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The Unpacking Technique


Guest articles > The Unpacking Technique


by: Will Tumonis


The Support Theory

One of the interesting findings in behavioral decision-making is that people consider an event more probable if they consider its components or constituent elements. Conversely, a more general and abstract description leads people to conclude that an event is less likely to occur. These findings are part of the support theory, first established by Amos Tversky and Derek Koehler in their 1994 study. [1] The support theory underlies some simple but practical and ethical techniques of influence.

The Unpacking Technique

Any point can be made more persuasive by partitioning it or listing its various components. You can simply mention in detail all possible scenarios and show all the possibilities. The unpacking increases the salience of each component and this leads to greater overall impressions. So by unpacking the issue into its components you'll lead people to believe that something is more certain.

For instance, let's say that most people routinely underestimate the health risks of popular over-counter medications and you want to convince people of their serious side effects. You might simply ask them about the adverse health risks of over-the-counter medications. With the unpacking technique, you could ask essentially the same question, only you would also mention specific health risks; for example, you could ask if taking over-the-counter medications would lead to increased risks of cardiovascular diseases, gastrointestinal bleeding, damaged kidneys, respiratory illnesses, nervous system damage, and metabolic disorders. The two versions should lead to the same perceived risks because the general version includes all health risks, including those mentioned in the unpacked version. Yet, such unpacked versions lead people to think that risks are noticeably greater.[2]

The Coalescing Technique

Sometimes the problem is not that people underestimate a risk but the opposite tendency to overestimate the probability of certain events, especially those that are vivid and captivating. The support theory suggests that it is best to coalesce or pack individual points into a more general description when you are dealing with such exaggerated perceptions of risk.

For instance, people significantly overestimate the likelihood of dying from terrorist attacks. You would certainly create an even greater perception of an already exaggerated risk if you unpacked the issue, for example, by mentioning all possible ways how, when, and where it might happen—car bombs, suicide vests, airplane hijackings, mall shootings, biological weapons, etc. So if you want to reduce their flawed estimates, use descriptions that are more general and abstract. Avoid any detailed and vivid descriptions and decrease the salience of individual elements by combining them in a single “package” of terrorism.


[1] Amos Tversky and Derek J. Koehler, Support theory: A Nonextensional Representation of Subjective Probability, Psychological Review, 101, 547-567 (1994).

[2] Leaf Van Boven and Nicholas Epley, The Unpacking Effect in Evaluative Judgments: When the Whole is Less than the Sum of Its Parts, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 39, 263–269 (2003)


Contributor: Will Tumonis

Published here on: 08-Mar-15

Classification: Psychology, Persuasion


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