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Getting What You Want: A Q&A With the Authors of Yes!


The Rolling Stones made an excellent point: You can’t always get what you want.

Even one of the top experts in getting things from people, Robert Cialdini (author of the landmark book Influence: Science and Practice), and his co-authors, Noah Goldstein and Steve Martin, agree.

But in their new book, Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, they claim there’s a science to persuasion that can help increase anyone’s success rate.

To help convince a client to take your offer, for example, buy them some coffee and take your coat off when they do — but never throw in a free bonus.

To lessen the likelihood of getting stood up on a date, ask the person out in public.

Cialdini is Regents’ Professor of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University and president of Influence at Work; Goldstein is assistant professor of HR and Organizational Behavior at UCLA Anderson School of Management; and Steve Martin is the director of Influence at Work (UK).

Before Cialdini and Goldstein jointly answer our questions about their book, they’d like to ask a question of Freakonomics blog readers:

What is the most persuasive tactic you use, or that has been used on you?

Post your answers and comments below.

Q: How can someone be more convincing when asking for a raise?

A: Although it depends to a large extent on situational variables, there are quite a few discrete tips, at least for this answer, that you can follow to increase the likelihood that you’ll get that raise.

But rather than focus on the discrete tips, we wanted to shine the spotlight on an often overlooked aspect of persuasion — the timing of the request.

In any relationship between two people, there are going to be certain moments where the opening for persuasion is greatest — times when your statements and requests are going to be maximally influential. In cases in which your direct supervisor has the authority to make a decision about your salary, the best time to make the request is after you’ve excelled in an important company project and made your superior look good to his or her superiors.

If upper management recognizes your efforts in any way, be sure to share the credit with your supervisor — a gesture that is likely to be reciprocated when it comes time to ask for the raise. There are plenty of individual tips for how to frame your requests optimally, which we describe in more detail in Yes!, but the timing can be the most crucial (and often most overlooked) element of all.

Q: You mention that coffee can be used as a legal persuasive drug of sorts. How well does this really work? Is this where the idea of coffee meetings came from? What illegal drugs are used to persuade?

A: Giving one’s audience, caffeine (known in the chemistry community as 1,3,7-trimethylxanthin) has indeed been found to increase the persuasiveness of your arguments — so long as your arguments are good to begin with.

This means that you definitely want to offer your audience caffeinated coffee, tea, or soda. You’ll want to offer it at the start of the meeting, or preferably even before the meeting, as the caffeine will have the maximal impact roughly 30 to 40 minutes after it enters the body.

Although caffeine is offered through legal means — mostly through “trimeth labs” such as Starbucks, there was a time in the 1950’s and 60’s when the Central Intelligence Agency examined whether various illegal drugs could be given to people to change their beliefs and their behaviors. According to reports, Project MK-ULTRA involved experiments in which sometimes unwitting participants were given drugs like LSD to see if it had any impact on their suggestibility. Nothing conclusive was ever found in terms of illegal drugs and mind control — but then again, much of the evidence that these programs even existed was apparently destroyed.

Q: How can I get the highest price for something on eBay?

A: There are a number of things you can do. Research on online auctions, much of which has examined eBay sales, has revealed a number of tips, some of which are more obvious than others: choose longer auction times, use photos, and make sure your spelling is accurate.

But a question that we get asked a lot is whether sellers should set the starting price really high, really low, or somewhere in between. The research demonstrates that in most situations, it’s better to make the starting price really low.

At first, this might seem at odds with findings from negotiations research, which suggest that as a seller, it’s far better to set the initial value quite high. But there are some fundamental differences between typical negotiations and auctions, including the fact that in auctions, an almost unlimited number of people can choose to get in on the bidding. In auctions, if the initial price is too high, it acts as a barrier to entry, so fewer people will place bids.

If the price is low, many more people will ultimately place a bid on it, which will snowball for at least two reasons: First, as people look at the item, they’ll notice many other people bidding on it and infer greater value of the product from that information. Second, as the bidding goes on, there will be more people who possibly feel committed to getting the item and increasing their bids. We hasten to note, however, that having a large number of potential bidders is a key component in this. If you’re auctioning anything so obscure or undesirable that it’s unlikely to yield multiple bidders (e.g. a cornflake in the shape of, say, a cornflake) starting low is probably not the way to go.

Q: Can a bad review in a magazine or newspaper ever help a business?

A: It can indeed help a business, under a number of different circumstances. The most obvious case is where the product is virtually unknown to the audience. In that case, unless the criticism is extreme (e.g. “We tested this outdoor grill and it spontaneously combusted, burning down our test site, and causing the universe to implode.”), at the very least it will familiarize people with the product; they may even forget the tone of the review but feel like it’s more familiar when they see it in the stores a week later.

Another factor that could lead a bad review in the media to actually help a business is the source of the message. If the message source is disliked by the audience, the audience may draw the exact opposite conclusion. For example, if a magazine devoted mostly to PCs gave the new Mac a subpar review, diehard Mac fans might not only discount the message, but actually conclude that the opposite must be true because of their lower regard for typical PC users. We see a similar process operating for how good reviews can either hurt or help someone politically, depending on the source of the review and the audience that’s being considered.

Q: What’s a recent advertising campaigns that botches one of the persuasion methods you talk about in the book?

A: Most relevant to the ongoing presidential race is a central message being put forth by a major organization whose goal is to increase women’s voter turnout.

The message indicates that over 20 million single women did not vote in the last election. Although this pronouncement reflects reality and was quite well intentioned, the designers of campaigns such as this one may fail to realize that by pointing out all of the people engaging in the negative behavior as part of a rallying cry, they might be inadvertently focusing the audience on the prevalence, rather than the undesirability, of that behavior.

The evidence from social science research indicates that this type of message may spur more of the same negative behavior and could produce even lower voter turnout. Similarly, when the government sponsored an advertisement campaign informing taxpayers that the penalty for tax evasion had been increased because of its prevalence, tax evasion rates actually went up the following year.

Q: Can I use your tactics to ask someone on a date (and have them say yes)?

A: Although some of the tips could easily be adapted for those purposes, there are many instances in which it wouldn’t be wholly effective — or wholly appropriate — to adapt them to the dating scene.

We’d like to point out, though, that people often underestimate the likelihood that another person will agree to their request — and that includes saying yes to a date. But getting someone to agree to go out on a date with you isn’t the hard part; the hard part is getting that person to actually show up rather than stand you up.

In that respect, there are several different things you could do. One way to avoid getting stood up is to ensure that your date-to-be makes a commitment that has three components: it should be voluntary, active, and public. After you’ve agreed on the details, don’t say something like, “See you there!” or even “Let me know if there’s any change in plans” as you walk away. Instead, it’s far more effective to say, “Will you please give me a call if something comes up and we need to change the plans?” Then pause and wait for him or her to say, “Yes, I’ll do that.”

Using this very tactic in a different domain, the proprietor of a Chicago eatery greatly reduced the percentage of no-shows, people who booked a table but didn’t honor the reservation and didn’t call to cancel it. Specifically, he had his receptionist change what she said when taking a reservation from “Please call if you have to cancel” to “Will you please call if you have to cancel?” Of course, nearly all customers committed themselves to calling by saying “yes” to that question. More importantly, they then felt the need to be consistent with their commitment. The no-show rate dropped from 30 percent to 10 percent.

Q: Which presidential candidate is more persuasive in your opinion?

A: Obama has made use of many scientifically validated persuasion tactics, particularly in his speeches. Even looking within a single speech — Obama’s South Carolina primary victory speech, for instance — we can see some very valuable influence techniques being used.

For example, Obama says: “I know that when people say we can’t overcome all the big money and influence in Washington, I think of that elderly woman who sent me a contribution the other day, an envelope that had a money order for $3.01 …” What Obama is doing here is known as the legitimization-of-paltry-amounts technique.

Obama also makes effective use of the “convert communicator,” somebody who has made a presumably informed choice to switch sides. In this particular case, it was a lifetime Republican who is now an ardent Obama supporter: “When I hear that we’ll never overcome the racial divide in our politics, I think about that Republican woman who used to work for Strom Thurmond, who is now devoted to educating inner-city children and who went out into the streets of South Carolina and knocked on doors for this campaign. Don’t tell me we can’t change.”

Obama has probably utilized more discrete persuasion tactics in his campaign speeches, but that doesn’t necessarily answer the question of who is a more persuasive person. There are many reports that when McCain came back from losing the Republican primary in 2000, he became one of the most persuasive and influential members of the Senate, not only due to his popularity among the American public, but due to his willingness to compromise on issues and work across the aisle. This meant that both Democrats and Republicans sought his endorsement on legislation and other issues.

It will be interesting to see how McCain combats the barrage of persuasive ads that Obama will be able to send the public’s way several months before the election, due to the imbalance of funds directly at his disposal. By some estimates, Obama’s decision to opt out of public financing will allow his team to outspend McCain on such ads four-to-one, which should allow Obama to get his persuasive message out to seemingly anyone, anywhere. One tactic that McCain’s advisors might use to combat this lopsidedness would be to run ads openly connecting the better-funded and more prevalent Obama ads to Obama’s decision to opt out of public financing, labeling the decision as an opportunistic break of a promise. If tied together strongly enough, every time voters see a barrage of Obama ads, they’ll be more likely to be reminded of the “opportunistic promise-breaking” label and view the ads negatively.