More On The Importance Of Persuasion

26 Mar


My most recent post on this, On Advertizing Science, has a lot of info on why effective methods of persuasion are not only related to how religions spread, but are also related to how other ideas spread effectively. Here is another metastudy done on how persuasion efficacy correlates with financial success. Summarized by Less Wrong:

Ng et al. performed a metastudy of over 200 individual studies of objective and subjective career success. Here are the variables they found best correlated with salary:

Predictor Correlation
Political Skills 0.29
Education Level 0.29
Cognitive Ability (as measured by standardized tests) 0.27

(all significant at p = .05)

(For reference, the “Big 5” personality traits all have a correlation under 0.12.)


The strongest predictor of salary (tied with education level) is what the authors politely term “Political Knowledge & Skills” – less politely, how good you are at manipulating others.

Several popular books (such as Cialdini’s Influence [ed: Also on my blog]) on the subject of influencing others exist, and the study of these “influence tactics” in business stretches back 30 years to Kipnis, Schmidt and Wilkinson. Recently, Higgins et al. reviewed 23 individual studies of these tactics and how they relate to career success. Their results:

Tactic Correlation Definition (From Higgins et al.)
Rationality 0.26 Using data and information to make a logical argument supporting one’s request
Ingratiation 0.23 Using behaviors designed to increase the target’s liking of oneself or to make oneself appear friendly in order to get what one wants
Upward Appeal 0.05 Relying on the chain of command, calling in superiors to help get one’s way
Self-Promotion 0.01 Attempting to create an appearance of competence or that you are capable of completing a task
Assertiveness -0.02 Using a forceful manner to get what one wants
Exchange -0.03 Making an explicit offer to do something for another in exchange for their doing what one wants

So there are a couple of take-homes from this. The one I’m focusing on most is that you shouldn’t box yourself into a one-or-the-other situation when it comes to trying to influence others. In the definition above, “rationality” might be more clearly defined as presenting just the facts. Sure, presenting just the facts seems like it should work on persuading someone all on its own, but the delivery counts almost equally as much. Combining the two — being both likable and having the facts on your side — would work much better than just relying on one or the other.

The author continues:

This site [Less Wrong] has a lot of information on how to make rational appeals, so I will focus on the less-talked-about ingratiation techniques.

How to be Ingratiating

Gordon analyzed 69 studies of ingratiation and found the following. (Unlike the previous two sections, success here is measured in lab tests as well as in career advancement. However, similar but less comprehensive results have been found in terms of career success):

Other Enhancement, or “flattery”, had a weighted effectiveness of 0.31. Opinion Conformity, or “go along to get along”, had a weighted effectiveness of 0.23.

The others were a 0.15 or below. Note that “flattery” is sometimes too obvious to be effective. You can do more subtle flattery by doing things like asking someone for a favor or their opinion on something.

The author concludes:


One important moderator is the direction of the appeal. If you are talking to your boss, your tactics should be different than if you’re talking to a subordinate. Other-enhancement (flattery) is always the best tactic no matter who you’re talking to, but when talking to superiors it’s by far the best. When talking to those at similar levels to you, opinion conformity comes close to flattery, and the other techniques aren’t far behind.

Unsurprisingly, when the target realizes you’re being ingratiating, the tactic is less effective. (Although effectiveness doesn’t go to zero – even when people realize you’re flattering them just to suck up, they generally still appreciate it.) Also, women are better at being ingratiating than men, and men are more influenced by these ingratiating tactics than women. The most important caveat is that lab studies find much larger effect sizes than in the field, to the extent that the average field effect for the ingratiating tactics is negative. This is probably due to the fact that lab experiments can be better controlled.


It’s unlikely that a silver-tongued receptionist will out-earn an introverted engineer. But simple techniques like flattery and attempting to get “sponsored” can appreciably improve returns, to the extent that political skills are one of the strongest predictors of salaries.

Again, notice the persuasion techniques of religious groups. They don’t focus on facts and data. Rather they focus on the people element, designing an environment where they will appear likable. They intimate that belonging to their group is beneficial; implying that belonging to their group will give you all of the feels. A truly formidable persuasion artist would combine both the good feeling of belonging to the group and accurate, well referenced facts.

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