The “New” Psychology of Persuasion

I’ve just watched (online) the PBS documentary on the ‘new and surprising methods’ advertisers are using: The Persuaders (thanks to Douglas Rushkoff). It seems the ultimate persuasion is to persuade a person to persuade themselves. It is a technique that many companies are employing, like the ‘search operas’ mentioned in a previous post, where the entertainment company 4orty2wo ‘don’t send an advertising message into the maelstrom of other competing messages: we reverse-engineer the process, so that the consumer comes looking for our campaign and our client’s product’. Once again, like anything, the technique is nothing new. I’ve got a book, published in 1965, (Whitney, R.A., Hubin, T. and Murphy, J.D. (1965) The new psychology of persuasion and motivation in selling, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.) that outlines how the system is needed and works. A quote from the book details how in 1957 Dr Thomas Gordon explained to a National Sales convention the then recent research:

Traditionally we have been led to accept the common notion that the best way to influence or change people is to communicate something to them-tell them, advise them, suggest to them, appeal to them, teach them, persuade them.

Recent psychological research studies have turned up evidence that casts considerable doubt on the validity of this approach. The approach that appears to be far more effective in influencing or changing people is to encourage them to communicate to you, express their opinions and ideas, verbalize their needs and complaints, talk out their problems and deep feelings, discuss their resistance to change…

The chapter goes on to describe how when people are allowed to ‘genuinely participate in the decision making process they were much more likely to “buy”‘, that there needs to be a ‘two-way communication system between speaker and listener’ (40: original emphasis). ‘Social interaction’ was deemd the ‘most effective form of persuasion’ (48). In those days participation was enacted through discussion groups with housewives, with salesmen, since media was delivered to people through a one-way channel. Nowadays we have the Internet and feedback measuring techniques that make the process more two-way. The technique is the same but the application of it is not.

In my research into what motivates a user to act, to move between channels and modes through a cross media work (or ‘narrative universe’ as Henry Jenkins describes it) I’m looking at advertising techniques such as persuasion in the networked environment. I don’t think HCI techniques have quite touched on the dynamics of motivation like marketers have, and at the same time, franchise designers haven’t quite touched on motivation like narratologists have. I’ll end with a quote from the documentary by Frank Luntz — political consultant/spin-docotor?/reader-response expert?:

I don’t argue with you that words can sometimes be used to confuse but its up to the practitioners of the study of language to apply them for good and not evil. It is just like fire: fire can heat your house or burn it down.