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5 fascinating experiments from the world of psychology and persuasion

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Much of what you know about human behavior and persuasion is wrong.

You believe you’re in control of your own behavior. Yet a skilled persuader could persuade you to not only positive goals — like donating to charity — but also unthinkably negative acts, including stealing, lying, and even killing.

You believe you know what you’re attracted to. For most women, it’s the classic “I want a man who makes me laugh” (and a laundry list of other generic characteristics). These “wishlist criteria” have little to do with the people we ACTUALLY end up with — yet we continue telling our friends the kind of guy (or girl) we want. Put simply, it’s unlikely that you can articulate what you actually like.

You believe that if “they” — crackpot Tea Partiers, or bleeding-heart liberals — just had the information you had, they’d realize you were right and come over to your side. You couldn’t be more wrong.

Today, 5 fascinating studies from the world of social psychology — and some of my favorites from my work in psychology at Stanford — that will show you the complexity of human behavior…and challenge what you believe about yourself.

* * *

Myth: “I know who I’m attracted to”

Reality: You often cannot articulate who you are attracted to, and your attraction is subject to many variables — including proximity and context — and subject to manipulation

Ask anyone what they’re attracted to — what their “type” is — and you’ll often get a laundry list of characteristics like “tall” “interested in the environment” and “he makes me laugh” (my favorite catch-all, since most guys are not funny).

Yet how many people do you know with a strict list of characteristics who throw them out as soon as they meet someone they’re attracted to?

It turns out that the characteristics we SAY we’re attracted to are quite different than what our behavior reveals. For example, in speed-dating trials by Simonson, Fisman, Iyengar, and Kamenica, there were substantial differences between what we “said” we wanted vs. what we actually found attractive.

From a report of the experiment:

“Men—rather predictably—said attractiveness, while women listed intelligence and sincerity.”
…However, when they moved through the speed dating process there was no appreciable difference between men and women. Both used attractiveness to make their decisions.

Another interesting finding was that women tended to be choosier the more options they had. In the smaller group (10 men and 10 women) both men and women said they would like to see any given person again approximately half the time. In the large dating group, men kept to the same proportion of yeses (10 out of 20 times). However, women only said yes 6.5 out of 20 times.”

Instead, here’s how attraction often works:

– We say we’re attracted to XYZ characteristics
– We meet someone and are attracted to them for whatever reason
– We cannot articulate precisely why, yet we believe we can, so we’ll create a list of reasons
– We systematically ignore or actively resist the suggestion that any external factors have anything to do with our attraction
– Later, we may return to our baseline claims of what we find attractive

The main point: Who you find is attractive is a mysterious force and is subject to many external forces. If you’re in a foreign country, or surrounded by many people, or online vs. offline attraction varies. Keep this in mind when you say the kind of person you’re attracted to. The next time someone asks you who you’re attracted to, a better response might be a shrug and, “I guess we’ll see.”

* * *

Myth: “I’m in control of my own behavior.”

Reality: Your behavior is highly susceptible to your environment and the context around you. You can unwittingly be persuaded to stay in a smoking room, shock someone to death, or donate more money — all things you would not “ordinarily” do.

In one 1979 study, researchers Beaman, Diener, and Svanum showed how a simple intervention could dramatically change behavior. On Halloween, research assistants answered the doors of local houses and told the kids they could take one piece of candy. Then they left the room.

34% of children took more than one piece of candy.

But when a mirror was present — forcing the children to see their own reflection — that number dropped to 12%.

Would you leave a room filling with thick smoke? You might think our behavior is predictable during life-and-death matters, but it’s not. In a study by Latane and Darley, researchers filled a room with thick smoke. In one case, 75% of people left the room as you would expect. But in another case through experimental manipulations, only 10% left.

Notice the clueless YouTube comments saying she was “dumb” for not leaving. These commenters miss the point — they likely would do the very same thing under the very same circumstances…which is a cornerstone of social psychology. Intelligence has nothing to do with it.

Finally, when you accuse “those evil people” of doing bad things like beating prisoners, torturing others, or killing, know that it’s possible for most of us to do the same behaviors under the same conditions. This is one of the critical lessons of the famed Milgram experiment.

The main point: Most of us believe that we are in control of our actions, yet our surroundings exert powerful control over us. People get extremely uncomfortable when confronted with evidence that they are not in complete control of their behaviors. A skilled persuader — including companies, marketers, professors, or yes even bloggers — can cause you to take surprising actions. Recognize what is going on around you.

* * *

Myth: “If [the other side — Tea Party crackpots, bleeding-heart liberals, union members, management] just had the same information I had, they’d see things as I do. They’re just ignorant.”

Reality: Even if they had your exact information, they would not come to the same conclusions as you. That’s because we filter information through our own biases.

If you’ve ever wondered how Republicans get poor people to vote for tax cuts for the rich, you may have said something like, “Ugh, these people don’t even read! They’re voting against their OWN self-interest. God if they just read XYZ, they’d realize…”

You could say the same for liberals who vote for budget-busting legislation.

We love to believe that if the other side simply had the same information — that if they “took the time to understand the issues” — they would get it.

In the principle of naiive realism, Lee Ross et al write how most people believe the world works like this:

1. I see reality, and my actions and beliefs are based on a rational interpretation of reality.
2. Other people would share my view and actions and opinions if they had access to the same information that I do and if they have processed that information in a reasonable way like I do.
3. If others don’t share my views, it’s because:
* they have different information, and by sharing information we can reach an agreement
* they are lazy, or are not making rational decisions based on the information
* they are biased by ideology or self-interest, or some other distorting influence

Indeed, people in politics are especially guilt of believing that the other side simply needs to “understand” and “get educated” about the issues — so guilty that I’ve created an entire section on political marketing.

Take this example, found on an internet forum:

He genuinely believed that she really needed to understand. But, of course, she didn’t.  And when he over-explained, her eyes glazed over.

Let’s take another example.

In a famous study, two researchers analyzed a 1951 football game between the Dartmouth Indians and Princeton Tigers. The game was unusually rough, with the Princeton quarterback being injured so badly that he had to leave the game.

One week later, researchers questioned students who had attended the game to understand their perception of what had happened. Who played dirtier? Who was responsible for the fouls and injuries?

When asked, “Do you believe the game was clean and fairly played or that it was unnecessarily rough and dirty?” a staggering 93% of Princeton students responded “Rough and dirty,” while only 42% of Dartmouth students agreed.
When asked, “Which team do you feel started the rough play?” 86% of Princeton students surveyed responded that Dartmouth had. Only 36% of Dartmouth students blamed their own team.

In a clever twist, the researchers then asked students to watch a film of the game and report how many infractions were made. Both groups watched the same game on video, but Princeton students reported twice as many infractions as Dartmouth students did.

These students watched the objectively same game, yet had astonishingly different perceptions of what “actually” happened.

Please read that last sentence carefully. You’ll notice that I wrote they perceived the game.

That is indeed what happened. Even though they physically “watched” the very same game, each set of students — Dartmouth and Princeton students — were unconsciously affected by their group membership and beliefs. Despite what we think, we do not objectively see what happens around us. You and I could be watching a clown walk across the street, and we would perceive two VERY different things. Our perceptions are colored by a variety of factors, including our beliefs, history, group membership, culture, and more.

The truth? Education is not the answer.

Even if your opponent has all the same information as you, they will likely still disagree with you because they filter information through their own biases and world view.

* * *

Myth: “I need more information to make the right decision.”

Reality: In many cases, having more information causes “analysis paralysis” and actually prevents you from taking action.

Americans love to believe that if they just had more information, they could make a better decision.

Yet more information can be crippling and cause us to delay taking action.

Sheena Iyengar studied contribution rates to 401(k) plans and found a surprising result: “For every 10 mutual funds made available, the rate of participation in 401(k) investing goes down 2%.”

There are other variables more important than “more information” that help ensure compliance.

For example, “high-fear” appeals are known to work well in particular situations such as smoking reduction. But there’s something even more important.

in an experiment by Howard Leventhal, he tested how to persuade students to get a tetanus shot.

In one case, he simply provided them information. 0 students got the shot.

In another case, he provided a “high-fear” appeal and 3% of students got the shot.

But when he added the “high-fear” appeal plus specific instructions — a map to the health center, times shots were available, and a request for the students to plan what time they’d go and what route they’d take — the number of students who got the shot soared to 28%. Even though these students likely knew where the health center was!

The main point: Simply giving people more information rarely leads to behavioral change. In fact, more information can decrease the chances of someone taking behavior, a finding you can investigate further in the excellent book, The Paradox of Choice. Another terrific book is Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive. There are many other, far more persuasive, techniques besides “more information” to motivate change.

* * *

Myth: “I know what I saw”

Reality: Your memory is unreliable and easily influenced

If you believe that you remember what happened during childhood, that conversation last week, or even in that commercial you watched yesterday, you may be in for a surprise.

Many of us think of our memory like a videotape — it records what it sees. But we “filter” the information before it comes to us, affecting the memory before it’s ever “recorded.” To complicate things, time and other variables also alter our memories.

In Pratkanis and Aronson’s “Age of Propaganda,” they write about the way that memories are easily altered:

“For example, in her research on human memory, cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus frequently demonstrates that memories of, say, an accident or a crime scene can be modified and changed simply through the questions asked about the incident.”

Loftus has shown that asking carefully phrased questions — “How fast were the cars going when they smashed together?” — can produce distorted memories of watching the film. (In this case, as Aronson writes, “Subjects who were asked about smashing cars, as opposed to hitting cars, estimated that the cars were going significantly faster and, a week after seeing the film, were more likely to state that there was broken glass at the accident scene (even though no broken glass was shown in the film.))”

The main point: Your memory is not a videotape. Instead, think of it as a constantly changing ribbon of material, easily susceptible to suggestions and rewriting.


Interested in learning more about the psychology of persuasion?

I released a 1-hour call with Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg, one of my mentors who taught me much of what I know. We discussed how to apply psychological techniques on a day-to-day basis, along with unconventional ways to influence others, get your dream job, and become an expert.


thx @ramit + @bjfogg for webinar. Amazing scientific insights on getting foot in door, becoming an expert, persuasion & behavior change.less than a minute ago via web

Join my private mailing list — for free — to get:

  • A recording of my audio session with BJ Fogg
  • A bonus psychology study, where I reveal a surprise insight about attraction and arousal

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  1. Good stuff. It’s about time people start realizing how susceptible they are to psychological plays from experienced persuaders.

    Ramit, working off of your mirror study, there was another one performed where researchers displayed a picture of two eyes looking at people. The two eyes and mirror had a similar effect… they both lowered unethical behavior.

    Also, you mentioned the “shock” study, which demonstrates the human beings and their unwillingness to go against authority. There was another interesting study, that you may have heard about…

    A reporter dressed up as a security guard, went near an ATM, put an out-of-order sign on the ATM that said “give all deposits to the security guard,” and would you believe it? People actually gave deposits to the security guard. Heh.

    Anyway, thanks for bringing this stuff to light. I’ll sign up for the webinar with BJ Fogg and I’m sure I’ll learn some new, interesting things.

  2. Ramit, I think you missed a good opportunity to reinforce part of your ongoing message and added in a piece of useless anger here:

    But when he added the “high-fear” appeal plus specific instructions — a map to the health center, times shots were available, and a request for the students to plan what time they’d go and what route they’d take — the number of students who got the shot soared to 28%. Even though these students likely knew where the health center was!

    It’s not the fact that he gave them a map to the health center (like you pointed out, more information doesn’t help), which you then get angry over in your last sentence, “Even though these students…!” The change in percentage wasn’t about them knowing where it was. You know it was because they got the times (something they likely DIDN’T know) and more importantly, because they scripted it (i.e. made a plan of when to go and what route to take). Which, coincidentally, fits in very well with your “Automate your way to desired results” message. I think that’s the point you should be emphasizing there.

  3. All these studies are great. I love to know about persuasion all the time, when I went to work for a door-to-door company selling vacs I know NOT a cool gig, but I learned a ton about persuasion. Although I wouldn’t recommend any of their sneaky ways of getting people to buy their $3,000 product.

    Anyway thanks for the link, I’ll go learn more tonight!

  4. I would agree with all of these except for the “I’m not in control of my own behavior” myth. The study presents subjects with a set of information and then measures their response. In this case the sets of information are different, but so is the type of response being measured.

    People act different when (they think) they are alone versus when they are being watched. This is perfectly rational because what people think of us affects our opportunities. For example, Ramit can make more money from this site if readers trust him and less if they don’t.

    In other words, this “study” is practically worthless, even in the realm of the soft science of psychology. We don’t even know whether subjects choose to stay in the room because the others give them confidence they’re not in a dangerous situation or because they think the others will think less of them if they get up and leave.

    The question of whether or not we control our own behaviors may never be definitively answered because a definitive test is impossible.

    Still, there are valuable lessons to be learned from psychology even though we have to abandon the strict guidelines of science to make the discoveries. But you shouldn’t wander so far from science that your conclusions have no value whatsoever.

    • I’m agreeing with both Ryan and Ramit on this myth. People can control their behavior on a outside level but not an inside level.

      People have developed this distrust of sales people just for this reason. They know they can keep themselves from listening to a sales person so thats what they do. In situations where they listen to a sales person they always get duped into buying something. The great negotiaters live in the middle area. They are able to listen longer before getting pulled in by the behavior tricks.

      Another example: if you’re on a diet don’t buy snacks or plan them out (depending on if you’re an abstainer or moderator).

      So people have developed ways to change their behavior to avoid others changing it for them. People who are self aware of their strengths, weaknesses, and triggers have adjusted their lives to produce good behaviors. This is exactly what Ramit is going for with his automation advice. Set things up for success. Shortcut the areas where you know you can’t control your behavior and reap the rewards. These areas will be different for everyone so the real trick is to learn your own pitfals and work around them.

  5. Hey Ramit,

    I think it’s crucial to point out assumptions that most people take for granted as “knowledge” and show them the truth. You and Tim are great at this 😉

    It’s incredible that even first-hand eye witnesses aren’t reliable sources because our own brains can’t be trusted to remember like a tape recorder.

    Really interesting stuff.

    Psychology and Making Money goes hand in hand!


  6. I just finished reading a couple weeks ago an awesome book by Dan Ariely titled Predictable Irrational. The book describes several experiments showing how we make irrational financial (and other) decisions all the time.

    I think understanding why we make decisions helps us to make better ones. I’m hoping that for my birthday tomorrow I get his other book, The Upside of Irrationality. (If not, I’m definitely buying it next week.)

  7. Great stuff Ramit, This world is full of the weak vs strong

    For as the room filling with thick smoke study, most people are embarrassed to do what the feel. It’s always easier to conform

  8. Danny Rosenhaus Link to this comment

    I loved your point about the Dartmouth vs. Princeton game, so many factors influence your perception of events, topics etc… I played a small game on my very Italian friend and my Asian friend. I showed them each a picture of an Olive Garden then asked them to write down 5 words, I didn’t say that had to relate to the picture of Olive Garden. The words my Italian friend wrote were much more negative than that of my Asian friend. Coming from an Italian family, he hated Olive Garden on principle, my other friend didn’t. Just goes to show how your association with a visual stimulus can be completely different depending on experience. Neither are wrong, just simply different. People are often cautious of different options and don’t go through with a choice (and do nothing) because it was different than person A, however, that often doesn’t make your choice wrong. People should be more relaxed about making their own choice.

    • All good points!

      Until you said the S word — “Should.”

      Whenever you say “People should…” you have already lost.


  9. Ramit

    I signed up but won’t be able to join tonight due to a prior commitment. I want to get access to the recording, should I cancel?

  10. Achaessa James Link to this comment

    Hi, Ramit. Great information as usual. Another insight I’d like to contribute about perception and memory differences is that it’s not just about where you stand and what you see. An individual’s ability to perceive and recall accurately is also affected by the level of “presence” at the event. For example, if you are standing on the sidewalk, waiting to cross, and thinking about the argument you just had with your partner, or thinking about the party you’re planning for that night, you will not really be present in that moment and you will have a very different experience of a car crash in the intersection than a person who was standing next to you focused on watching the signal lights change and following the flow of traffic.