Subtle persuasion? Sometimes nagging is just easier

Shoba Narayan

Aug 25, 2011

I am studying Russian-style arm-twisting with a group of Bangaloreans who want to clean up this city. How to get people to stop dumping their rubbish on the road? How to get more people to recycle?

Arm-twisting or persuasion is an art, but now – thanks to numerous studies – also a science. You can get people to do what you wish simply by modifying your message.

One woman became the best-selling salesperson on a television channel by modifying her last line from, “Please call. Our operators are waiting to speak to you”, to “If you don’t reach us the first time, please keep trying”.

In his seminal book, Influence: the power of persuasion, Dr Robert Cialdini lists a set of criteria that increase the odds of getting people to do what we want. One of them is reciprocity or the desire to give back to a person who gave us something. This is why companies give free samples. The idea is that once you accept something from a company, you want to return the favour by buying their product.

Another paradigm that can be used to persuade people is their desire to have commitment and consistency in their values. One study, for instance, showed that if you call people on the phone and ask them if they will vote in an upcoming election, they will say, “of course”. Come the day, they will do their best to vote simply because they have said they would.

“Persuasion is not a preternatural gift for saying the right thing,” says Dr Cialdini. “Persuasion is also a science – how to say something in a way that will increase the likelihood of an assent to that issue.”

Consider the hotel industry. A number of luxury hotels these days have taken to putting up small signs in their rooms with instructions about reusing towels. A typical one runs like this: “if you want your towels to be changed, please throw them into the bathtub and we will be happy to change them. If you would like to reuse them for an additional day, please hang them up.” The note ends with a tag line about sustainability and saving the environment.

This is a laudable exercise, except that it doesn’t work. Not as well as it should anyway. This is because luxury hotels assume that giving people more information will help them do the right thing, in this case reduce water usage and thus contribute towards a better planet. The only problem is that information alone is not enough to nudge people into better behaviour.

Professor Noah Goldstein of the UCLA Andersen School of Management tried a different tack. He conducted an experiment in which these same little signs were put up in rooms at hotels, except with one additional line. It said, “76 per cent of the people who have stayed in your room have been recycling their towels.” Compliance went up exponentially.

The reason is the herd instinct in all of us. We want to be like others who are like us. So if we learn that the previous guests who were staying in our hotel room were reusing towels, we are more inclined to do the same. Then why aren’t more hotels using that additional line and increasing the odds of guest compliance? Cialdini says that it is because of ignorance.

“This completely costless message has never been used because the managers have never been sure of the numbers of the study,” he says.

One of my favourite instances of persuasion was an essay I read in the New York Times a long time ago. In it, a woman who studied animal trainers tried to use their techniques to get her husband to do what she wanted.

“The central lesson I learnt from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behaviour I like and ignore behaviour I don’t,” wrote Amy Sutherland, the author of the essay. “After all, you don’t get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging.”

The only problem is that my husband is not a sea lion, and try as I might to treat him like one, he saw through it.

“Why are you thanking me for taking the plate to the washbasin,” he would ask, irritated. Or worse: “Do you want something? Are you OK? What do you want? There is something wrong, isn’t there? What are you hiding from me?”

Persuasion may be an art, but gosh, it requires too much patience. Sometimes nagging is just plain easier.


Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Banglore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.

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