Tag Archive for: Dan Ariely

Those Pesky Deadlines!

Don’t you just hate looming deadlines? Most people do because stress levels rise and quite often other things have to go by the wayside in an effort to complete the task with the deadline. I bet you just wish you could go without those pesky deadlines, especially those imposed by others, right? Actually, that might work against your best interests.

Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist from Duke and author of several books including The Upside of Irrationality, looked at ways students respond to deadlines. He divided his students into three groups. One had no deadlines other than turn in three papers by a certain date near the end of the semester. Another group got to choose their due date or dates. You see, they could have chosen to submit all three papers on the last possible day or they could set up any dates of their choosing throughout the semester. Most set their own timetables and didn’t default to the last possible date. A third group was given deadlines by Ariely.

Which group do you think did best on their grades? Logically it should have been those who could wait till the last day because that meant they could spend more time on each paper. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. In fact, as a group they did the worst on their grades. Procrastination usually isn’t helpful.

The group that got to choose their due dates performed better than those who had no due date other than the last day. Apparently some pressure was a good thing and procrastination was held at bay a little.

The group that did the best was the students who had three deadlines imposed on them by the professor. Apparently humans respond well when called to do so.

I had a chance to put this into practice over the summer. I was approached by to do a sales video that entailed writing 18-20 scripts that would last approximately five minutes each. That’s basically 18-20 blog posts on top of what I already write. I consider myself very self-disciplined but I know I can also become complacent at times.

So what did I do? My strategy was to discuss the situation with my contact at and get her to impose some deadlines on me. It worked well because I was able to get everything done in about six weeks, which was mush faster than she expected. It was a relief for me, too.

Why are deadlines typically so effective? Because they tap into the principle of scarcity. When deadlines loom we know there may be something to lose (a bonus or raise at work, a good grade at school, etc.) and that compels us to take action.

What does this mean for you? The next time you have something that needs to get done and you ask when it’s due, don’t settle for, “Whenever you get around to it.” Whomever you’re dealing with might be laid back but that “freedom” will probably hurt you in the end. Instead tell the other person you want a due date and some milestone dates before you start. Not only does that tap into scarcity, it engages the principle of consistency. When you publicly agree to the due date and milestone dates, you engage the principle on yourself because you’ll feel more compelled to hit those dates. It’s almost like having an accountability partner.

Here’s one more things about deadlines that might surprise you. People say they hate gift cards with expiration dates. They think it’s not fair because the company that sold the gift card gets to keep the money regardless of whether or not you buy anything. But, you might be surprised to learn that gift cards without expiration dates are used less than those with expiration dates! When you know the card will expire you tend to use it so you don’t waste it. However, when cards don’t have expiration dates they tend to get lost, forgotten about and all too often go unused.

So the next time you encounter a pesky deadline, maybe you should step back and remember this post then give thanks that you’ll be more likely to do what you need to in short order.

Persuasive Marketing the Old Fashioned Way

People often ask me if Robert Cialdini’s principles of influence are as effective today as they were when he first wrote about them 30 years ago. I emphatically reply, “Yes!”

The methods of communication may be changing – email instead of letters, text or instant messaging instead of phone calls, online advertising instead of television commercials, to name a few – but humans have not evolved nearly as much in the last century.

The human brain has not changed as rapidly as technology so you can rest assured the principles of influence work every bit as well today as in the past IF you understand them and employ them correctly.

Even though the preferred methods of communication may be changing, things like television ads, phone calls and letters are not going away any time soon so the smart marketer will be looking to use the principles with traditional media during this transition.

A friend recently gave me a marketing letter he received from AT&T because he knew I’d be interested in it from a persuasion perspective. I’d like to point out several places where AT&T is effectively using influence.

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At the top the letter had my friend’s name – John – which personalized the communication. Dale Carnegie said the sweetest sound to anyone is the sound of their own name. Our name catches our attention and that’s the marketer’s opportunity to keep you reading.

In the opening paragraph it reads, “Per your request…” Closely read the letter and you’ll realize it isn’t directed to the person who received the letter. It’s written to David Banks of AT&T’s Consumer Marketing Department. Like most people reading something like this I didn’t pay close attention so it took me a couple of reads to figure that out.

If the person reading the letter assumes it’s directed at them then “Per your request” taps into consistency. This principle tells us people feel psychological pressure to be consistent in what they say and do. If you requested something it’s much more likely you’ll take time to read the rest of the letter and consider the offer.

The next paragraph mentions a number of free offers. People love free to the point of irrationality. Dan Ariely wrote about our obsession with free in Predictably Irrational. One example Ariely frequently cites is how often people purchase additional items on Amazon just to get the free shipping. In the end they spend much more money!

Being offered the free items up front is an attempt to engage reciprocity although it doesn’t actually do it in this letter because unless you take AT&T up on the offer you’ve not received anything. It’s only when you get something that you feel obligated to do something in return. Nonetheless, a potential free offer keeps the reader interested.

The fourth paragraph reads, “We don’t want John to miss out on this great deal.” This is the principle of scarcity. People hate the thought of losing out, especially on great deals, so it motivates behavior that wouldn’t otherwise happen.

At the bottom of the page the “Reviewed” stamp adds an element of authority. As noted above, the letter is to David Banks from AT&T’s Consumer Marketing Department and the stamp shows he reviewed and approved the offer.

Last but not least is the “hand written” yellow sticky note affixed to the top of the letter. In a blog post I called 700,000 Great Reasons to Use Sticky Notes, I went into detail about how using these little post it notes can dramatically increase response rates. This sticky note looks hand written and that engages reciprocity because the perception is that someone took a little more time to put the sticky note on the letter and more time to actually write the note.

Now you may be thinking this would never work on you and you might be correct. However, it works on enough people that AT&T and many other smart companies incorporate this type of psychology into their communications. If it didn’t work they’d quickly abandon approaches like this in search of others that do work.

Using the principles of influence won’t make a bad product good or a lousy offer better. But, in a day and age where we’re assaulted thousands of times a day with marketing messages, small tweaks to communications might be the things that grab attention and keep people reading. And that’s the goal of marketing because in the absence of that, nobody would take AT&T up on an offer like the one you just read.

The Southwest Airlines Love Affair is over and it’s Completely Irrational

Yes, you read that correctly; my 12 year love affair with Southwest Airlines is over and truthfully, it’s irrational on my part and Southwest’s too. Perhaps you could say we have irreconcilable differences.

Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality, uses studies from behavioral economists to prove we humans are not the rational beings we like to think we are…at least most of the time. One such study that highlights our irrationality is the ultimatum game.

In the ultimatum game, person A is given $10 and can choose to give any amount to a playing partner, person B, and keep the rest for himself or herself. How much would you give person B? Is $1 enough? After all, that’s better than nothing. Would you give $4 or $5? That seems like something a fair-minded individual would do. How about $6 or $7? It’s a rare person who would give away more than they would keep.

There’s a catch to the game; person B can reject the whole deal – meaning neither side gets to keep any of the money – if they don’t like what’s being offered.

Things change rather dramatically under conditions of perceived fairness. Person A almost always offers $4 or $5 in hopes of being viewed as fair because that usually leads to agreement. When agreement is reached everybody wins because both parties leave better off financially than they were before the game started.

If you think about it rationally though, if you were offered $1 that’s better than nothing and yet the vast majority of people don’t view it that way. If something “fair” isn’t offered, person B will almost always reject it…even to their own financial detriment.

Consider that for a moment – people willingly subject themselves to “injury” (take no money instead of a few free bucks) just to punish the other person when they feel they’re being treated unfairly. You need look no further than divorce court to see this play out in real life!

How does this impact Southwest and me? I fly a good bit but recently learned I had lost my A-List status with Southwest. When I called to find out why, I was told I needed 25 flights in 2015 but only had…24. I thought it reasonable to ask for an exception given my loyalty, increased flights in recent years, and because I had a December business trip I needed to reschedule till this spring. I’d be hard pressed to think of a handful of times I’ve flown other airlines the past five years and when I have it’s because I traveled with colleagues who had already booked flights.

My request was rejected three times at various levels over the phone and one last time after writing a letter. The reason Southwest wouldn’t budge was “to maintain the integrity of the [frequent flier] program.” I was shocked given the level of customer service I’d experienced with Southwest and my loyalty over the past dozen years. I would have expected that response from many other companies but not my beloved Southwest!

Being a persistent guy I finally emailed CEO Gary Kelly (you’ll never hear “Yes” if don’t ask, right?). At each level Southwest dug their heels and now I have, too, because I’ve made the choice to take at least a couple of flights on other airlines this year. It’s irrational because Southwest flights are almost always on time, their flight attendants are great, and the more I fly the better my chances at getting my coveted A-List status back. But like the person who feels they were treated unfairly in the ultimatum game, I don’t care!

For Southwest’s part, they could have made a loyal customer even more loyal by saying, “Mr. Ahearn, seldom do we make an exception like this but we can see you’re a loyal customer and we appreciate your business so we’ll do it this one time. Will you still be flying with us every chance you get?” Boom! I would have been happy and would have told them I’d absolutely fly Southwest at every chance. And you know what, I would have, because they would have used the principles of scarcity, reciprocity, and consistency on me at the same time. Making such an exception would have cost them almost nothing other than letting me to accrue frequent flier miles 25% faster. That benefit equates to me getting a free ticket 25% sooner which might cost Southwest about $100 assuming a I earn a $400 round trip ticket a year.

So Southwest has made an irrational choice, too, because when I choose to fly other airlines, Southwest will lose more revenue than they would have “given up” if they’d simply accommodated my request.

Much like the ultimatum game, there comes a point when everyone loses despite their best effort to persuade the other side. In this instance I lose and Southwest loses too. But, we’re all human after all so I’m sure it’s not the last time Southwest will stick to their guns nor will it be my last time to stick to mine.

Cecil the Lion – Why the Outpouring of Sympathy?

Across the globe there has been outrage expressed over the illegal killing of Cecil the Lion. It’s been front and center in the news and all over social media. It’s led to the outing of the Minnesota dentist, his business address and even death threats. So why is there such outrage over an animal’s death when innocent people are killed every day and some in much more horrific fashion?

We don’t value lions inherently because they’re beautiful creatures. Indeed, not too long ago those who hunted them as big game were revered. President Teddy Roosevelt, an avid hunter, was one such man. We’re concerned about Cecil more because the principle of scarcity alerts us to the reality that we value things more when they’re rare or diminishing.

At this point in time, with lions being an endangered species, we fear losing these creatures for good.

Did you know in Chicago, 238 people have been shot and killed from January through July of this year? Think about that for a moment – 238 people (fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters) dead. Why isn’t there more outrage over that? As the brutal Russian dictator Joseph Stalin once said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” The sad reality is we become numb to large numbers.

Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, cites studies that highlight this reality.

It would seem rational that people would give more to help a cause when they realize how big the problem is but that’s not the case. People do not donate as much to a cause when the magnitude is highlighted versus individualizing it. By that I mean, telling people hundreds or thousands of people need help will not be as effective in soliciting donations as highlighting one individual who needs help. We can connect with an individual but highlighting the magnitude of a problem can seem so overwhelming that one person’s effort can’t possibly make much of a difference.

Something else to consider is that humans have a capacity to normalize things like death. Victor Frankl’s classic book Man’s Search for Meaning shows this. A survivor of four different concentration camps, Frankl talks about how he and others became less and less affected by the death and destruction around them.

Had they felt the weight of each death it would have been too overwhelming so their response in many ways was a survival mechanism.

And some people wonder why we would ever care more about an animal than a human. That goes back thousands of years. Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees for healing a man on the Sabbath. He scolded them saying they would pull an ox out of a ditch on the Sabbath but helping a man was far more important.

Lastly, we value some animals more than others because with some animals we have more of a connection. Lions are the “king of the jungle” and have become more than an animal through shows like The Lion King and The Chronicles of Narnia. The same could be said of other animals such as pigs (Miss Piggy from The Muppets or Babe from the movie with the same name) and dogs (man’s best friend).

So what’s the point in this post? Simply to enlighten you a little on the psychology behind the response to Cecil’s death and the questions that are being asked about the deaths of other animals, individuals and groups of people. Our responses to these tragedies don’t always make sense from a logical perspective but it’s how we’re wired.

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count Just a Few Ways

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” is a famous line from an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem. Counting the reasons you love someone (or like a friend, enjoy your car, prefer a certain store, etc.) is only good advice if you don’t have to count too high. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say don’t have people count past one hand. Allow me to explain.

I’ve been rereading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. If you want a great overview of how your subconscious and conscious minds work then you’ll want to pick up his book. He touches on our irrationality, similar to Dan Ariely’s work in Predictably Irrational, heuristics (click-whir responses) as mentioned by Robert Cialdini in his classic Influence Science and Practice, as well as many other concepts about how our minds work.

As I’ve been reading I’m struck by the reality that our minds work in ways that are quite often opposite of what we might expect. For example, who would be more persuaded to buy a BMW? The person who is asked to list a dozen reasons BMWs are great cars or the person who is asked to list just three reasons? Most people would intuitively guess the person who lists a dozen reasons. After all, if you can come up with 12 reasons it must be a good car, especially when considered against just three reasons. Unfortunately you’d be wrong.

In several different studies cited in Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman clearly show people who are asked to generate fewer reasons are more persuaded than those who have to come up with many more. Why is this the case? If you can easily come up with three reasons you are probably pretty confident a BMW is an excellent car. However, if asked to come up with lots more, and you do so but struggle in the process, you start to wonder if the BMW is really as good as you think. The struggle allows doubt to creep in.

This feature of thinking is common to all people. When we can quickly come up with a few reasons we are for gay marriage or against it, for a political candidate or against the candidate, for tax increases on the wealthy or against them, or for or against anything else, we will be even more confident that our position (for or against) is the correct decision. However, if asked to list many more reasons we might just wonder how strong our case really is.

Pause to consider this if you happen to be in marketing or sales. Inundating people with reasons your product or service is the best might not work as well as hammering home three to five reasons because your prospective customer will probably easily recall two or three of those reasons. However, a laundry list of why your offer is so great will only work against you!

There’s a saying, “Sometimes less is more,” and it’s certainly the case when you want someone to believe your product or service is the right one for him or her. By the same token, when it comes to love, “How do I love the? Let me count the ways,” will work much better if you save your loved one some time and energy and just ask them to tell you two or three things they love about you!

Free is Great Except When We Don’t Want What’s Being Offered

Normally people go nuts for free stuff. It
seems like ads touting “Buy one get one free,” or “25% more for free” cause
shoppers to almost salivate. I bet you’ve been places where things were being
given away for free and you found yourself taking items (pens, card holders,
travel mugs, post it notes, etc.) that ended up in the trashcan within weeks of
getting home. And still, we take the goods because they’re free. After all, you
can’t loose by taking advantage of free…or can you?
Have you ever ordered something on Amazon for
less than $25 then found yourself ordering another book or item just to bump
you over the threshold in order to take advantage of the free shipping? I bet
you have and you probably ended up spending $33-$38 in total. Sure, you
convinced yourself you needed that extra book or CD but in reality you would
not have purchased it were it not for the enticement of the free shipping.
Dan Ariely highlights our obsession with “free”
things in his book Predictably Irrational
in a chapter he calls “The Cost of Zero Cost: Why We Often Pay Too Much When We
Pay Nothing.” He convincingly shows readers sometimes they end up worse off
because of free.
The obsession with free has its limits and
this came to light recently with Apple’s promotion with the Irish rock band U2.
It seemed innocent enough, and generous of Apple and U2, to have the band’s
latest album, Songs of Innocence,
automatically added to the iTunes library of some 500 million people.
Unfortunately for both, many subscribers didn’t appreciate the free album and
voiced their opinion rather loudly on social media. In fact, there was an
article titled Free U2 album: How the most
generous giveaway in music history turned PR disaster
. Ouch!
I think what was missed by Apple and U2 in
their well-intentioned giveaway was this – free isn’t really free if it’s not
freely chosen. While there may have been no purchase cost for the album, people
lost their freedom to choose whether or not they wanted to add it to their
libraries. In other words, forced isn’t free no matter how good the intention.
What should they have done instead? In my
opinion offering the album for free for a limited time would have enticed many
people to take advantage of the giveaway. Think about it; U2 is an iconic band
that’s done a lot of good for people across the globe through charitable work
that could only have come about because of their fans. They could have
positioned the opportunity for the free album as their way of saying thanks. I’m
sure each band member is probably set for life financially so they don’t need
the money and could have really made a splash.
By putting a timeframe on it they would have
engaged the principle scarcity, which would have caused many people to want the album even
more and act quickly. This is important because when things are free and
abundant we usually don’t value them nearly as much as when they are restricted
in some way. Think about air and water. Without air we die within minutes and
without water we won’t survive for very long either. There may not be two
things more necessary for life and yet they are an afterthought for most
people…until they’re in short supply. When that happens we’d pay more for
either than just about anything else in the world because our lives might be at
I don’t think Apple or U2 deserved the intense
backlash they got but let it be a lesson to all of us – no matter how beloved
we, our company, our products/services, may be, never infringe on people’s
freedom to choose. Understanding that and correctly positioning a gift could
make all the difference in how it’s received and how we’re perceived.
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Chief Influence Officer
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.


Influencers from Around the World – Thinking Hurts!

This month’s guest blogger in the Influencers from Around the World series is Cathrine Moestue. Cathrine emailed me her article all the way from Norway! She one of the 27 Cialdini Method Certified Trainers (CMCT) in the world today! If you’d like to connect with Cathrine you can do so on FacebookLinkedIn and Twitter. I know you’ll enjoy “Thinking Hurts!”

Brian, CMCT
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.
Thinking Hurts!
Remember the love song from the Scottish rock band Nazareth called ”Love Hurts” from 1975?  Well it turns out more good things in life hurt too, like thinking. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel  Prize winner in economics, in his latest book Thinking Fast and Slow, explains why thinking hurts – we have two systems in our brains. He calls them rather simplisticly ”system one” and ”system two.” System one is fast, intuitive, and emotional whereas System 2 is slower, more deliberate, and more logical.
Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities – and also the faults and biases – of fast thinking, and reveals the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and behavior. We are not rational decision makers but highly influenced not only by external stimuli but by our very own way of thinking.
Our biases become evident when we are overconfident about our corporate strategies. We are greatly affected by loss aversion, and our cognitive biases have a profound effect when we invest in the stock market. However, even more importantly they explain why we are faced with challenges of properly framing risks we encounter at work and even when it comes to our national security!
Recently  Norwegians were presented with evidence of how painful our cognitive biases can be. Last week an offical report stated the Norwegian police could have prevented the bombing of central Oslo and caught mass killer Anders Breivik faster than they did. Presenting the almost 500-page report, the inquiry team questioned why the street outside the prime minister’s office, Grubbegata, was not closed to traffic as had been recommended seven years before.
Even our prime minister knew it was a security risk but somehow he couldn’t make a descion to do anything about it. Something else must have been seen as more important, or maybe he thought someone else took responsibility for it. Either way it seems like a classic example of system one thinking, where self-defense prevails, and in reality not much thinking is actually being done at all. Our prime minister is only human and this issue concerns us all. We are blind to our own blindness about our how we think.
The report also notes that a two-man local police team reached the lake shore at Utvika first, but chose to wait for better-trained colleagues rather than find a boat and cross to Utoeya themselves. This waiting cost many lives, and the “Clint Eastwood” mentality was nowhere to be seen, unfortunatley.
When the consequences are not just loss of money, but the loss of lives, young lives at that, the knowledge of influence and decision making becomes rather more urgent, rather more pressing.
The good news is that raising our awareness of the  principles of influence (the shortcuts we use while making desicions) combined with understanding the process of thinking  (system one and two) we have a powerful new tool. A tool that we can use to become more effective in any organization.
Even though the report mentioned here can be seen as a national humiliation there is one Norwegian company that really glows in the dark; the architectural firm Snøhetta (named after one of Norway’s tallest mountains). Fast Company ranked them on its list of the worlds most innovative companies in 2011 and the company has won culturally significant, emotionally powerful commissions such as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, in Egypt, the new 9/11 museum pavilion at New York’s Ground Zero; and the redesign of Times Square. This Oslo and New York based company has really taken seriously that thinking hurts.


If you are the most innovative architectural company in the world you do not have a choice, you have to get out of your mentally lazy state, out of the comfort zone, out of the box thinking and into system two where creativity lies.

Snøhetta has created a method of putting itself in other people’s shoes; it fools its system one by approaching any new project with a change in roles.

The architect must think like the artist, the artist must think like the architect, the economist must think like the sociologist and vice versa. When you hire Snøhetta, in other words, you don’t purchase a signature building (though you’ll probably get one in the end). You buy into a line of thinking, and a process that aims to place equal emphasis on architecture, landscape and social engagement. It is this flexibility of thought and of cooperation between departments we all have something to learn from.


Thinking, Fast and Slow is not only a unique book but also part of an intellectual revolution in which social psychological ideas have a profound influence on politics and economists, at least in some countries. Robert Cialdini’s seminal book Influence Science and Practice has been credited for being the key mover of this thought revolution. Indeed, Cialdini, along with a team of behavioral economists including Dan Ariely, Cal Sunstein and Daniel Kahneman, was called on by Barack Obama to help him win the presidency in 2008. I only wish our government had been as foresighted. Thinking hurts but if we want to improve we better get into the habit. The “No Pain – No Gain” slogan seems to be true for sport, business and politics.

Cathrine Moestue, CMCT


An Interesting Thing Happened on the Way to Work…

An interesting thing happened on the way to work a few weeks ago. Highways running through downtown Columbus are undergoing major reconstruction so traffic patterns have changed, lanes are restricted and many familiar exits are closed. It makes for a much more tense morning drive than normal.

As I was getting close to my exit I saw a large red truck coming up the left hand lane and it was apparent the driver was going to drive up as far as possible before cutting over to the right a couple of lanes to make the exit. I have no patience for people who continually barge ahead to save a few minutes at the expense of the rest of us who patiently and safely wait our turn. I was fairly close to the truck and my thought was, “He’s not getting in front of me.”
When it came time for him to make his move he did exactly what I thought he’d do. And what did I do? I let him in … and felt okay about it despite my initial angst. This all happened because a principle of influence suddenly made me react differently than I expected to.
The red truck had a Semper Fi sticker on the back and some other Marine stickers so it was apparent the driver served in the military at one time. I was not a Marine but my dad was, having served in Vietnam in the mid-60s. Also, my neighbor Dan, whom I’ve known since he was about three years old, is a Marine who did a tour in Afghanistan not too long ago. And to top it all off, my daughter Abigail loves the Marines because her grandpa served and Dan is like a big brother to her.
All of this ran through my mind in an instant and suddenly I found my attitude and intended behavior toward the other driver changed. It all had to do with the principle of liking. This principle tells us people prefer to say “Yes” to those they know and like. Oftentimes liking is initiated through something as simple as finding similarity with another person. While I wasn’t a Marine, as noted above, I have a special place for them in my heart. When I meet someone who is or was a Marine I always tell them I’m the son of a Marine. So you can see there’s a common bond there.
This shows us just how powerful liking is because I already shared I didn’t appreciate his driving behavior. Quite often the principles of influence override our logical thinking and change our behavior. When I explain this to people sometimes they resist the idea that something outside their conscious compelled them to do something. We want to believe we’re fully in control of our decision making and actions but in reality we’re not. Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational and more recently The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, explores in detail how we’re not logical beings and he shares many experiments in his books to back up that claim.
In Robert Cialdini’s best selling book, Influence Science and Practice, he points out several studies that show the influence liking has on sales. For example, when it comes to Tupperware sales, the social bond (i.e., liking) has twice as much impact on the decision to purchase than does the actual product preference. When it comes to insurance sales Cialdini wrote, “One researcher who examined the sale records of insurance companies found that customers were more likely to buy insurance when a salesperson was like them in age, religion, politics, and cigarette-smoking habits.” In each case, Tupperware or insurance, I’m certain a good number of people buying would adamantly deny the influence of liking but it’s hard to explain away the results.
I’m not going to encourage you to put bumper stickers on your car to let the world know your likes, dislikes and associations. Instead take this simple advice; when you get ready to meet someone, do a little homework to get to know them beforehand. When you learn you have things in common make sure you raise them to the surface early in the conversation because you never know, you may spot something like I did with the Marine and that might make all the difference between them saying “Yes” instead of “No.”

Brian, CMCT
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.

Why 1 in 3 Americans Might be Cheating on their Taxes

This is the second time in recent months I’ve found myself riding the coattails of Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality and most recently, The Honest Truth about Dishonesty.

With the approach of April 17, the last day to file taxes  in the United States, Ariely wrote a blog post on Taxes and Cheating. There’s an old saying from Ben Franklin, “There are only two certainties in life, death and taxes,” and apparently people would like to “cheat” both.
Cheating on taxes was in the headlines several years ago because Tim Geithner, Treasury Secretary for the United States, was questioned by Congress for failing to pay about $40,000 in taxes while he worked for the International Monetary Fund. On the surface it’s easy to conclude if people see someone cheating on their taxes they’re more likely to do so as well but is that supported by hard evidence? This question prompted Ariely and colleagues to conduct a little experiment to see if more people would cheat when they saw others cheating.
I’ll leave to you to read Ariely’s blog post on the subject if you want details on the experiment but for our purposes I’ll simply note the results – people cheated more when they saw others cheat. And, there was more likelihood of cheating when the cheaters were similar in some way (i.e., went to the same college) to those who observed them cheating.
If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, Ariely’s conclusion should not surprise you because it’s simply an application of Robert Cialdini’s principle of consensus, otherwise known as social proof or peer pressure. This principle of influence tells us we are influenced by the actions of others. The more people that are involved, the more we are influenced or the more similar we see those others to ourselves, the more we are influenced by their behavior.
For example, kids will be influenced to smoke when they see other people smoke, such as their parents. However, when teens have two or three friends who smoke, the odds that they’ll take up the bad habit are astronomically higher than the example set by parents. Why? Because they take their cues on how to act far more from their peers because they want to fit into that social group. Thus we get the term “peer pressure.”
Here’s another experiment to convince you. Trick-or-treaters in Seattle were observed on Halloween. When a single child came up to the door, he or she was told to only take one piece of candy; then the parent walked away. The child now has a dilemma; he knows what to do but also knows he could get away with taking more than one piece and no one will be the wiser. Only 7.5% broke the parent’s rule and took more than one piece of candy. Not bad.
It gets interesting when the kids came to the door in groups. With the same set of instructions, more than 20% of kids took extra candy! Why did the number almost triple? Simple; when that small percentage of kids who would take extra even if alone were observed by their friends, the friends decided they too should get more candy. This is a classic example of peer pressure that parents are always warning kids about.
It’s no coincidence that I posted this the day before Americans are supposed to have their taxes filed and paid this year. In 2001 it was estimated 30%-40% of Americans cheated on their taxes shortchanging the government about $345 billion and more recent estimates are still in that range! With record deficits we need every penny to pay down our debt but how can the government expect the average citizen to be honest if the person running the U.S. Treasury is either dishonest or too inept to understand the tax code? You and I can’t solve that one but at least we can be more cognizant of consensus in both how to ethically use it, and avoid its potential negative impact on us.
This wasn’t as taxing to write as you might think.
If you’re viewing this by email and want to listen to the audio version click here. If you want to leave a comment click here.

Brian, CMCT
Helping You Learn to Hear

Counteracting Liars, Cheaters and Thieves

 Did you know Britons are becoming less honest according to a recent study? This was brought to my attention in a blog post from Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality. This particular post caught my eye because he referred to people looking to their peers for behavioral cues when he wrote:
Researchers observed that while women were slightly more honest than men, the most appreciable differences were found among different age groups. Young people were significantly more tolerant of dishonest behavior than older people—for instance, only around 30% of people under age 25 thought lying on a job application was never justifiable as opposed to 55% of people over 65. Neither income level nor education affected levels of honesty.
The problem is that over time, if no one counteracts the spread of dishonesty, it is likely to continue. Because we generally look to our peers for cues on what kinds of behaviors are acceptable, if lying on job applications seems to be par for the course, it will increase in frequency. So does this mean that England will be governed by degenerates in a few decades? I guess we’ll see.
Something that will influence the direction of the county will be how the survey information is conveyed. Ariely’s reference to peers looking to others for cues on how to behave is the principle of consensus at work in rather dramatic fashion. It’s unfortunate but true that people will behave as they see others behaving. If kids see or learn about other kids cheating, many more will cheat because they believe they too can get away with it.
There was an interesting study done in the Seattle area with kids during Halloween. When trick-or-treaters came up to the door they were told to only take one piece of candy then the parent turned and walked away. When children were by themselves only 7.5% took more than one piece. However, when they were in groups, more than 20%, nearly triple, took more than they were supposed to. It was a classic case of kids looking to their peers then doing what they did. Billy might not have taken extra candy when he was alone but when he saw little Johnny take two or three pieces he decided to also.
Another application of consensus we’re all familiar with takes place on the highway. Have you ever come up to a sign that alerts you to the fact that there is construction ahead and lanes are merging? Most of the time drivers play nice and fall in line as soon as they can but every now and then someone gets impatient, pulls out of line and zooms to the front before darting into the last available opening. When that happens it always seems to give permission to other drivers to follow suit and in the end everyone waits in traffic even longer because of the impatient few.
Back to the study. Merely reporting how Britons are becoming less honest and showing rising numbers is likely to make the problem worse as more people consider actions they would not have otherwise — just like the kids in the Halloween study.
So how can concerned people possibly counteract this? If I were charged with reporting the findings, but not wanting to cause the problem to get worse, I might write something like this:
Neither income level nor education affected levels of honesty. Researchers observed that while women were slightly more honest than men, the appreciable differences are between younger and older Britons. Young people seem to be more tolerant of dishonest behavior than older people – for instance, only about 30% of people under age 25 thought lying on a job application was never justifiable. However, more than half (55%) of people over age 65 said lying on a job application was never justifiable.
One could conclude if no one counteracts the spread of dishonesty it is likely to continue and spread over time as the young become older and account for a great potion of the country’s population. But let’s pause for a moment
and reflect on older people’s view on the subject. Perhaps nearly twice as many older Britons view the same behavior as intolerable because they have more life experience and appreciate how society works better when people play by the rules. Maybe those young people who feel the need to grab what they want at any cost will come to the same conclusion their older, wiser fellow countrymen have come to. Only time will tell.
So here’s my persuasion advice: next time you have negative news to share about how a group or groups of people are behaving (lying, cheating, stealing, etc.) give pause to consider the following:
  • Will my presentation help or hurt in terms of encouraging the behavior?
  • How can I present the information in an accurate manner and enhance the social good at the same time?

Ultimately what needs to be shared is how people who are
doing things right, honestly and ethically, are behaving. The more people hear about and read about that socially beneficial behavior the more likely they are to conform to the good and not the bad so in the end we’re all better off.
If you’re viewing this by email and want to listen to the audio version click here. If you want to leave a comment click here.

Brian, CMCT
Helping You
Learn to Hear “Yes”.