To Get Someone to Do What You Want, Try This

New research on persuasion shows there’s a simple way to get what you want.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a need for behavior change on a massive scale. Governments, from national to local, struggle to bring people’s behavior into line with public health recommendations. Even though political leaders themselves may not always be clear on what individuals should do to help stem the disease, you may have your own ideas about what’s best for you and those you care about.

These people may be the “quarancheaters,” a term coined by New York Times writer Alyson Krueger in a June 26 column. Once you’ve determined that people in your social circle have, in fact, gone maskless to a large gathering, though, what then? Do you shun them or, if they're people you care about, try to convince them to adopt healthier behaviors?  

Perhaps the quarancheater is someone you don’t know. You’re at the hardware store and see a fellow shopper pull down his mask so he can talk on the phone. Do you go up to him, point to yours, and try to "facemask-shame" him into submission?  What if the maskless person is a store employee? Do you tell her supervisor or awkwardly take matters into your own hands?

In a way, the spread of coronavirus has become a behavioral as well as an infectious disease pandemic. Indeed, while biomedical researchers seek a vaccine, it might be the behavioral scientists who need to take the lead in spearheading the behavior change needed until the virus itself can be tamed.

Luckily, there is a vast body of research on persuasion that can inform those behavioral change efforts. One recent study by British psychologist Bogdana Humă and colleagues (2020) from York St. John University’s School of Education, Language, and Psychology, provides insights into the “interactional context” of persuasion. As the authors note, “While persuasion has always been a constant presence in social life, nowadays, we probably are exposed to persuasive communication at a rate higher than ever before.”

Indeed, research into the psychology of persuasion dates back to Yale University when, in the 1940s, “research on how people persuade each other became one of the most fundamental topics of post-World War II North American social psychology” (pp. 357-358). Oddly enough, as Humă et al. point out, although language is the medium through which people attempt to influence each other (“the grist for the cognitive mill”), rarely have researchers in this area focused on the role of the words used to frame persuasive messages.

The U.K. study took to this task by analyzing a body of 150 so-called “cold calls” by nine telecom salespeople recorded over a one-month period. The calls were business-to-business sales in which salespeople tried to convert their prospects (communications managers) into clients over a series of stepwise encounters. Detailed analysis of their strategic use of language served as the basis for the qualitative methods used in this study.

You’ve probably received such calls yourself in which a sales representative from a well-known local company (not a robocall) tries to get you to consider buying one of the company's products. Rather than try to sell you the product right then and there, this person just wants to set up an appointment to discuss the product in more detail. For example, perhaps this company sells closet redesigns. You hadn’t really thought about redoing your hallway closet but now you're being offered a free consultation, maybe with a discount thrown in. Maybe you should go ahead and schedule that appointment.

The first step in turning that initial call into a subsequent meeting, Humă and her fellow researchers found, was to reframe this meeting as a "joint project" in which the seller and buyer become partners. In one sample conversation, after a brief introduction, the seller began the process with the statement: “I really wanted to tee up a time for one of my experts to kind of pop down and see how we can help…”  Note that the salesperson doesn’t give the potential client a chance to refuse by asking “Can I?” This start of the scheduling presupposes that both parties have agreed to meet. Furthermore, by just trying to agree on a time, it doesn’t seem as if the seller actually is trying to sell the product, or at least, not yet.

As the conversation proceeded, the seller continued to try to arrange a time, even making the presumptive suggestion that they "reschedule." All of this was done within the context of that "joint" context in which the seller treats the buyer as a partner, not as someone who needed convincing. Another tactic involved sellers making that meeting a foregone conclusion by referring to that in-person step as “the” meeting, i.e., turning that appointment from indefinite to definite.

This persuasive sequence never gives the buyer a chance to say "no." In the words of the authors, “the salespeople in our collection minimise the risk of a negative outcome by restricting prospects’ opportunities to take a stance towards the meeting” (p. 367). They don’t try to change behavior, they instead manage the recipient so that “a disaligning response becomes difficult to deliver" (pp. 367-368). 

Creating an illusion of agreement, then, becomes the core of this persuasive approach. Returning to what you would use to try to get your non-facemask wearing friends to comply with your wishes that they do so, you could offer them a choice of facemasks, or offer to help put in an order for an overnight delivery, but not frame the offer as a “request” (which can be declined). By leaving out the "just say no" option, you're giving the people you're trying to persuade the only option of saying "yes." 

Political leaders could put this principle into practice on a broader scale not by asking the public to comply (which allows people to refuse). Instead, give people the chance to get cheap facemasks from one of a collection of thematic patterns that show their support for local sports teams, cities, or other features unique to their community. This would have the added benefit of normalizing an important public health precaution and, as long as political messages are left out of the equation, helping communities bind together in a sense of solidarity.

The truly great thing about this persuasion method is that it can be an all-purpose approach you use no matter what you’re trying to get the people in your life to do differently. In the case of that closet example, you might actually think that, with all the time you’re spending at home, it’s time to redo that hallway closet. Instead of asking your partner “Do you think we should…?” you would word the suggestion as “When would you like to take a look at [Company X’s] website?” This persuasive language becomes the grist of many possible cognitive mills, and it's remarkably simple to put into practice.

To sum up, persuasion tactics don’t have to be all that psychologically deep. Perhaps in the current COVID-19 pandemic, the shift from “yes-no” to “when” or "what" could provide the right reframing to change the behavior of all those still “quarancheating.”


Humă, B., Stokoe, E., & Sikveland, R. O. (2020). Putting persuasion (back) in its interactional context. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 17(3), 357–371. doi:/10.1080/14780887.2020.1725947