Two Simple Strategies for Persuading Others
Rather than strengthening attitudes, how can you weaken them?
Posted March 5, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
So far, my posts have focused on how people develop strong attitudes. But sometimes, you don’t want to strengthen an attitude. You want to weaken it—and in particular, weaken the strong attitudes of others.
But what can be done to try to persuade people away from their strong attitudes?
In today’s post, we’ll discuss two strategies for attitude change that you can employ in your own daily interactions with others.
As far back as Tom Sawyer, people have known that telling someone not to do something is often the best way to get them to do it—what’s colloquially referred to as “reverse psychology.”
Persuasion researchers also find that when people are told they “must” do something, those people have an immediate reaction to do the opposite.
For example, in now-classic research, the more college students were told by their parents that they shouldn’t be dating their current partner, the more they reported wanting to date them (a finding that was aptly named “the Romeo and Juliet effect”).
This finding and others are attributed to reactance: the psychological motivation to reestablish one’s freedom when that freedom has been threatened.
Returning to the example above, when undergraduates were told they shouldn’t date their partner, it threatened their freedom in deciding who to date. In response, they “reestablished their freedom” by choosing to do just the opposite (i.e., continue to date this ill-advised person).
When it comes to changing others’ strong attitudes, then, the first thing persuaders have to overcome is the reactance in the person they’re trying to persuade.
The BYAF Technique
By nature, attempting to persuade someone means you’re “threatening their freedom” by trying to get them to believe something you want them to believe. Although it may sound silly, one technique for overcoming reactance, then, is to simply remind people of their freedom—in choosing how to act, what to believe, etc.
In the original research on this topic, research assistants approached individuals at a shopping mall and asked them one of two questions:
“Would you have some money for me to take the bus?” or
“Would you have some money for me to take the bus? You’re free to accept or refuse.”
Although you may think that giving the target an “out” in the second statement would reduce compliance, the researchers found that it actually made targets more likely to give money.
Later research on this “but you are free” (BYAF) technique examined the results of 42 studies totaling nearly 25,000 participants. And overall, they found the BYAF technique was a particularly effective method for reducing reactance and increasing people’s compliance with efforts to persuade.
Avoiding Reactance Altogether
Although the BYAF technique can help you dampen the negative effect of reactance, attempting to persuade someone still evokes reactance to some degree. And in many cases, that little bit is all people need to resist persuasion.
So, what can you do in these instances?
As described in prior posts, our attitudes toward topics (e.g., recycling) stem from countless sources. For example, someone may have a positive attitude toward recycling because of their thoughts about it (e.g., “I can get $0.05 for this can”), their emotions related to it (“It makes me feel good to recycle”), or even their values surrounding it (“Protecting the environment is important”).
So, as one way to circumvent reactance, researchers have found it can be best to target the attitude’s underlying bases, rather than attitude specifically. And in particular, it can be effective to appeal to the values underlying the attitude (what researchers call “indirect attitude change”).
In one study on this persuasive approach, researchers showed the technique's effectiveness in trying to change people’s strong attitudes on affirmative action.
In one condition, the researchers gave participants persuasive messages about why affirmative action was good. In the other condition, the researchers gave participants persuasive messages about why equality was good. And although the content of the message was exactly the same in both conditions, those who received the message about equality (vs. affirmative action directly) reported more positive attitudes toward the social initiative afterward.
With this approach, the researchers were able to circumvent reactance by targeting a basis of the attitude (i.e., equality) rather than the attitude itself (i.e., affirmative action). In which case, people didn’t think their “freedom in choosing whether to support/oppose affirmative action” was being threatened. Instead, the message was simply bolstering a value they already supported.
Of course, these researchers also showed the same effect in the reverse direction: By attacking people’s beliefs on equality (vs. affirmative action directly) they were able to make people more negative toward the social initiative. (Don’t worry, though, in both cases, the researchers debriefed participants about the aims of the study afterward.)
Persuading You to Share This Post
So, if I were trying to persuade you to tell your friends about this post, what could I do to convince you?
Well naturally, we both know you’re free to share or not share this post as you choose. To bolster that motivation to share, though, rather than try to persuade you specifically about this post, I may have given you a persuasive message targeting one of your values surrounding this post:
Reading cool and interesting articles on the internet.
But even if you do want to hoard this persuasion knowledge for yourself, hopefully you now have a better understanding of the role psychological reactance plays in persuasion. Importantly, though, reactance isn’t only a thing for others; you yourself feel it, too!
So, if you do feel like you're becoming defensive when someone presents you with a persuasive appeal, ask yourself: Do I actually disagree with their opinion? Or do I just not like having someone try to pressure me into doing something?
If you want more psychology tips you can use in everyday life, check out EverydayPsych.com.
Blankenship, K. L., Wegener, D. T., & Murray, R. A. (2012). Circumventing resistance: Using values to indirectly change attitudes. Journal of personality and social psychology, 103(4), 606.
Carpenter, C. J. (2013). A meta-analysis of the effectiveness of the “but you are free” compliance-gaining technique. Communication Studies, 64(1), 6-17.
Driscoll, R., Davis, K. E., & Lipetz, M. E. (1972). Parental interference and romantic love: The Romeo and Juliet effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24(1), 1.