I teach two classes at the University of Denver: Applied Critical Thinking and Persuasion Methods and Techniques. Sometimes I use the same teaching example for both classes. Take the dying grandmother gambit, for instance
In this persuasive gambit, the speaker plays on our heartstrings by telling a very sad story about a dying grandmother (or some other close relative). The speaker aims to gain our agreement and encourages us to act. Notice that thinking is not required. In fact, it’s discouraged. The story often goes like this:
My grandmother was the salt of the earth. She worked hard her entire life. She raised good kids and played by the rules. She never complained; she just worked harder. She worked her fingers to the bone but she was always the picture of health … until her dying days when our government simply abandoned her. As her health failed, she moved into a nursing home. She wanted to stay. She thought she had earned it. But the government did X (or didn’t do Y). As a result, my dying grandmother was abandoned to her fate. She was kicked to the curb like an old soda can. In her last days, she was a tiny, wrinkled prune. She couldn’t hear or see. She just curled up in her bed and waited to die. But our faceless bureaucrats couldn’t have cared less. My grandmother never complained. That was not her way. But she cried. Oh lord, did she cry. I can still see the big salty tears rolling slowly down her cheeks. Sometimes her gown was soaked with tears. How much did the government care? Not a whit. It would have been so easy for the government to change its policy. They could have cancelled X (or done Y). But no, they let her die. Folks, I don’t want your grandparents to die this way. So I’ve dedicated my candidacy to changing the government policy. If I can save just one grandma from the same fate, I’ll consider my job done.
So, do I tell my classes this is a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on which class I’m teaching.
In my critical thinking class I point out the weakness of the evidence. It doesn’t make sense to decide government policy on a sample of one. Perhaps the grandmother represents a broader population. Or perhaps not. We have no way of knowing how representative her story is.
Further, we didn’t meet the dear old lady. We didn’t directly and dispassionately observe her conditions. We didn’t speak to her caretakers. Or to those faceless bureaucrats. We only heard the story and we heard it from a person who stands to benefit from our reaction. She may well have embroidered or embellished the story.
Further, the speaker is playing on the vividness fallacy. We remember vivid things, especially things that result in loss, or death, or dismemberment. Because we remember them, we overestimate their probability. We think they’re far more likely to happen than they really are. If we invoke our critical thinking skills, we may recognize this. But the speaker aims to drown our thinking in a flood of emotions.
In my critical thinking class, I point out the hazards of succumbing to the story. In my persuasion class, on the other hand, I suggest that it’s a very good way to influence people.
The dying grandmother is a vivid and emotional story. It flies below our System 2 radar and aims directly at our System 1. It aims to influence us emotionally, not conceptually. It’s influential because it’s a good story. A story can do what data can never do. It can engage us and enrage us.
Further, the dying grandmother puts a very effective face on the issue. The issue is no longer about numbers. It’s about flesh and blood. We would be very hardhearted to ignore it. So we don’t ignore it. Instead, our emotions pull us closer to the speaker’s position.
So is the dying grandmother gambit good or bad? It’s neither. It just is. We need to recognize when someone manipulates our emotions. Then we need to put on our critical thinking caps.
In Tin Men, Richard Dreyfus and Danny De Vito play two salesmen locked in bitter competition as they sell aluminum siding to householders in Baltimore. The movie is somewhat forgettable, but it offers a master class in sales techniques.
In one scene, Dreyfus knocks on a prospective customer’s door while also dropping a five-dollar bill on the doormat. When the customer opens the door, Dreyfus picks up the bill and says, “Wow. I just found this on your doormat. It’s not mine. It must be yours.” Somewhat confused, the homeowner accepts the bill and invites Dreyfus inside where he makes a big sale.
Robert Cialdini would call Dreyfus’ maneuver a good example of pre-suasion. Before Dreyfus even introduces himself, he has already done something to show that he’s a stand-up guy. He has earned some trust.
Cialdini himself gained our trust in his first book, Influence, which details six “weapons of influence”: reciprocity, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. In his new book, Pre-Suasion, he invites us to look at what happens before we deploy our weapons.
Pre-suasion is not a new idea. It’s at least as old as the traditional advice: Do a favor before asking for a favor. Like Dreyfus, however, Cialdini seems like a stand-up guy so we go along for the read. It’s a good idea because the book is chock full of practical advice on how to set the stage for persuasion.
A key idea is the “attention chute”. When we focus our attention on something, we don’t see anything else. The opportunity cost of paying attention is inattentional blindness. Thus, we don’t consider other alternatives. If our attention is focused on globalization, we may not notice how many jobs are eliminated by automation.
As Cialdini points out, the attention chute makes us suckers for palm readers. A palm reader says, “Your palm suggests that you’re a very stubborn person. Is that true?” We focus on the idea of stubbornness and search our memory banks for examples. We don’t think about the opposite of stubbornness and we don’t search for examples of it. It’s almost certain that we can find some examples of stubbornness in our memories. How could the palm reader have possibly known?
The attention chute is also known as the focusing illusion. We believe that what we focus on is important, but it may just be an illusion. If we’re focused on it, it must be important, right? It’s a cognitive bias that a palm reader or aluminum siding salesman can easily manipulate.
What’s the best defense? It’s a good idea to keep Daniel Kahneman’s advice in mind: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.” If the media is filled with horror stories about the Ebola virus, you’ll probably think it’s important. But really, it’s not nearly as important as you think it is while you’re thinking about it.
Cialdini takes the attention chute one step further with the idea that “what’s focal is causal.” We assume that what we focus on is not just important; it’s also the cause of whatever we’re focused on. As Cialdini notes, economists think that the exchange of money is the cause of many transactions. But maybe not. Maybe there’s another reason for the transaction. Maybe the money is just a side benefit, not the motivating cause.
The idea that focal-is-causal has many complications. For example, the first lots identified in the famous Tylenol cyanide attacks were numbers 2880 and 1910. The media broadcast the numbers far and wide and many of us used them to play the lottery. They must be important, right?
Focal-is-causal can also lead to false confessions. The police focus on a person of interest and convince themselves that she caused the crime. (This is also known as satisficing or temporizing). They then use all the tricks in the book to convince her of the same thing.
Cialdini is a good writer and has plenty of interesting stories to tell. If you like Daniel Kahneman or Dan Ariely or Jordan Ellenberg or the brothers Heath, you’ll like his book as well. And who knows? It may even help you beat the rap when the police are trying to get a confession out of you.
When our son, Elliot, was 17 he decided that he needed to get a Guinness logo tattooed on his ankle. I wasn’t adamantly opposed but I did think that he might tire of wearing a commercial logo before too long. (If he had wanted a Mom Forever tattoo, I might have felt differently).
So how to convince him? I wanted to change his mind, though not his values. Nor did I want to provoke a stormy response that would simply make the situation worse – and actually make him more likely to follow through on his plans.
Ultimately, we had a conversation that went something like this:
Elliot: So, Dad, I’m thinking I should get a Guinness tattoo. It’s a really cool logo. What do you think?
Me: I don’t know. Do you think you’ll like Guinness for the rest of your life?
Elliot: Sure. It’s great. Why wouldn’t I?
Me: Well, you know, tastes change. I mean I thought about getting a tattoo when I was your age… and, looking back on it… I’m kind of glad I didn’t.
Elliot (shocked look): Really? You were going to get a tattoo?! What were you going to get?
Me: I wanted to get a dotted line tattooed around my neck. Right above the line, I’d get the words, “Cut On Dotted Line” tattooed in.
Elliot: (more shock, disgust): Dad, that’s gross.
Me: Oh, come on. Don’t you think it would be cool if I had that tattoo. I could show it to your friends. I bet they’d like it.
Elliot: They always thought you were weird. Now they’d think your gross. It’s yuck factor 12.
Me: Really? So, you don’t want to go to the tattoo parlor together?
Our conversation seemed to help Elliot change his mind. As far as I know, he hasn’t gotten any tattoos, not even Mom Forever. Why? Here are some thoughts:
It’s about trust, not tattoos – I don’t think that Elliot cared that much about the tattoo itself. He was actually running a Mom/Dad test. He wanted to know if we trusted him to make the decision on his own. We did trust him and didn’t take the decision out of his hands. That’s a big deal when you’re 17. It can also be a big deal for people in your company. They want to know that you trust them. Sometimes they’ll put it to a test. As much as possible, let them make the choice. Just counsel them on how to make it wisely.
It’s about judo — we didn’t try to stop Elliot, we merely tried to change his direction. That’s a useful guideline in most organizations.
It’s about imagining the future – like most teens, Elliot was focused on the present and near future. He couldn’t imagine 30 years into the future – except by looking at me. If he thought I would look gross with a tattoo, he could imagine that he would, too. The same is true of many companies. We make decisions based on near-term projections. It’s hard to imagine the farther future. But there are ways to do it. Ask your team to imagine what the world will look like in 30 years. You could start by reminding them how much it’s changed since 1985.
It’s about sharing – did I really think about getting a Cut On Dotted Line tattoo? Of course, I did. But my father sat me down and talked a little wisdom into my head. I just passed it on.
What are you going to pass on?
Want to be more seductive? Of course you do. It’s not always easy but there are some systematic approaches that can help you convince people to do something because they want to do it. Watch the video to learn six such approaches.
It’s a variation of a basic rule called reciprocity — as identified by Robert Cialdini in his book, Influence. Every society adheres to some form of reciprocity — it helps cement relationships. It’s useful to know that, if you do someone a favor, you’ll likely be repaid in the future.
The reciprocity principle may seem obvious. But there are many subtleties and variations. Learn three of the major variations — and how to get a sports car — in this week’s video.