Friday, 25 May 2012

Don’t Take No For An Answer

Dealing effectively with objections can be more powerful than other standard methods of persuasion.
You ask someone for a favour and they say no. Where do you go from there?
According to two experiments conducted by Boster and colleagues, you ask: "Why not?", then try to deal with the objections (Boster et al., 2009).
The key is transforming the 'no' from a flat refusal into an obstacle to be surmounted. If you can deal with the obstacle, the theory goes,your request is more likely to be granted.
Boster and colleagues tested this approach against these three other well-established methods of gaining compliance to a request:
  • Door-in-the-face (DITF): first you make a very large request which is easily turned down; this is where the metaphorical door is slammed in your face. But, then follow up straight away with a much smaller request which now, comparatively, looks very reasonable. This has been shown to substantially increase compliance.
  • Foot-in-the-door (FITD): better known as the 'low-ball' technique, this is the exact reverse of the door-in-the-face, in that you first ask for something small, then crank it up. Agreeing to the smaller request makes people more likely to agree to a second, larger request. The art is in judging the step up just right.
  • Placebo information (PI): this is when you give someone a reason, but not a very good one. Like you say: "Can I use the photocopier before you, because I have to make some copies?" This example was used in an experiment by Langer (1978) who found that for small requests it boosted compliance from 60% to 90%.
To test all these methods, the experimenters asked 60 random passers-by to look after a bicycle for 10 minutes. In their first test the why not? (WN?) method was compared with DITF and PI. While 20% complied using the DITF technique, 45% complied with the PI technique, but fully 60% complied with the WN? method. Statistically the WN? method beat DITF and was as good as PI.
A second experiment added the FITD technique as well. This time, though, 67 random participants walking down the street were approached and asked if they would be willing to give up some free time for a good cause. The WN? technique fared best, producing an average compliance rate of 50%, compared with 36% for DITF, 26% for FITD and 13% for PI.

Cognitive dissonance

We don't know from this research why the technique works so well in these situations, but Boster et al. wonder if it's because of persistence. Repeated requests give the impression of urgency and this may better target people's guilt and/or sympathy.
My favourite explanation, though, is to do with cognitive dissonance. This is the finding that we try to avoid inconsistencies in our thinking which cause us mental anguish. It feels dissonant—the two ideas butting up against each other—not to comply after objections have been effectively dealt with; after all, if there's no reason not to do it, why not do it?
Although this experiment doesn't test it, these techniques may well be even more powerful when used together, especially as 'why not?' can be tagged onto almost anything. The only down side of the WN? technique is that it requires the wit to dispel objections. Still, anticipating objections is a standard part of negotiation so many of these can be prepared in advance.
It might feel cheeky to keep asking 'why not?' when people refuse, but this experiment suggests it can be a powerful way to encourage compliance.

Friday, 18 May 2012

6 Types of Play: How We Learn to Work Together

The pioneering developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky thought that, in the preschool years, play is the leading source of development.
Through play children learn and practice many basic social skills. They develop a sense of self, learn to interact with other children, how to make friends, how to lie and how to role-play.
The classic study of how play develops in children was carried out by Mildred Parten in the late 1920s at the Institute of Child Development in Minnesota. She closely observed children between the ages of 2 and 5 years and categorised their play into six types.
Parten collected data by systematically sampling the children's behaviour. She observed them for pre-arranged 1 minute periods which were varied systematically (Parten, 1933).
The thing to notice is that the first four categories of play don't involve much interaction with others, while the last two do. While children shift between the types of play, what Parten noticed was that as they grew up, children participated less in the first four types and more in the last two - those which involved greater interaction.
  1. Unoccupied play: the child is relatively stationary and appears to be performing random movements with no apparent purpose. A relatively infrequent style of play.
  2. Solitary play: the child is are completely engrossed in playing and does not seem to notice other children. Most often seen in children between 2 and 3 years-old.
  3. Onlooker play: child takes an interest in other children's play but does not join in. May ask questions or just talk to other children, but the main activity is simply to watch.
  4. Parallel play: the child mimics other children's play but doesn't actively engage with them. For example they may use the same toy.
  5. Associative play: now more interested in each other than the toys they are using. This is the first category that involves strong social interaction between the children while they play.
  6. Cooperative play: some organisation enters children's play, for example the playing has some goal and children often adopt roles and act as a group.
Unlike Jean Piaget who saw children's play in primarily cognitive developmental terms, Parten emphasised the idea that learning to play is learning how to relate to others.
You can see more about Jean Piaget's theory of development on our blog in the article Child Development: Cognitive Developmental theory of Jean Piaget at 

Friday, 11 May 2012

New habits

How Long to Form a Habit?

Research reveals a curved relationship between practice and automaticity.

You want to create a new habit, whether it's taking more exercise, eating more healthily or writing a blog post every day, how often does it need to be performed before it no longer requires Herculean self-control?

Clearly it's going to depend on the type of habit you're trying to form and how single-minded you are in pursuing your goal. But are there any general guidelines for how long it takes before behaviours become automatic?
Ask Google and you'll get a figure of somewhere between 21 and 28 days. In fact there's no solid evidence for this number at all. The 21 day myth may well come from a book published in 1960 by a plastic surgeon. Dr Maxwell Maltz noticed that amputees took, on average, 21 days to adjust to the loss of a limb and he argued that people take 21 days to adjust to any major life changes.

Doing without thinking

Now, however, there is some psychological research on this question in a paper recently published in the European Journal of Social Psychology. Phillippa Lally and colleagues from University College London recruited 96 people who were interested in forming a new habit such as eating a piece of fruit with lunch or doing a 15 minute run each day Lally et al. (2009). Participants were then asked daily how automatic their chosen behaviours felt. These questions included things like whether the behaviour was 'hard not to do' and could be done 'without thinking'.
When the researchers examined the different habits, many of the participants showed a curved relationship between practice and automaticity of the form depicted below (solid line). On average a plateau in automaticity was reached after 66 days. In other words it had become as much of a habit as it was ever going to become.
This graph shows that early practice was rewarded with greater increases in automaticity and gains tailed off as participants reached their maximum automaticity for that behaviour.
Although the average was 66 days, there was marked variation in how long habits took to form, anywhere from 18 days up to 254 days in the habits examined in this study. As you'd imagine, drinking a daily glass of water became automatic very quickly but doing 50 sit-ups before breakfast required more dedication (above, dotted lines). The researchers also noted that:
  • Missing a single day did not reduce the chance of forming a habit.
  • A sub-group took much longer than the others to form their habits, perhaps suggesting some people are 'habit-resistant'.
  • Other types of habits may well take much longer.

No small change

What this study reveals is that when we want to develop a relatively simple habit like eating a piece of fruit each day or taking a 10 minute walk, it could take us over two months of daily repetitions before the behaviour becomes a habit. And, while this research suggests that skipping single days isn't detrimental in the long-term, it's those early repetitions that give us the greatest boost in automaticity.
Unfortunately it seems there's no such thing as small change: the much-repeated 21 days to form a habit is a considerable underestimation unless your only goal in life is drinking glasses of water.

Friday, 4 May 2012

SMILE -All the benefits

People are always smiling, especially in groups, but it doesn't just signal that they're happy, far from it. We use smiles for specific social purposes because they can send out all sorts of signals that can be useful for us.

1. Get others to trust you

In a world where everyone is out for themselves, who should we trust? One signal that suggests we are trustworthy is a smile. Genuine smiles send a message that other people can trust and cooperate with us. People who smile are rated higher in both generosity and extraversion and when people share with each other they tend to display genuine smiles (Mehu et al., 2007).
Economists even consider that smiles have a value. In one study by Scharlemann et al. (2001) participants were more likely to trust another person if they were smiling. This study found that a smile increased people's willingness to trust by about 10%.

2. Smile for leniency

When people do bad things they often smile when they are caught. Is this to their benefit?
According to a study conducted by LaFrance and Hecht (1995), it can be. We treat people who've broken the rules with more leniency if they smile afterwards. It doesn't matter whether it's a false smile, a miserable smile or a real felt smile, they all work to make us want to give the transgressor a break.
This seems to work because we find people who smile after breaking the rules more trustworthy than those who don't.

3. Recover from social slip-ups

Did you forget to buy your partner an anniversary present? Has an important client's name slipped your mind? Have you accidentally kicked a small child? If you've tripped on a social banana, embarrassment is your go-to emotion.
The function of embarrassment is to get us out of tight social spots (Keltner & Buswell, 1997). The embarrassed smiles we display involve looking down and sometimes we emit a silly little laugh. This is designed to elicit fellow-feeling from other people so they think less of the slip and forgive us more quickly.
So the embarrassed smile helps us get out of jail free(ish). Once again, the power of a smile.

4. Because otherwise I'll feel bad

Sometimes we smile both because it's polite and so that we can avoid feeling bad afterwards. Like when someone enthuses about how they saved a small amount of money with a coupon they found down the back of the sofa. It hardly seems to warrant a smile but you muster one anyway because it's polite.
In one study people were asked to remain stony-faced after hearing someone else's good news (LaFrance, 1997). They felt bad afterwards and thought the other person would think worse of them as a result.
So we nod and smile politely because otherwise we'll regret it afterwards. Women, though, seem to feel this pressure to smile at the happy news of others more than men.

5. Laugh off the hurt

Smiling is one way to reduce the distress caused by an upsetting situation. Psychologists call this the facial feedback hypothesis. Even forcing a smile when we don't feel like it is enough to lift our mood slightly (this is one example of embodied cognition).
A word of warning: smiling at upsetting things may work but it doesn't look good to others. When Ansfield (2007) had participants viewing distressing videos, those who smiled felt better afterwards than those who didn't. But people who smiled at distressing images were judged less likeable by others.

6. Grin for insight

When we're nervous our attention tends to narrow. We stop noticing what's going on around the edges and only see what's right in front of us. This is true in both a literal and a metaphorical sense: when nervous or stressed we're less likely to notice ideas that are at the edge of our consciousness. But to gain insight into a problem, it's often precisely these peripheral ideas we need.
Cue a smile.
Smiling makes us feel good which also increases our attentional flexibility and our ability to think holistically. When this idea was tested by Johnson et al. (2010), the results showed that participants who smiled performed better on attentional tasks which required seeing the whole forest rather than just the trees.
So a smile really can help give us a burst of insight.

7. Smile for sex

A woman's smile has a magical effect on men, over and above eye contact. One study examined how men approached women in a bar (Walsh & Hewitt, 1985). When a woman only established eye contact with a man, she was approached 20% of the time. When the same woman added a smile, though, she was approached 60% of the time.
When men smile at women, though, the effect is less magical. While smiling increases women's attractiveness to men, it doesn't work so well the other way around. Indeed there's some evidence men look more attractive to women when displaying pride or even shame, than when they look happy (Tracy & Beall, 2011). Less smiling makes a man look more masculine.

8. Hide what you really think

Psychologists used to think that a genuine smile never lies. Fake smiles involve only the mouth, while real smiles—called Duchenne smiles by psychologists—reach up to the eyes. Recent research, though, suggests that 80% of people can fake the crinkly eyes central to a Duchenne smile (see Duchenne: Key to a Genuine Smile?).
So smiles can be used to hide what we really think, but it's still not easy to fake a real smile because they have to be timed correctly. A key to a trustworthy smile is that it has a slow onset, i.e. it takes about half a second to spread across the face. One piece of research has found that in comparison to a fast onset smile (about a tenth of a second to spread), slow onset smiles are judged more trustworthy, authentic and even more flirtatious (see: A Slow Smile Attracts).

9. Smile to make money

We've already seen that economists have calculated the value of a smile, but can a smile make us real cash-money? Apparently the broad smile of a waitress can: Tidd and Lockard (1978) found smiling waitresses made more in tips (there's no study on waiters).
More generally people in service industries, like flight attendants or those in entertainment and hospitality are effectively paid to smile at customers. But, watch out, a constant mismatch between felt and displayed emotion—called emotional labour by psychologists—can be exhausting, possibly leading to job burnout.
A smile may make money, but it can also be draining.

10. Smile and (half) the world smiles with you

One of the simple social pleasures of life, which goes almost unnoticed because it's automatic, is when you smile at someone and they smile back.
As you'll have noticed, though, not everyone does smile back. Hinsz and Tomhave (1991) wanted to see what proportion of people would respond to a smile aimed at them with their own smile. Their results suggest around 50% of people reciprocate. In comparison almost no one responds to a frown with their own frown.

Smile for longevity

If none of these studies can coax a smile out of you then consider this: people who smile more may live longer. A study of pictures taken of baseball players in 1952 suggests those smiling outlived their non-smiling counterparts by seven years (Abel & Kruger, 2010).