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Deciding to Persuade


Techniques > General persuasion techniques > Deciding to Persuade > Deciding to Persuade

 Helping or using them | Conscious vs. subconscious | Carrot vs. stick | See also


A critical question when changing minds is in your decision to persuade, influence or otherwise change minds. It can help to reflect: What am I trying to do? Why?

Helping or using them

The underlying reason for your persuasion may be an altruistic purpose of selflessly helping the other person. It may also be a cold, calculating and selfish reason where you are seeking to gain something with little care for the longer-term effect it will have on them. There is also, of course, a wide spectrum between these extremes, where you may have different balances between a concern for them and concern for yourself.

Typically we seek to achieve our own purpose whilst not causing the other person serious harm, although there is a danger of us telling ourselves they are less harmed than they actually are. Through such self-deception we manage to avoid self discrepancy effects.

This decision is largely a matter of personal values and morals, and there is little that can be said here to change this. It is worth noting, however that those who live by the gun die by the gun, and that those who take a callous approach to persuasion are opening themselves up for significant betrayal effects.

It is thus worth starting by considering the question: What is the chance of them being helped or hurt by this?  What will the effect be? What might they do as a result of this?

Conscious vs. subconscious

One of the first decisions when setting out to persuade is whether to use an approach which makes a conscious appeal that requires the other person to think about what you are saying, or whether you can go straight in at the subconscious level such that they do not know they are being persuaded. 

The  Elaboration Likelihood Model helps with this decision. This model shows that if you want a lasting effect, then you do need to choose conscious methods (the 'central route'). If, however, you are in a hurry and it does not matter if they later conclude they have been duped, then subconscious methods (the 'peripheral route') may be used.

Conscious approach

Conscious approaches to persuasion require the other person to first pay attention to you and to trust what you are saying as having validity for them. They then have to infer meaning from what you say and compare it with their needs and goals to ensure it is creating value for them whilst not going against their values.

The conscious route requires a lot more effort on the part of the person being persuaded, and if it does not go smoothly can also require a lot more effort by the persuader. If they object to your arguments, you may need to spend a lot of time getting over their objections.

Subconscious approach

Deliberately persuading subconsciously requires great subtlety on your part and mastery of the techniques you are using. It means weaving persuasive techniques naturally and seamlessly into their actions

The greatest danger with subconscious persuasion is that they might notice what you are doing. Even if you are acting in their interests, they may view this as a pernicious deception and you may be faced with retribution and other betrayal effects.

Carrot vs. stick

Motivating a donkey to move can be done by holding out a carrot or by beating it with a stick. Pain or pleasure, discomfort or delight, both ends of the spectrum may be used, possibly at the same time.

The balance of carrot and stick that you use should mostly depend on what works with the person in question. Some are more motivated by carrots, others close their eyes and need the stick to get them going. What you should avoid is basing your approach on your overall perception of people. If you find people generally lazy then you will tend towards the stick. If you like people then you may prefer carrots. Always base your approaches on fine observation of the other person's motivators, not your personal preconceptions and stereotypes.

In practice the most effective approach is often a little bit of stick to start them off, then continued carrot to keep them moving forward. The stick may then be kept subtly visible, so those who are considering stopping know that it can and will be used if necessary.


Carrots provide pull, showing the other person a desirable future. They create anticipated pleasure as they consider the delights of crunching on the nice, juicy carrot you are holding out. For them to work, the other person must reach out to the carrot, desiring it more than the alternative of staying where they are.

Carrots are almost invariably promises of tomorrow, although you may need to feed them sufficient tidbits beforehand such that they will trust your promise.


Sticks provide push, usually showing the other person an undesirable present. They create actual pain as the stick falls.

Sticks may also be future-oriented, showing the anticipated pain of a future that you want them to avoid. In motion, the  stick is thus used to nudge the donkey onto the road you wish to take. A light touch is often enough to remind the donkey that you can make it more painful if they do not obey your request. 

The danger of sticks is that they can result in people moving away in any random direction, and not necessarily the direction in which you want them to move. They may even turn on you, charging you down either as an act of revenge or simply in their panic to get away from the stick.

See also

Elaboration Likelihood Model, Caveat


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