In this article I interview Nick Kolenda author of the bestselling Methods of Persuasion: A guide to the Psychology of Influence and Persuasion of Human Behavior
In this article we talk about the M.E.T.H.O.D.S system of persuasion:
- Mold their perception
- Elicit congruent attitudes
- Trigger social pressure
- Habituate your message
- Optimize your message
- Drive their momentum
- Sustain their compliance
From Magic to Mentalism to Psychology
Michael Frank: You’re a magician, a mentalist, a mind reader, and you’ve also written a bestselling book on the psychology of influence and persuasion. What got you on this path initially?
Nick Kolenda: Well it started off with my parents giving me a magic kit when I was very young and I just never grew out of it. And over time I transitioned from magic to mind reading and mentalism, which are pretty much the same thing, but I always hated the perception of the dorky stereotype of a magician. And so I wanted to avoid that, and I transitioned more towards mentalism and that’s actually how I got into psychology by pretending to read people’s minds. I wanted to study psychology to incorporate that as a false explanation.
I don’t do magic or mentalism anymore, but back when I was performing, I would use psychological tricks to influence people to think of something specific, an object, a number, a word, and then it would seem like I could read their mind. I would then use a lot of pseudoscientific terms like subliminal messages that don’t have credibility in research to explain all of these mind reading feats that I was performing on stage, but these were false explanations.
However, I don’t want the background that I had to taint the credible work that I’m doing now which is backed by science and is credible and researched. And so I try to distinguish those two so that people don’t confuse them and they don’t overlap.
I made the decision to write Methods of Persuasion so that I could incorporate everything I’ve learned in my background and expertise in marketing, research and mentalism. I want to try to combine them all together.
The M.E.T.H.O.D.S system of persuasion
Michael Frank: You have a system of persuasion and you use the acronym M.E.T.H.O.D.S
What is M.E.T.H.O.D.S and how does it work?
Nick Kolenda: So M.E.T.H.O.D.S is:
Mold their perception. So essentially you’re trying to get people into a mindset that is conducive for your persuasion.
Elicit congruent attitudes and try to extract some type of behavioral momentum. We do this by molding their body language and behavior.
Trigger Social Pressure. This is essentially about the importance of social proof, it’s the concept that most people follow the herd, and if people know that everyone else is doing something, then they’ll be more inclined to perform that same action.
Habituate your message. This is about making your target more familiar with your request via repeated exposure.
Optimize your message. You need to tweak the specific features of your message to resonate with your audience.
Drive their momentum. What can you do after presenting your message that will further motivate your audience towards compliance?
Sustain their compliance. Sometimes you’ll want to persuade people toward some type of continuous long term behavior like eating healthy, so this is about presenting ways to sustain their compliance.
That’s the step by step process, but even though I explain everything in a linear step by step fashion, at the end of the day you can just pick and choose whatever persuasion principles best fit your needs at the time.
Michael Frank: Okay let’s go through the M.E.T.H.O.D.S system one by one in a little more detail:
Mold their perception
So essentially you’re trying to get people into a mindset that is conducive for your persuasion, and the best way to do that is through priming.
So just to break it down into its basic parts, if you prime a certain behavioral concept, you are more likely to perform that behavior. For example: When people are exposed to words about the elderly, such as “retired”, “bingo” and “Florida”, they are likely to walk out of a room significantly slower simply because that concept of the elderly is more prevalent in their mind, and with that concept activated, they’re more likely to engage in that type of behavior.
So when you prime a concept, you’re more likely to engage in that behavior, and there are two types of priming that have practical applications:
One type of priming is content priming, so when you look at something, your brain activates the shape, size, color, and all of the individual components of it.
When you look at a set of options, if one option is popping into your mind more easily, even though you’re not sure why it’s popping into your mind more easily, you will assume that it’s because you want to buy that option.
So let’s say you’re looking at three options of yogurt:
If you see something blue right before you make that decision, the color blue will be activated in your mind, and then when you’re looking at those options, because the color blue is activated, something will feel right about the option of blueberry yogurt.
And it’s kind of a serendipitous feeling, you’re not sure why something feels right about that option, but you’ll feel a need to ascribe a cause to that feeling, and so you’ll conclude that it’s simply because you want to buy that yogurt. So this is a good example of how our nonconscious drives or experiences can dictate our conscious reasoning.
Maybe you’ll think: “I got blueberry last time and it was really good so that’s why I want to buy it again”.
Or maybe you’ll think in the exact opposite way: “I got strawberry last time, so this time I’ll try blueberry”.
So even though we think we have a reason why we’re going to be purchasing the blueberry yogurt, we don’t realize that the reason is completely arbitrary.
The real reason why we’re buying the blueberry yogurt is because of the nonconscious gravitation that we’re feeling toward it because of the mere exposure to the color blue that we just saw to it triggers.
So our nonconscious feelings can determine the reasons why we think we’re buying something.
The other type of priming is behavioral priming.
If you prime one concept or behavior, you’re more likely to engage in that behavior.
So let’s use an example of open-mindedness. If you tell your friend that you just tried a new food that you never thought you’d like, but now you really like it, it seems simple on the surface, but it activates the concept of open-mindedness in their mind, and now your friend is more likely to engage in open-minded behavior.
How advertisers mold your perception
Michael Frank: What are some ways that advertisers might mold our perception in addition to celebrities and social proof?
Nick Kolenda: One of the ways they might do it is through a type of priming called linguistic fluency.
So if you can pronounce or say something very easily, the more easily that you can say it or pronounce it, the more gravitation you’ll feel toward that brand or product or whatever it is that you’re evaluating.
Recently there was a commercial by Captain Morgan where literally the entire commercial is just everyone addressing a captain by saying “Captain”, “Captain”, “Captain”. Literally that’s the entire commercial.
After 30 repetitions of “Captain”, your linguistic fluency for “Captain” is going to be so high that if you’re at a bar or at the rum aisle in a store and they ask you: “What kind of rum do you want?” you’re going to misattribute that feeling or that gravitation towards buying Captain Morgan just because captain comes to mind so easily because of the earlier repetitions.
And again you might consciously ascribe a reason to that: “Well Captain Morgan is the most popular brand, so that’s the reason why I want to buy it.”
Yet under the surface you’re gravitating toward Captain Morgan because of the heightened activation of “Captain” in your mind.
You know a lot of people think that commercials aren’t effective because the ads don’t make you want to purchase that brand. But that’s really not the purpose of most commercials.
The purpose of commercials, for most of the big brands anyway, is to simply reinforce their concept so that it’s activated in your mind, so that the next time you encounter that type of choice context, that simple exposure will push you toward their side.
So that’s the primary application of priming.
Michael Frank: How else might advertisers try to mold our perception?
Nick Kolenda: Anchoring could also be another factor.
If you’re exposed to a high number, let’s say 4632, and then you try to estimate the average temperature in San Francisco, you will estimate a higher number than you would if you were exposed to a lower number.
The underlying concept is that when you’re evaluating a number or a price, you will adjust away from an anchor point, from the figure or number presented to you, as if it was somehow significant, even if that number is completely arbitrary.
See here for a more detailed description of anchoring: The Anchoring Effect
Michael Frank: How might one individual mold another individual’s perception? I’m not talking advertisers, businesses or corporations, but how might one individual mold another individuals perception?
Nick Kolenda: I think a good way to mold someone’s perception is by conveying expectations, because expectations themselves are an anchor point. So if you convey high expectations e.g. in a negotiation “I want $100, 000” you set an anchor point, and people will be anchored toward the expectation that you’ve set.
“Similar to mindsets, our expectations largely dictate our perception of the world. Whenever we develop expectations for a certain event, our brain often molds our perception of that event to match our expectations. We see what we expect to see. We hear what we expect to hear. We feel what we expect to feel. If you want people to perceive something more favorably, you should convey high expectations because those expectations will become a lens that will mold their perception.” – Nick Kolenda
Elicit congruent attitudes
Michael Frank: So once we’ve molded their perception, what comes next?
Nick Kolenda: The next step is to elicit congruent attitudes. This popular idea was mentioned by Robert Cialdini in his book Influence on behavioral consistency.
“We often infer our attitudes from our body language. If you want to instill a certain attitude in your target, you simply need to get your target to exude body language associated with the attitude that you’re trying to instill. By getting your target to display that body language, you can trigger an attitude that’s “congruent” with that body language.” – Nick Kolenda
People have an urge to remain consistent in their behavior, and so if you extract a behavior from someone, they’re likely to be motivated to remain consistent with that behavior.
Controlling body language, behavioral consistency
So the basic idea is that our body language can dictate our emotions. So if I’m sitting upright, that upright posture is going to make me more confident, or if I’m smiling I’m going to be happier.
“We typically assume that the mind influences the body, but the relationship also works in the reverse direction. That is, your body and behavioral actions can influence your thoughts, perception, attitudes, and many other cognitive mechanisms.” – Nick Kolenda
“Due to our tendency to associate certain body language with certain attitudes (e.g., we associate head nodding with open-mindedness) I propose getting your target to exude certain body language that will cause them to develop certain attitudes that would be favorable for your persuasion.” – Nick Kolenda
I launched a YouTube video recently on the Psychology of Commercials and I spoke about an Xfinity commercial where everybody is bobbing their head up and down to a song
You need to know two things in order to understand the psychology behind the ad:
- Body language triggers the emotions that we associate with that body language
- We unconsciously mimic the body language of other people. If you see somebody nodding their head, you just have an intuitive urge to nod your head
Based on those two concepts, you can watch that Xfinity commercial and you can see a devious motive behind it. Throughout the entire commercial they just cut to new people nodding their head, and then they finally end the commercial by showing the benefits of Xfinity and their products, and by this point you are more likely to be nodding your head while you’re looking at these benefits.
Just the mere act of getting someone to nod their head makes them more agreeable to your message, because that body language triggers the emotional state of agreement. And so if you show people nodding their head throughout a commercial, and if you nod your head while you’re evaluating that product, you will infer that you are in agreement with that message and that product.
“If we display certain body language (e.g., head nodding), and if that body language is inconsistent with our inner attitude (e.g., we’re in disagreement), we feel a state of discomfort known as cognitive dissonance, and we become motivated to resolve that discomfort. How do we resolve it? We often resolve that dissonance by changing our attitude so that it matches our behavior (e.g., we change our attitude from disagreement to agreement to match our body language of nodding our head).” – Nick Kolenda
The foot in the door technique
One of the best ways to get behavioral consistency and to get someone to comply with a large request, is to first ask them to comply with a smaller request.
If you ask someone for a small favor they’re more likely to comply with the request because it’s only a small favor. But then afterward, once they’ve complied with your smaller request, if you then present them with a larger request, they’re much more likely to comply with it, because you’ve broken their inertia and triggered momentum.
Trigger social pressure
Nick Kolenda: The next step is to trigger social pressure. Although it’s helpful to make it seem like “everyone is doing it”, I think it’s even more helpful to try to make it seem like a lot of people in your target demographic are doing it.
Michael Frank: So it’s not just that “everyone is doing it”, it’s that people like “ME” are doing it.
Nick Kolenda: Yeah, “everybody is doing it” would still be persuasive, but even more persuasive than that, is if a lot of similar people in your target demographic are doing it.
If people can see a group of people who are similar to them performing that behavior, then they can more easily visualize themselves being a part of that group and performing that behavior, and that will create an even stronger pressure to join in.
Michael Frank: Yeah, I really don’t like that people are followers, that they’re sheep, but they are, and I guess that’s why advertisers still use social proof to sell their products and services after all these years.
Nick Kolenda: You know, it’s funny because I share the same philosophy as you, but I do recognize its importance and prevalence in persuasion.
The Power of Social Pressure
The power of social pressure is demonstrated in this famous experiment by social Psychologist Solomon Asch in the 1950’s:
Habituate your message
Nick Kolenda: The next step is to habituate your message. This is about making your target more familiar with your request via repeated exposure.
“The mere exposure effect, also known as the familiarity principle, suggests that we develop greater positive feelings toward a stimulus if we’re repeatedly exposed to it. The more often you encounter a stimulus (e.g., beer, song, person), the more appealing and likable that stimulus generally becomes. Though it may appear counterintuitive to our current beliefs (such as the popular phrase, “familiarity breeds contempt”), ample evidence has shown that repeated exposures to a stimulus lead to a more favorable perception of that stimulus.” – Nick Kolenda
I use the example of a mother trying to teach her children to eat vegetables just by incorporating a few vegetables into their meals each time. This goes back to a concept called the just noticeable difference (JND) which is the minimum amount of change that’s needed in order for people to detect that change. If there is just a little bit of something we might not even notice it.
So with your message or whatever you’re trying to get someone to adopt, you want to start small and then gradually expand from there so that they don’t notice a difference. If you can incorporate your message slightly below the just noticeable difference, you can infiltrate your message into their behavior and get them to accept it.
A lot of marketers do this with prices. Instead of raising their price by a large amount, they just raise it by a small incremental amount every year.
I know a lot of people are afraid to increase their prices and so they typically wait until the last possible moment to do so. But this is a mistake because if you increase your price out of desperation, you normally need to increase it by a noticeable amount. But if you were to increase your prices every year by just a small amount, those smaller adjustments are going to be much less noticeable than a much larger increase later on.
Michael Frank: So it’s like boiling a frog, if you put a frog into boiling water, it will jump out straight away. But if you boil it slowly, it will stay there until it dies.
Nick Kolenda: Exactly.
Optimize your message
Nick Kolenda: The next step is to optimize your message.
So sometimes we make quick intuitive emotional decisions, and other times we make decisions that are very systematic, rational and thought out, and what you want to do is cater your arguments and your message to each instance.
If you know that people are going to be evaluating your message very quickly then you want to use things like social proof “everyone else is doing it”, but if you know that they’re going to be using a lot of logic and rationality, then you want to present those rational types of arguments.
When you’re presenting arguments to people, you want to put your strongest arguments first and last, since people remember most what comes first and last and have your weakest arguments in the middle. This is due to the primacy and recency effect.
The primacy effect states that things in first position have a greater effect on our long term memory, whereas the recency effect states that things in the last position have a greater impact on our short term memory.
It’s also important to present both sides of your argument, both the positive and the negative. A lot of people try to shy away from the drawbacks of their message, so maybe in a product context, they’ll try to hide the negative reviews and only try to showcase the positive reviews because they think anything negative will detract from it.
But it’s always more persuasive to include the counterarguments and a little bit of negative information, and more importantly, why it’s not a problem or why you can overcome it, because if you don’t present any negative information, people will be looking for the negative and wondering what’s wrong, and they’ll tend to think that there is a lot more negative information than there actually is.
However if you address any negative points within your argument, and explain why those negative points aren’t a problem, then people will stop looking for the negative and they’ll make the false conclusion that those are the only negative points about it, and in turn they’ll have to rely on the other positive arguments that you are presenting.
“Counterintuitive to our current beliefs, presenting a little bit of negative information about your message can actually benefit you. Research shows that two-sided arguments (arguments that present both positive and negative aspects of a message) can produce favorable changes in attitude and behavior.” – Nick Kolenda
“When a message contains only positive support, people tend to believe that the message is purposely excluding information, which causes them to be skeptical toward that message. On the other hand, when a message contains a small amount of negative information, people develop stronger attitudes because they believe that the information is more complete. When the situation is suitable, you should include a small amount of negative information in your message (as well as arguments to address and counter that negative information) because people will assume that you’ve considered both sides of the topic, and as a result, you’ll be able to persuade them more easily.” – Nick Kolenda
Michael Frank: It makes you seem more trustworthy too, like you have nothing to hide, because you’re revealing why some people disagree with you, and that you’re not ignorant of the negative reviews or opposition arguments, but they’re just not a problem, and that builds trust in the listener.
Nick Kolenda: Exactly. It comes back to a psychological phenomena called reactance, if you’re only presenting the positive side, or if you seem very biased, or if people think that you’re trying to influence their opinion or their behavior, they’re going to be much more resistant to your message.
Drive their momentum
Nick Kolenda: The next step is to drive their momentum. So after you’ve presented your message you want to give them some incentive to further comply with your request.
Now my dad raised me with the philosophy that if someone does something for you, you pay them for their troubles, so if my friend is giving me a ride, I’ll give him some money for gas.
However it wasn’t until I read Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational that I learnt that those types of monetary incentives can transform a social relationship into a market relationship, and now I think it’s very important not to transform personal and social relationships into some type of monetary transaction.
If the person doing you a favor is a friend or a personal connection, I think money is probably the worst thing you can give them. So if your friend gives you a ride, don’t pay them back with money, but with some other gift or kind gesture later on, such as a bottle of wine, or some other gift besides money. This helps to maintain quality relationships, and that’s just in the personal domain.
“In order to maintain healthy social relationships, you should refrain from giving your friends cash, and instead, offer them a gift if you want to thank or reward them.” – Nick Kolenda
In the business domain, I think the size of incentive is also important. There’s research showing that very large incentives can reduce intrinsic motivation. So if someone is performing a behavior for a large incentive, they’re not going to enjoy that activity as much.
“How big should your incentive be? When you want to persuade people to comply with a one-time act, then a large incentive might be your best bet (but not too large of an incentive that will cause them to “choke”). However, when you’re trying to persuade people to develop a long-term change in their attitude or behavior, a large incentive will backfire because it will spark extrinsic motivation. They might comply with your request, but they will be less likely to develop a genuinely favorable attitude toward the task. In order to create the greatest change in your target’s attitude, you need “insufficient justification”—your incentive must be small or nonexistent so that your target attributes his compliance toward a genuine desire to comply, not toward a desire to receive the external reward.” – Nick Kolenda
Counterintuitively, smaller incentives actually get people to enjoy an activity more because they need to consciously rationalize why they’re performing that behavior for such a small incentive. And so they rationally justify that they’re performing that behavior because they enjoy that behavior.
However, if there is a large incentive in place, they’ll conclude that they’re performing that behavior because of that large incentive. So they never develop the intrinsic motivation or enjoyment of that activity. So I think that people need to be careful with the size of the incentive that they give people in different contexts.
Motivate through limitations
Nick Kolenda: In addition to incentives, you can also try to motivate people through limitations.
There are two aspects of motivating through limitations:
The first main principle is that of scarcity. We gravitate towards things that are limited in quantity and this stems from evolution. If there was only a limited amount of food left we needed to pounce on it. If we didn’t have that instinctive urge, then we wouldn’t have gotten the food we needed and we would have died off.
“When we perceive something to be limited, scarce, or unavailable, we place higher value on the item in question e.g. a slice of pizza becomes more valuable when it is the only slice left. We are psychologically wired to avoid loss; when an opportunity is becoming limited, we feel a pressure to seize that opportunity to avoid losing it.” – Nick Kolenda
So from a persuasion standpoint, try to limit the availability or quantity of whatever it is you’re offering. A lot of marketers will say that there are only X units available, or that it’s only available for a limited period of time. Those limitations just create that desire to pounce on that limitation.
The other aspect is reactance. So if somebody is trying to control our behavior or limit our choices, we’re going to actively fight and resist against that because we desire autonomy and control.
It’s like the reverse psychology effect where if we’re told not to do something, we’re going to want to do it.
“Whenever a freedom becomes limited, we react. Literally. It’s called psychological reactance. When we perceive a particular freedom becoming restricted, we feel a natural urge to maintain or recapture that freedom.” – Nick Kolenda
So if you want to persuade someone to do something, you want to promote their sense of autonomy and control, and try to make it seem like they have the final say. You don’t want to make it seem like you’re trying to force them into anything. You always want to try to promote other people’s autonomy.
Sustain their compliance
Nick Kolenda: The final step is to sustain their compliance.
A lot of times in a lot of contexts, you’ll want to persuade someone to keep complying with a request. Maybe you want to persuade your spouse to keep eating healthy or to engage in a healthier lifestyle consistently. In that case the best strategy is to try to create as many positive associations with the goal of whatever you’re trying to get them to do.
This is essentially classical conditioning, if they encounter the goal in a positive context, they’ll attribute positive emotions toward that goal. So just by creating positive associations to your goal on a regular basis, you’ll influence them to create a more positive perception of that goal and a greater likelihood of complying with it.
How to prevent people from procrastinating
Michael Frank: How do we stop people from procrastinating on making a decision we want them to make? So they’re not just sitting on the fence and just eternally thinking about it?
Nick Kolenda: The easiest way to prevent people from procrastinating is probably just to set a deadline. Once you set that clock and it’s ticking, they can’t procrastinate anymore.
Another thing that might be helpful is to break everything down into small and easy steps.
So if you want someone to do something on your website, instead of presenting them with a large form, break it up into small and easy steps so that they don’t feel overwhelmed. This goes back to behavioral consistency. If you can just get them to do that initial behavior, they’re more likely to keep that momentum going and keep following down that path of consistency.
Persuasion isn’t manipulation
Michael Frank: Any final thoughts in regards to persuasion?
Nick Kolenda: I always try to reiterate that persuasion isn’t manipulation. People tend to have a negative perception of people trying to persuade others as if persuasion was always bad, as if you were manipulating people. And I’m against any form of using psychology to manipulate someone into doing something that they don’t want to do, or that you know is bad for them.
I only advocate using persuasion techniques, if you know that whatever you’re trying to persuade them to do is really in their own best interests.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.