The Science of Coming On Too Strong

As any recently imprisoned celebrity stalker can tell you, there is such a thing as trying too hard to convince somebody to give you something. But what if your attempts at persuasion don’t cross legal boundaries? Is there a point at which your efforts become counter-productive? According to a new study led by Dartmouth’s Daniel Feiler, the answer is yes.

In general, humans don’t like to have their behavior controlled by others, and the result is that we have an aversion to being persuaded. This is one reason why advice about persuasion often involves the idea of leading somebody to a conclusion, but making them think they got there on their own. Feiler and his colleagues wanted to know if providing additional reasons to do something could increase awareness that a persuasion attempt was occurring, and thus make somebody less likely to do it. Specifically, the researchers examined whether combining egoistic (“this makes you feel good”) and altruistic (“this helps other people”) reasons for giving money to charity would lead to fewer donations than if a single reason was provided. In a series of three experiments, that’s exactly what they found.

We propose that mixing egoistic and altruistic reasons reduces the likelihood of giving by increasing individuals’ awareness that a persuasion attempt is occurring, which elicits psychological reactance. In Experiment 1, university alumni were less likely to give money to their alma mater when an electronic donation request emphasized both egoistic and altruistic reasons, compared to either reason alone. In Experiment 2, undergraduates reported lower giving intentions when a donation request emphasized an altruistic and an egoistic reason, compared to either altruistic or egoistic reasons alone. In Experiment 3, undergraduates reported lower intentions to give to the Make-A-Wish Foundation when the donation request featured both egoistic and altruistic reasons; this effect was mediated in two stages by increased persuasion awareness and heightened psychological reactance.

The takeaway is that it’s worth considering the number of different arguments you make when attempting to persuade somebody. It turns out that the conflicting nature of egoistic and altruistic arguments makes combining them particularly likely to set off persuasion alarms, but even loading up on arguments that are more complementary could backfire. That’s not to say you should withhold half your work history during a job interview or cut back on the arguments for why your client should be acquitted, but in certain situations, particularly when asking people for favors, it may be best to simplify your case and avoid looking like you’re there to persuade.

Of course the truly significant thing about the study is that we now know saying “Help me, help you” is just about the worst way to persuade somebody to do something. It manages to make both egoistic and altruistic arguments in only four words.
Feiler, D., Tost, L., & Grant, A. (2012). Mixed reasons, missed givings: The costs of blending egoistic and altruistic reasons in donation requests Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.05.014


3 Responses to The Science of Coming On Too Strong

  1. Misaki says:

    I think this ties into another post about how gifts in a one-sided relationship decrease trust. Displaying too much information is, in a way, a form of power and attempts to show “clear benefit” from a course of action. This is, of course, the same thing that advertisements try to do. Maybe the results would be different for someone from a less complicated culture..?

    In a similar sense, the “opportunity” to do something which helps you and others could be seen as a gift.

    “Unwanted favours gain no gratitude.”

    The information in this post seems like a useful thing for people to remember.

  2. Pingback: Get out of my head you nonprofit fundraising witch doctor!

  3. Pingback: Can Flip-Flopping Make You More Persuasive? - Peer-reviewed by my neurons | Peer-reviewed by my neurons

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