What is Persuasion?

Persuasion is the art and science of influencing people’s (including our own) decisions. This page gives some insights into how and why persuasion works, including links to examples of persuasion in action.

Decision making and the human brain

Every day we make tens of thousands of decisions, yet we are not aware of the vast majority of these. This is because we have a complex system of decision making that occurs outside of our conscious minds. This can be called our emotional brain. As well as deciding simple, automatic things (“what is 2+2?”), It also influences our conscious decisions, such as who to vote for and even what jobs we have. Our rational brain tends to take over only when the decision is too complex for the emotional brain, or if we force ourselves to think rationally. More information about this can be found in the work of Daniel Kahneman and, in particular, his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’.

Perceptual Contrast

Which small rectangle is darker? Although the lower rectangle looks darker, it is in fact the same shade as the upper rectangle. This effect is called Perceptual Contrast and comes about because of the way our brains make decisions. All decisions are based on comparisons between two or more conditions. However, if we cannot compare directly (by having the two rectangles next to each other), we have to use other information to help us, in this case the backgrounds. Because the lower rectangle is darker than its background, our emotional brain tags it as ‘dark’. The opposite happens for the upper rectangle and then, when we come to compare the two, our rational brain is influenced by this labelling in the emotional brain.

This effect doesn’t just apply to images; expensive items can seem a bargain if placed with even more expensive products, and optional extras can seem cheap when set against the background of the costs of a car.   

The Decoy Effect

Follow the link below to see how companies create product options purely to increase sales of more expensive choices:

Brain Games - the Decoy Effect

The abuse of Social Proof

Quotes from reviewers are very powerful persuasive tools. But what do you do if your film or play has only poor reviews? Theatres have occasionally quoted critics out of context to promote plays, leading to confusion and disappointment for those misled. A typical example comes from the Wyndham Theatre in 2009. For their production of The Shawshank Redemption, they posted a reviewer's quote calling it:

"A superbly gripping, genuinely uplifting drama".

What the reviewer actually said was:

"The 1994 film...is a superbly gripping, genuinely uplifting prison drama about friendship and the power of hope….In almost every respect, the stage version is inferior to the movie."

Without means to check, most people assumed it was genuine praise for the play from a respected critic. In many cases, this was sufficient social proof to convince them to buy.

Understanding how we read

As our brains learn to read, we move from recognising letters and sounds to recognising words. We do this by pattern-matching - if it looks like a word we know, we read it as such. This massively speeds up our reading and allows us to read words even if they are jumbled, lkie in tihs eaxplme. We even start to skip words and sentences as our brain tries to simplify the process of reading.

This also means that our readers are not reading exactly what we write, but their brain’s interpretation of it. As such, if we want to be sure a particular word or sentence is read, we must draw the reader’s attention to it. This could be through highlighting, font size, position on a page, use of impact boxes, or other similar approaches. In short, it is up to us as persuasive writers to ensure the reader’s brain perceives our message, not their own version of it.