Rejection-and-retreat in action
There's a simple persuasion method that is sometimes useful, sometimes known
as 'Rejection and Retreat' or 'Door
In The Face'. The basic idea is to make a bold request that may well be
rejected. When it is refused, then you retreat to a far simpler request. Doing
this makes the second request far more likely to be accepted.
This works for several reasons. First, having already refused you, the person
would feel mean to say no a second time. There is also an element of
exchange as your acceptance of their
refusal obliges them to do
something in return. Another factor is the
contrast between your first and
second request -- the large first request makes the second request seem much
We had a perfect candidate for this method recently when my wife was taking
advertising flyers around the shops in town for a bingo evening at our village
hall. Shops often are not keen on obstructing their products and distracting
their customers with posters, even if this is for a good cause. So we needed a
strategy to cope with refusal.
I produced two sizes of poster, one A4 (about 8" x 11") and others one eighth
of this size. So my wife went into shops, from one end of the high street to the
other, first asking if they would put the A4 poster in their window. If they
refused, she sighed a little and asked if they would put a small pile of the
mini-posters on the counter. It worked! Many poster-rejecters accepted
retreat-request for mini-posters.
Further, if they accepted the A4 poster, she still asked for the mini-posters
to be put on the counter. Many agreed to this too. The psychological principle
at work here was the
Effect, where a person who has done you a kindness is more likely to agree
to a second request. This is because they rationalize their first agreement as
being because they like you, and so helping you again becomes important for
sustaining their internal consistency.
So our bingo should be an even greater success, thanks to some judicious use
of persuasion methods. Splendid.
Frat House Psychology
Fraternity houses have been in the news recently, where a video of Oklahoma
'Sigma Alpha Epsilon' frat house students chanting a racist song contributed to
the house being closed down (given the furore, the college probably had little
other option). History is also littered with injuries and fatalities (and
consequent lawsuits) associated with frat house life. So what are frat houses?
For many around the world they are an odd phenomenon that appears in American
movies from time to time, with Greek-letter names and raucous students. In
America, they are a staple of college life.
A classic way that street gangs induct new members is that the inductee has
to pass various trials, from being beaten up to committing serious crimes. Frat
houses are not dissimilar when they use hazing as a rite of passage and when
initiates are required to, or gain status by, engaging in hazardous pranks and
breaking of rules. This rule-breaking has a powerful effect of bonding the
student into the fraternity, making them 'one of us'. It also closes the door
behind them as there is now an implicit threat that if they leave or betray
their brothers, their crimes may be exposed and they will suffer the
consequences. Stepping outside the law and getting away with it can also feel
very liberating. You feel different to others, more powerful, and closer to
other rule-breakers (like your frat house friends).
The person is then locked in further with stories of heroes and villains,
with the clear implication of what happens to each. Living together and
continued risky actions only serve to bond people together. Secret rituals and
other 'knowledge' add to the mystique, as do pins, coats of arms and the
two/three letter Greek signifiers (often themselves shrouded in significance,
such as being the first letters of a motto). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, fraternal
societies go back to the ancient Greeks and have appeared ever since in groups
that range from the crusaders to the freemasons.
Getting into a frat house is not easy and may not be cheap. You have first to
be accepted and then you have to pay, both of which act as filters to ensure the
right type of people join up. At that age you are unlikely to be independently
wealthy, so this also tests for well-off, supportive families. You are also
readier to take risks just to gain admiration. Interestingly,
membership often correlates with lower ability and grades, perhaps due to a
greater focus on fun than serious study. Where there are many frat houses in a
college, there will also be a hierarchy, with the richer congregating at the
higher end of a wannabe hierarchy.
Being a member of a fraternity is a lifetime's commitment. It's an old-boys
club, not just a college club. The commitment to one another will reach across
careers and may indeed define one's own career, as such close relationships and
deep obligations means that fraternity members will go well out of their way to
help each other in life and business, counteracting any academic limitations.
And it works. Fraternity men make up 85 percent of U.S. Supreme Court justices
since 1910, 63 percent of all U.S. presidential cabinet members since 1900, and,
historically, 76 percent of U.S. senators and 85 percent of Fortune 500
It's human to help your friends, of course. And you will naturally end up
with rich friends who will do their best to ensure you get a good leg-up in
life, joining their elite society through the well-paid jobs that they push your
way. It also, of course, sets you up for corrupt practices, from unethical
support to turning a blind eye on illegality. But then you had to break the
rules to join, so what's a little more?
All this does not mean that fraternity people are all bad, and many may go on
to do great things. Yet it also sets an environment where bad things can happen
and be seen as the norm. Where such questionable acts as significant tax
avoidance and doing anything to help frat friends is seen as common and
necessary. Where feeling superior and beyond the law can lead some to illegal
action that does not seem illegal. Where being one of the elite feels like your
rightful place and that having an elite is never questioned.
Displaced anger and control freakery
I watched a tv show recently that got me thinking. It was one of those ones
where a business expert goes into a small, struggling business and helps them
turn it around. Only this time the expert gave up in despair. You've guessed it:
It wasn't the business stuff that was the trouble. She helped fix that. It was
The story was about a little tea shop in Torquay run by a retired couple and
their daughter. It started with the daughter wailing that she'd told her parents
what the expert said about modernization, which absolutely typified a family
business trap where the child stays a child and the parents keep looking
backwards. They seemed to get over that, but the bigger stumbling block was the
The man in this triangle turned out to be something of a control freak who
knew best about everything and dismissed the experts that were wheeled in as
incompetents. When the place was given a free and makeover, he raged about most
of it. And three months later he had replaced the elegant styling with a garish
mish-mash of uncoordinated clutter.
Angry people are often angry about something they can't control, and in his
case I suspect it was a disability where he had to use a walking stick. He was
also shown struggling in moving tables and chairs. And when a TV crew descended
on his business he clearly felt a further loss as he fought every new idea.
I've seen similar reactions in a career in business change where people who
feel under threat fight back, both openly and covertly. When we feel a loss of
control we get scared and frustrated, perhaps displacing the pent up anger to
elsewhere in our lives.
A secret that can help is to recognize what is going on. Understanding goes a
long way towards restoring our sense of control. It also gives us the means of
making effective decisions rather than falling for emotional reactions that,
while they grab control in the short term, have the potential to do longer-term
Exaggeration and the power of satire
Recently, a satirical movie was created that lampooned Kim Jong Un of North
Korea. The producer, Sony, had their computer systems hacked and backed down
when threatened with further reprisals if the movie was released. The result was
a political firestorm, with presidential outrage and international condemnation.
Under massive pressure, Sony backed down and released the movie.
Clearly, some pretty powerful minds were changed here, just by a bit of
satire. So what happened? Was North Korea right to worry about a minor movie?
Satire is a cunning means of attacking others, especially the powerful. From
everyday conversational dismissal to scurrilous newspaper cartoons, it is a
popular device. So how does a deliberate untruth cause such a strong reaction?
The mechanics of satire is exaggeration to the point of ridiculousness.
Satirical cartoons often take up this principle with enlargement of physical
features. This is no accident. With exaggeration, we turn the real into
When the target is powerful, this denial of reality also works on their
power. In removing the truth of the person, by association we take away their
perceived abilities. Power, after all is largely in the mind of the observer.
A critical component of satire is that it portrays the powerful as weak, at
least in part. It suggests that beneath the outer show of strength lies
uncertainty, incompetence or fear. It sows doubt that opens the doors to
rebellion. It removes respect or fear as we realize the apparently superhuman is
A part of this process is the psychologically curious state of amusement.
Arising perhaps from the paradox of exaggeration or perhaps from the release of
tension as fear is removed, we laugh at the joke and so also at the person. And
in doing so, we reduce the status of the satirized, further draining their
A dilemma when people poke fun at you for being serious is that an angry
response merely proves the point. A strong reaction also risks confirmation of
power loss as people, particularly en masse, laugh rather than fear, and perhaps
even rise up against you.
So yes, satire should be feared, especially and paradoxically by those who
rule by fear.
What's the point of 'What's the point?'
Life can be very frustrating. You work hard and things somehow conspire to
make every step more difficult. You help people and they seem ungrateful. You
struggle and others constantly let you down. 'What's the point?' you say,
throwing your arms in the air and rolling your eyes to heaven.
But what is the point of 'What's the point'? Why do we say it? What does it
do for us?
'What's the point?' is also a rather difficult philosophical question. It
does not have a good answer without delving into the purpose of life or the
nature of humanity. Asking the question does not really seek an answer -- what
it does is prevent an answer.
Another clue is in the gesture that commonly accompanies the phrase.
Appealing to the gods, even metaphorically, assumes some other force at work,
outside of your control. There seems nothing you can do to change the situation,
let alone other people.
So what do you do? Most typically, you give up.
And there's the point. Saying 'What's the point?' lets you give up. The full
rhetorical question is 'What's the point in my continuing when I am being
constantly frustrated?' And the unspoken answer is 'None.'
In this way, 'What's the point?' gives you reason, justifying abandonment of
your efforts. You can stop and still feel good. There is no need for shame. In
fact you can feel a righteous indignation about the waste of your time. In this
way you can transition from the pain of a difficult situation to the comfort of
knowing you are morally superior. Perhaps if you continued your efforts or
changed your approach you would have succeeded. But thinking about this would
open the wound, so you do not.
So 'What's the point?' has a very useful point, after all. Yet it also
carries dark dangers that can ruin your life.
This little question can become a rather too useful method of transforming
pain into pleasure. It can quietly invade your life as it is steadily deployed
more often and more quickly, until it becomes a reflexive habit. Yet while it
excuses you from short-term discomfort, it does nothing for your long term
prospects. In fact it can be very harmful to your future.
Life is hard. It needs you to overcome obstacles, not avoid them. If you give
up, you will go nowhere.
If you want to succeed, yet you are not succeeding, you must change. And
here, at this point of self-challenge, lies another danger, because 'What's the
point?' can pop up and save itself by convincing yourself that even if you
change, the result will be the same. So why bother, it asks.
To get away from this pernicious trap, you first have to get away from
'What's the point?' First notice yourself thinking it. Then realize what real
harm it is doing to you. Get angry with it. Beat it up and throw it away.
Determine never to let it back. Then replace it with other, more useful thoughts
that help you overcome obstacles rather than avoid them. Like 'I can do it' or
'Let's try something different' or 'I'm not going to let them beat me'.
A secret of success is knowing what is stopping you from succeeding, and then
getting past it. 'What's the point?' is just such a trap. If it is holding you
back, you can now see it and stop it, forever.
Guarding the royal potato. Or not.
Potatoes are staples of many diets, though at one time there were none at all
outside of South America. In 1532, the Spanish invaded the land we now know as
Peru. Though they didn't realize it at the time, one of the most valuable things
they found there was the humble potato. By 1600, it has spread throughout
Europe, especially the colder climates where many other plants will not grow.
Sadly, though, not everyone thought it fit for human consumption and it was
often used just as animal feed. The Russian Orthodox church even banned them
simply because they were, quite naturally, not mentioned in the Bible.
A particular fan of the potato was King Frederick II of Prussia, who
fed them to his troops in the mid 18th century wars. However, when he offered
them to his subjects during the 1774 famine, they were less than enthusiastic,
typically declaring that "The things have neither smell nor taste, not even the
dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?" Even when Frederick threatened
to cut the nose and ears off any peasant who did not plant potatoes they still
refused. Facing an unpopular mass amputation, Frederick changed his tactics to
something rather more effective.
Frederick's new approach was to declare the potato a royal vegetable and
place guards around the royal potato field, though they were also instructed not
to guard the potatoes too closely. The local population, now banned from eating
potatoes decided that if they were good enough for the king, they were certainly
good enough for the peasants. Sneaking past the incautious guards, locals
managed to 'capture' some potato plants and started secretly growing their own.
Before long, there was a huge underground market in in potatoes, which Frederick
was forced to openly accept and eventually magnanimously legitimize.
The basic tactic that Frederick used was a combination of exclusivity,
social proof, a powerful
cocktail based on the principle that we want what we cannot get, especially when
our superiors are using it.
Choice blindness and the taste test
When we have options, we think we choose well and know our choices, yet often
those decisions are momentary and we might want to change them in the future. This is well
illustrated by an experiment by Lars Hull and associates who set up a market
stall and gave people a taste of two jams before choosing one. Just before they
took away their purchase, they were given one last taste to confirm that this
was indeed the jam they wanted. The twist is that in this final taste, they were
given the jam they had just rejected, yet 80% said yes, this was just what they
had chosen, even though one was Cinnamon-Apple and the other was Grapefruit.
A key point here is that there is a lot of belief in taste. If we believe we
are consuming X then we are very likely to taste like X. A typical similar
experiment that you can try is to give people cheap wine poured out of an
expensive wine bottle. Even experts have been fooled by this into declaring the
wine is quite wonderful. Likewise, a cheap meal in a posh restaurant can taste
far better than in the corner cafe (and vice versa). It is said that we eat with
our eyes. It's more than this: we eat with all our senses plus the complicit
help of our subconscious minds. If it looks great, we think, then it must taste
Taste testing is fraught with other problems too. In the 1980s, Pepsi rattled
Coca Cola with a taste test that had people saying they preferred Pepsi. Coke
even changed their formula, to disastrous PR and eventually had to return to the
original taste. The trick was that the Pepsi test was a sip test, not glugging a
whole bottle. In limited, small sips, Pepsi does indeed taste nice. But then
that's because it uses more sugar. When drinking a whole can full, it can be a
bit too much. In other words, 'taste' is a limited term that may well need far
clearer definition before you can compare things.
Hall L., Johansson P., Tärning B., Sikström S. and Deutgen T. (2010). Magic at the
marketplace: Choice blindness for the taste of jam and the smell of tea.
Cognition, 117, 1, 54-61
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