What are weapons of influence? - Chapter 1

How can social aspects influence our decisions?

To show how social aspects can influence our decisions, we can take a look at a story about a friend who owns a jewelry store, desperately trying to sell some left-over turquoise pieces that no buyer was interested in so far. When ultimately deciding to put a sign in front of the display case, saying "price X 1/2", the shopkeeper's assistant accidentally put up a sign that read "price X 2". Within a few days, the previously disregarded pieces had been sold! Instead of using difficult calculations of how much the jewelry could actually be worth, buyers relied on the common stereotype of "good is expensive". This is a standard strategy and this shortcut is most often used when we are uncertain of the quality of an item.

What are fixed-action patterns and how do they influence our behaviors?

Scientists in the field of ethology, which is the observation of animals in their natural environment, have found several of those blindly automatic behavioral patterns across different species. These so called fixed-action patterns are not simply restricted to stand-alone behaviors but can also involve complex patterns like mating rituals. These sequences are performed in the same manner and in the same order every time they occur. The more colorful expression "click, whirr" behaviors is used, referring to the sound of a tape recorder. With a click, a previously recorded tape is put into the system, and with a whirr, the tape starts rolling. However, there seems to be a disadvantage to the way the tape is activated. During mating season for example, when some male birds engage in fights over territory and partners, it is not an enemy in general that leads to the expression of aggressive behaviors but rather merely some features, so called trigger features (such as color of feathers). Not only aggressive behavior can be triggered and mislead this way. Take the example of mother turkeys who respond exclusively to the cheeping sound their chicks make when providing care and food. When a stuffed predator (e.g. a polecat) is equipped with a tape recorder that emits the same cheeping sounds, the turkey will act as if it is one of its offspring, until the tape is turned off: instantly, the behavior will switch from caring to aggressive attacks.

Two things need to be mentioned: first of all, those fixed-action patterns are appropriate most of the time. Second of all, they are not restricted to the animal kingdom; humans rely on them as well.

It seems clear to almost everyone, that we are more likely to do somebody a favor if a reason is provided. This long established principle in social psychology led to a series of interesting studies. One of those was conducted by Ellen Langer and her colleagues (Langer, Blank, & Chanowitz, 1978). In a copy-shop, they asked people if they would be willing to let them cut in line for the copy machine. Two conditions were tested, one that provided a reason ("because I'm in a rush"), one that did not. The results were clear: 94% (reason) vs. 60% (no reason). But the automaticity of the responses went even further. The researchers suggested that it was merely the word because that triggered the compliance to let the person skip ahead in line. They introduced a third condition, containing the question and no true reason ("Can I cut in line because I need to make some copies"). Again, 93% complied with the request.

Those patterns, may it be the "good= expensive" or the "no-favor without reason" shortcut, have been formed throughout our whole life. As previously mentioned, they are reliable in most instances and since they save energy, time, and (mental) capacities, they are simply essential in a complex environment.

What other sorts of mental shortcuts exist?

Some other mental shortcuts have been explained in the last years. They are called judgmental heuristics and will be the content of further chapters. They all share the quality of automatic responding, meaning that they involve mechanical responses. More distinguished reactions that result from a thorough analysis of information are called controlled responding. Research leads to the assumption that we are more likely to employ controlled responding when we desire and are able to analyze something in a careful manner. One study that supports this finding was conducted by Petty, Cacioppo, & Goldman (1981). They exposed students at a university to a speech that asked about a new rule that would affect only some of them (new requirements for graduation beginning next year). Those who did not have to fear any personal consequences because they would graduate before the rule would come into effect were simply persuaded by the expertise of the speaker, who was introduced as an educational expert. The other group however, did not pay any attention to the speaker's expertise but rather exclusively considered the quality of his arguments.

What are some of the drawbacks related to mental shortcuts?

Although all of the previously mentioned shortcuts as well as those that will follow in the upcoming chapters serve the important function of managing everyday life, they are sometimes flawed and occasionally result in deadly mistakes. Perhaps the most common instance in which an over-reliance on an expert's knowledge can lead to drastic consequences is known as Captainitis. The term describes the finding that in airplane crashes caused by obvious errors made by the captain, those mistakes were not corrected by the other members of the crew. Certainly, they used the mental shortcut of "the expert is always right".

Apart from this less common drawback, fixed-action patterns can also be exploited by professionals who know how to use them for their advantages.

Ethology again serves as a good illustrator of this vulnerability. There is a special class of organisms called mimics who evoke desired behaviors in other animals by imitating some of their specific trigger features. An example is the female firefly Photuris which mimics a certain blinking code of another family of fireflies, called Photinus. The Photinus male mistakenly interprets the blinking as one of his female counterparts and prepares to mate, only to discover too late that it was a hungry Photuris that emitted the flashes.

This mimicry behavior can be observed even to such primitive structures as viruses and pathogens that imitate features of genuine cells or hormones to enter the immune system of a host.

There is one aspect of true experts in the profession of exploiting our vulnerability to mental shortcuts. They most often do so without much effort. This can be compared to the Japanese martial art of jujitsu, in which the master would use the power of principles like gravity, leverage etc., power that is already present in the situation. Translating this to the world of social influence, using our own flaws and (occasionally) misleading shortcuts, the professional not only needs to exert less force, he or she can also easily hide the appearance of manipulation.

A good example how this can work is the application of the contrast principle. This principle has been established in psychology for a long time and it states that when presented with two different things one after another, we will perceive them as more different than they actually are. Keep in mind that the difference does not need to be obviously large, slight distinctions are sufficient. Putting this principle into use, we can look at an example of a real estate agent. When showing interested people some houses or apartments, he would always present them with one or two estates that were in very bad condition. Of course, he kept those homes as showpieces and only the third house was meant to be sold in the first place. But due to the negative impressions on the previous places, the final suggestion seemed even more attractive to the prospective buyers.

Car dealers, who are masters of weapons of social influence, use the same principle. Most often they will present buyers of a new car with additional options after they negotiated the car's price, since the one-hundred dollars for a better radio or another upgrade seem less costly compared to the thousands of dollars the buyer spent on the car itself.

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