits would you like to improve?

Step 2.  Re-read what you just wrote.  Think about it.  Now select specific actions you could do for each answer you wrote for each question.  Think of 6 to 8 specific, concrete, easy to see actions and write them down for each question A through F.

Step 3.  Now, rank order everything from things that are most important to least important.  You can’t do everything at once, so prioritize.

Step 4.  Write down what would happen if you achieved each of the goals you’ve set.  Think about how you would be different and how other people would respond to you.

Step 5.  Get serious about making these goals happen.  Think about and then write down for each goal:  Obstacles and Barriers, Needed Resources, Timeline, and Benchmarks and Standards.

Step 6.  Think about everything you done so far.  Honestly assess your commitment to each goal.  Do you really want to do this stuff or are you just kidding?

You’re probably thinking this is no big deal.  How can something like this make a practical difference in surviving college?  Well, consider this.

Dominique Morisano and colleagues recruited undergrads who were struggling in college and asked them to participate in a research study.  Half of the volunteers were randomly assigned to do pretty much what I’ve just described.  They kept a copy of their writing work and were free to use it however they wanted.  The other half in the Control group did tasks that required the same amount of time and effort, just not directed toward this goal setting and planning exercise.

Morisano et al. obtained the grade point averages and status in school for all the participants a semester later.  Not surprisingly, for the Control group, GPA did not change, but for the II group, their GPA increase half a letter (expressed as a Windowpane effect this increase was a medium+ increase, roughly 30/70).  Furthermore, all of the participants in the II group maintained full-time status in the college while 20% of the Control group either dropped out or went to part-time (a medium Windowpane of 25/65).

All the standard caveats apply:  Just one study, more research needed, Your Mileage Will Vary, and on and on.  Truly.  Be cautious.

At the same time when you blend these results into the large literature on II, it becomes Another Brick in the Wall.  When people effortfully set goals and plans, they change attitudes and intentions and more importantly behavior.  II works.

If you are struggling in college Do This Now!

If you have any kind of influence over others (parent, supervisor, teacher, manager, priest/rabbi/minister/imam, even a friend, lover, SO, main squeeze, or spouse) run II as a persuasion tactic to produce change.  You can either run this as a clear, obvious, and direct communication aimed at producing change or you can do this as an indirect approach.  Here are the crucial factors.

1.  Get the Other Guy to think about Goals and Plans.
2.  Get the Other Guy write or talk about those Goals and Plans.
3.  Make the Other Guy think that all of this is under His/Her control (an Internal Attribution).  If you “make” the Other Guy do this, it probably will not work as well.
4.  Stay out of the way and monitor indirectly.

The point of II is to get the Other Guy on the Central Route having that Long Conversation in the Head on goals and plans.  Let them make Internal Attributions and stay out of the way!

A Trillion Dollar Nudge

Nudging Science CliffWhen science fails, try power!

Calorie counts on restaurant menus are now required as part of the new Health Care Reform legislation.  I hadn’t heard that this was on anyone’s table during the run up with this legislation, but I’m not surprised that provisions like this made it to the final bill.  This is how you change things when you’ve got bad science.  You buddy up with allies, horse trade on issues, and voila, you’ve saved the world.

The WSJ has a good article with nice balance on the pros and cons of calorie counts.  As I’ve reported in this blog, calorie counts on menus have no practical effect on obesity although advocates of the legislation assert that it does.  I personally know some of these advocates and from that experience I can publicly assert these folks can’t count past 10 without taking off their shoes.  They don’t understand their own work, but because they did the work with the intent of proving calorie counts reduce eating, IT MUST BE TRUE!

This action falls into the category of Nudges, those little things that make big differences.  I’ve assessed Nudge here and can’t imagine it will do anything except make Nudgers feel good about themselves, especially the zealots at FDA who will implement this.  It should be fun to listen to their stories in the future as they read the fast food tea leaves and try to link them to obesity.  I’ll go out on a thick limb here:  Obesity rates in America will not decline at even a Small Effect over the next three years (before the next Presidential election).

My angst over this is that there are proven ways to motivate people toward healthier lifestyles.  Whether this is a matter for government regulation is another issue.  My point is there is scientifically proven stuff that works.  Calorie counts on menus do not.  The law is a disaster for any one who wants to see healthier people, but great for advocates at the Cool Table.  This foolish Nudge will gobble up resources, produce no practical change, and divert, disrupt, or destroy efforts that would work.

Remember the Rules.

Power corrupts persuasion.

You Cannot Persuade a Falling Apple.

Counting Taxis

Taxis NYC

I’ve experienced two bad taxi moments in my life.  The first occurred in Chicago when Melanie was dressed to kill and in my distraction I made the mistake of telling the cabbie we were late for a dinner reservation at Charlie Trotter’s.  We spun out from the taxi line at the hotel like a NASCAR start and dodged through downtown rush hour traffic arriving exactly on time at Trotter’s, an outcome that violated both the rules of physics and the laws of Chicago.  I was so badly shaken I briefly forgot about Melanie’s legs and gulped a double Martini just to get my heart rate down to normal.

The second occurred in New York when we were standing in the queue outside our hotel at dinner time during a rainstorm.  After a very long wait, our turn coincided with the screeching arrival of a cab whose doors flew open for both driver and occupant who were continuing a verbal brawl, both swearing and hollering in various languages at each other with a female occupant actually taking a swing at the driver.  We declined that cab and waited for the next one.

Past those two moments, most of my taxi experiences are positive.  Most drivers have been good at their job and some have been eminently useful which is why I am a bit surprised at the vigorous venom unleashed over accusations that Big Apple taxi’s have been routinely gouging customers.

You’ll recall the Rule:  If You Can’t Count It, You Can’t Change It, meaning it’s hard to know your persuasion is working unless you can track it even with the simplest Yes or No number scale.  Yet, the opposite of the Rule – If You Can Count It, You Can Change It – is not true.  Simply because you can count something does not mean that you understand it, the count is meaningful, or most importantly, you can change it.

At first blush people jumped on the Count.  Four million dollars in overcharges!  Four thousand taxi drivers!  Zillions of trips!  They assumed that the numbers Counted something real, explainable, and indictable:  Those damn drivers!

Now, it appears that the Count may not mean what we thought it means.  Turns out that a lot of the Count was a mistake.  Yeah, there were several really bad Apples in the Big Apple fleet, but nothing like the first take.  (And that’s what made me initially suspicious – nearly ALL the drivers did this?)

Remember:  If You Cannot Count It, You Cannot Change It.

But, simply because you can count it doesn’t mean you can explain it.

Finally, never tell them you are late AND always take the next one if your cabbie curbs up and expels a cursing passenger!

Dancing with Persuasion

MetaphorI wanted to be an actor, writer, and director in theater.  I pursued that with a child’s enthusiasm from my youth until young adulthood when even my considerable energy could no longer resist reality.  I just wasn’t that good and worse still I wasn’t getting better.  So, I followed my talent elsewhere, but never forgot those early lessons.  And, my experience as a dancer, while proving me no hoofer, still taught me persuasion metaphors.

In high school I had a great part in the chorus with the musical, George M! I had made the cut for the lead, George M. Cohan that great Broadway musical theater talent, but because I could not sing or dance outside of my bathroom shower, I didn’t get the part.  But, I was good enough for the chorus line!  Great experience, too, for as it is written, There Are No Small Parts Only Small Actors.  My partner could dance like the wind with all the effortless grace of a spring breeze.  I enjoyed just watching her and had to resist becoming the audience with her skill.  Not only could the girl dance, she could teach.

After our first miserable rehearsal where we were bouncing off each other like bowling pins in a mix master, Barbara gave me a sweet smile, pointed to a distant edge of the stage, and asked me to stand over there, WAY OVER THERE, and just watch her.  Only when I walked 30 feet from her and no longer threatened her safety, did she then run through our pas de deux routine alone.  And then I saw the soft breeze of her talent as she floated through the routine, gracefully lifting into the air, swinging, pivoting, gliding all without my controlling manly strength.

Teaching by showing, she sized up my limited talent and explained how to develop my skill.  Instead of lifting, tossing, and swinging her body around the stage floor as if I was the motive force behind her actions, my job was to act like I was lifting, tossing, and swinging her.  Simply:  She’s the dancer and I’m the actor.

Our rehearsals got a lot better from that first failure as I learned how to dance like Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune.  Just move gracefully on time and don’t hit anything.  Work in some funny bits with a hat or a quizzical look but only if you can do it on time and without hitting anything.  In other words, don’t dance; just act like you’re dancing.

The proof of this pudding was in the performance, of course.  Everyone who knew me couldn’t believe I got cast in the chorus line and eagerly anticipated my star turn in Demolition Derby.  But, I disconfirmed their accurate anticipation by fooling them with my acting and Barbara’s dancing.  After a few weeks of working with her, I learned how to move on time without hitting anything and adding little dazzles, charms, and bits to boot.  My friends and family were dumbfounded backstage after the performances.  Who knew we had a Fred Astaire in the family.  Mom wept.  Even our director, who knew how to crush you and did so as needed, congratulated me.  He knew it all along, he said, nervously wiping sweat off his face.

If you ask me today, I’ll tell you I’m a good dancer because I know how to act like a dancer with a girl who knows how to dance.  If you want some other kind of dancing, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Persuasion is acting like a dancer with someone who is a dancer.  If you can get the Other Guy moving the way you want, all you have to do is move on time, not hit anything, and add dazzles, spangles, and bits along the way.

5, 6, 7, 8, give my regards to Broadway!