The Soft Approach to Persuasion

A recent, fascinating piece of persuasion research by Zakary Tormala of Stanford surfaces some very useful information on the process of persuasion.   The research clearly demonstrates that experts are more persuasive when they seem tentative about their conclusions.  In situations where the questioner perceives the other to be an expert and quite knowledgable about a subject, it pays off for the expert to express minor doubts about their own opinion.  Rather than present himself/herself as very certain about the subject or issue, why does it pay to be  tentative about one’s response?  The research shows that people do a “cognitive double take” when the perceived expertise is mismatched with their level of certainty.  As a result the inquirer becomes more intrigued, interested and involved in the issue, which helps the reviewer’s message get across.  In contrast, the opposite is true with novices.  Novices grow more persuasive with increasing certainty.  The NY Times details one of the research methods:  In one experiment, college students were randomly assigned one of four variations of a restaurant review, praising a local Italian spot. In some versions, the reviewer was described as a famous food critic; in others, he was a technology worker at a local college with a penchant for fast food. Each of the critics expressed positive certainty about the restaurant’s virtues in one variation, and tentative praise in another. Asked to evaluate the restaurant, the students who read the expert’s review liked it much better when he seemed tentative; the opposite was true of the novice.When I see research like this, research which sounds quirky, I typically check out the methodology first.  Then, just as significantly, I want to know how this study fits into overall research theory.  This research actually ties into classic persuasion theory which shows that increasing involvement and interest in a subject, where it is well-argued, can more often result in conversion (the persuasion term for acceptance and commitment to an idea).   As a scholar in the field of persuasion, I suspect that the study conclusions are highly valid.  (How’s that for tentativeness from an expert?)I’m asked about areas of my behavioral expertise quite often.  A client will ask what I think about such and such.  If I’m quite certain, but I want the client drawn into the issue, I’ll add a couple minor caveats, or assume a very thoughtful tone.  It nearly always draws the client into the conversation, provides for a persuasion experience as well as a dialog or teaching opportunity.  A few weeks ago, one of my long term, senior clients wanted to know what I thought about a certain tactical maneuver.  I knew that if I was blunt, he’d either accept it wholesale without thinking about it or reject my notion.  So I said to him, slowly, thoughtfully and carefully (I’m a fast talker) that it was an “intriguing idea.”  What you’re telling me, he responded, is that I’m “full of bullshit?”  I snickered, but he immediately engaged in the pros and cons of his idea, a useful discussion that probably wouldn’t have taken place without my tentative response.But you don’t have to be a behavioral scholar to use these findings.  It may be something as simple as restaurant food, trip experiences, or your boss’s relationships with his subordinates.  Sure, you have to be calculating.  Sure, you have to know what’s being asked.  But often, if you answer too quickly, you’ll lose out on both the conversation as well as the decision process.  I’ve learned not to be in a hurry to respond when people ask for my expertise.  So when you’re approached and perceived to be an expert in a subject, tentativeness works better than certainty.  But when you’re a novice, certainty works better than tentativeness. 
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