The best PR pros know that persuasive communication benefits from a healthy dose of psychology. How do people think and process information, and how can we use that understanding to improve our communications?
Nobel prize-winning economist, Daniel Kahneman, has provided us with a fascinating science-based handbook – with real-world how-to's – in the bestselling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Every day, people make judgments based on limited information as we navigate the world. In an example from the book, look at this image:
We don’t need any additional background to know this woman is about to say something, and it’s not going to be pleasant. Humans have yet to evolve to handle the amount of information we’re exposed to each day. It’s overwhelming, and as a result, our brains take shortcuts.
Understanding how this works can help PR pros avoid the pitfalls of misunderstandings and errors, and we can use it to our advantage to become more persuasive. In fact, Kahneman offers very specific advice for communicators sprinkled throughout the book – and unlike many books on the topic, he offers real science to back it up.
Cognitive Ease (Keep It Simple)
The often used phrase ‘pay attention’ is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail. It is the mark of effortful activities that they interfere with each other, which is why it is difficult or impossible to conduct several at once. You could not compute the product of 17×24 while making a left turn into dense traffic, and you certainly should not try.
Communicators frequently talk about the importance of simplicity as we compete for attention and recollection – science not only confirms this is the case, but demonstrates the subconscious lengths to which people will go to avoid having to think too hard.
Because it’s easier to understand, our brains crave familiarity. It wasn’t long ago that to survive in a frequently dangerous world, humans needed to react cautiously to anything new with withdrawal and fear. “Survival prospects are poor for an animal that is not suspicious of novelty,” says Kahneman.
Today, this preference for familiarity manifests in strange ways. For example, Kahneman cites a study where “people who were repeatedly exposed to the phrase ‘the body temperature of a chicken’ were more likely to accept as true the statement that ‘the body temperature of a chicken is 104°’ (or any other arbitrary number). The familiarity of one phrase in the statement sufficed to make the whole statement feel familiar and therefore true.”
Cognitive ease is associated with good feelings, and “good feelings make you receptive to ideas.” Experimenters found that putting participants in a good mood before a test by having them think happy thoughts more than doubled accuracy.
For communicators, keeping cognitive ease in mind can be a powerful tool. In the book, Kahneman tells us that “anything you can do to reduce cognitive strain will help” with attention and retention, so on pages 62-64 he says you should:
- Maximize legibility
- If you use color, you're more likely to be believed if your text is printed in bright blue or red than in middling shades of green, yellow, or pale blue.
- If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do. … Couching familiar ideas in pretentious language is taken as a sign of poor intelligence and low credibility.
- In addition to making your message simple, try to make it memorable. Put your ideas in verse if you can; they will be more likely to be taken as truth.
Here’s one I found mind-blowing:
- If you quote a source, choose one with a name that is easy to pronounce. …Recipients of your message want to stay away from anything that reminds them of effort, including a source with a complicated name.
Priming and Persuasive Communication
Did you know that exposure to one thing subconsciously influences your response to another thing? Psychologists call this effect priming. “You must accept the alien idea that your actions and emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware,” says Kahneman.
If you have recently seen or heard the word EAT, you are temporarily more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P as SOUP than as SOAP (the opposite would happen if you had just seen WASH). …you are primed not only for the idea of soup but also for a multitude of food related ideas, including fork, hungry, fat, diet, and cookie.
Kahneman cites other proven examples of priming, such as the following experiments:
- Voting patterns in precincts of Arizona were studied in 2000, and showed that the support for propositions to increase the funding of schools was significantly greater when the polling station was in a school.
- In a study, people who were shown subtle images of money (for example, on a screen saver before the test began) became more independent than they would have been without this associative trigger. They persevered almost twice as long in trying to solve a very difficult problem before they asked the experimenter for help – a crisp the demonstration of increased self-reliance. Money-primed undergraduates also showed a greater preference for being alone.
For communicators, priming can be a powerful tool of persuasion. Exposure to an altruistic quote (e.g., “A good turn never goes amiss,” by George Sand) makes people more generous. Images of money have been shown to make people more price conscious (beneficial if this is part of your key value proposition). Reminding people of their national identity can create unity.
Often, we instinctively use images and words that invoke the priming effect. By consciously considering the power of priming, we can become even more effective in influencing behavior.
These are just a few examples of the lessons in Thinking, Fast and Slow, which challenges our notion that we are in control of our cognition and thought processes. As PR pros, our job is often to educate, influence and inform – the more we understand about how our audience thinks and processes information, the more skilled we can be at communicating.