The Power of Self-Persuasion

Imagine that you are placing a bet on a horse race. You have two options: the first horse is named Red and the second is named Rod. They are otherwise pretty much indistinguishable in their chances of winning. Which one would you pick?

It is more likely that you will bet on Red. Why?

Let’s try that one more time. You have two options: the first horse is named Rod and the second is named Red. In this scenario, people are more likely to bet on Rod.

It turns out that—in the absence of any strongly distinguishing features—the first option presented to us is also perceived as the best one. This is just one example of numerous seemingly minor details that influence our decisions (also check out this post for basic principles behind social influence strategies).

What happens after making such a decision is perhaps even more interesting. We like to think that our attitudes and beliefs determine the things that we do. But often it is the other way around—the things that we do determine our attitudes and beliefs. For example, consider a classic set of studies that surveyed people betting on horses at the racetrack. The key distinction was that people were approached either just before or just after placing their bet. People who were surveyed just after they had placed a bet were significantly more confident in their decision, and thought that they had a better chance of winning, compared to those surveyed just before. This suggests that the simple act of making a choice actually changes our attitudes and beliefs to be in even greater support of that choice. This basic phenomenon can explain why we often adhere so strongly to the status quo, even in very important, real-world contexts such as choice of financial investments, health plans, and retirement programs.

Our desire to keep the commitments that we make, and dislike of people who do not, is a powerful force that can easily be exploited for better or worse. For example, a survey simply asking people if they intend to vote in an upcoming election (most people say yes) actually causes an increase in voter turnout. Robert Cialdini describes how toy companies use this strategy to increase their profits. Before the holiday gift season they aggressively market a new toy, children ask for it, and some parents say “yes.” They then create a false shortage by under-stocking the product in stores, while also providing other toys of comparable value that the parents are forced to buy their children in order to make up for the “shortage.” Then, after the holiday season, the aggressive marketing begins again. The children ask again, parents have already agreed to the original gift and still feel obligated, despite their previous holiday purchases. The toy companies have doubled their profits.

It is important to assess the reasons behind our decisions. This allows us to identify when bad deals, dysfunctional relationships, and other commitments are not in our best interests. However, over-analyzing our decisions can be just as bad. A number of experiments find that that asking people to list the reasons behind their decisions actually changes the decisions that they make. The more reasons you list, the more your choices are likely to differ from what peers who do not deliberate are likely to choose, and from expert evaluations. As a result, people who deliberate are often less satisfied with the decisions that they ultimately make. If you want to be happy with a decision, it is probably best to simply “go with your gut.”

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