Conscious and Subconscious Persuasion – Election Time!

quotescover-PNG-49I was away last weekend and also am for the next one, so will only be putting up a couple of shorter posts this week and next. Anyway, it’s probably a good thing for me to be more efficient with words from time to time!

When I started writing this blog, I always had it in mind to write about a couple of experiments on persuasion. I’m prompted to write it now by all the pre-election campaigning that’s going on in the UK – and the many attempts to persuade you to give them your vote (and any of the parties with enough money available have spent it on finding a way to convince you). I’m only going to touch on two concepts within the world of persuasion (just to get you going), which show we’re not quite as rational as we think and can be easily tricked into doing what someone else wants (or we can easily convince someone else!).

Give a Reason, Any Reason

In 1978, Langer and Blank performed an experiment that revealed we aren’t quite as clever (or aware) as we like to think.

The basic set-up was that just as someone wascopier about to use a photocopier, an experimenter would turn up and ask to use it first. The study was a 3 x 2 design – the 3 reflecting different statements the experimenter used and the 2 being the level of inconvenience to the subject. The 3 statements were: 1) No explanation – “Excuse me, I have x pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”; 2) Placebic explanation (i.e. an explanation that adds no information) – the statement was the same, but added on “because I have to make copies”; 3) Genuine explanation – the same as statement 1, but with “because I’m in a rush” to explain the requirement for pushing ahead. The 2 levels of inconvenience were generated by varying the number of pages to be copied – this was either 5 or 20.

Naturally, you’d expect (or at least I did) the people to see straight through the placebic explanation – of course you need to make copies or you wouldn’t be at the photocopier! Yet when the inconvenience was small, adding on “because I have to make copies” made a significant difference to whether the subjects let the experimenter push in front of them; 60% of people given no explanation complied, compared to 93% for a placebic explanation and 94% for a genuine explanation. So not only did adding a placebic explanation persuade people, but the logical explanation wasn’t any better!

At least we’re a bit better when it matters more; when the request was for 20 pages the placebic and no explanation gave the same result (24% compliance), while the genuine explanation boosted compliance to 40%.

This reveals our ‘automatic processing mode’ that simply looks for logical patterns in stimuli, whether there’s any real content to those stimuli or not. When we perceive that the impact on us isn’t too big, we stay in this automatic mode and are only aware of whether what’s being said sounds like reasoning, not whether it’s actually convincing. The pattern of speech ‘I need to do x, because y’ normally provides a valid explanationScreens, so we think one’s been provided – even without considering the content. When we feel like there’s a big impact, then we switch on and consider the validity of the information provided. The difficulty is that all sorts of things feel like they’re not that important, particularly in a world where most information comes to us through a screen.

And just to show that this isn’t an abstract, experimental situation (in fact their paper argues lab-based psychology experiments might push people into the ‘switched-on’ state, giving unrealistic findings) you only need to look back to the Budget speech this year (let’s be clear that each and every party is playing these games). George Osborne proudly stated that “We have also decided to become the first major western nation to be a prospective founding member of the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, because we think you should be present at the creation of these new international institutions” – where the ‘because’ clause tells you absolutely nothing you wouldn’t have known from the primary clause.

Adding an explanation, of whatever level of relevance, will make you more persuasive and taking a step back to think about what you’ve really heard can make you less persuadable.

Manufactured Accuracy

The pique technique takes the opposite approach to persuasion – it tries to force you into your switched-on state when your automatic response isn’t what the persuader is after. This is done by making something about the request unexpected, so that it jolts you to think consciously about why the unexpected quest is being made.

Santos, Leve and Pratkanis looked at whether this technique would work for beggars trying to get money from passers-by – a scenario where the majority of people say no. They created two types of request: 1) unusual or 2) typical. In the unusual category, the beggars either asked “can you spare 17¢” or “37¢”, while in the typical category they either asked for a “quarter” or “any change” (17  and 37¢ were both used to make sure any difference in response wasn’t just due to value requested – they lie either side of a quarter).

Don't just ask for one of these
Don’t just ask for one of these

People were almost 60% more likely to give money to a beggar if they made an unusual rather than typical request. Not only did they give more money, but they also showed significantly more interest, revealed by a higher level of inquiry about the beggar’s situation. By surprising people into actively engaging with the request, the requestor was able to increase the chance of getting what they want.

It appears the specificity of the request prompted people to think about why the request was being made – it forced people to think of the human story behind the request. Someone must need 17 or 37¢ for a specific reason; their bus or train fare? A specific item of food? It feels too specific to just be random. The technique of pseudo-precision is also regularly used to give the information authority – we feel like someone must know what they’re talking about if they know their figures to two decimal places (even though chances are it’s just as likely to be a guesstimate as anything else).

Conscious, Subconscious and How it Matters to Me

The two experiments below highlight a number of concepts:

  1. We can be persuaded to do something either consciously or subconsciously
  2. When we’re processing a request subconsciously, the content of the request can be less important than the structure of the proposition
  3. If the impact on you of fulfilling a request seems small then you’ll probably process it subconsciously (and if large you’ll probably process it consciously)
  4. You can prompt someone to consciously process a request by making something about the request surprising
  5. When you get a surprising request you try to work out why that request is made

If you’re trying to persuade someone (and don’t have any moral concerns about whether it counts as manipulation) then you end up deciding whether to target the conscious or the subconscious based on level of impact and likelihood of agreement.

For me, I’m more worried about being the person who is persuaded – and the only thing we can really do about that is look at everything we’re told (that we care enough about to invest the effort) through a critical and analytical lens.

Only a Taster

This is only a brief taster on the art of persuasion and I’ve not even touched on some of the most famous and influential areas here, such as authority bias (where level of impact on you also appears to be a moderator) and social influence. I’ll touch on some of those topics in future blogs, but hopefully I’ve given you something to think about – particularly when somebody’s trying to get you to do what they want.

Who’s in Control? – How your Locus of Control Affects You

Dr SeussIn my last post, about Attainable Greatness, I looked at how we evaluate both ourselves and other people. When it comes down to evaluating yourself through that lens, then it really comes down to whether you believe in yourself and whether you have control over events; is everything random or do you have a decisive role to play? This is what we mean by ‘locus of control’ – how much influence does someone believe they have over events that affect them. In that previous post, I spoke colloquially about some of the benefits of being internally referenced – here I’ll try to put some evidence on those bones, make it clear it’s not a one-sided thing and put in a few more practical tips.

Locus of Control – Internals and Externals

Julian Rotter first wrote about locus of copower-plantntrol more than 60 years ago, as part of his work on social learning theory. Everyone’s belief about where control lies sits somewhere on the spectrum from extremely internal – where the belief is that one’s own abilities and performance determine all outcomes – to extremely external – where the belief is that factors outside one’s own control determine all outcomes.

While people will tend towards a certain position on this continuum, they will, under certain circumstances, sometimes behave differently. This can be due to their personal history, where people have come to learn that they do or do not have some control in specific circumstances. As with everything else, a person’s behaviour is a combination of their personality and the environment. That’s not to imply that someone’s locus of control can’t change over time, as well as across environments – otherwise this article wouldn’t exist!


This is the first reason why locus of control matters – feeling in control of your life is a strong predictor of happiness. Ronald Fischer and Diana Boer conducted a meta-analysis of 420,599 people from 63 countries to explore the drivers of well-being. This looked at whether wealth or autonomy (i.e. the level of control you believe you have over what is happening) was more important to well-being. There was no direct relationship between well-being and wealth, but there was a strong link between well-being and autonomy (there was a link between wealth and well-being where wealth enabled autonomy). Strickland looked specifically at the relationship between locus of control and happiness, as well as creativity, and also found a positive relationship between being internally focused and feeling good about things.

An exception that proves the rule

The logic behind these findings is fairly straightforward – if you believe that you have control over your life then there’s a point in doing stuff, whilst if you feel like you have no control then you might as well be anyone else or do nothing at all. This logic is supported by the two exceptions to this control-happiness relationship; Verme identified religious belief and marriage as correlated with both increased well-being and reduced control. That is as you’d expect – those with a strong religious belief derive purpose in serving God, even while God is determining their fate, while marriage also provides a joint purpose and related loss in personal freedom.


No SmokingLocus of control has also repeatedly been shown to have an impact on health, across a range of different areas. Weiss and Larsen showed that, when combined with a high interest in your health having an internal focus makes people engage in more health protective behaviours (it is worth keeping in mind the value facilitator as a risk of being too internally focused – if you don’t value something yourself then you’re unlikely to do anything about it, whatever other people say). More specifically, Balch and Ross found that “internals” had more success losing weight, while Shipley found a positive relationship with success at giving up smoking.

Interestingly, Cross, March and Lapsley found not only that an internal locus of control led to an improved health outcome for those with arthritis, but also led to lower arthritis-related costs. Internals were both delivering a more effective and more efficient outcome. The reasoning here is even more straightforward – internals take action to improve their health and they look into what is most likely to work. because they genuinely think it’ll help.


Bringing this back in line with my normal focus, there’s also a relationship between locus of control and leadership. Anderson and Schneier found that:

  • Leaders are more likely to be internals than externals
  • Superior performance was achieved by both internal leaders individually and groups led by internals as a whole
  • Internals showed an instrumental, task-oriented approach, while externals showed a more socio-emotional style

This is also pretty understandable – I’d rather have a leader who believed that we had a chance of influencing things than one who didn’t!


While there is a weight of evidence showing that locus of control has an impact, there are also some questions about how strong that impact is and whether there are other factors that divide internals and externals into more sub-groups.

There are clearly situations where being an internal isn’t positive. If you view your outcomes as negative and feel that you control outcomes, then it’s likely that you’ll blame yourself – and if that remains your thought process it’s very easy to get into a depressive mindset (it’s my fault, it will always be my fault and whatever I do it’ll still go wrong). Some things are out of our control, however much we try to influence them. So internals with a negative self image are unlikely to see the same benefits as those with a healthier view of themselves.

king-canuteAt a less clinical level, people with an internal locus of control can come across as very arrogant to those who don’t think in the same way due to their belief that they dictate outcomes – they can have a King Canute holding-back-the-tide style (I’m sticking with the myth here; the link is so I feel I’ve given King Canute a fair shake). You might also come across as arrogant because you genuinely have a distorted view of yourself (i.e. the opposite of the risk of becoming depressed).

We mentioned another risk earlier (in relation to health) – if you’re very internally focused with an internal locus of control and don’t deem something important, then you’re likely to neglect it, whatever everyone else thinks. This can further distance you from others due to your absence of interest in their views.

There is also some research that suggests the happiest people are actually those who are bi-local – those with a balance of external and internal loci of control. They can brush off things that go wrong as out of their control, but feel responsible for things that go well (while this might make you happy, it’s not necessarily recommended for realism).

How to Become More Internal

Despite these question marks, most people are still more external than research suggests is good for them (both at work and in broader life). The hard bit, however, is trying to make that shift. Below are three ways that we can make that change.

Setting Goals

Gaa lmap-34524_1280ooked at whether having weekly goal-setting conferences had a positive effect on academic performance. To separate out the effect of goal-setting from having weekly discussions, he also had one group of students have weekly chats without goal setting and a final group with neither. He found goal-setting had two impacts: 1) it led to better academic performance; 2) it appeared to move people towards having a more internal locus of control.

So by setting ourselves “good” goals we can shift ourselves to thinking in a more internal way. Goal-setting is a huge topic, and not one that I’m going to cover in depth in this blog. There’s a lot of stuff online (e.g. this), but I’ve recently been reading ‘Great by Choice’ by Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen, where one of the consistent themes is organisational goal-setting. Collins and Hansen describe it as ‘the twenty mile march’, but the concept is this – organisations (and presumably people) who perform best are those that set a consistent target and deliver against it. If the environment is with them, then the organisations held back and built up reserves during the good times, while in a bad environment they pushed on and still met their target. This is transferrable to individuals; we need to set ourselves targets that we can achieve in good times and bad, so that achievement really is within our control.

I believe that goal setting plays a role in a couple of ways. Firstly, the process of considering your goals forces you to think about what is achievable and what you control, and secondly, achievement of those goals “proves” to yourself that you do have control.

Think Through Your Options

Either by yourself or with a few trusted people think about a situation in which you feel that you have no options (or, if that’s too personal or tough, then think about a situation that might occur in future). Then write down the full list of options that you have/had – don’t rule out anything as too wild or wacky; we’re looking for as many options as possible. When you have that list think about whether the options would have (or will) change the outcome in any way, however small or indirect the impact is.

When the time comes that you’re faced with an out-of-your-control feeling, use the same process – think about all the options that exist, think about the consequences of choosing them and then make an informed decision about which one to take. By repeating this process on multiple occasions it’ll gradually become automatic to think about your options – and you’ll begin to realise that you have at least some control.

Monitor Self-Talk

We all have thoughts that pop into our mind from time-to-time. Sometimes they’re useful (e.g. a reminder about something that we thought we’d forgotten), sometimes they’re positive (e.g. noticing that you’ve just done something great or having a spontaneous idea), but for most people a significant chunk are negative. They might tell you that what you just did was really, really stupid or bring you back to a moment of humiliation, embarrassment or failure from years ago.

face-535774_1280As you most likely know from experience, just telling yourself to stop thinking those negative thoughts doesn’t work – in fact it has the opposite effect. So don’t try to stop the thoughts, but merely observe them. Be aware of your self-talk and consciously note it. Keep doing this over time and you’ll start to listen to the self-talk, but consider it like any other external stimuli – you’ll begin to separate your conscious from these spontaneous thoughts rather than identifying those spontaneous thoughts as “you”. In that way you can respond to any negative self-talk from a position of distance, and therefore more logically.

This is useful as a general tool, but in this context it gives you the opportunity to address the negative self-talk which says “I have no choice” or “what I do really doesn’t matter” – another chance for you to take control.

Over to You – Do any of you have any tips or ideas on how to feel more in control?

Attainable Greatness – A Different Measurement of Individual Performance

john-wooden-99jpg-88739e635e76f992_largeJohn Wooden was arguably the greatest College basketball coach of all-time; a ten time winner of the NCAA national championship, the holder of an 88-game winning streak and basketball Hall of Famer (as both a player and a coach). As coach of UCLA, he helped develop some of the most celebrated players in NBA history, including Lew Alcindor (who later took on the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton. As a fan of both sport and organisational performance, Wooden on Leadership was one of the earlier books I read on leadership and productivity. Some of the concepts in the book are fairly straightforward (though his followers wouldn’t let you believe it), but there are a few topics that have changed how I think about things. One that I’ve tried to take with me is “personal” or “attainable greatness”, particularly when organisations are assessing their employees’ performance and I’m assessing my own.

Conventional Assessment

cyclists-601591_1280Firstly, a bit of context. We tend to identify performance by comparing people against each other. This is the easiest way to do things; just look at everyone’s achievements and those with more or better ones have performed better than the others. Society trains us to think like this, whether through sport, exams or any other competitive task. Through this lens, the ‘greatest’ performer is the person with the most and/or best achievements.

This approach is helpful for some purposes, particularly because it intends to provide objectivity and a comparison in assessing performance. It  provides a quick and easy way for an organisation to review its workforce, enabling it to make better informed recruitment, promotion (taking account of previous caveats) and firing. It clearly has a place in performance assessment, but there are a few reasons why it shouldn’t be our sole methodology; firstly (and obviously), it neglects potential; secondly, it is ineffective for motivating people; thirdly, raw ability (in whatever form) is outside of an individual’s control; fourthly, it can drive leaders’ focus on recruitment and firing rather than teaching/training; and fifthly, it makes life fairly frustrating (because some people just can’t perform ‘well’ enough).

Personal Greatness – For the Business

recite-grijsoThat brings us to Wooden’s concept – “Personal Greatness”. To him “personal greatness is measured against one’s own potential, not against that of someone else”. By looking at the world through this lens, you start to see people as having achieved a certain % of their potential rather than just seeing their raw performance.

I find this a very empowering perspective, probably more so due to my own flaws. Before it became part of my mindset, I used to get hugely frustrated with people who simply weren’t naturally talented at what they were doing. Thinking about personal greatness makes me a lot more balanced.

It forces me to think about people’s abilities, their strengths and weaknesses in order to assess their personal greatness. While I, like everyone else, make mistakes (e.g. often underestimating people’s capabilities) in these judgements, it at least drives me to think about people in a more detailed way.

This leads to a range of benefits – it gives me a way to think about where to focus time, effort and money in order to help people develop. It  helps me identify people’s niches; the work they’ll enjoy and do most productively. It really helps manage my frustrations as well – or at least better direct them… More of my concerns are now aimed at those who aren’t fulfilling their potential, rather than those who can’t perform any better than they already are. It means I push the right people and appreciate the personal greatness successes of those who I’d have failed to recognise previously.

Personal Greatness – For the Person

CERN - switzerlandI also find the concept empowering when looking at myself. If I stand in a CERN laboratory, then it’s likely that I’m one of the least intellectual people in the room. If I try to judge my intellect by comparing myself to those CERN scientists, then I’m going to think of myself as very stupid. If I then go to a nursery school and only compare my academic abilities to the kindergarteners’ current ability, then I’m suddenly going to believe I’m a genius.

Depending on your personality these scenarios can have a range of impacts – some people find it motivating to try to catch up with more able people (although that effect is likely to wear off if the gap is too big or lasts too long), while others become determined to stay ahead of the pack. Others can just feel it’s pointless to try if they’re lagging behind, while others become lazy if they’re ‘the best’. Whatever the impact, relying on the environment leads to a very unstable view of yourself.

man-220968_1280On top of this, people often determine their ‘worth’ or ‘ability’ through external evaluations. Yet everybody evaluating you has some reason to do so, which is likely to bias their judgement. For example our family and friends want to build our confidence (think Dragons’ Den or the X Factor),  while our boss wants us to do what they want (whether that’s seek a move or stay with them) and even allegedly neutral people tend to be desperate to say something insightful (even when there’s nothing sensible to say).

By looking at your personal greatness, however, you have a consistent target – to, in cliched terms, be the best that you can be. If you can be honest with yourself and stop relying on external evaluations of yourself (often a very difficult step) then you give yourself a stable goal. By being more internally referenced, you become more self-sufficient (as long as your self-evaluation is realistic – there’s always a risk of being too down on yourself), as you don’t need external validation. It enables me to be more resilient when faced with the views of others, while also making me more relaxed about situations where others will judge me (in the purest form, it means there’s no more pressure presenting to a Board or sitting at a desk – the pressure is only to deliver against your potential).

Conclusion – How Personal Greatness Fits In

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Coach WoodenPersonal greatness is a concept that can help individuals, businesses and employees. Businesses need to think about the purpose of evaluating an employee when thinking about how to evaluate them – a manager doing normal management should be using personal greatness to get the most out of people, while firing clearly has to be a comparative decision. Employees can think about their own personal greatness to better understand themselves and find their most fulfilling career. Most importantly, people can use personal greatness throughout their life to become more resilient, more emotionally self-sufficient and take control.