It's Christmas and advertisers are going into overdrive as they try to get
people to buy their products for Christmas presents. And unsurprising really, as
many retailers take a large proportion of their profits in the weeks leading up
So perhaps it would not be unusual to expect some hard selling techniques.
Yet, in the UK at least, many retailers take an opposite approach. Rather than
say 'buy here, now!' they go for the warm fuzzy feeling, with pictures of
smiling people, hugging and having fun, all accompanied by nice, friendly music.
These adverts are seldom short and often employ such as animations or multiple
celebrities, making them very expensive. Often, they are like little movies all
of their own. They are particularly popular with big stores and chains such as
Marks and Spencer, and John Lewis. Coca Cola also gets in on the act with
illuminated trucks jingling through the world like an urban santa's sleigh.
Interestingly, just who they are advertising is not always clear even until the
What is happening here is that the advertisers are tapping into the emotions
of Christmas, including happiness and family closeness. They are putting a lot
of effort into making you feel good, then (and only then) connecting into the
brand. Perhaps also they are creating a reciprocal obligation where you feel so
grateful to them for being nice, you want to give something back by shopping
For a collection of UK adverts this season, an easy place to start is in the
Battle of the Christmas Adverts. Note that several are over two minutes
Apology and trust
When should you apologize? Most naturally, when you know you have done
something wrong and it has inconvenienced, embarrassed, upset or harmed them.
Apology can repair relationship damage and restore trust in what may be
called the 'apology-forgiveness effect'. It is a simple and effective social
mechanism that we all use (and expect from others).
It gets trickier when you think you have done nothing wrong but the other
person is indignantly saying you have done or said something that has upset
them. This implies you should apologize, though you may feel this is unnecessary
and perhaps they are just trying to manipulate you. In such situations, notice
how you are feeling and try to think logically about what is going on. If the
person is playing control games, then fighting back may be the best option.
However, if in doubt, an apology is the best approach.
Woods et al (2013) made an interesting discovery, that apologizing for
something that is outside your control, even for bad weather, has the effect of
increasing how much others trust you. What seems to be happening is that the
apology-forgiveness effect is being triggered. All you have to do is apologize
and trust goes up. Maybe also when you apologize, people feel you are showing
care, and as this is a component of trust, you get the benefit.
Maybe the lesson is 'if in doubt, apologize'.
And maybe also try apologizing for things outside your control and see what
Alison Wood Brooks, Hengchen Dai, and Maurice E. Schweitzer (2013). I’m Sorry
About the Rain! Superfluous Apologies Demonstrate Empathic Concern and Increase
Trust. Social Psychological and Personality Science
How about that, then
I was out with my wife recently, sitting in a restaurant window, when we
noticed a man passing by outside. It was a bit cold and my wife remarked that he
was wearing a scarf, which is probably the first she had seen for some time. I replied "He'll be ok, then."
And then I wondered why I had said it. In particular why I said "He'll be ok,
then" rather than "Then he'll be ok".
English is a strange and subtle language and it is not surprising that
non-native speakers find it almost impossible to speak like a native. Even my
wife, who is an English teacher, found it difficult to identify when you might
use one form or the other and we had a spirited discussion about the subject.
The simplest form is "Then he'll be ok", with the 'then' at the beginning.
This directly suggests cause and effect, with the wearing of the scarf leading
to he man being ok. With the 'then' at the beginning you are sending a clear
signal that what follows is a statement of effect of the previous causal
statement. It predicts the
future and so creates the comfort of
The second form is a bit trickier. While it can still be a causal
statement, it moves the 'then' to the end of the sentence, removing its primacy
(though increasing its recency). This form can also add more attitude, throwing
in the 'then' almost cynically, in case the listener has not got the point.
Putting words and phrases at the end a statements acts as a modifier,
changing the meaning of the statement, often in subtle ways that someone not
versed in the local culture might not get, while a native will hear the meaning
clearly. It can also cause surprise and confusion as the person has already
heard and interpreted the initial statement and now must cater for the late
modifier Intonation can add to this, sending covert signals. In combination,
linguistic modifiers and verbal inflection can be
In my case, back in the restaurant, I don't think I mean anything by the
phrasing. So maybe it was simple affirmational agreement. But then the
unconscious mind sends signals through speech that the conscious person may not
intend. So I'm still wondering what it's all about.
Culture, Courage and Whistleblowers
Imagine you are working at a company, or maybe a government agency, and
notice that somebody is doing something that is against the rules. Perhaps they
are breaking company policy. Maybe they are breaking laws. Or what they are
doing seems just plain wrong.
Would you tell?
It probably depends on the culture. A basic rule of many
cultures is that the group
should be preserved, and that those who get the group into trouble with
outsiders become social outcasts, their careers derailed and may even lose their
jobs. In extreme cases, where the target of the whistleblowing is the
government, the whistleblower may even find themselves imprisoned.
Given the risks, it takes a lot of courage and conviction to blow the
whistle. Courage happens where the pressure to act consistently with
values overcomes the
fear of punishment, and
perhaps it is a mark of our society and of human nature that so few people will
blow the whistle.
Whistleblowers can be both good and bad for organizations. They are much
better at detecting fraud and other problems than auditors and let the company
address problems directly before external intervention is needed. They help keep
the organization honest and remind them of corporate obligations and values. And
in the end, through the honesty that they force, they make a company more
profitable and a better place to work.
Whistleblowing is bad is when it leads to stress and fear. When many people
know things are wrong but say nothing for fear of reprisals, then the company
may be silently sliding into deep trouble. There is also a pragmatic
consideration of the line below which a little rule-breaking is socially
acceptable and beyond which it becomes a serious problem. If people blow the
whistle at the slightest infraction, and where outsiders get involved, when the
issue could well be resolved internally, then whistleblowers may in practice be
doing nobody a service apart from themselves. A culture of whistleblowing can
also cause fear and mutual suspicion between peers as everyone spies on
Whistleblowing done well happens when there is a strong culture and and
explicit system to handle rule-breaking. It should not be harsh, so people go in
fear of breaking the smallest rule. When rules are broken, the people involved
should be treated at first humanely, educating them at to what is acceptable and
not. The system itself should also be examined, for example where a strong focus
on results and a weak focus on values leads to corrupt practices. In such cases
(and this happens often) it is the system that must be changed, which often
involves changes in management practices.
In the end, though, the problem is often more about people having courage to
blow the whistle rather than people getting whistle-happy. While we can be
stupidly brave, most of us are more pragmatically cautious.
Smile and Survive
Smiling is good for you, but did you know how good? Can it make you live
longer, for example?
Researchers Ernest Abel and Michael Kruger got five people to classify the
smiles of 230 baseball players in photos from the 1952 Baseball Register into
three types: no smile, half smile (mouth only), and genuine 'Duchenne' smile
(muscles contracted around the mouth and corners of the eyes). Remarkably, on
looking at death rates, those with the genuine Duchenne smile were found to be
half as likely to die in any one year as the others. In hard data terms, the
average life-span of the 63 deceased non-smilers was 72.9 years compared with 75
years for the 64 partial smilers and 79.9 years for the 23 Duchenne smilers. A
subsequent study looked at attractiveness and longevity, but found no
Why might this happen? A likely reason seems that people with a sunnier
disposition suffer less stress, which is related to a number of diseases and can
also affect the immune system. Smiles in photos have also been shown to predict
other stressful things like divorce (Hertenstein et al 2009), and general life
satisfaction (Seder and Oishi, 2012). A related point is that 'nobody likes a
misery-guts' and happy people are more popular. A stronger social network is a
known factor in longevity, which is another reason to be happy.
The lesson is clear: smile, be happy and live longer!
Abel, E. and Kruger, M. (2010). Smile Intensity in Photographs Predicts
Longevity. Psychological Science, 21, 4, 542-544
Hertenstein, M. J., Hansel, C. A., Butts, A. M. and Hile, S. N., (2009).
Smile intensity in photographs predicts divorce later in life. Motivation and
Emotion, 33, 2, 99-105
Seder, J. P. and Oishi, S. (2012). Intensity of smiling in facebook photos
predicts future life satisfaction, Social Psychological and Personality
Science, 3, 4, 407-413
The Garden of Words
If you look at a garden, you'll see lots of delicate flowers and a bunch of
nasty weeds. Although the flowers vastly outnumber the weeds, and the gardener
constantly fights the weeds, the weeds always fight back and somehow survive
everything that is thrown at them. Perhaps through evolution, weeds are more
varied and more aggressive, for example in the speed of growth and modes of
attacking and defending (such as smothering other plants and being poisonous).
The world is like this too. Whilst most people are law-abiding and friendly,
criminals are flexible and aggressive, making them difficult to control. Events,
likewise, are largely positive, though the few negative ones seem more varied
In research, Paul Rozin and colleagues have found that this is reflected in
language, where in an analysis of 100 million written and spoken words they
found far more positive words being used. For example 'good' is used 795 times
per million words as compared with 153 uses per million of 'bad'.
Words also often have a positive base, so we say 'happy' and 'unhappy'.
Negative words do not use this reversal, so we do not say 'unsad'. We also try
to keep the positive spin going by putting good words first, for example saying
'good and bad', not 'bad and good'.
The greater variety of negative events is reflected in the number of words
for bad things that simply do not have a positive correlate, such as 'murder'
The researchers also looked at a wide range of other languages and found an
overwhelming similarity, for example in 84 per cent of positive-negative pairs
across 20 languages, the positive word is stated first.
So what is the implication for changing minds? A basic principle is that
people clearly prefer positivity, so to create
harmony one should stick to the
nice words. Another way to persuade is to break rules (for example by using fake
words like 'unsad') and then take advantage of the ensuing
confusion. In any
case a deeper understanding of how we communicate is always useful in adaptive
methods of influence.
Rozin, P., Berman, L., & Royzman, E. (2010). Biases in use of positive and
negative words across twenty natural languages. Cognition & Emotion, 24
Weird old tips
We've all seen them: Simple web adverts with almost amateur line drawing and
animation that go something like '1 odd tip/trick for/of a flat stomach/tiny
belly'. They may also note that doctors or other authorities are annoyed by
the revelation that can be yours if you just click on the advert.
Rules for such adverts include:
- Grab attention: With jerky animation movement
- Easy to understand: Few words and simple picture
- Common problem: Like sagging abdomens
- Intriguing words: 'Weird'
- Create confidence: 'old'
- Easy solution: 'tip'
An effect of extreme
repetition of the advert is that even if you are not
interested, you cannot help but notice it all over the place so you eventually
click on it just to see what it is all about.
If you follow the link you typically will arrive at a video in which a person
talks at you, continuing to promise the wonderful solution but not telling you
anything of use for quite some time. What they are actually doing is getting you to invest
time. This then translates into increased commitment and consequent
increased probability of buying. If you have given them your time, then you can
only justify this by giving them your money.
Some of the tricks they use for this include:
- Promising that all will be revealed soon (the 'it's just around the next
- Telling you to leave if you are seeking a miracle (so if you stay, you
will accept what they say, even if it is relatively banal).
- Affirming that you will be surprised, amazed, shocked and so on
(promising exciting arousal).
- Saying that the secret has been suppressed by big organisations
(invoking the conspiracy theory effect)
And in the end, they of course will sell you just some herbal pills, exercise
regime or other magic answer. But by then, if you have hung in there (and many
people do just this), you are entranced, convinced, committed and ready to pay
well over the odds for something that you could probably find in health food
stores or local bookshops. At best the product will do no harm and maybe the
placebo effect will 'make it work'. More likely is that all you will do is
enrich the advertisers.
The Business Dinner
We were recently in Siena on a short break (lovely place) and were dining in
a very Italian local restaurant when a group of local business people came in.
They sat down together at a long table and I looked at them, recognizing much in
terms of power positions and body language.
At the head of the table was clearly the manager of the group. He was
slightly older than most of the group and better dressed. The others looked
frequently at him and stopped to listen when he spoke. His body language was
expansive and he looked around at everyone from time to time to check everyone
was conforming with group rules (in this case, listening to him and having a
One one side of the manager was a younger chap, hanging on every word and
interjecting boldly. He looked like the wannabe striver, busy climbing the tree.
On the other side was a somewhat older man. He was more relaxed and the manager
listened to him more. Maybe a more senior chap just sitting in as a
representative of higher management. Maybe also someone who just hadn't risen so
far, but had an appreciated voice of experience.
The age and perhaps seniority reduced down the table, with fresh-faced young
tykes towards the further end. Most of the party were men. There were only two
women, who sat opposite one another, at the far end of the table. They were
younger and looked smart. We wondered: why you see so few older women in business
groups? I suspect it's some combination of having children, the career damage
from the associated break and general hitting of glass ceilings. Italy is quite
a matriarchal society, though men still seem to dominate in traditional
It was a pattern I've seen over many years. Many who attend business dinners
have families and partners to return to may act with bonhomie but really this is
just more work to them and the would prefer to be at home. For younger people
it's a thrill to have a free dinner and maybe get kind attention of the boss.
For the team, it can help with bonding them together, though shared work
achievements are generally better for this.
Line breaks and holding attention
When you are writing something for other people to read, there is an
interesting question about whether you should write in complete chunks or leave
them hanging. Normally, it helps to write in chunks that they can easily capture
and digest at once. This is why we have words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs,
pages and chapters. Each is a chunk that is consumed as a separate 'thing'. In
my Changing Minds book, for
example, I deliberately write in consumable chunks, with short paragraphs and
very little run-on between pages, so each can be read independently.
But is this the best way to do it always?
Take for example a tiny snippet from Matthew Leitch's
on his Working in
Uncertainty website. He wants you to email him. But then so do many sites.
Here's what he writes:
If you want to explore this in the easiest way
email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
ask for a call to discuss the possibilities.
In some ways this is a nice chunk. It separates the call to
action in a couple of paragraphs, with the key ask painted with an
attention-grabbing yellow background. But notice how each of the first two
lines are incomplete, ending in 'then' and 'and'. Reading this normally, how
would this affect you? What Matthew is doing here is making clever use of
Effect, where the need for
completion leaves us with a tension at the end of each line, so we just
have to move to the next line to keep reading.
Each break in any text can result in loss in attention, whether it is
skipping to the next word, flying back to the beginning of the next line or
turning the page. When there is additional effort or lower effort eye movement,
this is an opportunity for the reader to drift off, thinking about something
else or just going off to another task. We have many things seeking our
conscious attention and they will intrude into any lapse.
I know Matthew and he's a very smart chap. Just within the example here are a
number of other persuasive devices. But then each blog I write is supposed to be
a chunk, so I won't talk more about them or it will get too long. But oh, look,
I've now left you incomplete now so you'll just have to look harder and again at
Matthew's clever writing.
Hi. That's a very good post. Attracting and holding the attention of your
readers is of utmost importance. I agree with you that small chunks are
preferable. Lengthy continuous content becomes boring and easily loses the
interest of the readers. You have provided good advice. Thanks for that!
For more, see the ChangingMinds Blog! Archive or
the Blogs by subject. To
comment on any blog, click on the blog either in the archive or in the column to
Click below to view & comment on any blog
24-Nov-13: Apology and
17-Nov-13: How about that,
10-Nov-13: Culture, Courage
03-Nov-13: Smile and
27-Sep-13: The Garden of
20-Sep-13: Weird old tips
13-Sep-13: The Business
29-Sep-13: Line breaks and
22-Sep-13: How to remember
15-Sep-13: Email spam and
08-Sep-13: Remember your
01-Sep-13: A Tale of Two
25-Aug-13: How to handle
men in three easy steps
18-Aug-13: I'm glad I'm not
11-Aug-13: Be more dog
04-Aug-13: How the Mighty
Fall: The Three Ages of the Great Company
28-Jul-13: The formation of
21-Jul-13: How to
demotivate children (and teachers)
14-Jul-13: Why science and
religion are the same
07-Jul-13: Sell food to
30-Jun-13: Principles of
16-Jun-13: What's in a
name? It depends how you make it
09-Jun-13: Gripping fun
02-Jun-13: To hell with it
26-May-13: The smell of
19-May-13: Happiness, Busy-ness
12-May-13: The simple
complexity of avoidant instructions
05-May-13: Asking for the
21-Apr-13: Blue Lights
14-Apr-13: What is winning?
07-Apr-13: The three Ls of
a good marriage
31-Mar-13: Extremism and
24-Mar-13: The Cult of the
17-Mar-13: Being Welsh
10-Mar-13: The Purpose of
03-Mar-13: Selling to
24-Feb-13: The flattering
17-Feb-13: Does money make
'Keep Calm and Carry On'
03-Feb-13: More Good
27-Jan-13: Hey, your
computer booted up 102% quicker!
20-Jan-13: Air fresheners
13-Jan-13: Famous for
06-Jan-13: Doggy game
30-Dec-12: Luck, numbers
and wishful thinking
21-Dec-12: The End of the
09-Dec-12: Getting good
02-Dec-12: Our helpful
18-Nov-12: Moving house,
walking and multitasking
26-Oct-12: The Bond Blitz
19-Oct-12: Photos and
12-Oct-12: Men, women,
crisis and leadership
28-Sep-12: Divided by a
07-Sep-12: Don't name the
24-Aug-12: Face learning
17-Aug-12: Listening to
10-Aug-12: Oooh, hello!
03-Aug-12: How to reduce
27-Jul-12: A teacher's end
criminalizing and confession
intelligent signage and traffic calming
06-Jul-12: Getting kids to
eat their food
22-Jun-12: A public revenge
08-Jun-12: Hot desking and
01-Jun-12: Here and there
25-May-12: Connecting with
18-May-12: Truth, lies and
11-May-12: Selling raffle
05-May-12: Attentional bias
27-Apr-12: The limits of
20-Apr-12: Selling the
13-Apr-12: Assertion or
Persuasion in Politics
06-Apr-12: Customer service
30-Mar-12: Managing and
23-Mar-12: How to sell more
shampoo (or use less)
16-Mar-12: How you look
changes what they say
09-Mar-12: Freedom, abuse
02-Mar-12: Housing pains
24-Feb-12: Store designs
17-Feb-12: Painting the
10-Feb-12: The extrinsic
end of education
03-Feb-12: Real intimacy