Variable Analytic Research
Simple Effects for Simple Minds
Well, kids, here we are. The money section. The Magic Bullets. Peace in our time. Here, take this pill. Your check is in the mail. If you do only one thing, do this. The hidden secrets of the hidden persuaders.
People actually believe that there must be that one special thing you can do and if you know that one special thing and do that one special thing, then something special is going to happen for you! And if you believe that I’ll put you in my prayers. You are a chump, a doormat, a mark, easy pickings, the fall guy, jay, mug, patsy, pigeon, prize sap, pushover, scapegoat, sitting duck, soft touch, and trusting soul who will definitely get it in the end. Persuadin’ ain’t that easy.
You’ve read several theories that demonstrate simple effects in persuasion don’t exist. No single persuasion variable reliably produces the same outcome. Nothing works simply with all faces, places, times, and rhymes. And, yet, many people persist in thinking simple effects must exist.
Why do I make such bold and harsh criticism? What’s my evidence? Easy. Take a walk down to your local bookstore and look for all those books that tell you how to make money with persuasion. Now, scan over the table of contents pages. Read the first couple of paragraphs and the last couple of paragraphs for several different chapters. Overwhelmingly what do you see? Simple effects. Do this one thing. Take this pill. Lean to the left, lean to the right, stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight!
And, during this scan I guarantee that you will find contradictions from chapter to chapter. In one section you see a homily about smiling and touching the customer and all the benefits and then in another section you’ll get another homily about smiling and touching the customer and all the lawsuits.
This is not to say that these writers are dishonest or stupid. They’re just confident and partially correct, a combination of attributes almost guaranteed to get you killed one day. Simple variables do sometimes have simple effects and that’s why pop press authors are partially correct. Their Acme Persuasion Tactic #21 does produce great outcomes. Every now and then. Not regularly and not predictably. But often enough to make them feel confident about doing themselves and recommending it to you. The problem here goes back to the concerns we looked at in the Prove It chapter. A solid claim for success must control for rival explanations and offer proof of generalizability.
I’m going on just a bit, aren’t I? Sorry. Back to teacher mode.
Variable Analytic Research
VAR is the polite term social scientists use to describe research that take one variable and runs it against every other variable you can think of. Thomas Alva Edison is a great practical example of a VAR guy. When he was creating the light bulb he ran into the problem of finding the correct material for the filament (that skinny little wire in the middle of the bulb). He tested literally hundreds of materials in various lengths and widths, carefully observing the results, and writing them down in a lab book. Then one day, Kismet! He found that carbon worked well, got his patent, and illuminated the world. That’s the basic VAR approach: Take one thing, test it under every condition you can think of, and illuminate the world.
The big difference between Edison and many persuasion VARs is that Edison was working with a good theory of lighting and had a great system of other variables already in place. He was looking for one final element. Thus, he was not merely testing every kind of filament for its behavior, but rather testing filaments for how well they worked within an existing technology. Edison doubtless tested filament materials that would have worked fine with a different lighting technology, but he had his light bulb “theory” and was looking to finish. When he was done he didn’t have a theory of filaments, but a working light bulb.
Most persuasion VARs don’t operate this way. They do not test their one big idea within the context of a larger theoretical system. They are creating a theory of filaments rather than a theory of light bulbs.
That’s the first key element of VAR: Strong method, weak theory.
Now, if you take one particular persuasion VAR and read many different studies on it you will find an interesting and almost unvarying pattern of results. Under some conditions the VAR has a positive effect on persuasion (more of the VAR causes more persuasion), under other conditions, the VAR has a negative effect on persuasion (more of the VAR causes less persuasion), and under remaining conditions, the VAR has no effect on persuasion. Now, unless everyone involved with the VAR is carefully tracking the characteristics of the “other conditions” the reader is left somewhat bewildered with the conflicting evidence. Sometimes it goes up, sometimes it goes down, and the rest of the time it just lies there. What’s the deal?
That’s the second key element of VAR: the average effect is close to zero with lots of variations at the tails.
Clearly, with all this variation in the effect of VARs it is apparent that Something Else is going on here. When the action of one variable depends upon the action of another variable, we have an “interaction” effect. That means you cannot predict the impact of X on Y without knowing Z. Going back to Mr. Edison’s example, the X is filament materials, Y is how long it illuminates, and Z is everything else in the light bulb. In the case of most persuasion VARs, the Z term is just a bit hazy, meaning that we’re still working on that part of the problem and when we get enough studies done we’ll read the tea leaves and figure it out. Expressing this with the elements of the Edison example, the researchers would first test filament materials for how long they lasted, then after doing all of that they would try to build the rest of the light bulb.
That’s the third key element of VAR: the effect depends upon other conditions that are often unknown.
These criticisms are tough, but you shouldn’t walk away from VAR thinking it is worthless. Science isn’t easy and most of the time, you’re just groping in the dark looking for something new. Realize that science can be used to confirm common sense, but science is a lot more interesting, useful, and fun when it is used to learn something new or something common sense misses. When you’re on the leading edge of research (sometimes more accurately called the “bleeding” edge), you don’t know the final answer so strong methods are your best friend. I understand many large theories, particularly dual process models like the ELM or Shelley Chaiken’s Heuristic-Systematic Model because of all the VAR work that connects to and supports them.
Okay? You can accurately and fairly criticize VAR work for its weak theory, wild variability in results, and its lack of understanding for interactions. However, all that VAR evidence when combined with large scale theory development is how science gets built in many cases.
Okay, quick review.
In this section, you’ll read three chapters that address a wide variety of VARs. The most interesting and useful set comes from the research of Professor Robert Cialdini in the chapter, CLARCCS Cues. Cialdini is a very smart guy who avoids the standard perils of VAR research by looking at VARs on the peripheral route (also known as heuristic processing with Chaiken’s HSM). Thus, he grabs the light bulb – the peripheral route – then looks at a bunch of filaments – the CLARCCS cues – and illuminates the persuasion world. You’re really going to like that chapter.
CLARCCS cues introduces a fascinating persuasion tactic, the Two Step, which I like and therefore provide another chapter. The Two Step is also known as the Sequential Request Message Tactic – makes you wanna run right out and buy one, doesn’t it? The Two Step actually works, but we’re in the really awkward situation of not being able to explain why very well. Maybe you’re smart enough to figure it out. And, if you do, please see if you can invent a better name than Sequential Message Request Tactics. (What’s wrong with the “Two Step” anyway?)
Finally, you’ll have one chapter on the SMCR communication model. The chapter looks at a wide variety of characteristics you can manipulate in the message part of SMCR.