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How would you persuade teens to drink less soda?

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Pop quiz time:

How would you persuade kids to drink less soda?

Here’s a surprise: Facts alone are usually a very poor way to persuade people to change their behavior.

This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which says, “Just put it out there! Let people make their own decision!” Yet facts alone are poor persuaders. You can take an idea with the very same principles, apply persuasive methods, and change people’s behavior dramatically more.

For example, researchers from Johns Hopkins studied how to persuade teens to drink less soda. They used signs outside corner shops to test three different approaches:

From the Daily Mail article:

One asked if they knew that the average fizzy drink contained 250 calories, another asked if they knew it was equivalent to ten per cent of their recommended daily intake.

A third asked ‘Did you know that working off a bottle of fizzy drink or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?’

Results showed that providing calorie-related information did cause sales to drop by over a third (40 per cent), but that the physical activity equivalent was most effective, reducing soft drink sales among teens by half.

Instead of just sharing simple facts, they changed the framing — a classic persuasion strategy — and reduced soft drink purchases BY HALF!

What’s fascinating is that if you asked the average person on the street, they would simply say, “Just share the calorie counts. Let people make their own decision.” This is why I call them the unwashed masses.

“But Ramit,” you might say, “that’s paternalism! You’re telling people how to think! We should let people make their own decisions.” We can discuss paternalism later — and in persuasion, I have clear views about ethical persuasion and paternalism — but if your goal is pure behavioral change, know that facts alone are generally unpersuasive.

Btw, what if I asked you to persuade teens to have less sex? Would you…

  • “Educate” them on the risks of teen pregnancy? (Educate is always a red flag for pundits who don’t understand persuasion.)
  • Show them people who had teen pregnancies and how it affected their lives?
  • Show them how teen pregnancy would make you fat and unable to spend time with friends?

The third — the most evocative, visceral effect — might be most persuasive. And in fact, we see that that very approach has been linked to lowering teen birth rates…through MTV’s 16 and Pregnant show.

There are countless examples of highly rigorous, peer-reviewed studies demonstrating time-tested principles of persuasion.

If you read my material, you know that I focus on persuasion and behavioral change. That’s why instead of writing worthless tips about cutting back on lattes, I write about…

Why does this matter to you?

Because slowly, email by email, blog post by blog post, I want to help you become masters of persuasion. So you can persuade yourself to change your behavior — to earn more, save more, to find your Dream Job — and to persuade others to live better lives.

Now, I want to ask YOU:

Knowing what you learned about persuasion today, what is ONE area of your life where you can use persuasion to change your behavior? Be specific. Do not just say “I am going to go to the gym more.” Say: “Before, I used to think ___ and it got me ___ results. Today, I learned ___. Now, I am going to change my approach so I get ___ and I am targeting ___ results.”

Leave a comment here.

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47 Comments

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  1. I used to think that making small “investments” into my career would help me get further… buy this course, pay for these ads, spend money on this software… but I’ve recently started persuading myself to save more money, and work harder so we can move into our house.

    When my wife said to me, we need to make X,000/Month and I looked at the income and said we’re doing that, so that’s not the problem, it really helped to push us in the right direction, and I am happy to announce that we’re going to be able to move into our first house within the next few weeks!

  2. Before, I used to think that it was ok to spend a yearly bonus when you get it. Today, I learned that if I frame my mental perception of myself differently based on past behaviors (ie: being broke and living pay check to pay check; having to say no b/c I don’t have the money vs. seeing myself as having some money in the moment to get a ‘want’), that I can shy away from the temptation to spend my bonus on something and instead, become the financially responsible person that I should be and want to be. I’m also using the Lent season as sort of a motivation for self reassessment and challenge. During this time other people around me are giving things up (my roommate gave up drinking) and it kind of represents a support group and reinforces the behavior.

    • Rob I was the same exact way!

      I have to admit too, being more in control of my finances has really helped me to feel more “grown up” and like I have a lot more control of my future. As strange as that may sound, I’m glad I stopped sabotaging myself and got in control because now I feel like I can do anything.

      How about you?

  3. I thought that buying a new set of comfortable tennis shoes and signing up for a gym membership ACROSS THE STREET FROM MY HOUSE would be all the motivation I needed to start exercising regularly in the morning. It wasn’t. Now I have a pair of unused shoes in the closet and a wave of guilt washes over me every time I leave my apartment and see the gym across the street.

    Even if I give myself all of the tools I need to exercise, I learned that I can’t just “tell” myself to go. I certainly can’t drum up even an ounce of motivation in the morning when I’m not even a morning person (really set myself up for success with that plan).

    Now I’m going to change my approach from relying on motivation and self-messaging (“go to the gym, or you’ll be fat!”) to “action-centered” processes. Basically, I’m dividing my goal into baby steps. When I walk through the door after work, I have to put my gym shorts and tennis shoes on. My goal is to use that momentum to get me out the door and to the gym. “Excercising regularly” will come later… now it’s just about execution.

  4. Before, I used to think walking at an increasing intensity of speed and incline on the treadmill would help me lose weight. It did get me a few results (no weight loss, but more muscular calves so I fit into a pair of tall boots in my closet). Today, I learned that interval training (alternating speeds from fast to slow, with and without, incline) would produce better results (for weight loss) in less time. It is also supposed to increase my metabolism for a short period of time following exercise. Now, I am going to change my approach to use interval training so I can get a better workout without investing more time and I should lose some weight. I am targeting weight loss as a measure of my improved results. I will give myself 4 weeks of this changed routine, with weight taken every other day, and no calorie increase, to see if this is effective. If so, I will apply this interval training to my other exercises (weight training, etc) to reach my ideal weight goal.

    P.S. On the teens and colas issue, I never had a problem. I raised my kids to think that soda of any kind was a special, once a week treat. Once they had the treat (at home, a party, or elsewhere), that was it for the week. When they got older, they had to pay for this once a week treat from money they earned outside the home. Of course, I provided plenty of healthy drinks for free. This method led to two adults that don’t drink any colas, by choice, unless they are very ill and have to push fluids. Then they drink one cola week, in the form of a tablespoon or two added to a glass of water. None of their visiting friends complained about what we had to eat or drink, and my kids never complained to my face about this policy.

  5. I used to think people wouldnt make a decision on something because of how many barriers were in their way. Today i learned that people are inherently selfish and will only act on something if you directly relate your product to their situation. Now i am going to change my approach by making my product’s story something that my target market can easily identify with and test the conversion rate based on this different approach.

  6. Right now, the biggest way I want to use persuasion is to change my family’s eating habits. I already did it for myself and have become vegan (I am not an animal hoarding hippy, I read a book called The China Study and some others that were very convincing).

    Before, I used to think I could just tell my family what was healthy and unhealthy and they’d drop the bad stuff and it got me poor results. My husband’s never sure what is okay to feed the kids or not (yeah poor guy) and the kids don’t seem to relate to “healthy” choices. My personal choices are met w/ skepticism and slight hostility… Today (it’s been coming to me in doses since before today), I learned that I have to get into their heads. Now, I am going to change my approach (goal is to get them eating less meat) and I am targeting results through appealing to what they can relate to (also not saying anything if I don’t have a plan because otherwise it’s just nagging). The kids are more likely to be influenced by us calling a food “Yummy,” or a “treat,” vs. “unhealthy.” And my husband probably needs to hear how important he is to my and why I have concerns about his high animal protein intake.

    I think however, you want us to discuss business. In business, I’m having a little harder time applying this technique. Before, I used to think that just hard work would help me to progress and it got me some good results, but I’m still not employed (I just started to obtain freelance work, but it’s not enough so that I don’t have to work outside my home). Today, I learned I’ve probably got to continue to sell my skills through persuasion, e.g. instead of saying, “I write grants,” say something more specific and appealing to the agency I might target.

    However, now I’m not sure I’m ready to change my approach because it’s earlier than I intended to go back to work (have a 5 mo old in addition to 3 other kids). I just implemented a plan in January to write 2 grant proposals over the course of 6 months, a change of plans that was initiated after reading Ramit’s materials. I’ve just finished one grant project (and am being paid) and am beginning the second one. However, a goal before I began this freelance work was to return to work in Sep. 2012. Now I think I could gain more work writing from home… I’m not sure how to set my next goal. Persuade myself to target organizations who could pay me. vs. rely on referrals??? I don’t know…. Persuade myself to adhere to a more rigid work schedule (e.g. instead of working when I can, know exactly when I will be working and who will take care of the baby and/or older kids during that time)? Clearly I have some things to think about in setting & revising my work goals for after I meet this most recent goal I set.

  7. Ramit, how would you reframe motivating people’s laziness to think for a minute and actually do this exercise?

    This is what I did.

    I used to think, ‘bah, that I know how to do that, I don’t need to comment and engage in the exercise, I’ll just do it in real life” and so I wouldn’t comment.

    And then I thought, “Well first of all, it’ll only take a few minutes, second, I’ll feel that much more accomplished by contributing my thoughts that will potentially help another person, third, I’ll feel less guilty about being a constant freeloading consumer instead of a contributor, fourth, I can actually engage my creative and critical thinking process which I associate as ‘challenge’, which I actually do enjoy, and fifth, I might get some respect points from Ramit by actually interacting with his material instead of being the mystery reader that has time to read the long-ass articles but can’t find the time to think and type — things we all do — for a few extra minutes.

    I actually feel more motivated now than when I first started typing.
    Thanks Ramit.
    Haha

    • Nice post. This was sort of paradigm shift for me. Hence my reply back thanking you!

  8. Before I used to think that if I just ‘worked harder’ or ‘pushed myself more’ that I would work out more. I didn’t. Got NO results. Today I learned to change my frame of reference. I realize, if I don’t work out, I’ll keep gaining weight and feeling lazier like I have been for the last couple months. Now I’m going to change my approach, so I think, “if I don’t work out today, I’m choosing to be fatter.” Forget that. I don’t want to get fatter. I’m not letting today be a fat day.Today I’m exercising so I can get my energy back and be happier.

  9. I’m curious to hear why a difference of 10 percentage points in effectiveness is all it took for the ‘unwashed masses’ to become excellent persuaders.

    Factual approach – 40% reduction
    Evocative approach – 50% reduction

    I really do like the attempt at making the gap seem broader by comparing “over a third” to “A HALF”. Especially since it’s only a 3 percentage point difference between the differences of a third (33%) to the actual number (40%), and the 40-50% difference.

    The main argument wouldn’t seem nearly as valid if the calorie count was written as ‘reducing the sales by nearly half’ compared to the reduction by evocative means.

  10. Maybe for me, appealing to my pride works better than facts. I used to try running at least 3 times a week for a total of 9 miles a week just so I could look better and give lip service to being healthy.

    Now I signed up for a 5K on April 1, which gives me a deadline to prepare for, and I also write out a list of important but not urgent things to do each week and include “Run 9 miles” on this list. Every time I complete an item on the list I get to cross it off, and for some reason I get some sense of accomplishment crossing things off the list.

    Before when I told myself I really should run, I would decide to put it off another day. Now when I tell myself I should run because I don’t want a bad race time posted online and I don’t want to look at a list of uncrossed off items at the end of the week. These techniques may not work for everyone, but it has worked for me.

    Now I have been running 9 miles a week since October. Once the race is done I will sign up for another one. Eventually when I want to run longer, I will sign up for a 10K.

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