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specific words and actions for persuasion

the Cold Pressor Persuasion Play©™® with John Cheever

You may know John Cheever’s name from an infamous episode of TV comedy series, Seinfeld, where everyone discovered that George Costanza’s father-in-law had had a brief gay fling with Cheever as revealed in a box of letters, the only surviving item from a cabin fire set from Kramer’s Cuban cigars. John Cheever was a great writer who received a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his book of short stories. He was also a persuasion theorist.

A family is meeting at their summer vacation cottage on the Atlantic in New England. Like most families, there remains ancient tensions between adult siblings and one in particular drives everyone else to frustration. Yet, as Cheever the persuasion theorist reveals, they stumble upon a persuasion play as this paragraph narrates.

And now I remember that while Lawrence was visiting us, we went swimming oftener than we usually do, and I think there was a reason for this. When the irritability that accumulated as a result of his company began to lessen our patience, not only with Lawrence but with one another, we would all go swimming and shed our animus in the cold water. I can see the family now, smarting from Lawrence’s rebukes as they sat on the sand, and I can see them wading and diving and surface-diving and hear in their voices the restoration of patience and the rediscovery of inexhaustible good will.

Goodbye, My Brother, page 10, The Stories of John Cheever.

This, of course, is a variation on the cold pressor task so beloved of behavioral researchers. Just insert your body or a part in freezing water. If you’ve never fallen into a winter creek, you have no idea how compelling the cold pressor task is. It dominates you like Mike Tyson back in the day.

Typically the task is employed as the first independent variable in a study. You complete informed consent and stick your arm in that bucket. Then after a bit, you do something else, most often the dependent variable, such as watch the monitor that shows your blood pressure elevating like a rocket. Here we see Cheever as theorist perceiving the cold pressor task as something that modulates an existing condition. When unhappy Other Guys willingly go for a swim – which is a cold pressor task – they will emerge from the freezing brine with a new and favorable attitude!

The trick here is to get the Other Guy to willingly engage in a cold pressor task. Cheever’s argument is that if you can get her willingly in the water, she will change. Sure, you can get compliance in the lab with money or credit, but in the Local called the mess of life? This, of course, is where we separate the mavens from the muggles.

Here’s how I’ve done it with Melanie.

I use this persuasion play when it is either raining or cold and we’re having an argument. We’ve gotten stuck in the mud of grievance with neither party having the willingness or ability to turn the other cheek which means a Long Night ahead. So, I dare Melanie to take off her clothes and run around the outside of the house, naked, with me. As I make this dare, I strip. Melanie cannot resist a dare and also finds the sight of me naked and unmanned to be funny. By now she is undressing and giggling and putting on a pair of sneakers, then we’re out the door. I surprise her, I challenge her, and, sigh, I amuse her into the cold and wet.

I wish we’d learned the Cold Pressor Persuasion Play®™© when we were first married. Then we employed all the conflict management tactics from the interpersonal communication and human relations and counseling literature. Lots of listening. Active and reflective listening. Perception checking, I hear you saying. Descriptive feedback. Yada-yada. Still produced a lot of Long Nights. Racing your naked spouse in the rain around the house on a cold night works much faster.

Now, we have lived almost all of our married life out in the woods with no neighbors nearby. If you live in the city or a tight suburban tract, you might want to think carefully about running outside your house naked with your significant other. You might modify this play to include squirt guns filled with cold water for example. Or jumping into a cold shower together. That’s your challenge. As the Rule says:

Drive with Science, Putt with Poetry.

The science of the Cold Pressor Persuasion Play©™® demonstrates that it really changes the Other Guy, but the poetry of the play is getting her willingly wet. Now, if I knew the circumstances of your Local, I might be able to make suggestions, but do you really want me to know you and yours that well?


P.S. What’s great about the science of the Cold Pressor Persuasion Play©™® is that even when you know why you are doing it, it will still make a change you can count on. Often awareness of the persuasion principle kills the play; not with this one.

P.P.S. This is a type of Embodiment Persuasion effect. Change the outside to change the inside.

Doing Fear Appeals Effectively

Every muggle knows the overwhelming persuasive impact of fear appeals. Just scare the Other Guy and you will get a change you can count. Of course, when you actually do count the change you typically find almost no change to count. Yet muggles persist (warning labels, anyone?) in declaring and doing something that is disproven.

Until now. Here’s the best available evidence we’ve got for understanding fear appeals and, better still, for doing them effectively. This comes courtesy of a recent meta-analysis of experimental (!!!) studies published in Psychological Bulletin. If you do anything remotely approaching fear appeals (risk appraisal, for example), you need to read this paper and carefully. Again, I want to underline that the studies included in this meta are experiments which provides not only control, but clarity, for understanding this surprisingly complex and tricky persuasion play.

The authors essentially replicate the problems we’ve noted with other fear appeal studies or metas. First, a fear appeal has several moving parts, not just one, and those several individual moving parts typically show Small Windowpane effects on outcomes like intention or behavior. You might recall a previous meta we discussed on the Health Beliefs Model that found this same outcome. Any one moving part is weakly related to the TACT you want to hit. Here’s that same analysis in this meta of experimental studies.

Risk Meta Table 3 Effect Sizes

I’ve highlighted the d effects (Small = .2, Medium = .5, Large = .8) for both intention and behavior. All are in that Small+ range which means there’s something going on, but you have to count carefully. So far, we’ve got nothing new. Then the authors start testing the impact of interactions between the individual moving parts of a fear appeal. This table provides a nice illustration.

Risk Meta Interactions

Take a minute and read each panel to get oriented because each panel is presenting an interaction between two variables. The y-axis reports the d effect size for behavior change. The x-axis displays the level of one moving part (e.g. heightened risk perception) and at the top of the panel you find the second variable (e.g. perceived severity). The interaction clearly demonstrates that while any one part may have little or no effect, when you properly combine them, you’ve got some change to count. It’s still Small+, but you see what kills fear appeals. When you fail at one moving part, it reduces the effectiveness of other moving parts.

That point is made most strongly with this table. It focuses upon two prominent variables Kim Witte has been pounding on since the 1990s and her EPPM, response efficacy and self efficacy.

Risk Meta Coping Efficacy

Please note that far right panel with the proper combination of response and self efficacy. That’s a Medium+ Windowpane on intention and a Small+ Windowpane on behavior. The researchers note other combinations and provide this compelling summary.

Crucially, the impact of heightened risk appraisals was boosted when self-efficacy or response efficacy was enhanced, or when response costs were reduced. In fact, the largest effect sizes in the review obtained when interventions heightened risk appraisals, response efficacy, and self-efficacy simultaneously ( d+ = 0.98 and 0.45 for intentions and behavior, respectively).

When you do fear appeals correctly and implement all the moving parts, you can get Large intention change and Medium behavior change. Here’s how the researchers put it.

The theoretical significance of these findings resides in the empirical support they appear to offer key ideas in the EPPM and early versions of PMT. Both of these theories predicted interactions between risk appraisal and coping appraisal but, with the exception of G.-J. Y. Peters et al. (2012), evidence for such interactions has proven elusive ( Maloney et al., 2011; Ruiter, Verplanken, De Cremer, & Kok, 2004; Witte & Allen, 2000). By meta-analyzing a larger number of interventions than was available heretofore, and by restricting analyses to interventions that generated significant effects on risk appraisals or coping appraisals, the present review enabled us to undertake relevant empirical tests. The findings not only supported the broad hypothesis that risk and coping appraisal combine to influence outcomes but also indicated the specific elements of risk and coping appraisal that are important. In particular, both risk perception and perceived severity effects were augmented by elements of coping appraisal; and response efficacy, self-efficacy, and response costs each augmented the impact of elements of risk appraisal.

Underline that last sentence.

In particular, both risk perception and perceived severity effects were augmented by elements of coping appraisal; and response efficacy, self-efficacy, and response costs each augmented the impact of elements of risk appraisal.

All that is a fear appeal that works. Anything less than all that is what you get with the FauxItAll clamor from the Cool Table with warning labels, scared straight, and Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God: Nothing. Fear appeals are not as simple as they sound or as simple as common sense would have them be. Kim Witte’s EPPM describes all this in great detail and with excellent practical illustration. The problem is that most people don’t execute the EPPM correctly.

On purely a practical basis, you can understand my cringing reluctance to use fear appeals. Sure, if you do a great EPPM implementation you will get great effects. But, you’ve got to get a lot of things moving in the right direction to get the effect and if you screw up one part, it can kill everything else. The complexity of the play makes me nervous as a practical persuader.

Now, if Kim is holding my hand and speaking to me in a soft quiet voice and using little words, then I’m okay. And, in the times I’ve worked with Kim, it has been okay. Nothing blew up. We got a change you can count. She ran the EPPM play and I cheered from the sidelines or ran interference with those who would interfere. So, I’m all in for fear appeals as long as I’ve got Kim Witte on a contract. If not, I’m doing something like Implementation Intentions or a Standard Model design or building low WATT Boxes and Plays with CLARCCS Cues. Those plays, as I prove, are something an idiot can do and get some change to count.

Past our learning about how to do fear appeals correctly, realize how we have learned it. See the value of well-done science for understanding practical persuasion. We’ve had a field of workers doing fear appeals under a wide variety of conditions for a very long time, long enough now that we have a lot of true experiments with random assignment, controlled conditions, smart comparison, and careful counting. That science deftly illuminates what works, what doesn’t, and why or at least how.

Compare that against the Tooth Fairy Tales from the Four HorsePersons of the PostModern Apocalypse. No randomization. Huge samples. No control. Adjusted and debiased data sets. Shifty comparisons. Tricky effect size presentation. And always that parade of statistical significance. Science doesn’t prove everything, but when you do it right, you can produce more change you can count with it than with Tell Me A Story Of Statistical Significance.

Let’s get out of here.

While you’ll always finding me lagging behind, waiting for Kim, you can execute the fear persuasion play and produce obvious, practical, and observable changes in the Other Guys. It is complicated and anyone selling simple fear is selling sand and ice along with ignorance. They will cash your check before you count the change and will not be in the room when you have to explain why you failed. You know what to do: Get Interactions! It’s the combination, stupid. And, you know how to do this. Just chase down Kim Witte and the EPPM! She explains it well enough for even a fool like me to understand it, so imagine how well you’ll do!

Sheeran, P., Harris, P. R., & Epton, T. (2013). Does Heightening Risk Appraisals Change People’s Intentions and Behavior? A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Studies. Psychological Bulletin, 140(2), doi:10.1037/a0033065

P.S. Background Sidebar: I’ve known about the EPPM since Kim has been in the field in the 1990s. By dumb luck, I was on a persuasion panel at a conference with Kim. I’d been out for awhile, but Kim was just finishing her doc and feeling a bit nervous in the presentation. And since it was the EPPM, it is was complicated and even though this was a professional conference with really smart people in the room, most of them were dazed and confused. Hey, it’s a fear appeal; it’s simple, right?

Kim stopped in the middle of the presentation and politely asked, “That makes sense, doesn’t it?” and the room fell silent. So, I chirped out, “Makes perfect sense to me!” and she smiled, then rocked on. Of course, I only understood it enough to be scared of it and realize that if I was going to do fear appeals, it would be as a cheerleader and blocker for Kim.

P.P.S. Found this fun and well done senior thesis project on the EPPM and Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. If only zealots persuaded this well with fear!

Mindfulness (and some other stuff) Is Dangerously Persuasive

When Other Guys get invested in a losing behavior, they tend to persist with it claiming that they’ve got so much invested in the loss, they need to persist to at least get even. This is sometimes called the Sunk Cost Fallacy, meaning that it is irrational to persist with losing. More colloquially, when you are in a hole, stop digging. But, this fallacy is strongly wired by nature and nurture into our minds. Gee. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could find a Play that made Other Guys drop the shovel?

How about mindfulness!

Answering a call for more research about how to improve decision making and reduce biases (Milkman, Chugh, & Bazerman, 2009), we investigated the relationship between mindfulness and resistance to the sunk-cost bias through one correlational and three experimental studies.

Tell me about those studies.

In Study 1, a correlational study, we demonstrated a significant positive relationship between trait mindfulness and resistance to the sunk-cost bias. In Studies 2a and 2b, both experiments, we found that a 15-min mindfulness-meditation induction significantly increased resistance to the sunk-cost bias relative to a control induction (the mind-wandering condition). In Study 3, also an experiment, we found that the influence of mindfulness meditation on resistance to the sunk-cost bias was mediated by decreased temporal focus on the future and past and by decreased state negative affect.

If you count the change here, you find Medium to near Large Windowpanes with a variety of indicators of success following mindfulness meditation. How do you do that meditation?

. . . participants listened to a 15-min recorded induction created specifically for this research by a professional mindfulness-meditation instructor. The content of the mindfulness-meditation induction was adapted from Arch and Craske’s (2006) script, which had been adapted from materials by Kabat-Zinn (1990). Participants were led through a focused-breathing meditation exercise that instructed them to focus on the physical sensations of breath entering and leaving their body and repeatedly reminded them to focus on their experience of breathing. The content of the mind-wandering induction (control condition) repeatedly instructed participants to think of whatever came to mind.

So. Trap the Other Guys in the hole of sunk costs, randomly assign some to that mindfulness meditation, and count an obvious and practical change. Mindful Guys drop the shovel. As the authors put it.

In sum, our studies show that in addition to having the previously documented benefits on subjective well-being, mindfulness improves decision making through increasing resistance to the sunk-cost bias.

I don’t think that conclusion is exactly true. Mindfulness does NOT improve decision making. Mindfulness plus the Box called a Research Study improves decision making. But, mindfulness alone does not produce this effect. You first have to get the Other Guys to go mindful and that requires the Box. Without the Box, the mindful Play will not work.

In geekspeak the problem here is called External Validity or how the experiment translates from the research setting to other Locals and more specifically, to other Boxes. I have no doubt that when you direct Other Guys to go High WATT through any manipulation we’ve ever seen, including now this mindful meditation play, they will hit the Central Route and think very differently about the situation, particularly in regards to their biases. That’s what a High WATT manipulation does.

With many Central Route plays, you as the persuasion vampire can do something outside of the Other Guys that controls their WATTage. Here, who will tell Other Guys that they need to meditate? No vampire, panther, or werewolf. This play requires the self direction of Other Guys to work which is another way of saying the Other Guys need to be High WATT which is what they are not which is why they are still digging in the hole. In essence, the play requires hole diggers in the act of digging a hole to realize that they are hole diggers in the throes of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. You see the circularity. If they had enough WATTage to meditate, they probably would have enough WATTage to quit digging the hole without the meditation.

Now. If you as the panther are working with Other Guys and their hole digging is costing you some change you can count, then consider directing them into mindful meditation. For example, if you are a smart panther working for gun control, you know how emotional and irrational the gun control crowd can be, essentially operating as persistent hole diggers. They’ve sunk so much cost into their prior failed gun control efforts that they are trapped in the Fallacy. Perhaps, if you ran them through mindful meditation before discussing a new persuasion plan for gun control, you might actually get a more High WATT and Objective group of Other Guys who might actually generate Box and Plays that produce more congenial outcomes.

It. Could. Work.

But, you see the nuance. As a free range Box and Play, this trick only works when somebody forces the Other Guys into the meditation Box first. Here it is accomplished with payment or course credit for voluntary participation in research studies. Essentially, this tactic is only useful in Doing The Right Thing settings because no persuasion vampire wants Other Guys thinking clearly and independently during a play . . . unless that kind of thinking produces what you want as with our vampire consultant for the anti-gun crowd.

You should also see the risk with this play. When your Other Guys hit the Objective Central Route and consider all the Arguments, things might get out of control. Take the gun control issue. With some anti-gun people, a thoughtful examination of all the information about guns might produce a change alright, but in the wrong direction. They might realize that there’s more than just a mantra called Guns Kill People.

Good grief. Think of the damage you might do with this mindful meditation with the climate change crowd. They might actually read the methods and results sections and realize there’s less count in the change than they thought!

Past my playfulness you see that the persuasion here is both less and more than even a careful reading might produce. Without that overlooked Box called a Research Study, this tactic is less than it seems. But, to make it work in the real world requires more effort and care than you see here. You have to work harder for this tactic and it could actually make things worse for you while you were Doing The Right Thing.

Andrew C. Hafenbrack, Zoe Kinias, and Sigal G. Barsade. (2013). Debiasing the Mind Through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias. Psychological Science, first published on December 6, 2013


Decision Aid as Persuasion Play

JAMA Internal Medicine provides a research report on the effect of decision aids on mammogram discussion and usage among women over the age of 75. It is a simple study that exposes complex persuasion. Let’s start simple.

Researchers designed an 11 page decisional aid (pdf Decisional Aid Supplement) with text, charts, graphs, and numbers as rates or percentages. They recruited 45 healthy women over 75 in a clinical setting and asked them to complete a pretest and a posttest about breast cancer and mammography. In between, all 45 women read over the decisional aid, interacted with it as designed, and provided an evaluation of the decisional aid itself (comprehension, bias, usability, and so on). The crucial outcomes measured at pre and posttest were knowledge, intention to get a mammogram, and decisional conflict (how uncertain they felt about the issue). The results.

Participants’ knowledge of the risks and benefits of mammography improved: women answered on average 1 (interquartile range, 0-2) more questions correctly on the 10-item index. After reading the DA, fewer participants intended to be screened . . . Decisional conflict declined after reading the DA but not significantly.

So, the Other Guys got smarter, rejected mammography, and tended to feel more certain about their decision. Here’s the table for the intention to get a mammogram.

DA Screening Intentions

You see clearly that the decisional aid really moved the dial with these 45 women from pre to post. It either decreased intention or increased uncertainty. But, it in no way motivated these women to sign right up for a mammogram.

Interestingly the women perceived the decisional aid as somewhat biased against mammograms.

Forty-two percent (18 of 43) found the information balanced, 42% (18 of 43) found it slanted toward not getting a mammogram, and 16% (7 of 43) found it slanted toward getting a mammogram.

Of course, there are serious weaknesses in this study. Only 45 Other Guys in a convenience sample with a pre-post test! This is a repeated measures t-test design without a control group. Any persuasion panther, much less scientist, who did “message testing” like this would deserve any beating she gets. One sample with 45 people ain’t much to go on. Replication. Vary the contents of the decisional aid. Provide other comparisons (recommendations from the AMA or a US health task force, for examples).

Science aside, now consider the persuasion.

What’s a decisional aid? A decisional aid is medspeak for an interactive sequence of information and questions that guides Other Guys through the known science about a particular medical issue. Here the decisional aid takes Other Guys through breast cancer risks and mammograms.

This aid begins with an orientation about the topic (breast cancer) and headline scientific knowledge in both text and numbers written in a very easy to understand style. The aid then asks a series of health questions (height and weight, recent hospitalizations, diabetes, etc.) about the respondent and she has to write her answer to the question and convert the response into a number written on the right side of the page. At the end of the 10 or so health questions, the woman then totals up her score and sees this.

DA Mammogram Effect Summary

The aid continues with a lot more numerical information very simply designed and reported about risks and outcomes related to breast cancer and mammography. Here’s an example.

DA Numerical Example

An infographic or Pretty Picture, but more scientific than usual. It is an exact visual representation of numbers, specifically, rates. Now, the aid presents one final interactive element. This is the last page in the aid before a question about intention to get a mammogram with completes the 11 page decision aid.

DA Pros and Cons

Each woman takes a moment reflect over the preceding 9 pages of text and numbers then checks off any of the Pro or Con thoughts already printed on the paper. She can also then add her own thoughts in those blank lines.

[ELM/HSM Brownie Point: Yes, that is what you think it is and we will get to it. Now, spin the propeller on your head and fly back into the post.]

From this description you see the sequence of information and interaction. The aid presents data, facts, numbers, conclusions, and so on from the scientific peer review literature. The aid asks the Other Guy to provide personal health information that is then immediately scored for comparison against an easy to understand summary in graphic form. Then more information and that Pros and Cons interaction.

Now, you can call this a decisional aid.

You can also call it push surveying.

You can call it choice architecture from Nudge.

Or you can call it a Biased Central Route persuasion play.

Each label means the same thing: sequenced information and interaction that guides the Other Guy through an issue. In this particular instance, the WATTage is probably quite high for each Other Guy, the information is nothing but Argument, that summary health score manipulates a biased schema, and the Pros and Cons interaction provokes the Long Conversation in the Head (and documents it) that doubtless follows the flow of the Arguments and that biasing treatment with the personal health score.

In this application, the decisional aid persuaded these Other Guys to reject an action they’ve been taught to accept for most of their adult lives. Think about that. These women were at least 75 which means when the big push for mammography began in the late 1970s, these participants were adult women. They’ve heard nothing but Get A Mammogram all the time for 30 or 40 years. Then they go through a decisional aid and reject expert advice, habit, and norm.

And just to reinforce that point, the researchers tracked the health records of these women for six months to see if they discussed mammography with their physicians. Read this interesting comparison.

Fifty-three percent (24 of 45) of participants had a PCP note documenting a discussion of the risks and benefits of screening within 6 months of participating compared with 11% (5 of 45) in the previous 5 years (P < .001).

Before the decisional aid, 11% had every had a noted discussion with their physician about mammography. After the aid, 53% had that discussion. That’s a near Large Windowpane increase. The actual screening rate also decreased from 83% before the aid to 60% in the year following – a Small+ Windowpane. Thus, you see changes in future behavior from this decisional aid. And, all those behavioral changes go against that 30 or 40 year history.

The persuasion point is not that this decisional aid is good or bad, but rather that is captures basic persuasion principles. If you changed the information from one cited study in decisional aid to a different source, you could change the slant of the decisional aid in a different direction. You could manipulate the scoring on that personal health questioning to either increase or decrease the score as with push surveying. You could drop either the Pro or the Con thought listing and increase the biased processing.

This thing works as persuasion because it puts Other Guys on the Central Route.

A research assistant (M.C.G.) administered the pretest survey. We then asked women to come to a routine appointment with their PCP early to read the DA. After reading the DA, which takes approximately 5 to 10 minutes, participants attended their scheduled visit.

You take each Other Guy one at a time, a research assistant meets the woman, takes her to a separate room, explains the procedure and then gives the woman the decisional aid. I’d argue that this is likely to produce a thoughtful high WATT consideration of the decisional aid.

With receivers who are so tuned in, the aid then provides Arguments, information that bears on the crucial merits of cancer and testing. It further encourages more thinking about those Arguments with that summary health score, but with a bias. If your score is low, the that graphic arrow tells you that you need a mammogram while if it is higher, you don’t. Consider that these are people over 75 those health scores will not be 0 or 1 or 2, but rather higher and the inevitable biasing conclusion provided in the graphic that mammograms aren’t helpful. Finally, the aid locks in that biased conclusion with that Pros and Cons task with drives the Long Conversation in the Head. Technically, this is called a “thought listing” and is used to measure elaboration activity in research. Here, it is a persuasion play.

Of course, among these researchers this thing is just a neutral, objective, and scientific presentation. Dispassionate. No one is telling you what to do. Think for yourself.

And, of course, this is nothing but persuasion. Change the contents of the information to other “scientific” sources, change the slant of the infographics or that health score or the thought listing task and I guarantee you will get different persuasion outcomes. Which one is the real science?

When you are thinking and doing what a medical researcher thinks you should think and do, it’s decision making. When you look at it with the cold heart of a panther, baby, it’s only persuasion. Everything about the design of a decisional aid shrieks with persuasion and manipulation.

Any decisional aid relies exclusively upon what the designers believe is the proper sequence of information and questioning. If you happen to have a large financial stake in the outcome of a decisional aid, the aid will look different compared to a decisional aid created by an NIH task force given a set of predetermined rules for evaluation. As we’ve noted before, Big Pharma runs “decisional aids” in the form of push surveys that have that sequence of information and questions that subtly guides the Other Guys to a desired decision. Also, a notable form of the Nudge, the thing called choice architecture, is a decisional aid that sequences information and questioning.

The really fun part of this play is how it gets hidden in the label, decisional aid. Call it that and you are scientific. Call it, instead, a push survey or a Nudge or a biased Central Route play and you are both scientific and persuasive.

As a practical persuasion play, consider a decisional aid. Give the thing to Other Guys in a physical setting that looks thoughtful, scientific, technical like a doctor’s office, but for your specific Local. Have a research assistant administer the decisional aid and make sure he or she is dressed to look smart, objective, but friendly. You must build an Authority Box for the Other Guy.

Now, design a decision aid with as much simple science as your TACT possesses. Don’t do any fancy Pretty Pictures like Tooth Fairies or fMRI pixies. Essentially use graphics instead of numbers to express exactly the quantity. Provide citations and references whether to the New England Journal of Medicine or the New York Times or the New New Thing. Include some kind of self report that the Other Guys score and count for themselves, then provide that biasing summary graphic that pushes the Other Guy to the high or low side as you wish. You can manipulate that three ways.

1. The specific questions you ask.
2. The score values you provide for each answer.
3. The label range of Low versus High on the summary graphic.

In this example, the self report of health status asked questions that were guaranteed to get “more” or “higher” responses that were then cut to count higher. The summary graphic at the bottom also provided less space for the “low” side of the graphic and more space for the “high” side of the graphic. By design, most women had to score “high” on this play which required them to count the change against mammography.

Finally, run everyone through that thought-listing play with Pros and Cons. You could further bias this by including, for example, Pro statements that no one would think and Con statements that everyone thinks, thus pushing a negative Long Conversation in the Head. Or reverse it and provide Pro statements that everyone thinks and no Con statements and get a positive Long Conversation in the Head.

You see the amount of effort this persuasion play requires, but remember, you’re pushing the Other Guys on the Central Route and that requires effort from both you and the Other Guys (although you have to hide your effort so the Other Guys doesn’t make an External Attribution to it). You expend effort on building the Authority Box, but you make it look natural, easy, and normal. Then that decision aid encourages High WATT processing with the biasing plays built into it.

The payoff from all this effort is not just with immediate change from the Other Guys, but their persistence, resistance, and future action. Central Route change is strong and elicits an internal structural change in beliefs and attitudes that the Other Guys maintain when they leave the Authority Box. They are now operating under their own steam. With Cue-based change on the Peripheral Route, you’ve lost the change as soon as they leave the scene and you have to hit them again with another Cue the next time. With this biased Central Route decision aid play, you work hard once.

This turned in ways you probably did not expect. Hey, this is the science of cancer and testing, right? What could be more scientific than a scientific presentation of the science? The researchers themselves display a blissful ignorance of the persuasion filling their sails and think this is the real Dr. Doctor MD.

But since we’re beyond good and evil here and beyond the perimeter with persuasion, we can see more widely. Properly constructed and executed, a decision aid in an Authority Box is a killer persuasion play.

Schonberg MA, Hamel M, Davis RB, et al. Development and Evaluation of a Decision Aid on Mammography Screening for Women 75 Years and Older. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(3):417-424.


P.S. So. Is there any science here? Well, you can still find guys in White Lab Coats who will testify like a prophet in the desert about Screening Now, Screening Tomorrow, Screening Forever. And they publish in JAMA, too.

My read of the research literature is that unless you have some kind of diagnosed problem, screening as a population tool (Screening Now Tomorrow and Forever), is almost always useless and dangerous; healthy people will get killed from the “false positive” and the unhealthy will survive based on treatment quality and not the screening. Catch It Early is pretty much a persuasion meme and not a well demonstrated piece of science.

P.P.S. And even with the nice graphical presentation of numbers, we know that whether you use numbers or icons, people still don’t understand the thing better. Remember this experiment? Smart people think you can explain complex ideas with simple pictures and you can’t. I’d argue again that the effect of this decisional aid is persuasive, not informational.

Aversive Skinner Boxes at the Grocery Store

Here’s the Local.

Folks living in the community participate in a pre-existing program that gives them a cash-back incentive for buying healthier foods. What’s especially useful in this program is that everyone has completed a detailed application form and is given a machine readable card that gets scanned with all purchases. You can do a very good job of counting here.

A team of researchers desires to increase usage of the healthy buying program and decides upon a persuasion intervention. They invite Other Guys to participate in a new plan that is a voluntary and aversive Skinner Box. Each month, Other Guys have to increase their purchase of healthy foods by 5 percentage points over baseline. If the Other Guys fail to hit this increase, they lose the existing cash-back incentive and have a debit in that amount applied to their credit card. You see the aversive Skinner Box.

When (buying in this program) Do (purchase less than a 5 point increase in specific items) Get (a loss charged to credit card).

You can easily imagine living in this Box and Play. Everyone has those loyalty cards where you get various benefits when you purchase particular items under specific conditions. Imagine now that you get an email contact from such a source, offering you a chance to participate in the Skinner Box I just described. You. Are. There.

Some people won’t even open the email. Some will read it and discard it. Others will click on the link to see what happens. Some will go all the way and actually agree to play in the Skinner Box. If you do it right, you can apply random assignment with this offer and compare those who reject the offer (no commitment) and those who accept it (commitment). And you can compare them to people who got no choice and no Skinner Box (control). Now, let this thing run for 6 months. Remember, commitment folks have to increase their purchasing behavior 5 points over baseline each month or else get the aversive consequence. Here’s a graph of the results over time with our three groups.

Aversive Grocery Purchase Graph

The x-axis is time and the y-axis is percentage of healthy food purchases. Clearly, two groups, control and no commitment, don’t change much and appear to be decreasing, while the commitment group in the aversive Skinner Box spikes up and zigs a bit, but higher than our two comparison groups. Remembering the admonition to make no decisions based on graphic data, we look at the numbers instead of pretty pictures.

Aversive Grocery Table of Statistics

Orient. Across the top you see the percentage of purchase by three types, essentially good, neutral, or bad. In the left column you see the condition of the analysis – baseline, intervention, and most importantly the two big interaction terms with a condition by time. I’ve circled the important one that contains the Special Sauce, that voluntary, aversive Skinner Box.

As you can discern, the Skinner Box Guys did increase purchase of good food while decreasing purchase of neutral and bad foods. And, the changes are statistically significant. And, better still, the Guys who did not commit to the Skinner Box (the line just above the circled numbers) didn’t move at all. The aversive Skinner Box works! Here’s how the researchers open and close this.

Governments and private companies are increasingly offering incentive programs to encourage healthier lifestyles (e.g., Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, 2010). Motivated consumers will undoubtedly be drawn to these programs with good intentions of eating healthier foods, smoking less, and exercising more . . .

Here, we have shown that there is some hope, as many people recognize their self-control problems and, in such moments of self-awareness, may also welcome an opportunity to create an environment that makes it easier to do what is right.

Let’s analyze this.

While this research appears in a peer review journal, I am unfamiliar with the literature called Increasing Compliance With Government And Corporations. Same with the literature of Doing The Right Thing. This is a change study and whether, why, and how it relates to Government, Corporations, and Right Things is utterly irrelevant to the science of the change. This is just a guess on my part, but if TACT had been, say, increasing sales of hollow point 9mm ammunition by 5 percentage points, I think the editor and reviewers at Psychological Science might have read this paper differently. You, too, maybe.

If you read the paper differently, you have to note something the researchers don’t underline: It didn’t hit the stated goal of increasing purchases by 5 points. This was pitched as both a test of an aversive Skinner Box and hitting a target. Regardless of whether we are aiming our TACT at kale or steel, we missed.

It is true that the aversive Skinner Box did increase purchases of the targeted TACT and that the increase was statistically significant, and it only occurred in the Skinner Box and not with the other two comparison groups. But, it wasn’t 5 points and in fact it averaged about 3 points, which is one third of a Small Windowpane. And, this might over-estimate the true effect.

If you ran statistical tests of trend in the Skinner Box group, I fear you would find a statistically significant downward drop over time. That would lead one to hypothesize if you let this Box and Play run longer, it would return to baseline. Only because the size of the database is so large and in that repeated measures design that we have so much statistical power that we can detect changes this small. And, only because no one looked, we don’t test and potentially detect that declining trend of success.

Perhaps the aversive Skinner Box did achieve very small change you can count, but count fast! The change goes away quickly which is another way of saying any change here did not hit the Central Route with new attitudes and behaviors that persist over time, resist counter-attacks, and predict future actions. Or worse, the change did hit the Central Route and the Other Guys moved from the aversive Skinner Box to the Direct Experience Persuasion Play©™®; they tried it and didn’t like it.

You need to read the paper to follow the trail of Other Guys and just how this thing played out. The research started the play with a population of 6500 households eligible for participation. That dwindled down to approximately 2000 households who read enough of the email to get to the choice phase. Of those 2000 households, 632 volunteered for the Skinner Box, 36%. You see the practical problem for doing this play in the Local where you live. It’s hard to get the Other Guys in this Box.

Finally, this research was conducted with the cooperation of a Corporation in South Africa whose business is health insurance. The health insurance policy includes this grocery cash-back incentive card as part of the coverage for policy holders. Just let those possibilities percolate for a moment and consider how that affects the Local in this research.

Try to imagine executing this play in your own work or business or government or better still your own house. I suspect you’d hit the wall called External Validity which is geekspeak for making this work in other Locals. Under the conditions I’ve sketched out here, you can count a 3% increase that trends down in a few months. This Local is pretty rare air and if you are breathing it, consider this aversive Skinner Box. Otherwise?

Against these concerns, we must note one very compelling strength to this Skinner Box ‘n Play: It costs almost nothing to run. When you sit as a Corporation or a Government with millions to hundreds of millions Other Guys, you can affect very small change with a marketplace, a database, and a network (which you’ve already got) and an email (which this research team would give you for free). If you have already built a Local like this health insurance company has, then you can run this and get some change you can count.

Let’s just focus on the particular health insurance company that cooperated in this project. How does this hit their bottom line?

With an average increase of 3 points, most Other Guys in this Skinner Box lost some of their money. I assume that went to the health insurance company. Sure, it’s only 632 households so this is maybe just a few thousand dollars. The company actually did make some profit on this, but at the expense of costing clients their money. You can’t stay in business too long doing that.

What about the profit you get from healthier clients? Some people bought a few more pieces of fruit and bundles of broccoli. That will not make any physical change to their health which will then reduce their health costs. Might do a bit for psychological demand, meaning that Other Guys who go through this voluntary aversive Skinner Box are not healthier, but they think they are and so don’t get health products or services they might have . . . today. But that’s only postponing the inevitable demand for health services and only briefly.

You could run prosocial persuasion with PR that trumpets this program and builds your branding for Compassion For Our Clients. It’s just a little bullet of information that only cost an email and some counting. You can get pictures and quotes and look and sound Concerned, Innovative, maybe even Sincere.

I just don’t see much practical persuasion here. And, I see costs, risks, and hidden threats.

And, the theory side of this paper is inert unless you are a fan of those literatures of Doing The Right Thing or Compliance With Government and Corporations. The aversive Skinner Box is a very Old Old Thing and we’ve got much better research than this on how to make it work better than this.

The researchers call this voluntary aversive Skinner Box a “precommitment,” but I’m not sure what that means. Without the aversive consequences, nothing happens in this play, and Other Guys cannot get into that Box without knowing about it and agreeing to play in it. That’s informed consent in research or Buyer Beware on the street. I’m not sure how calling it “precommitment” makes any conceptual difference.

Why not call this thing a Nudge and be done with any need for thoughtful theorizing? We’re just messing with the Get side of the When-Do-Get which used to be called Operant Conditioning and is now Behavioral Economics, as if that makes a difference.

Let’s get out of here.

The strengths of this report flow from the natural field study with randomization and great data counting. You can do this quite easily in many settings. And, there is some change to count, even if it is very small and probably short lived. Within the highly specific elements of this Local (the marketplace, great counting, big databases, easy communication) aversive consequences with volunteers will make change.

But, I’m warning you: playing public persuasion games like this is dangerous and unnecessary. You are making the Other Guys trust your warm, kindly, and sympathetic nature as part of the play. When things go sideways, you will take a beating on your character. Survey those Other Guys who had to pay for their failures in this Skinner Box. You think they only blame themselves?

Like all good persuasive science, this paper reads better than it counts. Eating the numbers, so to speak.

Janet Schwartz, Daniel Mochon, Lauren Wyper, Josiase Maroba, Deepak Patel, and Dan Ariely. (2014). Healthier by Precommitment. Psychological Science, first published on January 3, 2014


P.S.  Scientific Persuasion Sidebar . . . do-gooder persuasion that is Sincere is a death wish.  As we’ve seen, Sincere do-gooder persuasion almost always fails to produce meaningful, practical change in the Other Guys while running the persuasion on benevolence and trust.  When you fail to benefit the Other Guys, they will hate you as both an untrustworthy and incompetent expert.  And, don’t try to hide behind the skirts of science here until after you run these Do The Right Thing persuasion plays to increase the sale of guns or access to adoption services for scared pregnant girls or anything else just to the right of kale, baby harp seals, and solar panels.

Do-gooder persuasion that is not Sincere, however, is persuasion.  See Al Gore.  Bill Clinton.  Nest.  Medical testing.  Obama’s commitment to climate change.     Facebook.  Twitter.  Apple.  Google.



Cat Skinner Boxes, Visually

The When-Do-Get forms the basis of a Skinner Box. When in a given Local, Do perform an action, Get a consequence. This is so easy that even cats know the Skinner Box . . . and use it as a persuasion play.

For attention.

Cat Skinner Box Attention Rules

For new boyfriends in the house.

Cat Skinner Box Boyfriend Rules

For fish food.

Cat Skinner Box Fish Rules

For litter box cleaning.

Cat Skinner Box Litter Rules

For anger management.

Cat Skinner Box Poop Rules

For the cat Good Life.

Cat Skinner Box Human Rules

If you’ve got a cat (or dog or child or . . . ) who knows how to build Skinner Boxes for you: You are a Bolivian Bank!

Effect Sizes Visually: An Infantile Demonstration

Remember the pattern with the different Windowpane sizes.

Small is a 45/55 difference.

Medium is a 35/65 difference.

Large is a 25/75 difference.

Just how obvious is a Large Windowpane? Consider this example with 11 month old infants. They are pretested to determine the color of lollipop they prefer. Let’s take infants who like pink lollipops.

. . . the experimenter presented them with two transparent jars: one was filled with 12 pink and 4 black lollipops (3:1) and the other was filled with 12 pink and 36 black lollipops (1:3).

Both jars show the same proportions of the Large Windowpane and that ratio (25/75 is 1 to 3, right?) but in different directions. One jar has more pink lollipops in proportion to black lollipops while the other has more black lollipops to pink one. Now, here’s a graphic to illustrate what happens after the infants see the two jars.

Lollipop Windowpane

Each infant watches the experimenter take one lollipop out of each jar, but with the color hidden. Each lollipop is then placed in a smaller opaque cup so the kid never sees what color is drawn at random from the two larger jars. The kid is faced with a sampling inference. She likes pink lollipops and wants the best chance of grabbing one from the smaller cup. If she can infer probability, one cup is more likely to have a pink lollipop. Which cup do the infants prefer?

Eighteen out of 24 (75%) infants selected the correct cup, reliably different from chance, binomial test, p = .024; 95% Confidence interval [53, 90].3

Heck. Even the behavioral preference outcome is a Large Windowpane with 25% versus 75%!

So. A Large Windowpane is an effect size that even an 11 month old infant can discern and employ for reasoning with statistical probability.

P.S. Fine points with Professor Poopypants. This exemplifies Operant Conditioning and learning the contingencies of a Skinner Box, most specifically, learning the When-Do-Get. Kids learn the contingencies through statistical frequencies because virtually no Skinner Box ever always provides exactly the rule outcomes. There’s always some variation in the Local that alters the When or the Do or the Get and, more tricky still, combinations of When’s with Do’s or Get’s. Skinner Boxes, especially naturally occurring ones in the real world, always vary, so you learn them with statistical frequencies.

I’d be very interested to see how the infants reacted after they crawled over to the chosen cup and got the wrong lollipop. When the Other Guys mispredict a Skinner Box, They tend to react with intensity. Some immediately want a do-over to get the pink lollipop and others want a do-over to test the statistical frequency of the When-Do-Get. Some demonstrate the frustration-aggression hypothesis. Very different babies.

This would be an interesting experimental design to test with more trials to see what happens when the lollipop color varies and what the kid does on the next trial. This is just a one-shot test of a kid’s initial guess of statistical probability.

Stephanie Denison, Fei Xu. The origins of probabilistic inference in human infants. Cognition, Volume 130, Issue 3, March 2014, Pages 335–347.

DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2013.12.001

Imagined Embodied Eyes

You are in a room with constant and steady illumination. You look at a series of triangles all the same size on a computer screen that vary in their illumination on a gray scale, from darker to lighter. As you see the objects move from dark to light, your pupils will change in size becoming smaller as the viewed objects become lighter.

Now. We clear the computer screen and you imagine that series of triangles you just saw. And, as you imagine them with your eyes wide open, we measure your pupil size. Here’s what happens.

Imagined Light Graph

You can ignore the top line of data, which is essentially a control condition, and focus on the two lower lines. The one with the blue triangles shows the change in pupil size during perception – actually looking at the computer screen with the triangles from darker to lighter. The line with the green triangles shows the change in pupil size during imagination – seeing the triangles only in the mind’s eye.

While the two lines are not identical, the pattern is similar and astonishing. Merely imagining an illumination sequence can trigger corresponding changes in pupil dilation. I pun this as an Imagined Embodied Eye effect. We usually see Embodiment as the physical changing the psychological as when you bite a chopstick and your attitude changes. Like this.

Chopstick Smile

Here we see how the psychological changes the physical and a kind of physical, pupil dilation, that has been found to date to be impossible to self control or manipulate through your will. If you ask someone to try and make their pupils smaller they typically frown and if you ask them the make their pupils larger they flash their eyebrows. Neither tactic has any impact on pupils while only providing a nice little workout for the facial muscles.

The researchers push and pull on this basic effect in a series of 4 following studies that rule in and out various explanations. If you like this kind of turning the diamond research, I highly recommend the paper, even if you know or care nothing about pupil dilation.

Consider the conclusion from the paper.

Because we have shown that the eye pupil automatically adjusts to the strength of imagined light and does not simply reflect the current ambient light, we conclude that a mental image rerepresents sensory information gathered from previous experience, including the luminance of the visualized scenario.

What we see in our mind’s eye can produce changes in our bodies, literally down to the visual system in this case. Now, I don’t have a great persuasion application for this just yet. I need to think about it, but it’s most likely to be a baroque farce that would never play well in most Locals, except a research lab. You are probably more creative than I on this one.

The research, however, does illustrate science. Running with a strong methodology, science can reveal oddities about that human duality of mind and body. We’ve found several interesting applications with Embodiment, so this science does pay off in the real world. At minimum this provides that scientific foundation to other persuasion principles even if I can’t tell you how to make money on it just yet!

Bruno Laeng and Unni Sulutvedt. The Eye Pupil Adjusts to Imaginary Light. Psychological Science, first published on November 27, 2013


Counting the Facebook Change: Elections

The public hype on Facebook as a persuasion money-making machine is an excellent case study of how vampires get Other Guys to believe that smoke and mirrors is persuasion. If you want to understand how to use persuasion to sell a company, study the history of Facebook. But, if you want to use Facebook for persuasion yourself on your Other Guys, the public evidence to date suggests a lot of sand and ice. Today we’ll look at what should be a sweet spot for Facebook advertising: Political campaigning.

Broockman and Green conducted (PDF) two randomized and controlled field studies of political advertising through Facebook for two actual elections held in 2012 for legislative races in California. Here are quick descriptions of the two campaigns.

In the first study, a candidate for state legislature deployed advertisements to randomly selected segments of his constituency. The collaborating candidate was a Republican running for state legislature. The candidate’s opponent was a longstanding Democratic incumbent who was running for re-election in a newly drawn district with a partisan composition that leaned Republican, giving the challenger a reasonable chance to win the seat.

For the second field experiment:

First, rather than collaborating with a relatively unknown candidate running for state legislature, we collaborated with a viable candidate running for Congress. This candidate enjoyed much higher name recognition prior to the launch of our study, and the contest itself was of much higher salience.

So, we’ve got a couple of different campaigns here. The first is with a relative unknown running against an incumbent, but in a highly competitive district while the second features a candidate with higher name recognition for larger office. And, we see that the ad campaigns vary the party so we’ve got one for a Republican and another for a Democrat. The two Locals are different.

You need to read the article for the details on the design and execution of the two ad campaigns. It’s complicated as practical persuasion always is and you will find it faster to read the paper than to wade through my technical description. I’ll put it this way: Any panther doing practical persuasion for themselves through Facebook would proceed like this. Stated another way, the researchers bought high Exposure with highly targeted Other Guy Voters and ran all the standard kinds of persuasion plays available through Facebook. This is exactly what Facebook is designed to deliver.

What about that Exposure? Did the purchase plan deliver messages on target?

During the course of the week-long advertising campaign, the Facebook ad interface reported that essentially every single person who could have seen the ads on Facebook did indeed see them (in Facebook parlance, the number of ‘targeted’ individuals was identical to the number of individuals ‘reached’)—5,012 users in the family treatment, 4,752 users in the character treatment, and 4,970 in the policy treatment, or 14,734 Facebook users in all. 19,377 voters on the voter file were assigned to these clusters. Facebook’s records suggest that over the course of the week the typical targeted person saw the ads about three dozen times.

Facebook claimed that the ad campaign nailed the targeted Other Guys with 36 messages for the candidate over 7 days. Facebook asserted that all of the ‘targeted’ Other Guys were ‘reached’ which is the obvious first and crucial stage in the Cascade. If they don’t get it, then it can’t change them, right? Facebook said that by their standards of evaluation, the Other Guys got the message enough to know they got the message and actually processed it. Thus, all the Other Guys took at least one trip down the Communication Cascade according to Facebook.

Now. Here’s the good science part. After randomizing Other Guys to Facebook treatment or control, the researchers then called a large random sample of these Other Guys and did a telephone survey to assess the effect of the Facebook ads.

To assess the impact of the ads, on Saturday, October 13 through Monday, October 15 the polling firm AMM Political Strategies completed live interviews with 2,984 individuals on the voter file (all of whom had associated phone numbers). The firm called the numbers in random order and did not have access to the treatment assignment status of the respondents.

What questions did they ask?

The questionnaire, given in Appendix 2, asked respondents (1) whether they had a positive, negative, or no impression of the collaborating candidate, (2) whether they had a positive, negative, or no impression of the opposing candidate, (3) their vote intention in the upcoming election, (4) whether they recalled seeing any ads for the candidate on the internet, and (5) how often they used Facebook over the last week.

Simple. Direct. To the point. This is what you need to know. You could get more sophisticated and design a Standard Model questionnaire to test persuasion theory, but, hey, this is practical persuasion in the real world and in real time. You need key information right now and this telephone survey delivers the goods. So what are the goods? Here’s the key table of results for the first field experiment.

FB Pol Ad Experiment 1 Results

The table reports the regression coefficients and their confidence intervals that compare the difference between treatment and control conditions. Across the top right you see the main outcome questions (impression, heard of, use FB). On the left column you see the sample broken out into two types: All the Other Guys or just the Other Guys who self reported FB use.

Main Points.

MP1. Note my chicken scratches by those results in brackets. Those are the 95% confidence intervals around the mean difference between treatment and control. Notice that all, and I mean all, of those bracketed 95% CI intervals range from a negative to a positive which means they include zero which means on a sample size of either 2948 or 1364, the Facebook treatment had not even a statistically significant effect. Nada. Nothing. No change on name recognition. No change on favorability for either candidate. No change on voting likelihood. Zero. Zed. And Zed is dead, baby. Zed is dead.

Even if you cannot run a regression yourself and need help reading the results, this table and those confidence intervals shout that the Facebook ads which ‘reached’ every ‘targeted’ Other Guy made no difference on any key outcome. And with these large sample sizes a Tooth Fairy Windowpane would be detectable.

MP2. Note that the null effect holds for both the entire population of Other Guys and the subset of Other Guys who self report using Facebook. In medical research, that entire population is called Intention-To-Treat, meaning that you include everyone you aimed at even if you didn’t hit them because that’s what the real world requires. If you are running for office, you are Intend To Treat all the voters with your treatment. Facebook has got to deliver something in that reality and in this Local, Facebook delivered nothing.

Now, Facebook would steer you to that smaller subset of Facebook using Other Guys. Hey, how can we change Other Guys if they don’t use Facebook? Two replies to that point. One: As the table proves, Facebook ads didn’t change the Facebook users! Two: Word of mouth, baby; I thought that Facebook was the Cool Table and if you convinced the Cool Table, the Cool Table would influence the great unwashed unDigirati.

And as bad as the outcomes are for the first experiment, they are just as bad for the second experiment. Raise Zed from the dead of study one, then bury Zed again with study two.

There’s a ton of theory and research nuance in this paper and if you are this kind of propeller head, please read the paper. But for persuasion panthers, the nuance is noise. Absolutely nothing of practical and favorable impact came from Facebook advertising. The researchers combine the nuance and noise nicely in this paragraph.

To change merely 20 voters’ minds out of the roughly 20,000 who were exposed to the ads would have rendered the $200 ad buy fairly cost effective (at $10/vote). However, to reliably detect the implied 0.1 percentage point effect (20/20,000 = 0.001) of such an ad would require an experiment of roughly 5 million voters. Our experiment (and indeed the legislative districts we studied) contained far fewer than 5 million individuals and could not have detected effects of this miniscule size. As with commercial online advertisements, understanding whether very cheap political online advertisements are cost effective will likely remain ‘‘nearly impossible’’ (Lewis and Rao 2012). At the same time, our experiments do cast doubt on the view that online advertising has substantively meaningful impacts on political attitudes or electoral outcomes.

Broockman and Green thread the camel through needle by noting that it is theoretically possible to create a real voting change and at a cheap price, but it would be practically impossible to detect the change because it is so small. Stated another way, if you did this experiment for a candidate running for President, you could cheaply run a Facebook ad campaign that would truly change a few thousand votes in the 100 million cast and if you could afford the cost of a random sample large enough to detect this true change, then, yeah, Facebook advertising works.

We saw this same contradiction with the infamous CDC statistical science on their wildly trumpeted anti-smoking media campaign. While they claimed 200,000 quits, the data they collected in no way proved that because they didn’t survey a random sample of several million smokers. Even 200,000 is a trivial number against a population of 43,000,000 and you need a huge random sample to demonstrate it. The CDC just faked it with a small study and then extrapolated the small (and biased convenience) sample results to reality. When the only Other Guy who counts is the President who hired you, then you can say things like this in public and not get fired. But, if you are running for office or running your Mom and Pop business, this is how you get motivated to find a new line of work.

Contrast that persuasion statistical science with this mere science. Pick a couple of different Locals. Run the ad campaign as Facebook is designed. Then draw large random samples of your Other Guys and survey outcomes. This research actually designed a rational way to count the change and finds, alas, no change to count.

If you are a Facebook panther, you know how to respond to this. Only a couple of cases. Elections are weird. Try this with more races and see what you get then, baby. And, hey, you need to collect larger samples!

Which is another way of saying that Facebook persuasion is a Tooth Fairy Tale. Sure, collect stupendous sample sizes, adjust for hundreds of different variables, run thousands of different regression equations, then find the asterisks and holler Significant At Last, Significant At Last!

But realize that you are not doing what Facebook says you can do easily and cheaply: Change a lot of Other Guys.

You can put your messages in front of a billion Other Guys and do it very cheaply – same with Google and AdSense. These iAd wizards sell exposure for fractions of a penny. But where’s the change your mille purchases?

The public argument for iAds is that they do work, but when you get down to details like this, you rarely find that iAds work as simply and directly as advertised. You need nuance, like this.

Advertisers use Facebook and Google for different reasons. Google is effective when people search for things they already want to buy and then see ads for relevant products. Facebook is better for educating consumers about products they might want to buy in the future.

“The smart brands learned to use Facebook to create demand, and Google to fulfill demand,” said Bob Buch, chief executive of social advertising company SocialWire.

Ohhhhh! Facebook ads educate Other Guys then Google ads make Them hit the TACT. Yeah, baby, that’s the ticket.

Where’s the data on that one?

What’s funny about this is the incredible Dissonance almost everyone involved is experiencing. Facebook and Google are obvious persuasion machines that laser Other Guys then Box ‘n Play them with astonishing variety, speed, and constancy. They can’t miss.

Yet, when you count the change, the change almost never counts, and if it does, it requires a Tooth Fairy to find it which destroys the initial belief that Facebook and Google are persuasion machines. Good grief, if iAds are that good then why do you need an epi propeller head from the Harvard School of Public Health to invent, oops, discover it?

You see the klonger. People believe so strongly in the persuasion that sold Facebook as a persuasion machine that they cannot accept the reality Facebook returns. They love Facebook as a persuasion machine and the more they suffer Fairy Tale results, the more they love the Facebook persuasion machine.

David E. Broockman and Donald P. Green. (2013). Do Online Advertisements Increase Political Candidates’ Name Recognition or Favorability? Evidence from Randomized Field Experiments. Political Behavior.

DOI: 10.1007/s11109-013-9239-z

P.S. Again, kids, it’s all about WATTage. Facebook, Google, or almost any standard iAd platform is a conflicted information environment where the receivers (the Other Guys) are using the platform as much as the platform is using them. No one has figured out how to control the WATTage of the Other Guys for the specific persuasion message running in the iAd.

P.P.S. So why is everyone using iAds, Professor Poopypants?

Hey, have you already forgotten about selling sand and ice in the service of Dissonance?

It’s a persuasion machine as long as a panther persuades you it is a persuasion machine, not because independent testing proves it is a persuasion machine. People are eating the persuasion from the digital page called Facebook.

Why Up Makes Bad, Good; and Down Makes Good, Bad

Comparison is a preferred persuasion play, a Cue for Low WATT hipsters surfing over social seas. When Everyone Is Doing It, You Should, Too! And, see Uncle Norm as the top view, an aerial shot of all those surfers at once, all following Everyone Else with none being the leader. Then, best of all, we can divide Everyone into those Everyone’s who are Up compared to Us or Everyone’s who are Down compared to Us.

Upward Comparisons, looking at the Cool Table from a distance, tends to elicit a negative response from Other Guys. They look up at the Cool Table, glistening and glittering, a gang who has it all, and the Other Guys see only what They want and haven’t got compared to the Cool Table. Compare yourself Up and you will feel bad.

Downward Comparisons, looking at the unCool Table from a distance, tends to elicit a positive response from Other Guys. They look down on the unCool Table, sweating and grunting, a gang who suffers it all, and the Other Guys see only what They’ve got compared to the unCool Table. Compare yourself Down and you will feel good.

Persuasion panthers can make either direction a hammer to hit the TACT, but see the wider value of the Upward Comparison. The Up tends to make Other Guys feel bad and want more. The Up outrages, impassions, and energizes while perverting WATTage. Jealous and envious Other Guys rarely take an Objective walk down the Central Route. You will find Them either loaded with Bias for a march on the Central Route or Cued with emotion for an assault down the Peripheral Route.

Read the pop press through the technological device of your preference and notice how often the headline and the story work Up rather than Down. This is not simply a bad news bias as we’ve seen with Bad Stronger Than Good, but that comparison between the Down Other Guys and the Up Cool Table. Persuasive pop press writers make the headline and story look Up for comparisons, rarely Down. Same thing with politicians whether running for office or merely their lives! They make everyone seem Down and looking Up.

Now, in the mess of life, the persuasion Local, most of the time there are no simple, obvious, and visible solutions to equally simple, obvious, and visible problems. The mess of life is always a mess which means it is open to persuasion. In such conditions, the Up comparison is the persuasion smart and effective play to make compared to the Down. Let me quickly illustrate with two examples, one military, the other political.

The US has largely won the war on terror and is moving that dangerous and unstable part of the world into the global community of nations. We’ve killed, captured, or marginalized most of the really Bad Guys who attacked US citizens and, as bad, tyrannized their own nations and citizens. Since September 11, 2001, the status quo for all stripes of tyrants – whether the military Pharaoh in Egypt, the faux Colonel of Libya, the dictator of Baghdad, and on and on with that sad list of bullies with guns – has shifted much like the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The world is different because we stood up after the Towers came down.

Today, the world stands in the dawn of an economic miracle unseen in human civilization. Globalization, that set of shared economic norms and actions, is pulling hundreds of millions of people out of an eternal poverty and moving the world rapidly into a middle class existence with houses, schools, safe streets, healthy kids, with peace and prosperity at a rate, scope, and scale never seen on this Earth. More nations and more citizens are moving away from dictatorships and towards a democracy with their Local accent and dialect. And, this globalization continues to grow across the world despite the worst economic failure since the Great Depression threw the world into one of the greatest human disasters ever known, World War II and the Cold War. We avoided those military and political disasters this time because we are on the right path.

End of Illustrations!

Those prior two paragraphs demonstrate an argument from Downward comparisons. They make Other Guys look Down at the worst instead of looking Up at . . . well, that’s the real persuasion trick. Properly executed, the Up Play targets an Up that sizzles, but contains no steak. If you make Other Guys look Up at steak and then fail to achieve steak for Them, then you’ve got a serious problem. However, if you make Other Guys look Up at the sizzle, then you can define almost anything as a success later on.

Think about that with President Obama and By any rational count of the change, it is clear that the implementation of the Affordable Care Act is going badly in enrolling uninsured Americans in new policies. But, the promise of ObamaCare was done more on the sizzle than the steak. We Can Do Better with Hope and Change! Not, 6.2 Million Americans With Bronze Level Health Insurance Policies By December 2013. Sure, the President is getting hammered, but largely by his political opponents, and not his allies so much even though a pure count of the change says even his allies are getting hurt.

You invent Bad News and Outrage with Upward Comparisons. The Up creates a Local that is energized, but not thoughtful, with Other Guys ready to march on the Biased Central Route or to assault on the Peripheral Route towards a change that can never be counted.