On Advertising Science: You Won’t Believe How Easy It Is With This One Weird Trick…

12 Feb


I’ve written a bit about the science of persuasion and marketing, and also how someone’s identity is a good indicator of how they can be persuaded. With the recent popular debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, I think the ability to persuade should be more in the spotlight, especially in rationalist circles (the other side of that coin is a necessity to also be aware of dark arts persuasion). It’s not enough that you think you have the correct answers, you should also know how the human brain works in order to effectively communicate those ideas in a way humans are more likely to accept them. But when most people — even smart people — attempt to argue their case, they usually handicap themselves before even getting out the door. Why?

Because being criticized is the first roadblock to effective persuasion!

If you get offended, or if you offend someone, the likelihood of having a fruitful exchange of ideas plummets. Sure, you can minimize how offended you can become by keeping your identity small, but you have no control over the identity of a person you’re trying to communicate with.

Almost everyone I know these days has heard of confirmation bias. It’s probably one of the first biases people hear about when they start reading about why people believe the things they do. Or maybe they read it on some Tumblr “debate” thread. By now a lot of people should know that the human tendency for confirmation bias is overwhelming, which also leads to its ankle-grabbing sibling disconfirmation bias. Just take a look at how many articles there are on Google Scholar related to motivated skepticism.

Considering that disconfirmation bias is our default mode of operation when encountering dissenting information, adding an insult — either real or perceived — to the debate can only lead to a defensive position, increasing the offended party’s proclivity for disconfirmation bias to even higher than baseline levels. As I always quote, arguments are soldiers; once you know which side you’re on you defend that side at all costs. Any real or perceived deviation from the dress right dress of your soldier’s formation is seen as an attack from the enemy. So calling someone anti-science when trying to convince them of some scientific position is much more likely to have the unintended effect of increasing the gain on someone’s disconfirmation bias (summarized):

Background: The pro/anti vaccine debate has been hot recently. Many pro-vaccine people often say, “The science is strong, the benefits are obvious, the risks are negligible; if you’re anti-vaccine then you’re anti-science”.

Methods: They showed experimental subjects an article basically saying the above.

Results: When reading such an article, a large number of people did not trust vaccines more, but rather, trusted the American Academy of Pediatrics less.

But all is not lost. There have also been a few studies showing how to cancel out our natural inclination towards disconfirmation bias. For example, making someone feel good about themselves decreases it in a religious context

A series of studies over recent years have found that if you make people feel uncertain or anxious, they’ll respond by turning up the intensity of their religious faith.

Quite why this happens isn’t known. It might be that unhappy people turn to their gods. Or it might be the implicit threat to their well being that’s triggering the response.


[…B]asically people who did the self-affirmation task were inoculated against the effects of uncertainty (at least insofar as religiosity goes). People who hadn’t done the self-affirmation task got religion, as expected.

And in a secular context:

Studies of social–political debate, health–risk assessment, and responses to team victory or defeat have shown that people respond to information in a less defensive and more open–minded manner when their self–worth is buttressed by an affirmation of an alternative source of identity. Self–affirmed individuals are more likely to accept information that they would otherwise view as threatening, and subsequently to change their beliefs and even their behavior in a desirable fashion. Defensive biases have an adaptive function for maintaining self–worth, but maladaptive consequences for promoting change and reducing social conflict.

If this is the case, then it’s probably in one’s best interests to read up on how to effectively persuade someone, since the science of persuasion implicitly uses techniques to make someone like you more and/or affirm their self-worth. To recap what I posted about persuasion and marketing:

1) Reciprocity: You’re more likely to get something if you give it first. Smile at someone and they will smile back.

2) Social proof: People are more likely to buy into something if they see that other people have bought into it.

3) Liking: If you discover that you have things in common with the salesman, or he uncovers likable things about yourself, then you’re more likely to like him and therefore buy from him. This could include cold reading/Barnum statements (e.g. “people who do X innocuous behavior are/have Y awesome personality trait”). You can also improve how much someone likes you by mirroring them; mirroring others to bond with them or get them to like you seems to be a fundamental aspect of our evolutionary psychology.

4) Authority: Robert Cialdini says authority is “[s]omeone who is perceived as a credible source of information that people can use to make good choices.” You’re more likely to accept someone’s argument for why you should e.g. buy a car from them if they seem like they really know what they’re talking about.

5) [Internal] Consistency (also known as the Benjamin Franklin Effect or “Cached Selves” on Less Wrong): If you do a small, innocuous compliance for someone, you are more likely to do a big compliance for them later, especially if you slowly ramp up in less and less innocuous requests. This is the strangest one to me and seems pretty counterintuitive, but it seems to work. The same thing happens between signing a throwaway survey that says “Keep the Earth beautiful” and then later agreeing to put up a huge sign on your lawn that says “Drive safely”, as the Less Wrong article clearly states.

6) Scarcity/Mystery: If you see something is rare, you’re more likely to get it. People tend to think something is important if it’s scarce or secretive. As I wrote in my previous post on the topic, mystery and inside secrets seem to be one of the reasons why Christianity became so popular almost 2,000 years ago, and also seems to be one of the reasons for the violence that follows the big three monotheisms around; salvation is scarce, sacred land is scarce, and even god himself is scarce since there’s only one god to worship (one of the reasons I try to make a point of saying there’s no “one, true” version of Christianity). So the trick is, if you want to increase the draw of some idea you’re selling, try to make it seem like it’s secret knowledge. This way if you are imparting it to someone it makes them feel special and individualized.

7) False Bayesian Updates: The more arguments you list in favor of something, regardless of the quality of those arguments, the more people tend to accept what you are selling.

8) Slightly contradictory/nonsensical words/phrases, metaphors, poetry/rhyming: Our brains are not optimized for intellectual activity, but for social activity. Metaphorical language is built into our everyday, highly social languages; if I say I have a big day tomorrow, you know what I mean. The day won’t be literally big since that doesn’t make sense. But we all implicitly associate largeness with importance, and smallness with unimportance due to our embodied brain. And singing, thus rhyming, is much more fundamental to our thought processes than vanilla talking, and is much more primitive, as it lights up your entire brain.

9) Halo Effect: We act nicer to people we find attractive. Attractive people are seen as funnier, more trustworthy, more intelligent, more extroverted, etc. than less attractive people. This includes attributing “good vibes” to products that are seen in the presence of or being used by attractive people, and so on (claiming that marketers are trying to enforce a standard of beauty is putting the cart before the horse, as there’s no money to be made from such a complicated conspiracy theory). For example, taller people earn more money than shorter people (this is probably one reason why women make less money than men): “In the work setting, the halo effect is most likely to show up in a supervisor’s appraisal of a subordinate’s job performance. In fact, the halo effect is probably the most common bias in performance appraisal.”

10) Storytelling: people temporarily adopt the morality of people they read in stories; stories can otherwise be used to inject your beliefs into someone by getting them to feel the emotions you want them to feel. Stories, in effect, take advantage of our empathy, and empathetic reasoning is tightly coupled with religiosity. And this process is immediate and automatic, since your thief is overzealous in this regard.

Hostage negotiators are people whose job it is to establish empathy and rapport in a much more hostile environment than pop debates or internet discussion boards. So it’s probably a good idea to try to apply some of the techniques that have been honed in life or death situations to engage with say creationists or anti-vaccine proponents:

It’s not something that only works with barricaded criminals wielding assault rifles — it applies to most any form of disagreement.

There are five steps:

  1. Active Listening: Listen to their side and make them aware you’re listening.
  2. Empathy: You get an understanding of where they’re coming from and how they feel.
  3. Rapport: Empathy is what you feel. Rapport is when they feel it back. They start to trust you.
  4. Influence: Now that they trust you, you’ve earned the right to work on problem solving with them and recommend a course of action.
  5. Behavioral Change: They act. (And maybe come out with their hands up.)

The problem is, you’re probably screwing it up.

What you’re doing wrong

In all likelihood you usually skip the first three steps. You start at 4 (Influence) and expect the other person to immediately go to 5 (Behavioral Change).

And that never works.

Saying “Here’s why I’m right and you’re wrong” might be effective if people were fundamentally rational.

But they’re not.


The most critical step in the Behavioral Change Staircase is actually the first part: Active listening.


1. Ask open-ended questions

You don’t want yes/no answers, you want them to open up.

A good open-ended question would be “Sounds like a tough deal. Tell me how it all happened.” It is non-judgmental, shows interest, and is likely to lead to more information about the man’s situation.

2. Effective pauses

Pausing is powerful. Use it for emphasis, to encourage someone to keep talking or to defuse things when people get emotional.

Eventually, even the most emotionally overwrought subjects will find it difficult to sustain a one-sided argument, and they again will return to meaningful dialogue with negotiators. Thus, by remaining silent at the right times, negotiators actually can move the overall negotiation process forward.

3. Minimal Encouragers

Brief statements to let the person know you’re listening and to keep them talking.

Even relatively simple phrases, such as “yes,” “O.K.,” or “I see,” effectively convey that a negotiator is paying attention to the subject. These responses will encourage the subject to continue talking and gradually relinquish more control of the situation to the negotiator.

4. Mirroring

Repeating the last word or phrase the person said to show you’re listening and engaged. Yes, it’s that simple — just repeat the last word or two:

For example, a subject may declare, “I’m sick and tired of being pushed around,” to which the negotiator can respond, “Feel pushed, huh?”

5. Paraphrasing

Repeating what the other person is saying back to them in your own words. This powerfully shows you really do understand and aren’t merely parroting.

6. Emotional Labeling

Give their feelings a name. It shows you’re identifying with how they feel. Don’t comment on the validity of the feelings — they could be totally crazy — but show them you understand.

A good use of emotional labeling would be “You sound pretty hurt about being left. It doesn’t seem fair.” because it recognizes the feelings without judging them. It is a good Additive Empathetic response because it identifies the hurt that underlies the anger the woman feels and adds the idea of justice to the actor’s message, an idea that can lead to other ways of getting justice.

A poor response would be “You don’t need to feel that way. If he was messing around on you, he was not worth the energy.” It is judgmental. It tells the subject how not to feel. It minimizes the subject’s feelings, which are a major part of who she is. It is Subtractive Empathy.

So there you have it. There actually isn’t one weird trick for advertizing science. But thinking that there was is what got you to read this blog post in the first place, which is itself a roundabout way for advertizing for science!

tl;dr: If you’re trying to communicate effectively with someone, you’ll do a much better job if they like you and/or you don’t offend or accuse them.

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Posted by on February 12, 2014 in cognitive science


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