Pre-Suasion (2016) is about the art of influencing. In particular, it reveals that influence is about more than the specific wording of a pitch; it’s about how the pre-suader plays on our emotions, making his product or agenda seem more important than it really is. A pre-suader – be it your mom or your teacher, an advertiser or a sales agent, the media or even cult recruiters – know how to set the stage and get the desired result.
If a stranger ever approaches you and asks whether you feel unhappy, beware – there’s a good chance that this isn’t an innocent question. In fact, this is exactly the kind of question a cult recruiter is likely to ask.
Questions like this are part of the positive test strategy, which is designed to take advantage of our natural tendency to focus on what is present, rather than what is missing.
To phrase it another way: We look for hits, not misses. So, if someone asks “Are you unhappy?” it prompts us to search for the presence of unhappiness, not the lack of unhappiness.
Cult recruiters aren’t the only ones who exploit this human tendency; telemarketers, pollsters and salespeople also take advantage of it. Such seemingly simple questions are also known as single-chute questions, which can manipulate us into confirming the very thing they are trying to prove.
A 1993 study shows this principle in action. Two groups of average Canadian college students were asked very similar questions. One group was asked whether they were unhappy with their social lives; the other was asked whether they were happy with their social lives.
Remarkably, members of the first group proved to be 375 percent more likely to report unhappiness than those in the second group.
Often, when a question like this is asked, it’s to influence how someone pictures himself before asking him to make a decision. This is why they’re called “pre-suasive” questions.
This is also why these questions are a good tool for marketers, as they can subtly influence whether or not potential customers will make a purchase.
Recently, communication scientists San Bolkan and Peter Andersen had marketers try to convince test subjects to sample a new soft drink and provide their email address.
Before the pitch, some test subjects were asked if they saw themselves as adventurous people who like to try new things – and 75.7 percent of them tried the drink and gave their email. Those who weren’t asked this pre-suasive lead-in question were much less likely to go along with the marketers. A mere 33 percent tried the drink and gave their email.