How To Get People To Do Stuff: #1 — Use Nouns Instead Of Verbs

"I am a voter"This blog post is the first of a new series called “How To Get People To Do Stuff”. It features nuggets from the book I am writing by the same name due out in March of 2013.

I’m also starting a new format of doing video blogs. So first is the video, and then below it is the text that I talk about in the video.

Let me know what you think about the new topic series and whether you like the video format!

Here’s the research:

Walton, Gregory and Banaji, Mahzarin, Being what you say: the effect of essentialist linguistic labels on preferences, Social Cognition, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2004, pp. 193-213.

In a survey about voting, Gregory Walton at Stanford sometimes asked  “How important is it to you to be a voter in tomorrow’s election?” versus  “How important is it to you to vote in tomorrow’s election?”

The first sentence was phrased so that the emphasis was on the noun, “voter”. The second sentence emphasized “to vote”. Did the wording make a difference?

11% more voted — When the the noun (be a voter) was used instead of the verb (to vote), 11% more people actually voted the following day.  Why would nouns affect behavior more than verbs?

Needing to belong — I had always learned that using direct verbs resulted in more action. But if using a noun invokes group identity, that will trump a direct verb. People have a strong need to feel that they belong. People identify themselves in terms of the groups they belong to and this sense of group can deeply affect their behavior. You can stimulate group identity just by the way you have people talk about themselves or the way you phrase a question. For example, research shows that if people say “I am a chocolate eater” versus “I eat chocolate a lot” it will affect how strong their preference is for chocolate. “Eater” is a noun. “Eat” is a verb.

When you are trying to get people to do stuff try using nouns rather than verbs. Invoke a sense of belonging to a group and it is much more likely that people will comply with your request.

What do you think? Have you tried nouns instead of verbs?

100 Things You Should Know About People: #67 — Anecdotes Persuade More Than Data

pie chart with a "No" red slash through it
No Data!

Let’s say you have to make a presentation to several department heads at work about your latest conversations with your customers. You interviewed 25 customers and surveyed another 100, and have lots of important data to share. Your first thought might be to present a summary of the data in a numerical/statistical/data driven format, for example:

  • 75% of the customers we interviewed….
  • Only 15% of the customers responding to the survey indicated…

Perhaps you are thinking about pie charts vs. bar charts.

Don’t present the data first — A data based approach will not be as persuasive as anecdotes. You may want to include the data in the presentation at some point, but your presentation will be more powerful if you start with and focus on one or more anecdotes, for example:

100 Things You Should Know About People: #64 — Groups Are Swayed By A Dominant Personality

Picture of Meeting In the last blog post I talked about how groups end up making faulty decisions. How many times have you been part of a group discussion and decision-making process and there is one person who is dominating the conversation and the decision. Just because decisions are made in a group setting doesn’t mean that the entire group really made the decision. Many people give up in the presence of one or more dominant group members, and may not speak up at all.

Why does the leader become the leader? — Anderson and Kilduff (2009) researched group decision-making. They formed groups of four students each and had them solve math problems from the GMAT (a standardized test for admission to graduate business school programs).

Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #64 — Groups Are Swayed By A Dominant Personality”

100 Things You Should Know About People: #63 — Group Decision-Making Is Faulty

Picture of People At a MeetingIf your work life is anything like mine, your day is filled with groups meeting by phone or in person and making decisions. Unfortunately research shows that group decision-making has some serious flaws.

The Danger of Group-Think — Andreas Mojzisch and Stefan Schulz-Hardt (2010) presented people with information on prospective job candidates. People who received information on the group’s preferences before reviewing the candidate information, did not review the candidate information fully, and therefore did not make the best decisions. In a memory test they did not remember the most relevant information. The researchers concluded that when a group of people starts a discussion by sharing their initial preferences, they spend less time and less attention on the information that is available outside of the group’s preferences. And they therefore make a less than optimal decision.

The majority start with group discussions — The estimate is that 90% of group discussions start with group members talking about their initial impressions. According to the research this is a poor idea.

Continue reading “100 Things You Should Know About People: #63 — Group Decision-Making Is Faulty”

100 Things You Should Know About People: #47 — People Value A Product More Highly If It Is Physically In Front Of Them

Lays potato chip bag

You go online to re-order a box of your favorite pens. Will you value the product more if the product page has a picture of the pens versus just a text description? Would you think the pens are worth more if you were in the office store and the pen was right in front of you? Does it matter if you are buying pens or food or any other product? In other words, does the way the item is displayed at the time of decision affect the dollar value that people put on them? Bushong and a team of researchers decided to test this out. The answers they came up with might surprise you. I know they surprised me.

How much would you pay for the chips? — In the first set of experiments they used snack food (potato chips, candy bars). Participants were given money they could spend. They had lots of choices, so they got to pick what they wanted to buy (by the way, they screened out people on a diet, people with eating disorders etc). The participants could read the name/brief description of the item (Lays Potato Chips in a 1.5 oz bag) or see a picture of the item, or have the real item right in front of them. Here’s a chart of the results:

Chart of experiment 1 results

The real deal counts — Having a picture didn’t increase the amount of money people were willing to “bid” for the product, but having the product right in front of them definitely did by up to 60%. Interestingly, the form of presentation didn’t change how much people said they liked the item, just the dollar value. In fact, for some items that they had said before the experiment they didn’t like, they still valued those more highly if they were in front of them.

What about toys and trinkets instead of food? — The researchers were surprised. They thought the images would be more powerful than text. They decided to try the experiment again, each time varying some conditions. For example, they tried the experiment with toys and trinkets instead of food. Same result.

What about behind plexiglass? — They wondered if with the food there was some unconscious olfactory (smell) cues that were triggering the brain, so they did another experiment putting the food in view, but behind plexiglass. If the food was in view, but behind plexiglass it was deemed to be worth a little more money, but not the same as if it were available within reach. Ah! they thought it is olfactory!, but then they found the same result with the non food items.

Chart 2 from experiment

Ok, so we’ll give samples — Deciding to try one more thing, they went back to food items, but this time let people see and taste a sample. The actual item wasn’t there, but the sample was. Surely, they thought, the sample will be the same as having the actual item in front of them. Wrong again!

Chart 3 from experiment


The researchers note that in this taste condition the participants didn’t even look at the samples in the paper cup, since they knew they were the same as the food in the package.

A Pavlovian response? — The researchers hypothesize that there is a physical Pavlovian response going on: When the product is actually available, that acts as a conditioned stimulus and elicits a response.  The images and even text could become a conditioned stimulus and produce the same response, but they have not been set up in the brain to trigger the same response as the actual item.

As you start to think of the implications, here are some things to consider:

a) People were not going online and deciding whether or not to buy an item they were unfamiliar with. They were not at an apparel website deciding whether this was the right shirt or not. In those cases showing an image might have a huge impact. In these experiments the participants were all familiar already with the products.

b) Having the product physically available and not behind a barrier or plexiglass cover seems to be very important.

c) Sounds like those brick and mortar stores have an edge, at least on price.

Let me know your thoughts on the implications of the experiments.

And for those of you who like to read the research:

B. Bushong, L.M. King, C.F. Camerer, A. Rangel, Pavlovian processes in consumer choice: The physical presence of a good increases willingness-to-pay. American Economic Review, 2010, 100:1-18.

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100 Things You Should Know About People: #45 — You Choose (And Vote For) The First One On The List

ballotIt’s almost election time here in the USA, and there are many hotly contested elections at local, state, and national levels. Who will you vote for? According to the research, you are likely to vote for the first person that appears on the ballot!

The order effect — In my book, Neuro Web Design: What makes them click?, I write about the “order effect”. You go to a website to buy a tent for camping. You answer some questions about the type of camping you plan to do. The site then recommends four tents that best match your use, and compares the tents based on 10 attributes (how waterproof they are, how much they weigh, how much air ventilation they have, and so on). Two of the tents are “best buys” for the attributes that are important to you. Which tent will you buy?

Order effect at websites –– Felfernig (2007) set up a research study to find out. Even though there were 10 attributes that the tents were compared on, participants focused only on two or three attributes. The researchers varied the order in which the tents appeared on the page: first, second, third, or fourth. It turns out that the most important attribute was not whether the tent was waterproof or if it had plenty of air ventilation. The most important attribute was the order in which the tents appeared on the page! Participants disregarded attributes and simply picked whichever tent was the first one to show. People picked the first tent 2.5 times more than any other. They chose the first tent 200 times; they chose the other three tents (combined) only 60 times. This is an example of the order effect.

We rationalize the choice — The participants explained their choice, however, based on the logical decisions they thought they were making. For example, they explained the choice of tent #1 by saying, “This tent is the most waterproof.” They thought they were weighing all the attributes of all the tents, but in reality they were considering only a few attributes, and even those attributes didn’t matter. All that mattered was an unconscious reaction to which tent showed up first.

The first name on the ballot – According to research by Marc Meredith and Yuvall Salant, the same order effect influences who you vote for. In a wide range of elections, and with order randomized for different elections, Meredith and Salant found that in one out of every 10 elections, the first name on the ballot will win just because it’s first. They also calculated that being in the middle of the list lowers your chance of winning by 2.5 percentage points.

So which position candidate are you going to vote for!

Thanks to the blog Barking Up The Wrong Tree for drawing my attention to this research.

For more information on the Meredith and Sulant research: Kellogg Insight Focus On Research

For the tent research:

Felfernig, A., g. Friedrich, B. Gula, M. Hitz, T. Kruggel, G. Leitner, R. Melcher, D. Riepan, S. Strauss, E. Teppan, and O. Vitouch. 2007. Persuasive recommendation: Serial position effects in knowledge-based recommender systems. In Persuasive Technology, Second International Conference on Persuasive Technology. New York: Springer.

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100 Things You Should Know About People: #44 — When Uncertain, People Look To Others to Decide What To Do

Product rating at Zappos websiteYou are browsing a website to decide what to boots to buy. You see a pair that looks good and then you scroll down to see the ratings. Many people have rated the boots highly, but a few say the boots are cheaply made and uncomfortable. What will you do? Will you buy the boots or not?

Uncertainty tips the scale

In my book, Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? I have a chapter on this topic. The tendency to look to others to decide what to do is called social validation. Research on social validation shows that it is when we are uncertain about what to do that we will most look to others to decide.

Is the smoke dangerous? — There have been many studies about social validation. Latane and Darley conducted a series of studies where they would set up ambiguous situations to see if people were affected by what others around them were or were not doing. For example, they would bring someone into a room, supposedly to fill out a survey on creativity. In the room would be one or more other people who were pretending they were also participants in the creativity study, but who were really part of the experiment. Sometimes there would be one other person in the room, sometimes two others or more. While everyone is filling out their creativity survey, smoke starts coming into the room from an air vent. The researchers were interested in seeing if the participant would leave the room, or go tell someone about the smoke, or just ignore it. It wasn’t clear what the smoke was, or if it was dangerous. So it was an ambiguous situation.

Only if others think it is — Whether or not the participant left the room and/or went to get help, or whether they stayed there and kept filling out the form, depended on the behavior of the other people in the room, as well as how many other people there were. The more people in the room, and the more the others ignored the smoke, the more the participant was likely to also ignore the smoke. If the participant was alone they would go leave the room and go to notify someone. But if there were others in the room not reacting, then the participant would also not react.

Testimonials and ratings are powerful — Online, social validation is most in evidence with ratings and reviews. When we are unsure about what to do we look to testimonials, ratings, and reviews to tell us how to behave. The most powerful ratings and reviews:

  • Include information about the person writing the review – a mini “persona”. This is effective because the person reading the review will give more credence to a review written by someone who is like them.
  • Tell a story about the product or service. Because stories “talk” to our mid, or emotional brain, they are very powerful.
  • Ratings from people like us are more powerful than ratings from “experts”. I wrote another blog post on research by Chen on ratings and reviews at a book web site that studied these different types of ratings. Ratings from other readers were more powerful in influencing behavior than ratings from experts or from the website itself.

Although people don’t like to admit that they are easily influenced by others, the truth is that they are. What do you think? Do you try to resist the impact others have on your decisions?

For those of you who like to read the research:

Chen, Yi-Fen, Herd behavior in purchasing books online, Computers in Human Behavior, 24, (2008), 1977-1992.

Latane, Bibb, and John M. Darley. 1970. The Unresponsive Bystander. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970.

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100 Things You Should Know About People: #42 — We'll spend more money if you don't mention money

picture of a lemonade stand
Photo from Mogilner and Aaker study

You are out for a Sunday bike ride on your favorite biking path, and you come across a pair of kids selling lemonade.  Do you stop and buy some lemonade? Do you like the lemonade? Does your buying or liking the lemonade have anything to do with the wording on the sign next to the lemonade stand? Apparently so.

Cassie Mogilner and Jennifer Aaker from the Stanford Graduate School of Business conducted a series of experiments to see whether references to time or references to money would affect whether people stop to buy, how much people are willing to pay, and how satisfied people are with the products they buy. They conducted 5 experiments. The first one was the lemonade stand described above:

Sometimes there was a sign that said, “Spend a little time, and enjoy C & D’s lemonade.” This was the “time” condition. Sometimes the sign said, “Spend a little money, and enjoy C & D’s lemonade.” (money condition)  and then there was a control condition where the sign said, “Enjoy C & D’s lemonade”.

391 people passed by either walking or on bikes. Those who stopped to purchase lemonade ranged in age from 14-50 years old, and there was a mix of gender, occupations etc. Customers could pay anywhere between $1 and $3 for a cup of lemonade — they could decide the price. The authors comment that the high price was justified by the fact that the customers got to keep the high quality plastic cup. (Ok, excuse me if I date myself here and comment that when I had a lemonade stand as a kid I think we charged like 10 cents).  After customers drank their lemonade they also completed a survey.

More people stopped to buy lemonade when the sign mentioned time (14%), in fact twice as many people stopped when time was mentioned than when money was mentioned (7%). In addition, customers in the time condition paid more money for the lemonade (on average $2.50) compared to the money condition (on average $1.38).  Interestingly, the control condition was in between on both # of people stopping to purchase and the average price. In other words, mentioning time brought the most customers and the most money, mentioning money brought the least customers and the least money, and mentioning neither was in between. The same effect was true when customers filled out the satisfaction survey.

Does time = personal connection? – The researchers came up with the hypothesis that when you invoke time in the message you make more of a personal connection than when you invoke money. To test this idea out, they conducted 4 more experiments in the lab rather than in the “field” to see how the time vs. money messaging affected people’s ideas about purchasing iPods, laptops, jeans, and cars.

Personal connection = time = experiences… well, mostly, but not always – At the end of all the experiments, the researchers concluded that people are more willing to buy, spend more money, and like their purchases better if there is a feeling of personal connection. Most of the time that feeling of personal connection is triggered by references to time instead of money. The idea is that mentioning time highlights the experience you are having with the product, and it is this thinking about experiences that makes the personal connection.

Diagram from the research paper
Diagram from the Mogilner and Aaker study

But not for prestige products or “materialists” For certain products, such as designer jeans or prestige cars, and/or for certain consumers – those who value possessions more than experiences – personal connection is highlighted by mentioning money more than by mentioning time. These people are in the minority, but they are out there.

So where does this leave us? Here are the take-aways as I see them:

a)    The best thing to do is, of course, know your market/audience. If they are people who are influenced by prestige and possessions, then by all means mention money.

b)    Be aware, though that most people, most of the time, will be more influenced by time/experiences as the personal connection rather than money or possessions.

c)    If you don’t have time or budget to know your audience well, and if you are selling non-prestige items or services, then err on the side of time/experiences, and delay the mention of money as long as possible.

What do you think the take-aways are?

And for those of you who like to read the research:

Mogilner, Cassie and Jennifer Aaker (2009) “The Time versus Money Effect: Shifting Product Attitudes and Decisions through Personal Connection,” Journal of Consumer Research, 36 (August), 277-291.

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100 Things You Should Know About People: #40 — "You're Easily Influenced, but I'm not"

Woman looking skeptical
Photo by Katie Ricard

I have been doing a lot of public speaking about my book and the ideas of persuasion. Early in my talks I often discuss John Bargh’s research on how much we are influenced by factors that we are not aware of. Bargh had people unscramble sets of words to make sentences, for example, he would ask people to choose 4 out of 5 words and make a sentence out of them:

he florida today lives now in

would become: “He now lives in Florida”.

Some people would get sets of words that had a theme of old: such as Florida, retired, old, elderly. Other people would get sets of words that had a young theme: such as youth, energy, lively.  A third group would get neutral words that were neither old nor young. After unscrambling the words and making sentences he would then have them walk down the hall to find him. Bargh measured how long it took each person to walk down the hall. People who had been using the “old” words, took much longer to walk down the hall. They had been unconsciously affected by the words. But when asked if they thought the words had influenced them they said no, and when I talk about this study I get the impression that most people in the audience believe that others would walk slowly, but that these words wouldn’t have affected them.

“I’m not that influenced” — In another example, I share in my talks about the power of social validation: how ratings and reviews at websites have a huge influence over what people decide to do (it’s because when we are uncertain we look to others to decide what to do). And everyone in the room nods and talks about how this is true, that other people are very influenced by ratings and reviews, but most people I am speaking to think that they themselves are not very affected. I talk about study after study on persuasion and how much we are affected by pictures, images, words, and that we don’t realize we are being influenced. And the reaction is always similar: “Yes, other people are affected by these things, but I am not.”

The third person effect — In fact, this belief that “others are affected but not me”, is so common that there is research on it, and it has its own name: the “third person effect”.  The research shows that most people think other people are influenced by persuasive messages, but that they themselves are not, and that this perception is false. The “third person effect” seems to be especially true if you think you aren’t interested in the topic. For example, if you are not in the market to buy a new TV, then you will tend to think that advertising about new TVs won’t affect you, but the research says that it will.

Why do we deceive ourselves this way? — So why the self-deception? It’s partly because all this influence is happening unconsciously. We literally aren’t aware that we are being influenced. And it’s also partly because we don’t like to think of ourselves as so easily swayed, or so “gullible”. To be gullible is to not be in control, and our old brain, the part of our brain that is concerned with survival, always wants us to be in control.

What do you think? Why do we believe that others are so easily influenced but not ourselves?

For those of you who like to read research:

Bargh, John A., Mark Chen, Lara Burrows. 1996. Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol 71(2), 230-244.

Chen, Yi-Fen, Herd behavior in purchasing books online, Computers in Human Behavior, 24, (2008), 1977-1992.

Bryant Paul; Michael B. Salwen; Michel Dupagne, The Third-Person Effect: A Meta-analysis of the perceptual hypothesis. Mass Communication and Society, 1532-7825, Volume 3, Issue 1, 2000, Pages 57 – 85

Perloff  Third-Person Effect Research 1983–1992: A Review and Synthesis.
Int J Public Opin Res.1993; 5: 167-184

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100 Things You Should Know About People: #37 — People Assume It's You, Not The Situation

T shirt that says "Don't make the fundamental attribution error on me!"A man is walking down a busy city street on his way to an appointment, and he sees what looks like a college student drop a folder of papers. The papers scatter on the ground and the man glances over but keeps on walking. What do you think? Why didn’t the man stop to help with the papers?

If you answer “Well, he’s a self-absorbed person who doesn’t usually help out strangers on the street” then chances are likely that you have just made a “fundamental attribution” error. People have a tendency to give personality based explanations for other peoples behavior more weight than situational factors. Instead of explaining the person’s behavior in the story above as being due to his “self absorption”, you might ascribe his behavior to the situation, for example, “He’s late for a critical meeting with the bank and doesn’t have time to stop today. In other circumstances he would have stopped.”

Research on the fundamental attribution error shows the following:

  • In cultures that value individualistic behavior (like the USA),  it is common to ascribe behavior of other people to personality. The fundamental attribution error is common in these cultures.
  • On the other hand, in individualistic cultures people tend to explain their OWN behavior to situational factors more than personality factors.
  • In cultures that value collectivist behavior (for example, China), people make the same fundamental attribution error, but not as often as in individualist cultures
  • Most of the research has to do with individuals deciding on personality vs. situational effects, but some research has been done on group decisions and whether they are influenced in the same way. It seems that they are. People attribute the decisions of a other group to the individual member’s attitudes, but attribute the decisions of their own group to the collective group rules.

Why do we do this? — I think the best theory about why we make the fundamental attribution error is that when we believe that personality causes our behavior that makes us feel that we have more control over our life. And we (especially in the West) need to feel that we have that control.

Can’t stop making mistakes — The research shows that it is very hard to stop make the fundamental attribution error. Even when you know you are doing it, and even if you know all about it, you will still make the same error.

Is “fundamental attribution error” the same as “correspondence bias”? — Psychologists like to come up with lots of terms. Both terms have been used, and they are often used interchangeably. However, some psychologists argue that what I’ve been describing is actually the correspondence bias, and that the fundamental attribution error refers to the REASON for the correspondence bias: that we underestimate situational factors. Well, that sounds like hair splitting to me!

But maybe I’m just saying that because I’m a curmudgeonly psychology nut who doesn’t like to agree with people (ok, that was just me trying to make a joke by showing correspondence bias!).

So what’s the take-away? — Now that you know people tend to make this error, what can you do about it? Probably not much in terms of getting people to change their interpretations of others’ behaviors. But try and build in ways to cross-check your own biases. If your work requires you to make a lot of decisions about why people are doing what they are doing, you might want to stop before acting on your decisions and ask yourself, “Am I making a Fundamental Attribution Error?”

If you’d like some fairly heavy reading on the topic, I recommend:

Gawronski, Bertram. Theory-based bias correction in dispositional inference: The fundamental attribution error is dead, long live the correspondence bias. European Review of Social Psychology, 2004, 15, 183–217.

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