In the art of persuasion, timing, as they say, is everything. You probably know this instinctively—for example, if you decide to ask your boss for a salary raise, you might vigilantly watch her interactions with others, trying to gauge just the right moment to make your request. Here's a hint: Make your pitch just after she's heard a presentation by her favorite employee.
It's no secret that the same message can be received in very different ways depending on the source. Like all parents, I've had the experience of watching my adolescent children reject my superb advice out of hand, only to watch them eagerly gobble up the very same advice when it's proffered by a favorite aunt or coach. There are days when I'm sure that my kids are in a mindset to discount just about anything that falls out of my mouth, whether it's gems of wisdom or clueless, fumbling commentary.
By now, there's plenty of evidence that this tendency goes well beyond teenaged truculence. All of us are prone to get into a mindset of either agreeing with or arguing against someone, depending on whether we think we're likely to agree with them from the outset. For example, watching people's behavior during political debates can be quite fascinating. How often do you see someone screaming at the TV screen in violent dispute with the candidate they were predisposed to like? More likely, the talking points coming out of that candidate's mouth are met with nods of approval, and the outrage is reserved for his opponent. All of this is why two people can watch exactly the same debate, hear the same arguments from each side, and arrive at completely different conclusions about who "won" the debate. In fact, watching a supposedly balanced debate covering both sides of an issue can actually end up just entrenching people's initial opinions because they're so eager to dismantle the arguments of one candidate while bolstering the arguments of the other.
But now a recent study suggests that an agreeable or disagreeable mindset can spill over into interactions that occur later on, so that hearing the arguments of someone you were predisposed to disagree with can leave you less open to persuasion a short while later. In a recent paper, researchers Alison Jing Xu and Robert Wyer first established the lingering effects of bolstering or counterarguing by giving people a set of statements, and asking half of them to list thoughts about the statements they agreed with, and the other half to jot down notes about the ones they disagreed with. Both groups then saw an advertisement and answered questions testing the effectiveness of the ad. Over a series of experiments, Xu and Wyer found that putting people in an agreeing state beforehand enhanced the ad's effects, while putting them in a disagreeing mode diminished it.
Xu and Wyer then tested to see if this mindset would persist in a more natural situation when people haven't been specifically instructed to list thoughts of agreement or disagreement. They had participants listen to a speech by John McCain or one by Barack Obama and then watch a TV ad for Toyota. Republicans tended to be more swayed by the ad after watching the speech by John McCain, while Democrats showed the opposite effect, finding the ad more persuasive after the Obama speech. For an interesting twist: What was the reaction of both groups after watching a debate between the two candidates? Watching the debate enhanced the ad's effects for both Republicans and Democrats, which suggests that people focus more on the messages of the candidate they agree with. But the opposite was true for self-identified independents: for people in this group, watching the debate made the ad less convincing, perhaps because they were inclined to be cynical about the messages of both candidates.
The lesson couldn't be clearer: even the perfect pitch can falter if your audience is already in an arguing mood. And if you've ever found yourself calling that toll free number to order three Slap Chop gizmos just after hearing a rousing rant by your favorite political pundit, well, now you know why.
Follow me on Twitter.
Xu, A.J., & Wyer, R.S. 2012. The role of bolstering and counter-arguing mindsets in persuasion. Journal of Consumer Research, 38.
Published electronically June 30, 2011
Copyright © 2011 Julie Sedivy, All Rights Reserved