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Think you can't be persuaded by ads you ignore? Think again

When mindless persuasion trumps thoughtful deliberation

We live in the age of Over-Information. Every day, we're doused with thousands of commercial messages alone, let alone all the tweets, pips and squeaks clamoring for our attention from our Twitter, Facebook and email accounts. Why don't our heads explode?

The answer is one that most junior high teachers have known all along: people ignore most of the information that surrounds them.

No one has illustrated our stunning capacity to ignore information more vividly than Daniel Simons and Chris Chabris. If you haven't already seen the video of their famous study, you might want to watch it here before hitting the spoiler alert in the next paragraph. Go on—it'll be worth it.

In this well-known "invisible gorilla" study, you watch a video in which two teams—one in black T-shirts and one in white—pass basketballs to fellow team members. Your job is to count the passes among white team members. It takes some attention, but many people manage to answer accurately. What they often completely fail to see, though, is the gorilla that strolls into the middle of the game, faces the camera and beats its chest before sauntering off to the sidelines. When asked afterwards if they saw the gorilla, many people are gob-smacked.

This hilarious study provides a deep insight that turns out to apply very broadly, namely that we dole out our attention very unevenly, allotting generous dollops of attention to some aspects of our environment, while being enormously stingy with others, to the point of missing information that should have been un-missable.

It'll come as no surprise to advertisers that people rarely devote their full brainpower to the ads that are lobbed at them. But this doesn't necessarily mean that the ads have no impact on consumers. Sometimes, it can mean the opposite.

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In the scientific work on persuasion, there's a well-known result that, while not quite as funny as the Simons and Chabris study, is very similar to the invisible gorilla effect: it's the finding that people are often apt to ignore the difference between strong and weak arguments in forming attitudes or choosing how to behave.

A pivotal study by Ellen Langer and colleagues provides one of the earliest demonstrations. In this experiment, students in a university library were approached by an under-cover experimenter who asked to jump ahead of them in the photocopying line and make a few copies. Sometimes, the experimenter would justify the request by saying "May I use the Xerox machine, because I'm in a rush?" But other times, no explanation was offered. Not surprisingly, students were more reluctant to grant the favor when the experimenter didn't bother to justify the request. But the justification didn't actually have to provide a good reason—it just needed to sound like one. So, students complied just as readily when the experimenter gave a "placebo" explanation that was utterly without content: "May I use the Xerox machine because I need to make some copies?" Apparently, just decorating the sentence with the word because was enough to sway the students.

Since the Langer study, an enormous amount of research has looked at when and why people are persuaded by weak arguments just as easily as by strong ones, much of this work being led by John Cacioppo and Richard Petty. It turns out that the circumstances under which people are the least sensitive to the quality of an argument are the same situations in which they are most likely to be swayed by very superficial cues such as the attractiveness of a speaker, his or her reputation, or even how many arguments are made—regardless of their content. It seems, then, that where inattentiveness closes one door to persuasion, it opens another.

What determines whether you're likely to engage in thoughtful evaluation as opposed to mindless reaction? Some of the factors that tilt you in one direction or another are not entirely surprising. Anything that reduces your motivation or ability to devote mental power to the issue at hand leads to more mindless persuasion—for example, being distracted, having to process the message very quickly, or not having that much at stake. (In Langer's study, when the experimenter asked to copy a large number of copies, people suddenly sat up and took notice, and rejected the request with the "placebo" justification).

Some situations are clearly set up to favor the mindless variety of persuasion, and these tend to be the ones that place a lot of emphasis on packaging, or on certain phrases that act as triggers much as the word because did in the photocopying study. You're not likely to be doing much thoughtful deliberation while zipping through the grocery store with a screaming toddler who's stuck a penny up his nose, or while fending off a telemarketer as you put the finishing touches on dinner.

But the research has also yielded some more startling findings. For example, people who are in a good mood can be more susceptible to mindless persuasion than those who are in a bad mood. It seems that feeling crummy makes you think about arguments more carefully. (Note to teenagers: buttering up your mom might be especially important if your best argument amounts to "But everyone's doing it!") And bolstering a feeling of power in someone before they've heard an argument is liable to make them think less deeply about it, which suggests that in order to make the best decisions, presidents and CEOs ought to cultivate a healthy sense of humility.

Much of the time, we're perfectly happy to make decisions based on gut reactions that don't involve our full attention. It is, after all, how we keep our minds from exploding. But when it matters—say, when we're buying a house, or an insurance policy, or choosing a president—it's worth really paying attention. Otherwise, we may miss the gorilla.

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To read more:

Petty, R., E., Cacioppo, J.T., Strathman, A., & Priester, J.R. (2005). To think or not to think? Exploring two routes to persuasion. In T.C. Brock & M.C. Green (Eds.), Persuasion: Psychological Insights & Perspectives.

Chabris, C. & Simons, D. (2010). The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us.

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