7 Ways People Can Change Your Mind

... and expert tips to stop them.

Posted Jun 02, 2015

Samuel Borges Photography/Shutterstock
Source: Samuel Borges Photography/Shutterstock

When someone tries to persuade us to do, buy, or say something, we face a variety of forces. From advertisers to political candidates to your own family and friends, everyone seems to be constantly trying to get you to change your mind or do what they want you to do.

You may be aware when your elbow is being twisted, but you likely are not. 

According a team of Dutch researchers led by Maurits Kaptein (2015), we’re most likely to be influenced as targets of persuasion when we’re hit by the “right message, at the right time, and in the right way” (p. 38). But what do these three elements include?

  1. The right message is one we are receptive to because we generally agree that the goal is worthwhile. For example, if you are concerned about climate change, you’ll be more easily persuaded by a message telling you to start saving energy.
  2. We need to hear the message at a time when we’re likely to be influenced by it. For example, an ad about saving energy will hit you harder when you’re about to buy light bulbs.
  3. The message itself has to present you with data that you will believe. The light bulb ad must show how much wattage you’ll actually save by using them.

Kaptein and his colleagues tested a personalized, adaptive approach to persuasion that relies on combining these three elements in optimal fashion. To test their ability to persuade, they recruited a sample of Dutch adults who agreed to have their snacking habits tracked on their cellphones. You may use a similar app to track your movement and sleep patterns. Every once in a while, it sends you a message intended either to reward you for reaching a goal (such as walking so many steps) or to encourage you to do something differently that will promote healthier habits (such as getting more sleep). The messages these apps send are not particularly personalized to you, other than to send particular reminders or rewards depending on the behavior it tracks. They do not factor in your personality, or what sorts of messages will likely affect you.

But what if such a system could influence your behavior because it knows the types of messages that resonate with you? Perhaps, for example, you prefer consistency and don’t really want to make changes, for better or worse. Or perhaps you respond better to authoritative methods that tell you to make a change rather than more open-ended instructions.

Kaptein et al. tried to target their anti-snacking messages using a combination of information about the personalities of the participants and the ways they responded to persuasive messages. The purpose was to show ways to develop adaptive technologies that take the best of all three possible worlds and influence actual behavioral and attitudinal change.

The study raises intriguing questions about what makes us susceptible to persuasive tactics. Although the Kaptein method focused on positive, health-benefiting behaviors, marketers typically don’t have our best interests at heart when they try to persuade us to buy their products. 

By outlining the factors that make us susceptible to persuasion, Kaptein and team make it possible for you to understand what influences you, and why. To take control of the changes you do and do not wish to make in your lifestyle, buying habits, or attitudes, consider what Kaptein and his coauthors call the influence principles:

  • Authority. People are inclined to follow the advice of those they view as authorities. If they feel they have no freedom to choose, however, targets of persuasion may react against such messages.
  • Consensus. If you see others manifesting a certain behavior, or adhering to a certain belief, you’ll be more likely to go along with the crowd. This may reflect true conformity, or it could also be linked to “social proof”—the feeling that, if it’s good enough for everyone else, it should be good enough for you.
  • Consistency and Commitment. We like to appear consistent and to behave in ways that reflect our underlying beliefs in what’s right or good. A classic example of this is “foot-in-the-door," in which someone asks you to do a small favor to prime you for a larger “ask." For example, you are more likely to give $25 to a charity if you've already made a $5 pledge to it.
  • Scarcity. When something seems to be unavailable, you want it more. This is why retailers provide "limited editions." Even political marketers try to make you feel that you’re the only person getting their attention because you are “special."
  • Liking. If you like someone, you will be more likely to agree with the message that person communicates. Politicians bank heavily on their public image, trying to be as likeable as possible.
  • Reciprocity. If someone does something nice for you, you’ll be more likely to want to respond in kind. This is one reason you’ll be more likely to buy a product if you are given a free sample.

While these seven elements are powerful, your own personality might make you susceptible to influence. Kaptein et al. summarize 3 personality characteristics that affect persuasion:

  • Need for cognition. If you're high in this quality, you enjoy exercising your mind. You may scrutinize all incoming messages and be more skeptical of so-called “authorities." Rather than just taking someone’s advice, you’ll mull it over and make your own decision. 
  • Conscientiousness. If you’re high in this trait, you’ll also be more likely to go along with messages that rely on consensus or social proof. You like to stick to rules and prescriptions, so will follow those that lay them out for you as expected.
  • Desire for consistency. We might call this a type of gullibility: If you take that first step of giving in to a small request, you’ll be more vulnerable to agreeing to the larger one—if you like to appear consistent. To resist this tendency, you have to decide to stick to your own, predetermined principles.

The final component of the equation is timing. One of the reasons that health-monitoring apps work is that they catch you frequently during the course of the day so that you can still modify your behavior. Of course, you also have to check the app to know how you’re doing. Kaptein et al.’s analysis suggests that if you want to change something like a health-related behavior, you need to set up automatic reminders that prompt you to check your progress so those messages will reach your targeted behavior.

Whether being easily influenced is a positive or negative attribute depends on the change that you or others seek. When you're trying to improve your health or reduce your energy consumption, you want to be as easily influenced as possible. But if you want to avoid being the target of marketing ploys that deprive you of money, health, or self-respect, you should know how to build your inner resistance.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Reference

Kaptein, M., Markopoulos, P., de Ruyter, B., & Aarts, E. (2015). Personalizing persuasive technologies: Explicit and implicit personalization using persuasion profiles. International Journal Of Human-Computer Studies, 7738-51. doi:10.1016/j.ijhcs.2015.01.004

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015