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Persuasion surprise: Sometimes I give the wrong advice on purpose

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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

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  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.

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