In last month’s post we claimed that, despite an abundance of strategies used to influence the decisions and behaviors of others, researchers have found that the most successful strategies gain their persuasive strength by triggering one or more of three simple human motivations.
These motivations are:
- Making effective decisions efficiently
- Affiliating with and gain the approval of others
- Seeing ourselves in a positive light
For this month’s IIR let’s take a closer look at the second of these, our motivation to affiliate with, and gain the approval of others.
Each of us has a fundamental motivation to create and maintain meaningful connections with others. Whether it’s trying to gain access to the ‘cool-group’ in high school or the ‘in-crowd’ at the office we are all, primarily, social creatures who want to form bonds with, and gain the approval of others.
What’s surprising is how often we fail to notice some of the small and subtle ways that connections between others are formed. But those that do, can use them to make shifts in approach that can pay big dividends when it comes to getting their message heard.
One example comes from the norm of reciprocity, which obliges people to give back the form of behavior they have first received from others. If a friend invites you to their party, you should invite them to a future party of yours. If a neighbor does you a favor, you owe them a favor. This phenomenon doesn’t just occur in our personal lives. One study conducted in a large international banking organization found that when deciding whether to provide assistance to a co-worker on a project that they would not be recognized or remunerated for, US and Canadian-based employees were most likely to ask themselves “what has this person done for me lately?” If they could readily think of a situation, then they would help. If they could not, then they would be more inclined to simply say “No!”
Even though most of us recognize how reciprocity can help to create connections and gain the approval of others, it’s surprising how often businesses get the subtleties wrong. Under the banner of “cause-related marketing,” many organizations will offer to donate to causes that their customers consider important if, in return, those customers take the step of making a purchase or endorsing their social media pages. However, these tit-for-tat appeals fail because they don’t engage the rule for reciprocity properly. In a wonderful demonstration, my co-authors Dr. Robert Cialdini and Dr. Noah Goldstein replaced the standard message found in hotel rooms that asks guests to reuse towels to save the environment with a message that informed guests that if they did reuse their towels a donation would be made to an environmental cause.
As a result of making this change, towel reuse immediately went down!
Why? Because for a reciprocity-based attempt to work effectively, a sense of obligation needs to be created before, not after a request is made. When Cialdini & Goldstein amended the message to indicate that the hotel had already donated on behalf of guests, towel reuse increased significantly.
There are clear implications for both individuals and businesses. To encourage desirable behaviors in others, it is necessary to contribute first, and to do so in ways that are considered meaningful and unexpected by recipients. This creates a favorable social obligation that people will want to respond to because doing so will fulfill an underlying and powerful motivation to affiliate and gain the approval of others. The alternative might mean being labeled a moocher, freeloader or dead-beat.
Besides being the first to give in meaningful and unexpected ways, there are others ways to trigger this motivation to affiliate and seek the approval of others. For example, one small change that anyone can make to ensure their communications align with this key driver to affiliate with others is to humanize them more. One study found that when a photograph of a patient was included on a CT or X-Ray, doctors recommended more caring and attentive treatment. The photograph acted as a cue that focused on the patient as an identifiable individual, rather than one of a faceless group. This was the small change that activated the underlying motivation.
So when pitching for next year’s budget, rather than simply pointing to meaningless numbers on a spread sheet, instead show images that identify and individualize people. Saying something like “This is Mary, our head analyst, who together with Jim and Lindsay, will benefit from the system upgrade which accounts for increases in the budget I am submitting” aligns to this fundamental motivation and could make the difference.
It’s a small change, but as persuasion science consistently demonstrates, small changes can lead to big differences.
READ PART 3
Martin, S.J, Goldstein, N.J., & Cialdini, R.B. (2014) The Small Big – Small changes that spark big influence. New York. Hachette
Goldstein, N. J., Griskevicius, V., & Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Invoking Social Norms A Social Psychology Perspective on Improving Hotels’ Linen-Reuse Programs. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 48(2), 145-150.
Wendling, P. (2009). Can a photo enhance a radiologist’s report? Clinical Endocrinology News 4(2), 6-9.