Today we’ll look at a detailed example of a persuasion effect seen through a great research program. In so doing we’ll understand that it’s not only what you know, but how you know it that makes persuasion science strong, useful, and unique. Furthermore, we’ll see the difference between science and those fairy tales I often disdain on the Persuasion Blog. When you read papers like this one, then you read a fairy tale, it’s hard to keep from laughing out loud. We’ll learn a lesson in interactions, specifically between Science and Persuasion. Use science, and persuasion becomes sensible. Use persuasion, and science becomes silly.
We begin with an interesting hypothesis. People use food sizing as a status signal. SuperSize can indicate more Power or Status, for example. I’ll try to keep this simple, but we’re talking about a 6 experiment package. You might enjoy reading the article, too.
Research participants were randomly assigned to view a scenario about another person, then make an attitudinal judgment about that person. The scenario described the target person as selecting either a Small, Regular, or Large serving of a meal. How’s it go?
For status dimensions, there was an effect of size of observed choice (F(1, 177) = 10.22, p = .001, eta2 = .10). Perceived status of the consumer in the scenario increased as a function of the size of the chosen option, from small (M = 3.03, SD = 1.19) to medium (M = 3.79, SD = 1.25) to large (M = 4.98, SD = 1.41). Planned contrasts further revealed that the consumer’s perceived status was significantly higher in the large condition than in the small (t(182) = 4.66, p = .001, d = 1.10) and medium (t(182) = 2.95, p = .01, d = .65) conditions. In addition, perceived status was significantly higher in the medium than in the small condition (t(182) = 2.27, p = .05, d = .46).
This is a Low WATT, Cue driven persuasion play. Quick. Look at this person. Are they cool? Size of portion drives that snap judgment with SuperSize delivering extremely Large Windowpane differences. So, impression formation favors the SuperSize. Status, coolness, positive attitude, no matter how you express it, people automatically associate SuperSize with what you are. Now, how can you manipulate people’s need for status? Let’s play with power.
Power was manipulated via an episodic prime adapted from Galinsky, Gruenfeld, and Magee (2003). In the high-power condition, participants read: “Please recall a particular incident in which you had power over another individual or individuals. By power, we mean a situation in which you controlled the ability of another person or persons to get something they wanted, or were in a position to evaluate those individuals. Please describe this situation in which you had power—what happened, how you felt, etc.” In the low-power condition, participants read: “Please recall a particular incident in which someone else had power over you.
Specifically, they were told: “Please consider the following assortment of smoothies. If such an assortment was available at the University Student Center, and you were considering purchasing a smoothie now, which one would you be most likely to buy?” The assortment displayed three pictures of a cup the smoothie was served in. In order to clearly indicate the size hierarchy among options, we varied the pictures’ size to reflect the relative size of each option. In addition, we labeled the three options “small,” “medium,” and “large” to emphasize their relative sizes.
So. We’re manipulating how powerful the participant feels, then we want to see what Portion Size they prefer. Results?
There was a significant main effect of power (F(1, 135) = 10.54, p < .01, eta2 = .09), such that low-power participants were significantly more likely to choose larger smoothies (Mlow = .32, SDlow = .72) than both baseline (Mbase = .03, SDbase = .79; t(141) = 2.21, p = .03, d = .43) and high-power participants (Mhigh = −.04, SDhigh = .82; t(141) = 2.29, p = .02, d = .47).
A Medium Windowpane, about a 35/65 effect. When you feel power down, you power up by selecting SuperSize. Let’s do power from another direction.
Small tables (one per lobby) were set up on people’s way out of the building between the elevator and one of the exits (a path that all residents have to take to exit the building). A large, highly visible banner (about 4.5 × 3.5 feet) advertising House of Bagels, a supposedly new bagel chain in the area, was displayed behind each table. Key to the experiment, the content of this banner differed from one lobby to another. In one of the lobbies (low-power condition), the banner read: “We all feel powerless in the morning: Treat yourself to free bagels.” In a second lobby (high-power condition), the banner read: “We all feel powerful in the morning: Treat yourself to free bagels.” In the third lobby (baseline condition), the banner read “It’s morning: Treat yourself to free bagels.
Again we’re manipulating participants immediate sense of power, then letting them choose same food, but under different semantic attributes. So what?
On each table, two large plates were full of bagel pieces. Importantly, one plate contained small pieces (approximately 1.5 × 1.5 × 1.5 centimeters); the other plate contained large pieces (approximately 2.5 × 2.5 × 2.5 centimeters). Participants were invited to take as many pieces as they wanted, as long as they ate them on site.
There was no main effect of power on the total number of pieces taken (F < 1). However, there was a significant power × size interaction (F(1, 83) = 3.01, p = .03, eta2 = .03), such that low-power participants took more large pieces (M = 1.93, SD = 1.11) than both baseline (M = 1.22, SD = 1.18) and high-power (M = 1.24, SD = 1.21) participants (F(1, 83) = 3.79, p = .02, eta2 = .08). In contrast, the number of small pieces taken did not vary across low-power (M = 1.21, SD = 1.19), baseline (M = 1.44, SD = 1.28), and high-power (M = 1.38, SD = 1.26) participants (F < 1).
The low power signs led people to take more large pieces of bagels, about a Medium Windowpane, 35/65 effect again. So, manipulating power again makes low power people seek the SuperSize food option. Let’s manipulate power yet another way.
Power was manipulated through an imagination task adapted from Dubois et al. (2010). In the high/low power condition, participants were told: “We would like to imagine you are a boss/employee at a company. Read about the role below and try to vividly imagine what it would be like to be in this role (i.e., how you would feel, think, and act).”
Let’s manipulate three conditions, private, public, and social.
In the private condition, participants were told to imagine that they were “alone at home and about to order a smoothie/pizza” for themselves. In the public condition, participants were told to imagine that they were “alone at the restaurant and about to order a smoothie/pizza” for themselves. In the social condition, participants were told to imagine that they were “at home with friends and about to order a smoothie/pizza” for themselves (pizza consumed in the presence of close others).
So, now you’ve got power (or not) and you are eating in private, public, or social conditions. Results?
There was a significant effect of power (F(1, 263) = 10.45, p = .003, eta2 = .03), such that participants in the low-power condition significantly chose larger containers (M = .19, SD = 79) compared to high-power participants (M = −.13, SD = .82). More important, there was a significant power × social visibility interaction (F(1, 263) = 3.91, p = .03, eta2 = .05), such that low-power participants chose larger containers as the social visibility of consumption increased, whereas high-power participants’ preference for size did not differ across consumption conditions.
Again, low power motivates SuperSize especially as you become more visible to observers. This is a Small Plus Windowpane, about a 42/58. And, again, it is consistent with the power-SuperSize relation we’ve seen before. Less power, SuperSize me!
This research team executes two more experiments that manipulate participants sense of power, then connect that with the size of a food portion. These additional experiments produce the effect we’ve seen so far, but extend it to different facets of power. The cool part of this research is indeed all those different facets or expressions or manipulations of power. Turn the diamond many different ways and it always glitters with a different look that reveals the same connection: People associate portion size with power and status.
Now. If you don’t see applications of this, you don’t know Jack Kennedy. Let’s go with the Lifestyle Drum and Bugle Corps. When you march for downsizing food portions, you are also marching against status, power, and coolness. Direct attacks on portion size are also direct attacks on the Other Guys self esteem. Thus, the louder the Lifestyle Band plays, the worse the Other Guys react.
Remember, It’s about the Other Guy, Stupid. If you want Other Guys to prefer, offer, or consume smaller portions, you’ve got to address this Size-Status hydraulic or you will fail. Sure, you can point to the conditioned stupidity of this hydraulic and laugh at Other Guys who are dumb enough to follow it, but that won’t Change the Other Guys.
Consider beginning all those Lifestyle Parades with an Overture, the Self Affirmation Overture. Serenade the Other Guys with a pretty tunes that extol their virtues, charms, and features. Underscore their strength, commitment, and boldness. In other words, enhance their self concept and self esteem so you can then start the Parade of Change.
May I also suggest that portraying food and marketing groups as Evil Enemies does not help here. Sure, they helped nurture that SuperSize-Status hydraulic, but they did not invent it. Big as Better is a strong heuristic with eons of evolution to support it. It is human nature to connect Big with Better. Food and marketing capitalize on this of course because it is an obvious feature of their product or service. And, sure, they make more profit from Big Is Better. But, that doesn’t change the fundamental human heuristic thinking. I’d argue that when the Lifestyle Corps attacks Big Food and Marketing it also indirectly attacks the status and esteem of the Other Guys.
The more you reflect on this the dumber a Size attack becomes. The Food Police will never have enough time and money to create an enduring massive persuasion campaign to build a Smaller Is Better heuristic with food. Attacking Big Is Better, whether aimed at the producer or the consumer, is counter-productive and instead attacks self concept and esteem. If you must confront Big Is Better with food, you’ve got to try something else, again like an Affirmation Play.
Of course, you could realize that overweight and obesity are largely due to self control issues and to massive changes in the way people live (technology removes almost all physical effort; education points people to toil in the garden of information; science provides pills for cures) rather than blaming McDonald’s Happy Meals. Are you a maven or a zealot?
Past the Food Wars, see the complexity of human nature, persuasion, and persuasion science in this paper. SuperSize seems obvious until you look at it with experimental research. Then you realize how tricky and complicated it is and how you can manipulate it when you understand it and that you understand it with science like this.
David Dubois, Derek D. Rucker and Adam D. Galinsky. Super Size Me: Product Size as a Signal of Status. Journal of Consumer Research. Published online ahead of print.