Your brain can be persuaded in some surprising ways.
When you go into a supermarket, you probably think that you make your choices of what to buy based upon what food brands taste the best to you, or which shampoo brand seems to make your hair look the shiniest. Or maybe you see yourself as a frugal sort of person who always chooses the product that provides the most quantity for your dollar. But as a study published in 2013 in the Journal of Consumer Research reveals, what ends up in your shopping cart may instead be determined by another factor, one that's not controlled by you, but rather by advertising and marketing experts: how often your eyes have been tricked—by in-store banners, colorful packaging, or other means—into scanning
a supermarket shelf and visually pinpointing the product's location.
In the study, the researchers put their subjects in front of supermarket displays containing two unfamiliar brands of a product—soda, cheese, shampoo or chocolate—and then asked them to locate one of the two brands. Later, when the researchers, asked them to choose a brand to buy, the subjects generally picked the “selected” brand they’d been previously asked to identify, rather than the second “neglected” brand that researchers had subtly encouraged them to ignore, or a neutral brand that hadn’t been used in the initial exercise. In fact, they were so powerfully influenced by the sensory experience of searching for one brand on the shelf while screening out another package, when given a choice between the “neglected” brand and a neutral brand that they hadn’t seen before at all, they tended to pick the neutral brand.
Welcome to the secret world of marketing persuasion that exists all around us, and continually influences the choices we make—whether it's to buy a particular car or tube of toothpaste, or to vote for one political candidate instead of another. It’s all the result of carefully calculated efforts by advertisers and marketers. With the help of psychologists and neuroscientists, they've figured out how to take advantage of the tricks that our brains use to cope with the
continuous onslaught of decisions—large and small—that we’re forced to make in the course of each day. In order to keep from being overloaded, researchers have found, our minds strive to be more efficient through prioritizing, by noticing some things while ignoring others, and taking shortcuts based on previous experiences. But that same sanity-preserving mechanism also provides an opening for the persuaders.
MIT's Joshua Ackerman, who studies the psychological mechanisms involved in our decision making, puts it this way: “Much of what we think about or don't think about, the decisions we make or not, and the satisfaction—or dissatisfaction—we have with those decisions is not a matter of rational deliberation. Instead, a long history of evolved predispositions interacts with subtle features of our environments to color our actions.”
The realization that we can be persuaded to make a choice on something other than its merits goes back to ancient times. Back in the 5th century B.C., a Greek school of philosophers called the Sophists focused not upon finding absolute truth, which they didn’t believe existed, but upon convincing listeners to agree with whatever position they chose to take. For a long time after that, would-be persuaders focused upon trying to appeal to logic and deeply-held beliefs. But after World War II, advertising executives, looking for an edge over the competition, began turning away from rhetoric toward psychologists who studied the processes of the brain. By the 1970s, they'd discovered the work of psychologists such as Robert Zajonc, who found that repeated exposure to even a meaningless symbol created a sense of familiarity and favorable feelings in viewers. As a result, advertisers began saturating the airwaves with repetitive ads, in hopes that when we shopped for beer or sneakers, their brands would automatically pop into our minds.
In the 1980s, psychological researchers came up with an even more important discovery. They proposed that the brain actually has two different methods for making decisions. There's the central information processing route, the one that we're aware of as we ponder stuff that we see and hear. But there's also a second, more mysterious backdoor, called the peripheral information processing route, in which our brains
take in sensory information and almost instantly make decisions that we're not even aware of, often based upon prior associations. Dutch psychologists, for example, found in a 2005 study that if they gave subjects a crumbly pastry to eat while filling out a questionnaire, the subjects were more likely to clean up the crumbs afterward if they could smell the faint aroma of citrus-scented cleaning fluid in a bucket in an adjacent cubicle.
Your brain's tendency to respond to a prior association is called priming, and advertisers use it heavily to get you to connect their products to things that you already like. For example, Martin Lindstrom, author of the book Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, notes that one upscale supermarket chain strategically places cut fresh-cut flowers near the entrance—which he says is a priming tactic to get customers’ subconscious minds to associate freshness with the store’s other wares as well.
Here are some other ways in which you can be persuaded, without even realizing it:
Anchoring: Your brain has a tendency to look for points of reference—in psychological lingo, anchors—that you can use in developing an opinion. And that opinion often isn’t a single choice, but a series of options grouped around the anchor, something that psychologists call the latitude of acceptance. Advertisers and marketers often guide you to pick an anchor that they like—like the “manufacturer’s suggested retail price” that is listed in ads. According to Charles U. Larson, lead author of the book Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility, the MSRP often is “an artificially high number to make the actual price charged appear more reasonable.”
The Illusion of Choice: We might like to think that we shop at particular stores because they have the most varied selection of products. But as a 2009 study published in the
journal Psychology and Marketing revealed, when consumers have a lot of similar options to pick from, they tend to leave without making a purchase. Indeed, a 1995 study by Columbia University researcher Sheena Iyengar discovered that when a retailer reduced the number of jam flavors that it sold from 24 to just six, the percentage of customers who actually purchased a jar went up by a factor of 10. As marketing executive Vivek Bapat noted in a recent Forbes article, that’s why online retailers such as Amazon.com continually try to narrow and focus customers’ options by offering them suggestions about what to buy, based upon their past choices.
The Primacy Effect: The brain has a limited ability to process and evaluate lists of items so it tends to give more weight to the first item. “The first information you hear stands out and your brain uses that to color all later information,” Ackerman explains.
The Trustworthy Face: In what seems to be be an evolutionary quirk, our brains are pre-programmed to view certain types of faces—women, and those with attractive features—as more trustworthy than those of other people. A 2006 study by Princeton University psychologist Alex Todorov and student researcher Janine Willis, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that our brains apparently bypass rational thought to make these judgments at lightning speed—as little as 100 milliseconds—but that even if we stare at a face longer, we still come to the same conclusion. “Because we make these judgments without conscious thought, we should be aware of what is happening when we look at a person's face," he noted in 2006.
The Expert Fallacy: We have a tendency to defer to authority figures when we make purchasing decisions—even if they’re not real. In the 1990s, for example, a software maker marketed a typing program, “Mavis Beacon Teaches
Typing,” whose package was emblazoned with the face of an attractive, professional-looking woman whom a purchaser might assume was the typing expert who created the program. In reality, as a 1998 New York Times article detailed, Mavis Beacon didn’t actually exist, and the woman on the box was a Beverly Hills cosmetic counter clerk named Renee L'Esperance, whose “extremely long fingernails made her an unlikely typist.”
Since we provided "anchors" that assigned the Eiffel Tower a higher potential height, you may have based your answer on that misleading (but technically correct) data.
We provided "anchors" that assigned the Eiffel Tower a higher potential height, but you didn't base your answer on that misleading (but technically correct) data. Well done!
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Psychology can teach us a few persuasion techniques.
As the Brain Games episode on persuasion notes, our brains have developed numerous shortcuts, to cope with the continuous onslaught of decisions—large and small—that they’re forced to make in the course of each day, including subconscious processes that circumvent logical thought to come to quick conclusions. But while advertisers and marketers can exploit these sanity-preserving coping mechanisms, they can also work in our favor, if we need to persuade another person. Here are a few tricks of persuasion, gleaned from the work of psychologists and neuroscientists.
1. Give a reason for what you want. Psychologist and author Robert Cialdini points to a phenomenon called the “trigger feature”—small details that will cause a behavior in an organism. A male robin, for example, will attack a clump of red feathers, because the color suggests to him a rival who has entered his territory. Apparently, some words are trigger features for humans. A study by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer found that when subjects were waiting in line to use a photocopier, they were roughly 50 percent more likely to let someone cut in front of them if they used the word “because” and gave a reason—no matter what the reason was. In fact, 93 percent allowed a person to go ahead of them, even if the reason was “because I have to make some copies.”
2. Tell him or her that others are doing it. Cialdini found in a 2006 study that when hotel guests were told that most of the other guests reused their towels, they were 26 percent more
likely to reuse than people who merely were told about the environmental impact of washing towels. In another study, he similarly found that people were more likely to conserve electricity if the utility company hung a sign on their doorknobs, informing them that the majority of their neighbors were saving energy.
3. At least appear to offer a choice. If you try to pressure a person to do what you want too overtly, you may encounter the principle of psychological reactance—that is, no one likes to be told what to do. Instead, psychologist Michael Pantalon, author of the book Instant Influence: How to Get Anyone to Do Anything—Fast, advises presenting the person with reasons why they should do something, but then reminding them that they have a choice, and then walking off without a resolution. That may seem crazy, but he insists it is effective. As he explained in a recent Psychology Today article: “Their resistance melts away and they start thinking
about their own thought processes, instead of yours." A meta-analysis of 42 different studies, published in the journal Communications Studies in 2012, found that the “But you are free” approach generally is an effective method of persuasion.
4. Try a little low-balling. In a 2006 Psychology Today article, writer Katie Gilbert recommends getting a person to do a big favor by first persuading them to do a smaller one. “Then, before the favor is executed, the persuader ups the ante and explains that the favor is actually larger than previously described,” she writes.