Consumer Psychology

Social Engineering — Three Persuasive Words to Get What You Want


Looking at getting around some frustrating rules we all pretend exist? You’ve found the right post.

Fixed Action Patterns

Before we get into persuasive language, we need to talk about Fixed Action Patterns. Fixed Action Patterns are regular, blindly mechanical patterns of action. These include animal courting rituals, egg-retrieval behavior of the graylag goose or our favourite, wild turkeys driven to protect based solely on sound.

The year was 1974 and animal behaviorist M. W. Fox was about to release one of the first studies that recognised fixed action patters in Wild Turkeys. Now, Turkeys are smart animals, they can recognise friends from enemies, they can solve problems, but when it comes to protecting their young, amazingly they rely on a very simple Fixed Action Pattern. The ‘cheep cheep’ sound that their offspring make, this causes the Turkey to love and protect whatever is making that sound.

To prove this, M. W. Fox put a stuffed Polecat on a string (the natural enemy of the Turkey) and pulled the Polecat right up to the Turkey. The first thing the Turkey did is attack the Polecat. However, after hitting play on a tape recorder inside the stuffed pole loaded with that ‘cheep cheep’ baby Turkey sound, the Turkey wanted to love and protect the stuffed Polecat!

Now, I hear some of you skeptics saying, ‘okay, but how does that help me be persuasive?’. Humans have Fixed Action Patterns too, the classic example is a Harvard study by social psychologist Ellen Langer involving the xerox machine line. Langer wanted to test that when asking for a favour, if offering a reason increased the chance of success. In this case the favour was cutting inline to use the xerox machine.

Langer tried a bunch of wording combinations when cutting in-line to use the xerox machine.

“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”

Forty percent of the the time she got told to go to the back of the line, but Sixty percent of the time this worked! 60% percent of the time she was given a favour just for asking!

However, Langer didn’t stop there. Langer started to use a combination of different reasons to use the xerox machine to see if this would improve her chances of gaining a favour.

“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush”

The addition of ‘because I’m in a rush’ caused the success rate to jump to 94% success!

Now remember, we’re still talking about Fixed Action Patterns. If that 94% success is attributed to a thoutful proccess on the dupe’s part, then we can’t really call that a blindly mechanical process. As it happens the reason/excuse to use the Xerox machine didn’t matter. As long as Langer used the magic word “because” she would always get 94% success at gaining that favour.

“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have 5 pages & need to make some copies”

..94% success…..

And that makes “because” our first most influential and persuasive word

If your interested in more social engineering we recommend Robert B.Cialdini’s book ‘Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion’

You’re so vain, You probably think this post is about you

Actually, our next most influential and persuasive word is about you, or at least.. your name. Anyone who has read Dale Carnegie’s how to win friends and influence people will know that using someones name does wonders for their attention.

Here is an exerpt from the book:

One such example is that of Ken Nottingham, an employee of General Motors in Indiana, usually had lunch at the company cafeteria. He noticed that the woman who worked behind the counter always had a scowl on her face.

“She had been making sandwiches for about two hours and I was just another sandwich to her. I told her what I wanted. She weighed out the ham on a little scale, and then she gave me one leaf of lettuce, a few potato chips and handed them to me.

“The next day I went through the same line. Same woman, same scowl. The only difference was I noticed her name tag. I smiled and said, ‘Hello, Eunice,’ and then told her what I wanted. Well, she forgot the scale, piled on the ham, gave me three leaves of lettuce and heaped on the potato chips until they fell off the plate.”

The Cocktail Party Effect

Another affirmation as to the power of using a name is something called the ‘cocktail party effect’. This is the phenomenon of being able to focus one’s auditory attention on a particular stimulus while filtering out a range of other stimuli. It is much the same as a partygoer can focus on a single talker among a cacophony of conversations in a single, noisy room.

Try using the bartenders name when you’re at your next disco.


Who like free things? We like free things

Consumers love free stuff so much they’ll actually make different choices, even when the value of the item or service remains the same.

Marketers have known this for years. Consider your own feelings to something that is ‘cheap’ and something that is ‘free’.

Dan Ariely studied this phenomenone by asking people to choose between a 1 cent Hershey Kiss or a 15 cent Lindt truffle (about half its actual value, generally considered a richer, superior chocolate).

The result?

73% of people chose .15¢ Lindt vs 27% choosing .01¢ Hershey Kiss

Now, a .01¢ Hershey is practically free, but we perceive it as ‘cheap’ so Lindt wins round 1. Dan Ariely did this same experiment but using the term ‘free’ for Hershey instead of .01¢.

The result?

31% of people chose .14¢ Lindt vs 69% choosing FREE Hershey Kiss

For more on this phenomenon check out Dan Ariely book Predictably Irrational, where he examined a very unusual “battle” between Lindt chocolate truffles and Hershey Kisses.

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