The Crass Construction of Desire


Smooth Persuaders: Leveraging Human Nature.

…Would you mind? The pf community is a great place for otherwise scarce information about debt reduction. Pfbloggers are making a public commitment to debt reduction — a powerful motivator. Perhaps you will post something to the next carnival, respond in kind? Since you’re reading this, it only makes sense.

In a brazen and hamfisted way, the opening section of our debt reduction carnival attempted to incorporate many of the common techniques advertisers and politicos use to separate us from our money:

  • I appealed for a sense of commitment, “would you mind?” by making an innocuous request.
  • I mentioned that there were limited resources in terms of debt reduction advice (patently absurd). That’s an appeal to your fear of scarcity, and the tendency to value things that are scarce, or even might be scarce.
  • I stated that other people are doing it too. In other words, why don’t you? Particularly in ambiguous situations, we model our behavior on what other people are doing.
  • I appealed to your sense of wanting to return a favor. Reciprocity is simply one of the foundations of society, and as social creatures we feel a strong desire to reciprocate. A big part of this is that we generally hate to feel we owe others something! (Funny, given the personal finance context of trying to reduce or avoid debt…)
  • There’s a war going on out there — and if you don’t watch out, you and your pocketbook will be the casualties. That’s one of the central thrusts of Dr. Robert Cialdini. His book has sold over 1 million copies. If you think you are largely immune to the ploys of advertising, read on!

    Cialdini on unconscious modes of persuasion.
    I mentioned Cialdini, a social psychologist, in an earlier post. You can find his books in the business section. (A recent New York Times article “Who’s Minding the Mind?” covered the surprising range and variety of powerful ways we can be manipulated — without any conscious knowledge of what is going on. In the Yale study, people’s judgment was strongly affected simply by handing them a cup of coffee.) Cialdini writes about the ways in which human beings respond automatically, without thought. Here are the ways he outlines that we can be easily manipulated:

    The need to appear consistent:
    Once we commit to an idea, particularly in public or in writing, we feel a strong pull to do what we say we will do. Cialdini asserts that this is why grass roots organizations and political parties often want you to sign petitions. (He even states that often they don’t do anything with those signature, throw them away in some cases.) It is the act of commitment and its effects that their after, moreso even than a particular financial commitment or signature for petition. Once the initial commitment is there, people are much more likely to commit further and more substantially.

    The power of public commitment:
    As mentioned above, consistency can be further leveraged by getting people to publically commit. Once someone has committed to something, he or she will tend to produce further justifications, reasons, rationales to back up the commitment.

    The compelling nature of authority directives:
    Plain and simple, people like to follow leaders. There are many disturbing examples of this. Cults are one class of example. But also political parties and leaders. In the infamous Milgram Study, people were asked to apply increasingly dangerous electrical shocks to other study participants. Roughly two-third of the participants continued to apply the shocks even when it appeared the person receiving the shocks was moaning in agony. Even if they expressed their dismay to the expert in the labcoat, invariably they would continue to shock the subject if the “expert” pressed them to do so. Cialdini notes that we react to symbols of authority, particularly clothes, cars, and titles, whether they are substantive or not. Hence the labcoat in the Milgram study.

    The tendency to use social referencing to guide our own behavior:
    Wikipedia has a good example, well known to psychology students:

    People will do things that they see other people are doing. For example, in one experiment, one or more accomplices would look up into the sky; bystanders would then look up into the sky to see what they were seeing. At one point this experiment aborted, as so many people were looking up that they stopped traffic

    The need to reciprocate:
    Reciprocation is integral to our social nature. It is why free samples are effective in marketing. There are a number of techniques that exploit this basic human need. A small gift is followed by a request. A small concession is offered, which instills a need for the other party to offer her own concession. We are not comfortable with feelings of indebtedness.

    The response to scarcity:
    The sense of scarcity tends to create demand. Cialdini cites a number of toy shortages, the cabbage patch doll, for instance. A common tactic is to promote something during Christmas, have a “shortage”, and then promote it again after Christmas. This also puts parents in the position of needing to appear consistent, as often with level of pre-Christmas promotion they had promised their child the item, only to find it was not available.

    The lulling effects of feelings of liking or friendship:
    Ever heard of a tupperware party? If the people who are selling are people you like you are more likely to buy. It’s kind of worn out, but sales people will still latch on to your first name and be your buddy — even credit card collectors.

    Persuasion in an Information Saturated Age.
    Why bother with all of this? Well, these cognitive rules of thumb, sometimes referred to as heuristics, are increasingly relied upon in an information saturated culture. When information is overwhelming or ambiguous, it is human nature to place our bets and make generalizations from what we’ve seen before, or to make completely unconscious choices based on seemingly hard-wired stimulus response patterns. Since we are pummeled with information on a daily basis — we rely on the sage advice of experts, it’s simply much easier that way. And then, we buy stuff.

    Tired of stuff?
    If you would rather not buy quite so much stuff, then it behooves you to arm yourself with the knowledge that will otherwise be used against you. These techniques of strong-arming the unwary consumer are becoming increasingly subtle.


    One Response to “The Crass Construction of Desire”

    1. sharon wortman farnham Says:

      I liked your article but couldn’t understand all of the big words that are in it .
      I have tried the start scratching and see how many people in the room will scratch thing . You would be amazed when you say you itch and start scratching what kind of reaction you get .
      I have not tried the looking up at the sky thing however I will have to try that sometime . Jesus talked about us as sheep doing what the others did rather it was wrong or right .

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