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Persuasion SPICE


Techniques General persuasion > Using repetition > Persuasion SPICE

Simplicity | Perceived self-interest | Incongruity | Confidence | Empathy | See also


Dutton (2010) identifies five common patterns in persuasive methods that he fits to the word SPICE: Simplicity, Perceived self-interest, Incongruity, Confidence and Empathy.

Here's a discussion of each of these:


It is not what you say, it is how you say it. And the simpler the better. People understand simple. The more complex the wording, the more misunderstanding (and non-understanding) there will be.

When you want to get across a subtle message, you can use simple headlines to distract or cloak the inner persuasion. If you want somebody to remember something, make it simple. And if you want to hammer home a point, say things in threes.

Repetition and other patterns are all about simplifying. Acronyms do the same -- this page uses 'SPICE' to help get the message across and memorable. And there are many figures of speech that use simplicity in subtle ways. Brevity helps too. Less is more.

Watch people when they are trying to persuade others. They may start complex but, faced with confusion, their message gets simpler and simpler. Politicians and journalists know this already and use headlines to quickly get the message across.

Complexity has its place too. In the confusion principle, you occupy the mind in trying to work something out whilst you slip past with the real message. Paradoxically, the complexity method is quite simple.

Perceived self-interest

Although we are social animals, we are ultimately self-interested. The whole realm of Game Theory use classic experiments like the Prisoner's Dilemma to test (and, sadly, prove) our ultimate selfishness. Faced with the threat of others taking advantage of us, we are easily tempted to get in first. 

It can be argued that even altruism is designed to make us feel good as we help others. When they feel good, our empathy makes us feel good, and so this is our ultimate aim.

An important point is that self-interest is about perception. People do things that they think are in their own interest. So if you can convince other people that an idea is good for them, then they will likely go along with it, whether or not this is true.

In this way, you can play to self-interest when influencing and persuading. When working with a new boss, for example, a useful approach is to say 'My job is to make you successful'. Find out what their boss wants and deliver it, making sure that your boss looks good. Of course you can gain some glory too, but beware of grabbing the limelight from the person who is effectively your personal employer.

When designing your persuasive message and action, always remember WIIFM and WAMI, a pair of thoughts that we all regularly have. WIIFM stands for 'What's In It For Me'. And WAMI is the other side of the same coin: 'What's Against My Interests'. This is not all we think and we may not noticing ourselves doing it, but the thoughts are often in there somewhere.

A complexity here is that when you are doing the persuading, you are also thinking WIIFM and WAMI. And, just as you are thinking about the other person's WIIFM and WAMI, they are quite possible thinking the same about you, too.


Congruent shapes are those that are identical in all respects. Incongruous ones do not fit together. When perceiving our personal universe, we seek patterns that we recognize. Patterns are safe and predictable, and our brains reward us by making us feel good when we recognize their harmony. The flip side of this is that we feel uncomfortable when we cannot fit things into our patterns.

When things are not as they 'should' be, we become confused. We fall into the fight-or-flight reaction or otherwise resort to coping. We satisfice, seeking any solution, including self-deception, to resolve our discomfort. We will see what we want to see rather than what is actually there.

In trying to figure out what is happening, we may well pay a lot of attention to the incongruity, which means we will miss all kinds of other things going on. We also may ignore the incongruity completely as we are unable to process it. In a classic experiment, a group of students were shown video of people playing basketball and were asked to count the number of bounces of the ball. Most of them completely missed a person in a gorilla suit dancing through the scene!

In persuasion, this means the confused person will grasp at straws, including the solutions you offer. They will pay attention to incongruity and miss things you want them to miss. You may also succeed in getting them to ignore the blatantly obvious if it is outrageously odd, especially if it is not where they are currently paying attention.


Confidence will cover a lot of sins. If you are as bold as brass and speak like you know what you are saying, then it is amazing what you can get away with.

Confidence tricksters know this as they confidently play roles and purloin your goods. Actors know it too, as do leaders in all walks of life. Be assertive. Act big and people will assume you are big. This is one trick that shorter people may learn as they compensate for their physical lack of advantage.

This appears in the authority principle, where even the symbols of power are accepted as showing that you must be obeyed. In the famous Milgram experiments, about 65% people off the streets were persuaded to administer 'lethal' doses of electricity to strangers, only because they were told to do so by a man in a white coat. When trappings of authority, such as the 'supervisor' not wearing the white coat, the conforming number dropped to around 25%.


Humans have evolved as a tribal species. Living together is good for survival, although this means we must trust others, which in turn means we need to have some idea of how they think and feel. Empathy is 'feeling what others feel' and leads to caring for them. Care is a key aspect of trust (I will trust those who care about me). In this way, showing empathy gains trust which increases your chance of persuading. It also helps, of course, to know something of what the other person is feeling.

A classic way of connecting with people is by building rapport through methods such as demonstrating similarity and relevance to the other person.

All this is deeply embedded in our psyches. We all have a powerful need for a sense of identity, much of which we get through our interactions with other people as we socially construct out selves. A critical social process here is bonding with others, which is effectively a joining of identities. When we 'become one' our fates are synonymous and when you ask me to do something it is like me asking myself.

See also

Repetition principle


Dutton, K. (2010). Flipnosis, London: Heinemann

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