Persuasion surprise: Sometimes I give the wrong advice on purpose

84 Comments

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Today I’m going to share some subtle techniques on how to persuade other people to do something. If you remember, when I started my site, none of my friends would read it, even though many of them had big money issues, so I had to learn how to reach people by doing some very unconventional persuasive tactics.

You might be surprised by this one. You will not read about this in any textbooks or psychological literature. Yet it works.

Let’s start with…

Q: Ramit, is it ever ethical to give people the WRONG information?
A: Yes. You might be surprised. Let me show you what I mean. I will cover the ethics of this at the bottom of this email.

Example 1: How to lose weight

My friend recently lost a ton of weight and got really fit (she weighs less after two kids than before she had them). Her friends, of course, want to know how she did it.

One of her friends asked for an exhaustive list of recipes, then after reading them, she looked up and said, “So…can I still use butter in my eggs?”

My friend told me this story and wanted to scream, NO!!! Just use coconut oil!! But instead, I advised her to say, “Sure, that’s fine. Just focus on starting your day with some protein. If you want to use butter, that’s cool.”

Although she “technically” shouldn’t use butter, there’s a difference between being technically right and actually persuading behavioral change.

Option 1: Tell her, NO! Don’t use butter! Do it all my way and you’ll lose a ton! Result: Person experiences reactance, does nothing, you get frustrated.

Option 2: Say sure, you can use butter. Just try to start the day off with protein and notice your energy level (hint: that is a very important phrase used by women) at lunchtime for a week. Result: Person will use butter, eventually start loving their increased energy level, and come back to you for more guidance — which they will be happy to accept.

Example 2: How to gain weight

I have a scrawny Indian friend who recently emailed me about gaining weight. In his email, he wrote “I already eat 2,100 calories/day!!” So adorable. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I eat that for breakfast.

Anyway, when I hung out with him last weekend, he asked me for some advice. (Remember, I learned how to work out and eat, and intentionally gained 40lbs to look like a normal human being.)

So we talked about this and that…and then he said, ok, so I’m going to go to the gym, I’m going to lift more, I’m going to keep running because I like that…and I’ll do what you said about food.

Option 1, the “technically correct answer”: NO! Don’t run! You don’t need it. Only lift heavy. Result: I take the one thing this guy knows how to do, run, and tell him not to do it. Then I throw him into a gym and recommend he use all this foreign equipment. Who on earth would actually listen to this stupid advice? This is what so many super-fit guys with 6-packs forget. You have to start at their level, not yours.

Option 2, the persuasive answer: Sure, keep running if you want to. Over time, you might not need to run as much, but if you like it for now, sure. Result: Guy gradually starts lifting more. He runs more. He sees some results, gets a trainer. Trainer tells him to stop running, eat more, and lift heavier. He does, bulks up, looks like a normal human being, names his first son after me, and pays for my drinks for the rest of my life. Just a day in the life of Ramit Sethi.

The ethics of persuasion

Pay close attention you weirdos, because if I ever find out one of you used my persuasion techniques for unethical gains, I will hunt you down, physically hurt you, then post your name and now-deformed face on my blog. Your SEO will suck after that.

In those two above examples, why did I recommend giving the technically WRONG advice? Here’s why:

I use a simple rubric for persuasion: If people were rational beings, and they had all the information and motivation in the world, would they want to do this?

If so, it’s my duty to persuade as aggressively as I can.

If not, I should not persuade.

Example 1: Person is in $5,000 of CC debt. If they knew about interest rates and their own likelihood of following through on a program, would they join an expensive $5,000 “make money online” course? No. (That is why I turn down over $1 million/year by forbidding people with credit-card debt from joining my most expensive programs.)

Example 2: Person wants to gain weight but doesn’t understand why running is not good for gaining weight. Should I say “Sure, that’s fine” even knowing it’s not the 100% ideal solution? Yes, because once he gets in the gym and starts working out/reading more about gaining weight, he will stop running. Note: WHEN he is ready.

The main point is, to persuade, do it ethically and give people congruent recommendations at the right time.

I’m curious to hear if you’ve done this. Leave a comment when you gave someone the wrong advice for the right reasons.

 

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84 Comments

 
  1. Hi, Ramit. Great article and it shows how powerful gauging the other person is as well as the power that wording has. Just from the way we phrase things can have people hate us, like us, listen to us, or ignore us.

    Like you, I try my best to word it as to not completely discourage and condemn something while still giving the right advice. No one wants to hear what they can no longer do, but if you do it strategically then all is well.

    • I’ve also found in “gauging” the other person that it’s sometimes good to let them go all-out and over-the-top and then come to the conclusion that it’s better to take smaller steps.

      For example, I have people that come to me who want to go from not planning at all to living their whole lives on scheduled 15-minute increments. Instead of telling them that’s too rigid, I let them try it out. If it works, great. If not, they come to the conclusion themselves that a more flexible approach with small, sustainable improvement is better.

      Giving people freedom to try something and learn for themselves helps overcome their emotional immune system that can keep them from accepting outside input. In my experience, this leads to much better results for my time coaching clients than insisting that they stick to a rigid set of rules.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  2. I do this quite a bit with personal matters (close family and friends) because I am interested in their improvement (at least in my opinion).

    I tend to do this with those near and dear to me because those are who I care most about. I have also done this with some Accounting students who I have coached. There is a slight feeling of “guilt”, but it’s done in good faith and intention.

    I’ve seen it work more effectively than back-fire and plan to continue doing so when necessary. I do strongly agree however that wordsmithing is key if one was to successfully pull it off, which I think you do a good job of Ramit.

  3. This makes sense to me, especially with situations where the person is likely to have an all or nothing response. If anything is better than doing nothing and the exact honest response is likely to result in he person doing nothing, then I don’t see a problem with giving a different response to inspire a better response.

  4. This is the same kind of idea behind the Dave Ramsey debt snowball, yes?

    The RIGHT answer is to pay off your debts starting with the highest interest rate, but the one that is most likely to lead to lifestyle change and a successful endgame is to pay off the smaller ones first.

  5. Awesome! I actually just used this kind of “fibbing” last month on my cousin and his girlfriend.

    I was describing the Slow Carb Diet and how it has helped me lose ~30 lbs in 3 months. Of course, they were impressed and wanted to know the secrets, but when I mentioned “no fruit” and “no starchy/white carbs” they glossed over and “blah blah blah, I love fruit, I can’t give it up, it’s healthy, the guv’ment says I should eat it!”

    I said, that’s fine. A lifestyle that is 80% efficient that you can stick to is better than a 100% efficient lifestyle that isn’t sustainable. After that, they were way more receptive to hear about the meals and different advanced topics.

  6. I teach novice designers how to design. One of the biggest mistakes I see people trying to learn design is that they focus on relatively unimportant details like picking the perfect font, an ignore the important stuff like white space and design principles.

    So I have a list I call “all of the fonts you’ll ever need” that I give out to email subscribers. It has a list of several solid typefaces, and when to use them.

    Is this really ALL of the fonts you’ll EVER need? Are these the only good typefaces on the planet? Of course not, but it simplifies choices for them so they can make progress in the stuff that matters.

  7. Ramit! I love your posts! (I’ve been reading your blogs via rss since almost the beginning!) but I want more. Every time I sign up for email subscriptions I never receive any emails. (No its not going to spam!) how do I fix this? Could you shoot me an email in response since I probably won’t see it here?

  8. Last year I gave myself the wrong advice. In the good fight to eat healthier, I made the critical decision that to add good foods to my diet instead of taking away the bad and see how it worked out. The idea was that since telling myself to stop eating xyz wasn’t working, I should try something different.

    Action plan: I started adding veggie juices from Arden’s Garden as snacks in between meals. I also ate at least one vegetable or fruit with my “bad” meals. I never chastised myself for eating unhealthy stuff. Instead, I focused on the benefits of the healthy additions.

    The result: I started to become more productive had better energy levels. My appetite for the fried stuff went away. And when I ate unhealthy food, I made sure that it was delicious unhealthy stuff from a quality restaurant.

    Why did it work?: I really think there’s something to the psychology of it all. It’s easier to add the good than to take away the bad.

    Conclusion: I lied to myself for the greater good of my health and I’m still benefiting today. Great post, Ramit!

  9. I do this with vegetarianism all the time. I’ve been a vegetarian for 16 years and people are always asking me about going veg for their health of for animal cruelty reasons. I’m very positive and encouraging even if some of their ideas about vegetarianism aren’t exactly what I would have in mind. I believe it’s far better to get started and improve along the way than to get mired in the complex details of a task and never start at all.

  10. I relate to David Kadavay’s post.

    I teach novice programmers how to code, and just as his students focus on unimportant details like the perfect font. Mine also focus on stupid things like “What IDE should I use? Is Visual Studio better than Eclipse? Is it true that PROs only use vim or emacs? ” when all that matters at the moment is learning how to think properly.

    And just as david does, I tell them to use whatever program they can type text in; however If I were in their position I’d stick to notepad for the time being.

    Surprisingly more than 95% of my students start using notepad without questioning, and I avoid stupid debates like “Eclipse is better than VS”, and “emacs is for noobs”.

    Of course notepad is not a good program to write code in, there are specialized programs to do it! But they’re not at that level yet, why would they want code highlighters, refactoring tools, code completion, housands of plugin, ultra optimized numerical methods libraries, etc… when they do not even know how to make the computer add two numbers?

    Wonderful post Ramit, loved it.

  11. This made me smile. I’m a tutor so I do this to all my students.

    Sometimes students ask me: “How’s their English?”

    technically correct: sentences aren’t really “sentence”. more like phrases. Word order is screwed. Grammar rules are thrown out the window. Listening skill is bad.

    option 2: Good job on actively participating in conversation. Do you watch English shows? (usually they say yes) That’s wonderful. Do you know when you do that it actually improves listening? (they’d go: Ah really?! Thanks…)

    Another lesson I learn on “persuasion” is to focus on positives first – no matter how small. It’s not lying. Not even close. But highlighting something good gives them confidence to continue and make them enjoy the activity.

  12. My husband did this for me when I first started training. He said I could eat whatever I wanted as long as I showed up at the gym. The more I trained, the better I ate – because who wants to mess up those results once they start happening. People are odd not logical creatures – great advice!

  13. LOL, my SEO would rocket!

  14. Ramit

    I like how you teach your readers to approach their goals from a psychological perspective. You stress the importance of getting started rather than getting everything right on the first try. Basically, you’re the catalyst.

    I guess it it’s not so wrong to misinform your reader/student/mentee if you end up directing them in the right path. You’re awesome.

  15. Actually I tested this with two different students who wanted longer tee shots for their golf game.

    First one asked me how to hit the ball longer, I said “You need to swing harder.. to do this you need to build up more core strength and leg muscle to handle a bigger swing.” He hated that answer, wanted something with a quicker fix

    Second one asked the same thing, I said “First try using a longer club, this will increase your distance some.”

    She got a longer club and said, “I got the longer club and it helped, what else can I do?”

    Mentioned that she could build core strength…she got a gym membership and trainer the next day

  16. It’s funny that you spoke about weight loss / gain because I’ve been in the same boat. Okay, maybe not a boat but you get what I mean.

    My family, friends, so on and so forth would ask me how to get in shape and I would tell them the clear path to success. When they ignored me I would get all bent out of shape and get frustrated. After they successfully lost .23lbs in 6 months they would come back and ask the same questions. I would be calm and give them a few pointers. When they saw the results they would come back for more. I wouldn’t discourage eating doughnuts, cereal, or pizza. I would tell a small fib if they asked if this was okay. I would say for now, yes. People have to be excited and giving the wrong advice at first may be do just the trick.

    Excellent post.

  17. Hey Ramit,
    This is absolutely true, I do this a lot with my diet & exercise consulting clients. If I initially bombarded them with Do eat this and Don’t eat x, y, z (all things they eat all the time) they would feel completely overwhelmed, never do any of it (and of course not pay me to work with them next week!) It’s so important to take it slow & focus on the big wins first.

  18. Hey Ramit,
    Even I went through this and my so called well wisher (gym instructor) used to say not to touch my favourites that he sits in front of me and enjoyed having most of the time. Same goes with the first financial planner in India whom I called and I appreciated he was an expert but even then he was just busy trying to prove that he is the expert.. n believe me that was irritating

  19. So, I take it turning down people with credit card debt is an example of DOING the wrong thing for the right reason, right? Very interesting.

    Not that people are lining up to ask me for advice (yet), but this strategy gives me an excellent perspective on some things I could do with some of my websites… Especially my Pay Off Credit Card site where I get people on a plan to pay off their stupid credit cards. I’m sure everybody has their reasons and excuses for why they shouldn’t pay one off. Could be challenging to agree for the greater purpose in this case. Might give it a try though. Thanks Ramit!

  20. Surely. A friend is considering an affair. I don’t think that’s a brilliant idea. But she’s so obsessed/consumed that I know if I told her DON’T DO IT, it would add to her obsession. I suggested she consider doing it without a bunch of internal drama. I know that if she can remove the drama she’ll be fine. And if I try to take away the thing she thinks will save her, she’ll just hold on more tightly. Wrong advice. Right reason.

  21. My husband is terrible with decorating colors, but even he knows ugly. He was insisting on a color I knew was wrong. Did I argue? No. I let him paint it, see how awful it looked, and then even he admitted it had to be changed. Saved myself headaches and now he’s afraid to insist too much on decorating and leaves it to me.

    I’m better at this than he is. Al of the things that are ‘off’ in our house are directly related to him. Now he just agrees and he loves the compliments on the house.

  22. I definitely do this because you need to start where the person is at. Different things work for different people. Making others conform to what you think you know is right may not always work. As mentioned, extreme change can sometimes make behavior change seem impossible. For instance, you aren’t going to get someone who eats fast food every day to start cooking healthful meals for themselves. By slowly introducing new concepts or habits, the person is less likely to notice the change.

  23. Hi Ramit, If I have a patient who has totally messed up with things I encourage the parts they have got right then say’ of course I don’t need to tell you x,y,z’ then give them a precis of a better/different way. They agree and learn that they can get better but I haven’t belittled them or criticised their efforts so far.
    Works very well, especially with new mums who are very vulnerable, unsure and bombarded with advice.

  24. I do this a lot, and I think it’s good for people to have it pointed out. But I would never call it “wrong” advice – it may not be the textbook answer, but if you’re giving someone advice that you think will lead to results for them, then that’s the best answer you can give.

  25. Hey Ramit,

    Great article!

    I do not think I gave wrong advice for the right reasons, but, I always give the right advice at the wrong time, or, the wrong person.

    I study alternative health from time to time and find things that would help my family members. When I give them the advice based on what I had learned, they Never, and I say Never, allow me to continue! They either say it is boring or too lengthy of a talk. I try to continue but would eventually shut up.

    Maybe it is too technical.

    What should I do in such a situation? How can I make it more interesting and persuasive?

    Thanks,
    Sherry

  26. This is a great article. I am not great at giving the “wrong” advice and sometimes I think I am a little to harsh with the advice I give – and then my friends give up…

    But currently I am doing a juice cleanse diet and it has been going really well! Over the weekend my friends asked me a lot of questions and they were so impressed with my energy level at brunch-time (you’re right, us gals LOVE that diet buzz word). Since the weekend, a few of them have expressed an inkling of an interest in wanting to try this.

    Of course, they want to do it with almond milk and fruits, and avoid the less desirable yet more beneficial veggie juices. And yes, it makes me cringe just a little inside because if you are going to commit to something like this you might as well get the most out of it (in my opinion) – but I encouraged them to start with fruit juices, and go for it! I also told them that fruit and vegetables together very much mask the kale/spinach.

    Your article gave me good perspective on how to approach some other topics, I appreciate it!

  27. Interesting approach.

    The advice dispenser basically allows or ignores ‘wrong’ actions and behaviours by the advice recipient in order to reduce resistance from the advice recipient and to allow a gentler transition towards the ‘right’ behaviours and actions contained in the dispensed advice :D

    Will take some getting used to, especially for some of us engineering/programmer types who insist on being right all the time.
    *cough*

  28. “Just another day in the life of Ramit Sethi.” Haha!

    A family member of mine is truly terrible at saving money. She is getting older so it’s becoming a bigger problem as she nears retirement. Originally, I would get on her to start putting away as much as possible, but obviously that didn’t work.

    Later, I switched tactics and asked her how much she would feel okay with, and she said $50 (this is ridiculously small with her income and hard expenses, but I digress) so I said “Great! Let’s set it up!” She saves the $50 a month to her 401K so she doesn’t feel the impact as much (pre-tax) and I’m hoping she will increase it soon and save in other ways (emergency fund, etc). At minimum, at least it will be easier to increase now that it’s automated.

  29. I culture hack every day at work. We all know that the current way we do business could use some help, that we aren’t using the right tools at the right times, that we are spending too much time doing when we should be automating. So I work with people and change how they do business a little bit at a time, automate a few button clicks here, remove a psychological barrier there, tailor fit a process to the team’s needs, just enough to be beneficial but not enough to be overwhelming. We know where we need to be and to get there requires constant improvement, a kaizen culture.

  30. Love this post. I’ve been trying to get my friend, who recently quit her job due to health reason, to read your blog/book (which I lent her along with 4HWW) so they can help her get going down the path of self employment. It’s really hard to see her not grasp or care about all this useful information I’m shoving down her throat, especially since I get so excited about it all, and see her go though idea after idea and not get anywhere. I should probably re-evaluate my technique and come up with some good “lies” to tell her.

  31. Hey, Ramit,
    As ever, a great thought-provoking email on Tuesday. I’ve had plenty of experience telling other people what I think is the precisely tailored answer to a problem they present – only to watch them NOT implement anything.

    Your strategy of giving only advice that people are ready to hear – at their starting point – makes complete sense. I must try to implement this myself next time someone asks me for advice!

  32. Good call Ramit. Anyone who teaches should know words like proximity or successive approximation. If the learning objective is “10″ and the student is at stage “2″, then they will totally fail if they are given all lessons between 2 and 10 at once. They will likely be demotivated. You always evaluate where they are and take them a little ways towards the goal using the building blocks they have now. You can teach a parrot to play piano that way, and you can teach a human any skill that involves repeating steps.

    Things you can’t teach that way are creative skills, like coming up with novel solutions to problems. But your average in-debt person doesn’t need anything creative, just has to be able to execute a few simple things. Nice work.

    I use this all the time on my four kids.

  33. I’ve just realised that this ties in with with one of Tim Ferriss’s rules one Meta-Learning (learning how to learn) from his recent Four Hour Chef: adopt (or rather aim to adopt) only one new habit at a time.

    I guess the perfect advice, e.g., “eat more protein, go to the gym 3 times a week, lift heavy, get a personal trainer, stop running” would probably cover say 5 new habits. So the chance of successful implementation of new habits actually goes down to a pathetically small percentage. Whereas “go to the gym three times a week” would only be one new habit, so chances of implementation are much higher.

    • Michael-

      In my experience, I’ve seen that what’s most effective really depends on people’s personality type. Some people need the “build change” approach where they take on one new habit at a time. While others really need to “embrace change” where they take on a set of new activities all at once.

      The best way for someone to figure this out is to experiment and see which approach provides them with the most motivation to start and stick to new habits.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  34. I have recently been trying out exactly what you are advising – and it is SUCH A MORE persuasive and effective method to switch long – term habits! For example, after I started eating Spinach Smoothies with no sugar (and no fruit) I was able to keep significant weight off. I used to tell people to drink the same concoction, and they would get turned off right away! They would not even listen to me. Now, I say, have a fruit smoothie with what you typically put in there, and add a little spinach in as well.

    One of my friends now drinks Spinach smoothies with apples and berries everyday and sends me pictures – it is her daily habit now – and she tells all of our friends she does it! The fact that she is drinking a spinach shake is truly amazing – most people could not imagine doing that!!

    Providing little tips that people are comfortable with, instead of a black and white all-or-nothing solution, DEFINITELY has increased people coming back to me and asking me for more tips. I am feeling really good when I get questions from the SAME people now. I feel like I am helping them to build a healthy lifestyle – but it is very slow, and step by step. At least they are listening to me – and it’s actually better to do it slowly because it builds long-term habits.

  35. I do this all the time. I’m a career advisor for students, and they often book appointments wanting to talk about things that aren’t that important (e.g. resumes, or, worse, the formatting of their resumes) rather than things that ARE (e.g. strategic networking, research, etc). So it’s important to build rapport and give them what they are asking for, to establish a relationship and some trust. When they see how I can help them and accept that I’m smart and have their best interests at heart, they listen to my suggestions about other things that might help them with their job/internship search.

  36. We call this positive behavior support or strengths based learning in ABA world… its funny because the techniques i used to teach ppl to work with ppl who have developmental disabilities are based on the same principles, but ppl wld have such a hard time applying the principles to their home life

  37. As a pastor, this is the story of my life. Once I started doing this, I saw real lasting change in the people around me.

  38. Yep. We teachers call that “the teachable moment”. Until then, all your talk is just hot air.

  39. I find that my friends follow through with the advice I give them 100% if I give them a framework without specifics.

  40. I’m a Professional Organizer and use this tactic all the time because my typical client is very overwhelmed. So I agree you have to just let some things go and people will

  41. I have never gace wrong advice and I never thought this thing coul be helpfull.

  42. Isn’t it annoying that the methods that are most likely to be effective and get buy-in from the other person are so counterintuitive?

    It’s HARD to hold my tongue and miss an opportunity to try to directly point someone in the right direction. But I guess I get frustrated after offering people advice that they just ignore. With the people I’m closest to, I can’t just write them off, I HAVE to find an approach that they’re receptive to.

    I can’t think of a specific example where I successfully persuaded someone to follow my advice through psychological tactics. A more common example I encounter is getting someone to follow through on tasks I ask of them. If I want my husband to remember to do something without lots of nagging, I have to (1) emphasize the main ways he benefits from the task being completed or (2) emphasize how much he’s doing me a favor and how much I appreciate it or (3) give him a stake in the outcome by letting him make some of the decisions.

  43. Great article – I have seen this in trying to encourage others to eat better and take charge of their own health and well being… for me it is a reminder of how far I have come on that front myself, and also that there are many paths to the eventual “right place” on the health and fitness fronts (as well as career, finances and other aspects of life). I know what worked for me, but a few years later I’m watching my husband take a different path in a manner that works for him that is leading him to a lot of the same conclusions, healthier food choices and making a huge difference in his weight and lifestyle, too.

    Example – I read a bunch of diet books and came to the conclusion that most revolve around eating more lean protein, lots of vegetables and less processed stuff. I don’t stress calories and try to focus most of my meals in that direction (mostly paleo).

    My husband doesn’t want to give up his comfort foods, but accepts that he can eat whatever he wants as long as he doesn’t exceed 2000 calories/day. Over the last year, he’s gradually been reducing the amount of junk that he’s eating that leaves him hungry and with less energy and improving the quality of his “cheat” foods or finding workarounds like thin(er) crust pizza loaded with more meat and veggies instead of a thicker crust pizza that adds 100 calories/slice in just bread. I’m happy with the results and am glad that he’s found a different path that gets him closer to where he wants to be, too.

  44. When people ask me about how I stay in shape, they usually don’t want to hear the truth: that I have healthy eating habits that I’ve developed over many years. Eating healthy and exercising regularly leads to slow but permanent change. So I just tell them to follow the slow-carb diet and go to the gym and lift heavy weights twice a week. It’s mostly true and it moves them in the right direction.

  45. Catchy title … and I support your approach to influence. If indeed people were logical beings a lot would be different. That’s what makes the logical argument in a negotiation or behavior change exercise simply a place to start. Change happens slowly .. then quickly. or not at all if you fail to find a place to begin!

  46. I do that all the time without even thinking about it. Mostly to myself (e.g. slow carb diet most of the days, but not always, then when I see the results it’s a no brainer to folow through). I don’t think it’s wrong advice at all. You’re just giving part of the full advice and there is no ethical problem either.

  47. I recovered fully from stage 4 cancer with surgery and nutrition, minus chemo.
    People who have cancer often ask for my advice. I used to tell them about my experience, give them my nutritionist’s # and offer my sincere support. Sometimes they would ask me to meet two or three times, and I would do it. The conversations were exhausting. Then I realized people are sometimes idly curious about something and might be suspicious of it because it doesn’t match their theories. I could get caught up in trying to convert them, prove to them why it worked, or I could realize that they will do what makes sense to them, and that the curiosity, ambition and declaration have to come from them. I can be an example, but I do not need to be an evangelist.

  48. Yes! Someone already posted about drinking green smoothies. I have a (yoga/detox) client that would never follow through if I told him he had to cut out ice cream (“sure, you can still have a bit of ice cream, just make sure you eat this huge salad first!”).
    He is also now addicted to green smoothies (still with fruit), almost daily yoga, and salads with “magic powders and spices on top.”
    Ice cream has down from every night to about twice a week…..without my prodding!
    Thanks!

  49. This is actually a pretty common thing in teaching partnered dance classes–the overall goal is to get people over their initial fear, their “whoa this is so complicated”, and just get them moving together. So, in order to accomplish that, you might teach them the steps really quickly and ignore some of the lead/follow (the thing that makes dancing actually work), or give them a bunch of analogies that are close, but an approximation at best.

    The idea is, by getting them over their initial hurdle, they’ll learn to enjoy dancing, and they’ll pursue it. As they learn more and more, they learn about the technique behind dancing and can learn to correct their own mistakes (or at least, take classes where their mistakes will be corrected.)

    Never thought of applying this technique to life as a whole, though!

  50. Great point! The truth is that most people are extremely resistant to change, even if it is in their best interests and even when they have made the choice to change something. It’s all about encouraging them to take baby steps. This post makes me think about all the hype about eating an all raw food diet and how you have to give up everything cooked all at once, along with coffee, white sugar and most breads and pastas. And then, miraculously, you will feel better than you ever have in your entire life.

    Not! You will likely fail by trying to do everything all at once.

    Best choice? Try adding more raw fruits and veggies to your daily diet. And then go from there.

    Baby steps, people, baby steps!

    So, yeah, use reverse psychology whenever it applies.

  51. “You have to start at their level, not yours.”

    This is the trap 90% of teachers fall into. I’m getting this as a tattoo.

  52. Calling this technique giving wrong advice for their own good is simultaneously sensationalist and patronizing.

    Ramit, you say this as much in your post: you have to meet people at their level, not yours if you want to advise them. This is what good mentors do; it’s really not pursuasion, its empathy with not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  53. Ramit, this is really a great post. A lot of the comments miss the crucial point which is not giving the wrong advice or advice that includes something that isn’t ideal, it’s using this technique to make a difference with people that will help them with what matters to them. I’ve seen where I do it this way and where I don’t. Thanks for bringing it to my attention so I can use it consciously.

  54. I teach college freshmen, and many of them don’t get high grades because they don’t do all the work that’s required to get high grades… then they come to me!
    I could tell them “DO ALL THE WORK.” And I tried that for a while. Result: they continued to fail and make excuses… They don’t have time, they don’t understand the book so why read it, class is too early, WHAAAA.

    Now I talk about HOW to study the material. I ask them what they do already, listen to what they say (“I’m a visual learner”) and say, “Okay, here’s a thing that you can do right now, and it won’t take any more time than you are already spending, and it will help the material stick better.” [Insert smarter learning tactic here, like drawing pictures of the process they're studying] “Now, let’s practice this together for a second. See how EASY it is?” Result: they learn HOW to learn.
    Future result (I hope): They study smarter not harder, see results, and spend more time at it to get better results (When they’re ready; assuming they WANT to improve!)

  55. Constantly, for me is like put a seed in other mind and calmly wait for it growing. But remember, WITH GREAT POWER THERE MUST ALSO COME – - GREAT RESPONSIBILITY!

  56. As a gluten free eater, I’m always advising my friends and acquaintances to try the GF diet and see how they feel. Almost no one ever listens. I’ve learned that, as you say, the timing has to be right. They have to be open to the suggestion. And then, at that moment, I can’t dump all the info and food restrictions on them. It’s a cognitive overload (hey, I’m learning!) So I just tell them about the big stuff, and if they ask about the small stuff I lie and say not to worry about it.

    Interestingly, the people who actually follow through are athletes. I’m guessing b/c they’re used to changing their behaviors and testing out behaviors, with the goal of improving their athletic performance.

    The regular ol’ schlubs like me don’t change unless they are in pain, or they are at an inflection point in their lives.

  57. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him I eat [2100 calories] for breakfast.”

    You’ve got me curious – what the heck do you eat in the morning? My guess is it’s bulletproof coffee.

    I usually don’t give people what I think is wrong advice, but I’ll test it out with my friends and watch how they respond behaviorally.

  58. Oh yeah, i do this all the time.
    I like how you’ve used ‘wrong’ in the headline to make more conflict and tension – snappy writing! But the meaning you drive for is ‘appropriate’. I try and only give appropriate advice and, you’re going to love this. I will decline to give advice at all. I realised that sometimes people asking for advice are really just waiting to be entertained. No time for that thanks all the same.

  59. I think this is a good advice. Thanks for the reminder. Instead of telling ppl they are wrong (or having ppl telling me I am wrong plainly), it is more effective to get them to make small change towards the right direction, as they progress, they will make more and more of the change.

    I think this is also congruent to the principles in How to win friends and influence ppl.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Win_Friends_and_Influence_People

    Thanks again for the reminder.

  60. Love this Ramit. You’ve just helped me help more people and surely boosted my client compliance rate.

    After thinking about some times where I’ve given advice, it looks I’ve done this before…

    This is similar to your first example with the girl who wanted to lose weight.

    My friend has asked for nutrition advice several times over the last 12 months – our last discussion was about 4-5 months ago. One thing she ALWAYS had was a slice of toast every morning with breakfast. Initially, I said “No, you shouldn’t have that” but when saw her face in response to this, I changed it to “Actually.. Just have it if you want to… but make sure you have a high-protein breakfast with it and see how you go.”

    END RESULT:

    I just checked with her 10 minutes ago to see if she still has the toast every morning.. this was her response:

    “Not anymore, actually I hardly eat bread at all :)”

    Thanks Ramit.

  61. I definitely do this frequently, but I’ve never thought about it as giving “wrong” information. I’ve always thought of it as sort of teaching people in baby steps/one step at a time.

    When helping students with their public speaking (specifically, my college’s forensics & debate team) I teach them how to get a speech together. Once they’ve done that, THEN I go back & tell them their presentation is atrocious. So I teach them about delivery. Once they’ve learned that, THEN I go back and tell them the topic is terrible & will never win. After they’ve found a good topic, they need a lot less help, because by that point they’ve learned all of the elements to do it themselves.

  62. Gosh, I’m a doctor; I do this all the time. “Yes, you should smoke outside, rather than in the house with your kids,” instead of “stop smoking.”(They have already heard me say ‘stop smoking’ several times) If they do smoke outside, the kids are healthier and they smoke less because they have to think about it. Some of them even quit eventually.

  63. My friends and I talk about this a lot. How advice is useless unless the person is ready to hear it. I used to weigh 150 lbs and now weigh 195. Some men have asked me how I put on the weight. In the beginning I would go on and on about reading a book called the four hour body and how many calories to eat lifting weights etc. Their response was always something like “Well that worked for you but it wouldn’t work for me…” Now if a male friend mentions wanting to gain weight or says “I can’t put on weight.” I usually say “There are ways to do it I used to weigh 150 lbs.” If they want to know more and are ready they’ll ask certain questions.

  64. Hi Ramit. This is awesome! Love this strategy, reminds me of some research I read in the book “Just Listen,” by Mark Goulston. In it he talks about mirror neurons and how the very first step in persuasion/influence is to mirror the other person. In NLP this generally means mirroring their body language, tone, language patterns etc, but he takes it to the next level by mirroring actual emotions. So in a hostage situation for example, the very first step in negotiating with the hostage taker is to align with how he might be feeling or what might be going through his head. Its really fascinating research that you echo here in this post. The first step it sounds like in persuasion is to align with the beliefs, thoughts, feelings of the person you are persuading and then transition into the “right” way over time. I did this a lot during my time in the Marines by aligning with my junior Marines’ way of thinking before eventually segueing into the “better” way of doing things.
    Thanks for the wisdom Ramit. Love your work!

  65. Hi Ramit

    Excellent post, I have always loved how you tie psychological elements into eliciting behavior change. I am a registered dietitian and use the principles you discussed all the time. I’m a little biased but it’s brilliant how you relate money and food – two both very personal and loaded topics. Thoughts, deeper beliefs, emotions, and self confidence drive the actual choices made. It’s interesting how people come to you, the expert, for help and are directly asking WHAT to do but really don’t want the answer. I find appealing to where they are and subtly leading them to the answer is effective and somewhat of an art form at times. The WHY and HOW drive the what and how much. Then it gets to be their idea and their inner three year old doesn’t come out and say “don’t tell me what to do (but you asked dummy)!” And since there is never one “right” way to accomplish the same goal (health, well being, financial freedom) it seems illogical to provide people with straight advice. I think this is where a lot of “experts” get it wrong and immediately discredit themselves. People are getting rich and losing weight everyday is different ways! Thanks again for the thoughtful post. I wish more people subscribed to your school of thought.

  66. Hi Ramit.Thanks for the informative think different from the norm article.I will try to follow your advice when advicing people.Not easy to do but then again out of box thinking is not straight forward.
    Wishing you Happy Easter
    Regards
    Mustafa

  67. The trick is to know that every single person processes information differently; and in these cases, making huge, scary changes will often stall a person rather than help them towards success. These were great examples of helping people make small changes because you know that, ultimately (and technically), they’ll eventually get to the end point goal – whether in saving, health, or anything else in life!

  68. I often have friends ask me how to apply for the company I work for which has super cool culture and perks. The thing is not a single one took action. Instead they give a whole lot of excuses.

    After reading this post I realized that they could be paralyzed when I tell them that first they have to create a YouTube cover letter to apply for the company. (which isn’t that hard if you think about it).

  69. Small changes are much easier for folks than many or large changes. Instead of “eat shredded wheat instead of fruit loops for breakfast,” “add a little fiber to your fruit loops” has gotten some results. Not all the desired results, but I figure some is better than none. I do this type of “encouragement” all the time, to get small changes rather than no changes from folks.

  70. I might say, “Here are the drawbacks of doing that” and whether or not it’s trivial, instead of just saying “Go for it, and make sure to also do these good things for you”.

  71. Hi Ramit,

    This email stuck a chord with me, because I do it all the time! I’m a registered dietitian, and clients often come so see me in the hopes of losing weight. They always ask me if they can keep drinking their wine or still have their “occasional sweet” while still losing weight.

    I always start by telling them that there is nothing they cannot eat, and that if they want to have their wine, or their sweets, that is fine, and then move on to my healthy plate model (a visual model for what a healthy meal should look like). This tends to relax them, and they are able to focus on getting their meals to ressemble my healthy plate model. By doing this, they see little wins (i.e. decreased weight on the scale), come back and see me and are more motivated to continue applying changes to their diets.

    Eventually, with time, I do get them to decrease their alcohol and/or sweet consumption. But had I started by telling them to loose the wine or the occasional cake, I probably wouldn’t have seen them again, and they would have probably stacked my healthy plate model in a corner of their kitchen and never looked at it again.

    Thanks for the great insight!

  72. I thought this was the right way to teach anybody anything.

    I had a friend that wanted me to teach him the “ins and outs” of building a website with WordPress. This particular friend would have scratched his head if you asked him what a “div” tag was.

    Rather than inundate him with information with WordPress I taught him how to make one sentence show up in a browser window.

    We all need to be realistic when it comes to acquiring a new skill and get to the first, small success as quickly as possible. This helps to continue to WANT to learn that new skill.

  73. This here is why I think that historical figures who either did not write in their own words, or were no longer around to defend themselves, are at such a disadvantage.

    I started to suspect years ago that “wise people” do things like you described quite frequently. More recently I began to believe that in fact they spend nearly ALL of their time doing this, and two things happened.

    One, I started feeling more trusting of people trying to teach me something. If I realized they were ‘wrong’ about something, I could wait for quite a long time for them to finally tell me, “You know that thing I told you months ago? Well you’re ready now to know that’s not actually true.”

    Two, I didn’t have to wait for them to tell me this; every piece of advice I get is ‘for now’. A long time from now, when I am in a new space and can really understand the ‘rule’ as it was given to me, I will know for myself whether it was a Rule’ or just a really helpful Rule of Thumb.

    Now I joke that my life is like a Kung Fu movie. When I am ready, I will know.

  74. I do this all the time with patients. Try telling someone to cut their sugar and salt intake in half so they finally can get their diabetes and hypertension under control. Yeah right, yeah right.

    Instead I tell them they can have a piece of cake, just make it smaller and only have it on a special occasion. Eat the same foods and just put less salt on them. Something they seem very receptive to (although I have no follow up data, so I can’t really prove it worked) is adding a salad to dinner. I tell them to eat it before dinner and then eat what they would normally have. They get the benefits of the salad and eat less of the unhealthy foods. I almost never tell anyone to start an exercise regime (unless they are super young and pretty darn healthy anyway). I tell them to take a walk after dinner. I have actually seen people start doing that and lose 5-10 lbs over a few months.

    • Katie:

      One other thing you could try is visualization. When you shake a salt shaker on your food you can’t really know how much salt you added. It’s a kind of plausible deniability, but if they are getting a lecture from their doctor, it’s not really ‘plausible’ anymore is it? It’s just denial.

      Take their shaker away, and have them put salt on by hand. Either pour it into the palm of your hand or get a salt cellar. If you can see how much salt you’re putting on your food, it’s harder to delude yourself.

  75. I used this tactic on 2 of my close friends who always give me bad relationship advice they never use themselves. Both had broken up with bf’s they loved but had major issue’s- One guy was nice but has never been financially stable enough to move from his parents house into an apt ( age 28), and the other bf was a hardcore alcoholic who would lose days binge drinking. They asked me what to do- and instead of giving their advice “he’s immature/crazy you need to find a wealthy guy in his mid 30′s who can support himself and doesn’t have an addiction. Is he going to be the future father of any kids you have? Ugh. You need a real man”.

    I said “Do what’s best for you. I just went thru a breakup last month & the first month is hard. Do you want to go thru that? Just say you love him and tell him the future you imagine. Then ask him if he can be that guy in your future with the path he’s on now. Revisit the issue of breaking up when you feel emotionally stronger to deal with it. Not just b/c it’s the right thing to do.”

    I knew they were going to stalk/call their bf’s immediately after they broke up b/c they hate being alone. After giving this advice both girls reconciled with their bf’s and are happier…for now :)

  76. Ramit, I feel you are talking strategy rather than giving ‘wrong’ advice to get a desired result. Strategy implies there is a method; giving wrong advice conjures up (as you state) moral issues and perhaps (as the photo of this article implies) lying.

    I use the “Yes, and” technique, rather than “No” — this works especially well with children, and sometimes when adults do things that are not optimal, they are a bit childlike: A friend wanted to lose 60 pounds, yet consistently made bad choices with food and worried about having to do away with things she liked.

    “Can’t I eat a cookie?”, “Yes, AND you can after you eat (fill in the blank healthy choice)”

    As many comments before mine illustrate, the way to lead folks to good choices and keep them there, is to be positive and offer choices, and let them discover for themselves. Saying ‘no’ and being the authority only makes you seem like ‘that guy’ (whether you are a girl or not) and that is destined to eventually fail.

  77. My friend had never moved out of home and was travelling with me. she couldn’t find work in the past 2 years so when she was offered a job for very low pay and not much employment experience in her field I encouraged her to take it. She went for the job and has been working for 2 months moved out of home and realised how much she liked it and how much she now values independence. Now she is looking to get into more technical work for her experience and continue the life of independence.

  78. I have Not done this, but I Will now because it makes perfect sense. Like some of the other posters, I’ve been asked advice, and tend to explain everything they need to do, and then correct them, and then we’re both disappointed when there are no results. I can see now where there should be allowances, so instead of each of us pushing from opposite sides of the ball, we can get it rolling. Thanks.

  79. I rather like this post. I wouldn’t call it lying, more being tactical with motivating others (Very catchy though). We often need to hear things in a certain way in a particular order. Thanks for the much needed reminder mate.

  80. I was excited to find this site. I want to to thank you for your time for this fantastic read!! I definitely really liked every part of it and i also have you saved as a favorite to check out new things on your blog.

  81. Ramit,

    You’re right. Sometimes, you have to persuade by telling your listener what they want to hear so they can RELATE to you.

    I, too, often give people the “wrong” advice for the right reasons.

    Someone in my family was recently having a hard time in life. Long story short, she felt like she was a loser, and she came to me for advice.

    Logically, I should have tried to convince her how she is not a loser because of all the successes she has had (which I knew all about). But I didn’t – because that never would have gotten through to her at that moment.

    Instead, I simply told her to vent her frustrations, have a good cry, and get some rest. That wasn’t exactly the right information, but I did tell her what she WANTED to hear (that it’s OK to feel weak). Interestingly, after getting all the frustration out of her system, she felt a whole lot better the next day.

    How about that?

    Turns out the “right” information doesn’t always win.