No one wants to die and everyone actively avoids it. Man, if you can make Other Guys think They might be dying, you’ve got a powerful motivator. Hmmmm. What makes Other Guys think They might be dying?
. . . six-symptom checklists in three presentation orders. The general-to-specific checklist listed three general symptoms and then three specific symptoms. The specific-to-general checklist listed three specific symptoms and then three general symptoms. Symptoms in the alternating checklist alternated between general and specific (again, three symptoms of each type). All three checklists presented the same six symptoms. The general symptoms were fluctuations in weight, shortness of breath, and feelings of being easily fatigued. The specific symptoms were pain in the throat or neck, difficulty breathing, and lump in the throat or neck.
Participants read about a fake thyroid cancer, then were randomly assigned to take a symptom checklist with six symptoms arranged in one of three orders, general-to-specific, specific-to-general, or alternating. They then rated their likelihood of having the fictitious cancer.
Pshaw. That couldn’t matter. Could it?
As predicted, we found a significant effect of the order of symptom presentation on perceived disease risk, F(2, 114) = 4.74, p = .011, ηp2 = .08 (Fig. 1a). Whereas perceived risk did not differ between participants in the two streak conditions (p = .605), participants in the alternating condition reported lower levels of personal risk than did participants in either the general-to-specific condition (p = .047) or the specific-to-general condition (p = .009).
That’s a Medium Windowpane, about 35/65. Practical and obvious. Here’s a graphic to illustrate.
So, when people get that alternating order, they don’t perceive themselves as dying while if they get either pattern of General-Specific, they do see themselves as dying. Hey, this is interesting enough, but the researchers take another step to figure out why the effect occurs. It’s the streak, baby, the streak. The researchers investigated not only how many symptoms people checked, but how many in a row they checked. In other words, they studied the streak patterns. So what?
We then conducted a series of regression analyses to examine the mediating role of check-streak length. First, we found that order of symptom presentation was associated with average check-streak length, such that the two streak conditions produced longer check streaks than did the alternating condition (β = 0.31, R2 = .10, p = .001). Order of symptom presentation was again associated with perceived risk (i.e., exposure to streaks rather than alternating symptoms predicted higher perceived risk; β = 0.18, R2 = .03, p < .05). We also found that check-streak length was associated with perceived risk, such that longer average check streaks predicted higher risk ratings (β = 0.35, R2 = .12, p < .001). Finally, when we regressed perceived risk on average check-streak length and order of symptom presentation, we found that average check-streak length was a significant predictor of perceived risk (β = 0.33, p < .001), but order of symptom presentation was not (β = −0.08, p > .05; overall model R2 = .13, p < .001).
If you grind through the numbers the way a scientific maven would, you see that the order effect (general-specific) disappears when you count the streaks. Other Guys think they are dying when they check more symptoms in a row! Any technique that generates more and longer streaks will produce belief in more dying!
Now, this paper runs a second study on length of checklist and if checklists are part of your persuasion Local, you need to get the paper and read it. The headline news is there’s an interaction between length of checklist and presentation order, which is groovy news for nuance fans, theorists, and Implications for Future Research. On a mere practical basis, the Main Point continues: Checklists must produce streaks to get more death perception.
While this study does not test this, I would assume that the Streaker Persuasion Play® is not restricted to mortality and morbidity. You could probably produce the same outcome with More Life instead of More Death. For example, you could manipulate checklists so that Other Guys streak-checked items associated with good health and fitness so that even overweight smokers with drinking problems and a family history of early mortality would think they’ll live forever.
Move away from Life and Death. Everyone is forever soliciting feedback from clients and customers about products and services. Why not arrange those feedback checklists so that people will streak-check favorable outcomes making them believe the overall experience was positive? Do the same thing with advertisements. Put checklists of favorable attributes that many people would streak-check.
I’m asserting past the evidence in this paper, that the Streaker Persuasion Play® is a general effect and move people in either a positive or negative direction depending upon the streak and the content of the checked items. Streak a bunch of negative items and you get Death. Streak a bunch of positive items and you get Life.
Now, the unavoidable Professorial Insight from Steve. See larger theory here. This is a Peripheral Route Cue. Low WATT processors skip along the checklist unaware of order or length then see that Streak of Death which triggers an immediate negative attitudinal response: I’m Dying! There’s no Long Conversation in the Head with a diligent search and scrutiny of all the relevant Arguments, just that streak and I’m Dying! You can make money betting that these attitude changes dissipate rapidly, do not persist over time, and affect behavior only in the immediate moment.
And that last property is the most important for practical persuasion. Streak Checks generate immediate, here-and-now, attitude change on the Peripheral Route. Present your behavioral TACT right now. Don’t delay. As soon as the Other Guys complete that Checklist, give them an easy way to perform a concrete, observable action. Click a link that schedules an appointment or the delivery of a new product to their door. Give them something to sign, a door to walk through. Something, but get the action immediately.
Finally, return to the old days with Attribution Theory. The Streaker Persuasion Play® depends upon basic attribution processes from the Why? Because! game. People observe their responses to the checklist, ask Why?, then answer, Because I’m Dying! We’ve looked at pharma guys who’ve read this research and applied it to sell drugs to women for menstrual problems and to men for testosterone replacement. You can go back at least to 1975 and research from Salancik and Conway that manipulated perceptions of religiosity merely by using either “occasionally” or “frequently” with a behavior statement like “I attend church services.” More folks would check statements with “occasionally” compared to “frequently” and thus perceived themselves as more religious. Why? Because they checked all those religious behavior statements!
Who’d think there’s so much going on in a checklist?
Remember, it’s the streak, baby.
Virginia S. Y. Kwan, Sean P. Wojcik, Miron-shatz, Ashley M. Votruba, and Christopher Y. Olivola. (2012). Effects of Symptom Presentation Order on Perceived Disease Risk. Psychological Science, published on March 5, 2012
Salancik, Gerald R.; Conway, Mary. (1975). Attitude inferences from salient and relevant cognitive content about behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 32(5), Nov 1975, 829-840.