Persuasion researchers have consistently demonstrated that the most successful strategies that influence the decisions and behaviors of others gain their persuasive strength by triggering one of just three simple human motivations:
1) The motivation to make effective decisions efficiently.
2) The motivation to affiliate with and gain the approval of others.
3) The motivation to see ourselves in a positive light.
In two previous INSIDE INFLUENCE REPORTS, I reviewed the first and second of these motivations and provided examples of the small changes that can activate them. In the third part of this series of articles I’ll take a closer look at the third of these motivations; the need to behave in ways that allow us to be seen in the best possible light.
Regardless of our cultural origin or educational background, a fundamental desire to achieve and maintain a positive self-concept exists in all of us. One way that we strive to achieve this is by behaving consistently with our values, beliefs, commitments and self-ascribed traits. Consequently, one way to successfully persuade others is to first ask them to make a small commitment in our direction knowing that it can increase the odds they will behave consistently with that commitment in the future, because doing so fulfills their inherent motivation to be seen in a positive light.
Consider these practical examples where asking for a small initial commitment can significantly increase the likelihood that people will their honor appointments, show up to presentations, and even reduce instances of dishonesty levels in your organization.
In his classic book Influence, Robert Cialdini recounts the story of a Chicago restaurateur who, in an attempt to reduce costly no-shows, instructed his reception staff to ask customers calling to make a reservation if they would be willing to contact the restaurant if they had to change their plans or cancel. Practically everyone said “yes”. And given that few people want to be labelled as unreliable or undependable or untrustworthy, most subsequently lived up to their commitment resulting in restaurant no-shows falling by two-thirds. The clever restaurateur had discovered that living up to their small commitment would be consistent with peoples’ broader desire to be seen in a positive light.
Inspired by this story, I recently led a series of studies to see if we could reduce appointment no-shows in health centers by triggering this same motivation. We asked patients seeking a physician appointment to make one of two small commitments:
1) Patients calling for an appointment by phone were asked to repeat back the time and day of their appointment before hanging up.
2) Patients who visited the centers were given a pen and asked to fill in the time and date of their appointment on a small card, rather than the usual practice of the receptionist doing so.
These two small changes led to an 18% drop in appointment no-shows. Given that no-shows cost health providers and governments billions of dollars every year, these cost-less strategies that align to this universal motivation can make for impressive differences. They can also make impressive differences to your business development efforts too. For example, we typically measure marked improvements in attendance at sales presentations and online webinars when prospective customers are asked in advance of the meeting to submit a question that they would like an answer to. The question acts as commitment and, realizing that if their question is called out publicly and they are not present, they will likely been seen in a less than good light, thus increasing attendance.
In addition to reducing no-shows at restaurants, health centers, sales presentations and online webinars, an understanding of how this motivation can be triggered can even lead to increased honesty in your organization.
Consider the humble expenses form. Employees furnish details of mileage, sustenance and other out-of-pocket expenses and then sign their name at the end of the form to confirm their claim is an accurate and honest one. But what might happen if the space for their signature is moved to the top of the form thus requiring people to
make a commitment to accuracy and honesty before, rather than after, they complete the form? According to studies led by Lisa Shu from Northwestern University and her colleagues, this small change can make a big difference. In one of their studies asking for a signature at the top of the form rather than at the bottom reduced cheating from 79 percent to 37 percent. What’s driving this big difference? It’s because asking for small initial commitments primes people to want to be consistent with them because doing so fulfills the fundamental motivation to been seen in a positive light.
So what are the takeaways here? There are three:
1) Successful influence and persuasion can be achieved by aligning your requests and messages to one of just three fundamental motivations.
2) The triggering of these motivations often requires only small changes in your approach that can lead to BIG differences. We call these SMALL BIGs!
3) Applying these SMALL BIGs in ethical ways can make a substantial difference to your influence success—very often without cost.
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Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice. Boston, MA: Pearson education.
Martin, S. J., Bassi, S., & Dunbar-Rees, R. (2012). Commitments, norms and custard creams–a social influence approach to reducing did not attends (DNAs). Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 105(3), 101-104.
Martin, S. J., Goldstein, N., & Cialdini, R. (2014). The small BIG: small changes that spark big influence. Hachette. New York.
Shu, L. L., Mazar, N., Gino, F., Ariely, D., & Bazerman, M. H. (2012). Signing at the beginning makes ethics salient and decreases dishonest self-reports in comparison to signing at the end. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(38), 15197-15200.