Tag Archives: unanticipated effects

red white blue bar

The Pessimist’s Guide to Persuasion

retochet[Changing attitudes is hard.  This piece written several years ago confronts the strong likelihood that a persuasive message will trigger unanticipated effects.  I like to think of this as realism rather than pessimism.  But either way, guiding others to where we want to take them is never easy]

A number of years of writing and teaching persuasion have forced me to be a student of the unexpected ricochet.  That’s pretty much the whole game if you are playing racquetball, and it has a lot of relevance to communication.

The actual court for the game is simply a room-sized shoe box that functions as a playing surface for a hard rubber ball and several players.  It’s typically smashed so hard against the playing wall that it comes back at speeds and angles even a supercomputer couldn’t predict.  Those who have escaped the sting of that small missile can be thankful.  It hurts.  the word“ricochet” must have been coined by a bruised French player. But it also evokes the unanticipated associations, meanings, slights, and bogus significations possible every time we open our mouths. More than most kinds of human endeavor, persuasion is fraught with effects that are unforeseen. No wonder it is so difficult.

Try the different analogy of competitive running. Our inability to anticipate effects usually means that a person’s resistance to change is pretty much on its last lap before the possibility of personal transformation has even left the blocks. From a number of meta-studies we know that the odds of getting someone to alter their attitudes even after a flurry of good reasons have been presented is—on the best days—no better than one in ten.  After explaining this theory of “minimal effects” in a recent class, a student glumly asked, “What’s the point?  Why bother? The challenge hardly seems worth the effort.”

The short answer is that we have no choice.  Gaining assent from others is why we are mostly social rather than isolated creatures.  We are hard-wired to connect.  And, by the way, who says that convincing another person to give up an attitude or a cherished behavior should be easy?  We’ve worked hard to put our lives together in some sort of coherent way.

The point is how functional it actually is to be ready for the worst.

In persuasion theory, unexpected effects are called “boomerangs.”  Even well-planned campaigns to change others’ behaviors can easily veer off course. I teach this logic, and encourage my students to wear their newly acquired skepticism as a badge of honor. Having a healthy level of doubt about predicted effects is a life skill.

Consider some cases, all mostly true:

  • You show up to give an invited presentation to a group and (a) there is no screen for the PowerPoints you counted on, (b) there is nowhere to plug in your video projector, (c) there is no podium for your notes and (d) and a crew of ten men and nine machines are busy re-paving the parking lot next door.  Under these circumstances, how effective do you think will can be?
  • Your advertising agency has prepared a gay-friendly ad campaign that tested well and is now running in three national media outlets. Everyone on the creative team basks in their certain rewards of their progressive messages. But a respected leader in the LGBT community condemns the ads for “promoting old stereotypes.”  Condemnation of the ads is getting more attention than the ads themselves.
  • At a business lunch with a potential client you innocently praise the good service you once got from a large national retailer, only to be chided for supporting a chain whose owners are “political reactionaries.”
  • You meet a new set of Michigan in-laws for the first time, not realizing that for this family of General Motors employees, your new Ford visible to all in their front driveway might as well be a load of manure.
  • You are Bridget Jones at a literary party in the midst of introducing the work of a hack you oversell as the author of “the greatest book of our time.”  This happens just as you catch a look of dismay cross the faces of Jeffrey Archer and Salman Rushdie, just a few feet away.
    See the clip here.

    When it comes to communication, some of us are natural pessimists who are certain that life will not work out as planned.


istock man falling 1

Many of Us Do Our Own Stunts

For an underwater sequence in the film "Mission Impossible--Rogue Nation," Tom Cruise learned how to hold his breath for six and a half minutes, according to the film's director.  
                                             -The New York Times.

Tom Cruise is surely an all-purpose actor. The press is full of stories about his prowess in doing hair-raising feats for the camera. But he doesn’t have a lock on the idea that you don’t necessarily need a double.  For years many of us have been pulling off feats others would think improbable and unlikely.

Here’s a personal shortlist:

  • I managed to have the speed-limit on the narrow one-lane road in front of my house raised after a sustained effort to have it lowered.  This provides evidence that (a) some of us are better at teaching persuasion than doing it, or (b) like its federal counterpart, local governments can be completely unresponsive.

  • After a long-running struggle with a publisher to include larger text and bold graphics in a new book, the eventual product featured print with letters the size of poppy seeds.  And there are about as many graphics as might be found in a book on contract law.  Without trying, I have apparently done my part to revive the sale of magnifying glasses.

  • Long ago during in mid-performance with specially selected high school musicians from around the state–and with no help from anyone else–I managed to stumble and pull a number of metal folding chairs off an elevated stage. This clamorous and improvised fortissimo was in addition to what had been written for those of us in the percussion section.  The guest conductor was nice enough to stop the performance and wait for me to climb back on stage, giving more meaning to the phrase, “my last shred of dignity.”

  • High school is when intent and action often diverge. As a supporting actor in the senior play I seemed to have a natural gift for “stealing scenes” from the lead actors by randomly moving around  the set while they were talking. I think I heard my drama coach comment under her breath that my performance was “never to be duplicated.”

  • In a pattern that suggests mastery of the form, a few times over my 45 years of teaching I’ve managed to show up a week early for a committee meeting.  It’s always good to check out a room before an important gathering.

  • I’m most proud of the “magic” set I had as a teenager, and the opportunity it provided to plant a tiny explosive in one of my father’s cigarettes.  As intended, it went off when he lit up.  That it exploded in the middle of a business meeting in his office was not an outcome I anticipated.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was doing my part to combat the effects of secondhand smoke.

Who said that all stunts have to go off as planned?  I’d argue for a broader definition; a stunt is sometimes whatever happens.  Planning for specific outcomes can be overrated and–more than we might wish–beyond our grasp.  The perfect response is always a goal. But sometimes we just have to accept events, like the concert that literally brought my inflated teenage ego back to earth.