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From The Blog

How to increase the odds of people doing what you want them to do

Benjamin Disraeli once said that ‘there are lies, damned lies and statistics’. By which he meant that you can manipulate just about any set of figures to make them sound far more impressive. Over the years, marketing people have exploited this technique many times to beef up a proposition.

For instance, there’s a well-known brand of cat food that eight out of ten owners say their cat prefers. That sounds like 80% of cats prefer it. But, of course, it just means that 80% of the 100 or so cat owners who took part in the survey think their cats prefer it. In other words, less than 0.01% of all cat owners say that their cats prefer it. Not as impressive when the stats are presented this way, is it? Or am I just being catty?

Similarly, like me, a lot of you will be sitting on the edge of your sofa this Saturday hoping and praying for your balls to drop. You’ll no doubt be watching the lottery, whereas I’m just a late developer. Of course, by now, everyone knows that the odds of winning the jackpot are 14 million to one. Yet we still think it’s worth a punt. Statistically, there’s more chance of being eaten by a shark.

Even if you live in Harrogate.

One minute you’re sipping tea in Betty’s, the next minute all the crumpets have disappeared along with your lower limbs. It could happen. And it could be you.

So why do we buy lottery tickets so avidly when, for the organisers, it’s little more than a licence to print money? The answer is because it cleverly exploits a simple weakness in the way the human mind works. Called the ‘availability bias’, it’s the tendency that we have to judge probabilities on the basis of how easily examples come to mind. So it doesn’t matter that the odds of winning the lottery are very long - every week we hear about yet another lucky jackpot winner. Hence, we assume that we’re much more likely to win than we really are.

When I speak at conferences and ask delegates to guess the percentage of UK households consisting of a husband, wife and two children - a boy and a girl as per the photo - they always overestimate wildly. This is because they are so used to seeing the ‘typical’ nuclear family in TV dramas and in advertising they think it’s more common than it really is. The actual figure is less than 4%.

So how can you exploit the ‘availability bias’ to influence the behaviour of others? Well, you can start by reminding them how common it is to benefit from what you want them to do. For example: ‘Join the thousands whose eyesight has already been restored with laser eye surgery’ might be your slogan if you’re a laser eye surgeon. If you’re a tree surgeon this doesn’t work at all.

Of course, there’s always the exception to the rule. Luxury carmaker Ferrari announced recently that it would be managing the high demand for its cars by reducing the number it produced. Most companies would boast of increased productivity to keep pace with demand. But Ferrari’s priority is to protect exclusivity and thereby increase the value of its brand.

The good news is that there’s still more chance of you owning one than winning the lottery.


The Psychology of Sales. To Discount or not to Discount?

Every January, many of us make New Year’s resolutions promising to change our behaviour, often to a healthier lifestyle. Yet whilst we’re all laying off the booze, cutting down on carbs, and toning up the tummy, high street retailers and their January sales who can be relied upon to dish up the same-old, same-old post Christmas.

Prices don’t simply tumble and fall, they either crash or get slashed. It’s as dramatic and as cut throat as that. Women who just two weeks earlier were happy to queue patiently in the Post Office, now think nothing of trampling over small children and elbowing the elderly in order to be first in line for that much sought-after designer hand bag at a never-to-be-repeated price. Just fifty quid plus a few cuts and bruises.

But whilst the technique of heavily discounting might be a good idea in January when retailers traditionally want to get shut of stock pronto, it’s now thought that discounting in general is not necessarily the best way to generate more sales and, crucially, more income. A study led by Akshay Rao of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, suggests that many retailers are missing a trick because they fail to recognise the consumer’s attitudes to discounting. Or, more to the point, their misunderstanding of what is actually on offer. The result of this confusion is that most shoppers prefer to get something ‘extra’ for free, rather than to get the same thing cheaper.

Apparently, the main reason is that people are useless at fractions. Half of them can’t work them out, half of them can’t be bothered to work them out, and the other half haven’t got a clue about maths and take up public speaking. To prove the point, Rao’s research team offered two identical hand lotions for sale. One contained 50% more product for free, whilst the other had the price discounted by 33%. Almost three quarters of all consumers opted for the bigger pack believing that this offered the best value. Yet, of course, both offers are exactly the same. So I’m told, anyway.

This numerical blind spot remains even when the deal clearly favours the discounted product. Again, to prove the point, Mr Rao gave his undergraduates a choice of two deals when buying loose coffee beans. They could either have 33% extra for free or get 33% off the price. On this occasion, the discounted price is by far the better proposition, but the supposedly clever students viewed both deals as the same.

Further studies have shown other ways in which retailers can exploit the consumer’s innumeracy. One is to befuddle them with double discounting. For instance, people are more likely to see a bargain in a product that has been reduced by 20%, and then by an additional 25%, than one which has been subject to an equivalent, one-off, 40% reduction. As the American’s say, do the math, and you’ll find it’s the same.

So how does this help us in general marketing terms? Well according to Mr Rao, the principles can be applied beyond simple pricing. For instance, when advertising a new car’s fuel efficiency, it’s more impressive to quote the number of ‘extra’ miles it does to the gallon, rather than the equivalent percentage fall in fuel consumption. It’s just easier for consumers to understand and is therefore a more convincing argument. As the car salesman explained to me the last time I bought a car, “Mr Hesketh, on just one gallon of petrol you can not only get all the way to your mother-in-law’s house but you can also get all the way back again too.” Who wouldn’t buy a car from a man that generous?


How People Make Decisions and Why They Make Bad Ones

Nowadays,  it’s all too easy to discover that your flight, leather sofa, or 42 inch plasma TV is now £100 cheaper. Which means that making a decision is not only tougher than ever, but also comes with more chance of regret.

In fact the digital revolution has changed the way that we make decisions, full stop. Years ago, you could fill in a paper-based application form in any order that took your fancy. Start at the beginning, skip to the end, complete the middle bit with the hard questions later. That’s not the case with web-based forms. You have to complete the task in the order that the company dictates. Plus you’ve only got a certain amount of time before your session times out and you have to start over again. Talk about pressure.

So to test the way that people make decisions, and discover more about how we can influence them, Sheena Iyengar of Columbia Business School convinced a car manufacturer to take part in a study. Evert time a customer ordered a car, they were asked to go online and choose the exact specification for the vehicle, which involved answering 60 multiple choice questions.

Half the respondents were presented with the questions ordered from ‘deep’ to ‘shallow’, and the other half were presented with them from ‘shallow’ to ‘deep’. Here, the terms shallow and deep refer to the number of options for each question. For instance, the ‘deepest’ question would be choosing the colour of the car which had 56 options, whereas, a shallow question would be to choose between a diesel or petrol engine.

Every question had a pre-assigned default option which could be chosen if you didn’t want to make a decision. Sheena was interested to discover which group would tire more quickly and be more likely to choose the ‘default’ option more often. Obviously this is useful to know if you want to influence people to choose a particular option that makes you more money.  So what was the outcome?

Well due to an administrative error, Sheena is now the proud owner of seventeen Buicks in a variety of different colours, none of which fit on her driveway. She’s not very popular with the neighbours.

Only kidding.

With regard to the survey, she discovered that people were more engaged – i.e. made more personal decisions – when they were presented with options that went from few to many. They simply eased their way into it, choosing the default option less and less as they went along.

The exact opposite was true in the other group. These are the people driving around in orange vehicles with white wall tyres and beige leather trim. They start off quite well, selecting their personal choices, but even though the options get fewer as they go along, they soon become disengaged and choose the default option more and more.  

So who were most satisfied with their chosen vehicle? Not surprisingly it was the ones who made more personal choices. They eased themselves into the process and ‘learnt’ how to make decisions.
And as for the others with the crazy cars? Well, they have the option of donning a curly wig and a big red nose and working in a circus.

But here’s the dilemma. If you want your customers to choose more default options (because they are more profitable) give them a choice then reduce their options. If you want them to be happier with what they bought present them with options that go from few to many
Which would you prefer for free? A cafe latte or £3 in £1 coins?

I know what you’re thinking. That latte would look more warm and inviting and it’s always nice when someone takes the time to make you a drink and offers it for nothing in exchange. It has sentiment as well as value. But then again, if you choose the £3, you could spend it on whatever you like. Such as a magazine or sandwich. So the money has got to be the sensible choice, surely? Decisions, decisions.

Luckily we don’t have to guess which one most people would choose, or even rely on our own intuition. As always, the solution is to employ the services of someone like Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioural economics at Duke University in North Carolina. He’s not only an expert in his field but doesn’t mind getting paid in pizza rather than dollars which adds to his appeal if you don’t mind the tomato sauce down his shirt.

Dan and his chums looked at what actually motivates people and his findings proved something of an eye opener. For starters, it didn’t involve any dough-based delicacies. Not even for main. Putting this revelation to one side, Dan continued his study and asked hundreds of pizza-shunning public to sign up for a website or fill out a questionnaire, offering a variety of inducements along the way.

He discovered that when people were offered something tangible, like a pen or a paperweight, they considered its value to be much greater than it actually was. And people wanted it more. Think back to when you were a kid and those plastic toys that sometimes came free with a comic. Fifty years on and I still can’t get my Dennis the Menace gyroscope to fly properly.

All this demonstrates how difficult it is to make decisions. Why would an unbiased football referee not award a team a second penalty when the offence was even more blatant than the first? True, it defies logic, but then logic doesn’t always influence decision. It’s customary for a referee not to award a second spot kick so soon after the first, so, as creatures of habit, we keep doing what we keep doing.

The implication of this can be quite disturbing. It means that if you get somebody to behave in a certain way one time, you can actually go on to influence their decisions long into the future. That’s why banks spend a lot of money getting our business. They know that most people will stick with them, no matter what, for a very long time. And, of course, we all have our favourite consumer product brands that we know and trust. iPhone users may secretly covet other smart phones but can’t bring themselves to desert the Apple brand. Price doesn’t come into it.

Influencing the first decision people make about something is known in psychology as a ‘default’. It represents the path of least resistance and is an incredibly appealing decision for humans to make.  It’s actually a decision to not make a decision. Online retailers have cottoned on to this. They design the decision environment in such a way that they influence your choices. Do you really not want more leg room, an onboard meal or priority boarding? Are you sure? Can you be trusted abroad on your own? Sometimes it’s easier to say yes.
Dan also discovered that the perceived value of a product is also increased simply by placing it next to a better quality, more expensive one. For example, this could be a strategy used by jewellers when arranging their window displays. Not that I would know or my wife would ever find out. I’m just saying.

The reality is that a concrete thing is more valuable and people then want it more.

In a study by Southern Methodist University (SMU) on new customers of a Dallas-based dry cleaning chain at two locations over an eight-month period average spend on dry cleaning spending was 27% higher when people were offered a gift versus those people offered an equivalent discount.

The pool was 900 new customers and the customers were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Each received a welcome letter from the management.

One test group received three gifts: a sewing kit and lint brush, an imprinted latex balloon stress reliever and an imprinted notepad dispenser, each valued at $5 every 10 to 12 weeks.

The second test group was offered $5 discounts on dry cleaning orders, also at intervals of 10 to 12 weeks.

The third test group received only the welcome letter.

The purchasing activity of each group was then measured. Over the eight-month period studied, average dry cleaning spending in the ‘Gift’ group was 27% higher than the group offered discounts and 139% more than the group offered no incentive. The ‘Gift’ group spent $66 per active month compared to $52 for the discount group and $39 for the group that received only a welcome letter. After subtracting promotional costs from sales, the ‘Gift’ group was 20% more profitable than the group that received discounts and 123% more profitable than the group that was not exposed to promotions.

And in another experiment (also conducted by SMU) involving a goods delivery service, three customer groups existing residential, new residential and business were given either a $2 coupon, a gift valued at $2, or nothing at all. Each group was then measured on the basis of average number of repeat orders and the average number of days between orders.

In all groups studied, the food-service customers who received gifts ordered more frequently, re-ordered sooner and placed orders significantly higher in dollars than those who received coupons.

So, back to the latte and the three quid. By now the answer should be clear. It is, of course, the latte. Unless, of course, you don’t like coffee. Then you can use the three quid to buy a tea.


Improve Your Shopping and How to Choose

If you’ve ever struggled to decide which present to buy family and friends, join the club.

It’s not easy thanks to the huge array of creative gifts available nowadays.

Although we all think we like a wide selection of options, it’s the enormity of choice that often prevents us from choosing. It’s known as the’ paradox of choice’ and it’s something that my friend Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and Mark Lepper of Stanford University have studied for over ten years. They were the first academics to empirically demonstrate the downside of having too much choice when they studied people buying jam.

They discovered that when the choice was big - 24 flavours -people were more likely to sample a few jams but less likely to actually buy one. On the other hand, when faced with a much smaller choice of just six jams, people sampled less but were ten times more likely to buy.

Sheena went on to analyse pension fund choices.  When given a choice of just three, 75% of people chose one or them. (They eliminate one then choose from the two remaining.) But when the choice was greatly increased, the number of people choosing a pension reduced. The same holds true for pizza or pyjamas, lipstick or loft insulation. We like choice but we don’t choose.

Of course, the ‘paradox of choice’ isn’t limited to shopping. Some people are still choosing a career at 30, whilst many eligible bachelors eventually wind up alone. Not even a pension pot to console them. Or a jam pot come to that. The good news is that there a few coping strategies for today’s mega-choice world.

But not too many, obviously.

That would be counter-productive.

The one time when we don’t find it difficult to choose is when we have an articulated preference.
For instance, whenever you buy a chocolate bar at a petrol station, you typically choose from your favourite seven. What you’re doing is preference matching. You go for what Nobel Laureate Herb Simon first referred to as a ‘satisficing’ option: the first decent choice that fits your preference. The alternative would be to exhaustively scan the entire shelf until you find the perfect choice. So we don’t do that.

Unfortunately, people who strive for ‘maximisation’ are more prone to depression. And because they strive for perfection - something that can rarely be attained - they are also more prone to regret. So the trick is to study the options and then settle on something you feel good about. It doesn’t have to be the perfect choice, just one you’re happy with.

But does it really make any difference? In another study carried out at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, they discovered that most people’s brains tend to make mountains out of molehills when it comes to comparing products. The lead researcher was a guy called Carey Morewedge, who interestingly went on to marry a woman called Mary Loadsamoney and is believed to be living comfortably somewhere in the Hamptons. Carey and Mary.

I so wish that was true.

Anyway, according to Carey (whose surname really IS More-wedge), comparing prices might get us a better deal, but we’re wasting our time if we think we can really judge how well a present will be appreciated by comparing its merits. To prove the point, the study asked participants how much they would enjoy eating a potato chip.

That’s a crisp to you and me.

Half the participants chose a crisp from a table that also contained other, more luxurious snacks, such as candy bars (that’s chocolate to you and me.) The other half chose their crisp from a table laden with less luxurious snacks such as sardines and SPAM.

When asked to predict how well they thought they would enjoy eating the crisp, the people in the room that also had the less appetising snacks on the table consistently predicted that their enjoyment of the crisp would be greater than that predicted by the other participants whose enjoyment was obviously tempered with the sight of other, more tasty treats. However, when they actually ate the crisp, both groups reported an identical satisfaction factor; they liked the snacks exactly the same, regardless of the surrounding snacks. This led detractors of the study to eat their words whilst Carey and his team polished off the chocolates.

That probably IS true.

It appears to prove that people enjoy whatever they choose and forget about any comparisons that they might have made beforehand. You simply enjoy something for what it is. Which reminds me of my present to my wife last Christmas. I noticed she was having trouble reaching the upstairs windows when painting the outside of the house. So I bought her a lovely, old fashioned wooden ladder. Admittedly, she looked less than delighted when spotting that three rungs were missing near the top. ‘Don’t worry about those’ I told her ‘Just be careful and enjoy the fifteen rungs that are there’. Then I went to get the video camera just in case. I’m not sure what that story actually proves but this year I’m playing it safe and buying her an ironing board.

So don’t let comparisons mess with your mind. Just go with your gut instinct and don’t spend more than you can afford to. In fact, do what psychologists call ‘satisficing’ which is a combination of ‘satisfy’ and ‘suffice’.  Simply enjoy your shopping and get something that does the job but doesn’t break the bank. And, if it helps, there’s some pretty good deals on household items at Argos right now.

And the lesson for business? Don’t present a potential buyer with too many products, services or endless confusing options. You might think it’s impressive, but it just makes choosing more difficult, not easier.


How Other People's Expectations of Us Directly Affects What We Do

In ‘As You Like It’ Shakespeare wrote that all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. Not bad for someone who never left England.

Of course what he was really saying is that life is all about relationships. And nowhere is that more true than in your world right now.

I added that last bit.

However, the question is not whether it is nobler to suffer slings and arrows. That’s an easy one; avoid them all cost. The real question is do we act our part simply to achieve our objectives, or are we influenced by how we think other people view us?
This idea that other people's expectations about us directly affects how we behave was examined by Dr Mark Snyder from the University of Minnesota. Acknowledging that one of the quickest ways people stereotype each other is by appearance, he set up a series of ‘blind dates’ whereby couples chatted to one another via headsets but didn’t actually meet.
Like most good psychological experiments a certain amount of sleight of hand was involved.
Two fistfuls, to be precise.
You see, psychologists know that it’s human nature to assume that people who are very attractive are also more sociable, humorous and intelligent. Think Peter and Katie.
So, men were given a photograph of the woman they were going to chat to. Except, of course, the photograph wasn’t genuine. Half were given pictures of real stunners and half of women who were somewhat more challenged in the looks department. So, would the women pick up on the vibe given off by the men and unconsciously fit into the stereotype they had been randomly assigned? That’s to say, would the ‘beautiful’ women actually be more friendly and sociable, and would the ‘less attractive women’ be dull and uninteresting?  
On analysing the audio tapes, independent observers concluded that the ‘attractive’ women did indeed exhibit more of the behaviours stereotypically associated with attractive people: they talked more animatedly and seemed to be enjoying the chat more. In short, they conformed to the stereotype the men projected on to them. It seems people really do sense how they are viewed by others and change their behaviour to match this expectation.
Shakespeare was right.

The world is a stage. Expect your fellow players to like you and think well of you and you will improve the way they see you. Shakespeare called it the ‘Bubble Reputation’ in the same play.

Understanding that other people's expectations of us directly affects our own behaviour means we have to be very careful when meeting a new client. Particularly if we think they don’t like us. Because that negative vibe will influence their behaviour in a negative way.
On the upside, it also means that we can exert influence over the behaviour of others simply by changing our expectations of them. So if we think that they are going to place a big order, then they are more likely to do just that. As the meerkat says; simples.


How to Tell When Someone is Lying

The beauty of always being honest is that you don’t have to recall what you said to someone. Whereas whenever you lie, you always have to remember in case you’re asked again. There are the deceitful whoppers often designed to save a bit of money, and the little white lies usually told to save someone’s feelings. For example, ‘No, of course, your bum doesn’t look big in that’ is more likely to precede a successful evening than if your answer includes a reference to say, a baboon or a sumo wrestler.

The truth is, lies are very difficult to detect. Even the classically studied tell-tale signs are no real indicator. Today, people rarely fidget or look away when they're lying. They don’t scratch the back of their neck, act nervously, or change the pitch of their voice. If they touch their nose it’s probably itching. If they touch yours, you’re standing too close.

So how do you tell? Well, years of researching real police interviews allowed Albert Vrij to provide some guidance about what non-verbal signals represent. Firstly, it’s important to consider a person’s natural behaviour. A friendly, gregarious outgoing character who turns up on your doorstep asking to borrow an axe is more likely to get assistance than someone who’s a dead ringer for Hannibal Lecter. Similarly, introverts or socially nervous people sometimes give the false impression that they’re lying. As a teenager I would often fidget nervously when chatting up a girl even though I was deadly serious about the proposition. Even the bit about the custard.

Researchers concluded that the way to spot a lie is to study someone’s behaviour when telling the truth, and then to compare this with their behaviour when suspected of lying. You see, lying places high cognitive demands on an individual and the more awkward questions asked, the more pressure they feel, and the more physical signs they display. This is basically how a lie detector works, highlighting the difference in things like facial movements, heart rate and sweat glands.

Of course, if you have a meeting with a Sales Director and you need to know his real plans for next year, it’s probably not the done thing to wire him up first. So here’s a tip. Rely on your intuition. If you’re a sales person it will doubtlessly be finely honed any way. If you’re in a meeting and something doesn’t quite feel right it’s probably means that something isn’t quite right. Either that, or your underwear is on back to front.

In a nutshell, implicit or broadly unconscious processes can be more effective at detecting a lie than conscious directed thought. It’s a big nutshell, granted. So if you want to be sure of the truth, ask someone to recount the story over and over again. And don’t forget to look out for the TNTs – Tiny Noticeable Things – that are different, as well as any discrepancies in the answer. As they say on the telly, the truth is out there.


How to Learn and the Nonsense Talked About 'Learning Styles'

People may learn in different ways, but it’s what you teach them that really matters.  

Every September in the UK sees the start of the new school term which naturally means lots of happy, excited faces around the breakfast table. I for one was always overjoyed to see the back of our three little cherubs after six long weeks.

Schooling has changed. Originally, the emphasis was on the three ‘R’s. We were taught grammar and syntax, how to add up, divide and take away, and some pupils were forced to do P.E. even if  they didn’t want to.  And the result? Lots of us went to red brick universities, got good jobs and are now running successful businesses.

However, there’s always room for improvement, right? So the the ‘learning to learn’ concept was introduced. It teaches them how to learn the things that they should be learning if they weren’t studying how to learn. Then there’s all the ground-breaking initiatives that are enthusiastically introduced and quietly withdrawn a few years later. Like not bothering to correct spelling or grammar because it inhibits creative thinking and discourages communication. Well, as you can see, it’s never stopped me. Not ever. Never.

So why do I mention this? Well if, like me, you’re ever called upon to give a presentation you might be tempted to cede to the current fad known as ‘Allowing for people’s different learning styles’. Despite what they may tell you on a presentation skills course, it’s poppycock. And I don’t care if that’s one word or two. Forget about ‘building learning systems around the preferred learning style of the audience’. It’s nonsense. Just be grateful if they’re still awake and facing your way by the end. Maybe even taking notes.

The first clue that ‘learning styles’ might be just another in a long list of psychobabble is that there’s lots of people making money out of it. Consultants will promise to ‘measure the preferred learning styles’ of your people and then ‘help you design training modules to match’.

Complete couilles, if you’ll pardon my French.

They usually cite the VARK model designed by Kiwi, Neil Fleming, who thinks that learning styles can be split into four basic types; Visual, Aural, Reading and Writing, and Kinesthetic. That last one means doing stuff like using a keyboard to learn to play the piano.

I kid you not.

And all these years I’ve been trying to get a tune out of the ironing board.

Anyway Frank Coffield of the University of London did a thorough analysis of all the ‘learning style models’ and found that there are seventy different ways to get information into the brain.


And the real problem is that the only way to establish someone’s ‘preferred learning style’ is to ask them. And that’s a bit like asking the fashion-challenged to look in the mirror and then answer the question ‘Why?’

They won’t know. It’s just what happens every day when they get dressed.

So here’s the bottom line. The thing that ought to influence the way you present is not the audience but the subject. For instance, the best way to communicate the vastness of Australia is to do it visually with an image of it superimposed on an image of Europe.  Don’t talk numbers of square mile ~ show them a map. If the subject is dance or how to use an iPod then we need to teach that kinesthically. Touch it, feel it ,work it out.

It’s not rocket science. Which leads me to a question that I’ve long since pondered. What term do rocket scientists use when they’re performing a task that is relatively easy? After all, it’s still rocket science, isn’t it?

I’ll leave you with that one.


How to Avoid Procrastination and Change Your Bad Habits


As issue for you to address or are you always putting it off?

People fall into one of two categories when it comes to getting things done. There are those who draw up to-do lists and manage their time efficiently, and there are those who never have enough time.

The former tend to get things done whilst the latter are busy procrastinating. Putting off today what they’ll probably also put off tomorrow.
We all have an item or two of unanswered correspondence in our in-tray. Things we don’t really want to deal with like writs and summonses, parking fine demands and county court judgments. (It’s never dull in my office, I’ll tell you.)

Two weeks later and the unanswered correspondence is officially a ‘pile’. Two weeks after that and it’s become a hillock. Wait further and it’s a mountain.  You get the idea.

So how do we stop procrastinating and start getting things done? Well, a study by McCrea, Liberman, Trope & Sherman appears to demonstrate that how quickly we act depends upon how we construe the issue. Apparently, there are two kinds of construal: abstract and concrete. Suppose you have a major presentation that you are putting off planning. An ‘abstract construal’ is one where you imagine the audience laughing along and clapping rapturously at the end. Whereas a ‘concrete construal’ is where you imagine specific feedback on your performance such as a flattering e-mail from your boss. 

So researchers devised a study to get participants into one of these two modes of thinking. Half of them were shown a painting and told it was a good example of neo-impressionism in which the artist was using order and colour to invoke emotion and harmony. This is a good example of an ‘abstract construal’. Meanwhile, the other half were just shown the detail of the painting and told that it demonstrated a particular technique of using contrasting points of colour to build up an image. This is a concrete construal.

Both groups were then asked to complete a survey and return it within three weeks. Their answers were irrelevant - the only thing the researchers wanted to discover was how long participants took to return the questionnaire. This was their measure of procrastination. Those thinking about abstract issues such as emotion and harmony took almost twice as long to return the survey as those who were thinking about specific techniques and details. Taking on board findings from other research in this area, the answer is clear: to avoid procrastinating on a task, you should keep the ultimate abstract goal in mind but also focus on its details and use self-imposed deadlines. If you can be bothered.

And there’s something else to help you avoid procrastination.

Get started.
Dare to begin.

That’s all there is to it.

I don’t know about you, but I’m always impressed by waiters who don’t write anything down. No matter how many diners there are in your party, or how complex the order, they remember it all. Most of the time, anyway. So how do they do it?
Well, that’s a question that was on the lips of Russian Psychologist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik, and one that she was determined to answer with an in-depth experiment. Also on her lips for twenty eight consecutive nights was a selection of garlic breads and dough balls, plus a variety of pizzas and pasta dishes in rich béchamel sauce. The result?

She put on five stones in less than a month. In the end they had to knock down a wall and call an ambulance.

Okay, so I maybe embellished that story a little. However, what Bluma observed was that although the waiters could remember the entire order of every table when it was ‘live’, they somehow managed to erase this information from their brain as soon as the bill was paid and a new set of diners sat down. To prove this theory, and also to discover if it held true for people doing other tasks, she conducted a cunning experiment that didn’t involve eating any kind of fattening food at all.  

Instead, she asked a number of willing participants to do twenty or so simple tasks such as solving puzzles and stringing beads. Some of the tasks they were allowed to complete in one go, whilst in others, they were interrupted before being allowed to continue. After completing all the tasks successfully they were then asked to recall as many of the different tasks as possible. As Bluma suspected, most people remembered about twice as many tasks where they had been interrupted, as they did those they had done in one go.

But what does this have to do with procrastination and how to be more successful? Well some years after Bluma had named her theory ‘The Zeigarnik Effect’ (in our house that’s code for putting on a lot of weight in a short amount of time) Kenneth McGraw and his colleagues carried out a further test. This time, participants were asked to do a really tricky puzzle. However, before any of them could solve it, they were told the study was over.

Despite this instruction, about 90% carried on working on the puzzle anyway.
Similarly, one of the oldest tricks for keeping viewers tuned in to a TV serial is the cliffhanger. You know the sort of thing, the hero falls off a mountain pass or is tied to a radiator in a burning building but before we can discover his fate the words “TO BE CONTINUED...” appear on screen and the credits roll. Literally a cliffhanger. What’s more, you join the millions who tune in next time to find out what happened because the mystery is ticking away in the back of your mind.

So here, finally, is the point.

When people manage to start something they’re more inclined to finish it. Procrastination bites worst when we’re faced with a large task that we’re trying to avoid. It may be that we don’t know how to start or even where to start. What the Zeigarnik effect teaches us is that to beat procrastination you just have to start somewhere.

Don’t start with the hardest bit, try something easy first. If you can just get a project underway then the rest will follow. Because once you’ve made a start, there’s something drawing you on to the end. And if you don’t finish it, it’ll niggle away in the back of your mind like an unresolved cliffhanger. Of course, none of this explains why my back bedroom is still only half decorated after two years. But at least I’ve made a start.

So to avoid procrastinating on a task, you should keep the ultimate abstract goal in mind, focus on its details, use self-imposed deadlines but most importantly, dare to begin.

But after you’ve started how do you change what may be the habit of a lifetime?

Well, a study by Dr Philippa Lally ~ Doo to her friends ~ revealed some interesting facts about how to successfully form new, long lasting habits. Together with her colleagues at University College London she recruited people who wanted to get into the habit of doing something healthy like eating a piece of fruit each day or taking a 15 minute run. Participants were then asked daily how automatic their chosen activity felt. Questions included things like whether the behaviour was ‘hard not to do’ and could be done ‘without thinking’, and ‘What’s that cream bun doing in your back pocket?’

Not surprisingly, the normal plateau curve occurred. That’s to say, after a period of time either the habit was formed and became automatic, or it became too much of an effort and they returned to reading a copy of the Racing Post in the local snug. Typically, the plateau in ‘automaticity’ was reached after 66 days. Which meant that the new activity had become as much of a habit as it was ever going to be. However, although the average was 66 days, there was a marked variation in how long habits took to form. Anywhere from 18 days up to the thick end of nine months is possible. I think as a teenager it took me about three days to form the habit of drinking beer but I can’t remember very much about it now.

As you’d imagine, drinking a daily glass of water became automatic very quickly but doing 50 sit-ups before breakfast required more dedication. So what does this research tell us? Firstly, never try to do fifty sit-ups whilst drinking a glass of water. It’s not clever and it goes everywhere. But perhaps more importantly, it revealed that when we want to develop a relatively simple habit like eating fruit or taking exercise, it could still take us over two months of daily repetitions before the behaviour actually becomes a habit. And, while skipping single days isn’t detrimental in the long-term, it’s those early repetitions that give us the greatest boost in automaticity.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s something long and cool waiting for me in the fridge.


All You Need to Know About Time Management

Getting things done? It’s about time.

People often ask me the secret of good time management and I always reply with the same words. ‘Ask me another time I’m running late.’

Only kidding.

Good time management lies in the ability to distinguish between the important and the urgent.

For instance a leaking roof requires urgent attention, whilst it’s merely important to fix a loose roof tile.

Once you’ve made the distinction, you then need to allocate time to do the important things. That’s the secret of good time management. If you fail to allocate time for things that are ‘important but not urgent’ then one of two things happens. Either the roof eventually leaks and the problem becomes urgent, or the roof doesn’t leak and the problem doesn’t get fixed at all. And, of course, if you wait until something becomes urgent, it’s usually more difficult and costly to fix.

There are exceptions, of course. can offer some great deals if you put off your decision to the last minute. But the trade-off is that you might not get exactly what you want. And, in life, we usually know what we want. My wife is still fuming about that sky-diving package I bought her. Absolute bargain.

Once things become important and urgent they have to be done in a hurry. But when you allocate time for things that are important but not urgent you are forward planning. So fix your roof when the sun is shining. Creosote that fence before the bad weather comes. Pack your suitcase before leaving home. I know that last one doesn’t quite fit but I was struggling for a third and it’s still reasonably sound advice.

But what if you fail to allocate time and things don’t get done at all? You never do get to see Naples or take that African safari. Those Salsa lessons you promised yourself are now a distant dream thanks to your arthritic hip. And imagine if your family never has the pleasure of hearing you play the tuba. Actually, that’s probably a good thing.

If you don’t allocate time for things that are ‘important but not urgent’ then you run the risk of never doing them at all. And you may live the rest of your life with regret. Particularly when you get towards the end and can no longer do what was once important but not urgent.

Fix the roof and paint the fence. Spend more time with those closest too you unless it happens to be a stalker when you should walk more quickly and try not to panic. Enjoy your time with elderly relatives before it’s too late. Above all, have fun. It’s important that you do, even though it often doesn’t seem the most urgent thing.

One of the things that stops us allocating precious time to things that are important but not urgent is answering e mails. Apparently, over half of us check our email whilst on holiday, on a night out and even during Sunday lunch with friends. It’s like watching the lottery with your ticket in your hand. It’s highly unlikely that tonight’s the night but you never know. Of course, email is habit-forming because occasionally we get something exciting and worthwhile. But because we don’t know exactly when the good stuff is coming we have to keep checking.

What’s more, researchers on behalf of AOL have discovered that most people check for email about every five minutes even though they claim to check just once an hour. It seems that nowadays when you hear that distinctive ‘ping’ you just can’t resist. Although to be honest, I still occasionally run to the microwave if I’m in the kitchen.
Thomas Jackson of Keele University studied the diaries of people in various occupations and found that most spend a quarter of their working day dealing with email. And the rest of the time they’re doing things they shouldn’t be doing. So what’s wrong with that? Checking email, I mean. Well apart from all the wasted hours, each time we react to incoming email, it takes over a minute to recover our original train of thought.This constant checking of hand held devices results is what Linda Stone dubbed ‘continuous partial attention’. It’s motivated by a desire never to miss an opportunity. But researchers at Kings’ College have found that this kind of communication overload causes your IQ to drop 10 percentage points a day. And who amongst us can afford that?

The truth is, constantly checking e mails means we’re over-stimulated, over-wound and less productive. In trying to process a never-ending stream of incoming data we put the bigger decisions off.

Henry Ford once famously said that if he had researched the transport needs of people before he built the first car they would have told him they needed faster horses.  

So set yourself the simple goal of occasionally switch off your BlackBerry or iPhone and switch on your full attention. Because, if you miss the real message, all you may end up doing is riding a faster and faster horse.


Why Money isn't Necessarily the Best Incentive

Paying big bonuses doesn’t always lead to better performance

In recent times, a lot of criticism has been aimed at top executives and their exorbitant salaries. Much of this has been directed towards the banking sector where bonus payments seem to bear no relation to actual performance. In fact, the worse they do, the more they seem to get paid. Not surprisingly, the phrase ‘reward for failure’ has been a popular tabloid headline.

So why do companies continue to pay huge bonuses to people who consistently under perform? And why isn’t all that financial inducement motivating them to do better? Surely offering more money is the best incentive there is? Well, apparently not. And in case you needed more proof than Britain’s ailing banks and fat cat bosses, researcher Dan Airley and his colleagues decided to conduct a study.

They arranged to send five economics graduate students from Narayanan University to local villages near Madurai in Southern India. The tasks required students to use skills such as attention, memory, concentration and creativity. For example, one task was to play a memory game whilst throwing tennis balls at a target. Another involved assembling a puzzle whilst throwing a wellington boot at the life size image of a banker.

That was a particularly popular one.

They wanted to see how performance was affected by offering rewards of various sizes. They promised a third of them one day’s pay if they performed well, another third were promised two weeks’ pay and the last third could earn a full five months’ pay.

And they found that big bonuses didn’t improve performance.

The low-and medium-bonus groups performed the same and the big-bonus group performed worst of all.

In eight of the nine tasks they examined across the three experiments, higher incentives led to worse performance.

According to psychologists, ‘supersized’ incentives can be cognitively distracting. The theory goes that there’s so much at stake, it impairs performance rather than improves it. In high pressure situations some people tend to either panic or choke. Panic is when you don’t think enough about something and plunge right in – like when you panic buy. Choking is about thinking too much and suffering a loss of instinct. According to Ariely this is what happened to the students who were offered the biggest cash incentive. They thought too much about the task in hand, as well as how bad they were going to feel if they failed to take advantage of this chance in a lifetime.

So if a cash incentive is no guarantee of improved performance, what is? Well, an experiment by Dean Karlan involving people determined to stop smoking, suggests that ‘commitment contracts’ are a better bet. According to Karlan, there are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. The first kind comes from within a person such as their passion for the task, the pleasure they derive from it, and the sense of moral value. Whereas extrinsic motivation is provided externally and usually involves earning money or some other kind of valuable reward.

Researchers discovered that monetary compensation practically kills any kind of creativity. On the other hand, it does motivate people to perform mechanical tasks at a faster rate. Hence the reason why workers in factories and farms often get paid piecemeal. As a student, I once spent a summer picking asparagus.

The pay was lousy but the tips were great.

I spoil you sometimes.

To back this up, an analysis of 51 studies by the London School of Economics found overwhelming evidence that financial incentives may actually reduce an employee’s natural inclination to complete a task as well as derive pleasure from it. Perhaps more importantly, it also suggests that any ethical reasons are greatly diminished, such as complying with workplace social norms and fairness. Which would explain why a lot of fat cats don’t seem to give a bugger.

So, does money incentivise people? The answer appears to be ‘yes’ if it’s not too much for the individual, but ‘no’ if it’s so large that you can’t think about anything other than protecting it. As Henry Kissinger once said ‘Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely’.


How to Get Your Own Way More Often

Serve coffee.

The next time you’re offered a drink in a business meeting, think carefully before choosing between a cup of coffee and a glass of water. Because research suggests that a shot or two of caffeine does more than just keep you awake and alert; it can actually help to improve your ability to influence and persuade.

Allow me to explain.

Caffeine is well known to enhance attention, vigilance and even cognition. However, when I was in Brisbane a few weeks ago I came across a study by Pearl Martin of the University of Queensland. She discovered that an expresso could give you more successo, whilst an Americana could get you much farther. Don’t you just love these modern scientists? In her experiment, she got volunteers to read an argument on the controversial subject of euthanasia and then attempted to change their views on the matter. As always, there was a certain amount of sleight of hand at work.

Firstly, all the participants chosen were known to agree with the concept of euthanasia, even though they were told that that the group were split roughly half and half either against or in favour. Secondly, only half the group were given a caffeine-rich drink to consume, whilst the other half were actually given a placebo containing no caffeine. I think I’ve been to that coffee shop in Harrogate.

Then the fun really started when the researchers tried to convince participants to change their mind about the issue by giving them six stories to read which argued against euthanasia. What’s more, the experiment was conducted ‘double-side-blinded’ which meant that not even the researchers knew who had taken the caffeine and who had taken the placebo. When asked afterwards for their attitude to voluntary euthanasia, it was discovered that those who had drunk caffeine were more influenced by the persuasive message than those who’d had the placebo. One even tried to sign up his grandmother who was only 57 at the time. Only kidding.

Participants were then asked about their attitude towards abortion since someone who disapproves of euthanasia is also likely to disapprove of terminations. Again, they found a similar result. The persuasive message had spread to a related idea and the effect was strongest amongst those who had consumed caffeine.

So there you have it in a nutshell. Or rather a coffee bean. Caffeine really does do more than keep people awake and alert. It also makes them more likely to be persuaded to your way of thinking. But exactly why is that? Well, the reason that a lot of persuasive messages pass us by is simply because we’re often not paying enough attention to them; we’re usually thinking about ourselves, our problems or our pleasures. But by increasing our arousal through caffeine, it makes us process incoming messages more thoroughly, potentially leading to increased persuasion.

So the next time you want someone to agree with you, treat them to a double expresso with an extra shot for good measure.


How Brands Influence Behaviour and Why the Number of Smokers Has Gone Up Since the Introduction of Health Warnings on Cigarette Packets

Since the introduction of health warnings on packets, cigarette sales have actually gone up. Smokers have ‘trained’ themselves to ignore the on-pack warnings and see only the brand design.

Our subconscious does most of our decision making. That’s why we go in search of real value but end up buying an expensive brand. Or we visit the Polling Station determined to vote one way but at the last moment vote the other. And now, thanks to Danish researcher Martin Lindstrom’s worldwide probe into our brains we have a better idea of what is influencing us and why.

For instance, when he showed pictures of cigarettes to a group of smokers, their nucleus accumbens — the area of the brain that deals with addiction and reward — predictably started to buzz. Then he showed them some anti-smoking messages and the result was exactly the same. Apparently, when faced with the message ‘Smoking kills’, the subconscious simply cuts straight to the craving.  Hence, most anti-smoking messages are no better than adverts for cigarettes.

Next he moved on to my specialism.


Here his subjects had images of both chocolate bars and cigarette packets flashed before their eyes. Using a sophisticated fMRI scanner, his team observed how various parts of the brain lit up in response. The results were clear. The more rational a person believes himself to be, the less likely that he will be in control of his choices.

Let’s move on to the ‘amygdala’. That’s not a new confectionery bar but rather the name of the most potent brain zone for consumer motivation. My wife has a room named after it where she keeps all her shoes. This part of the brain is where we register fear, anxiety and dread and it’s particularly useful for political campaigns. If you hit it right, as the Conservatives did in 1979 with their ‘Labour isn’t working’ slogan, it will wipe out all the nuances of debate and get you elected.

According to Lindstrom, UK advertisers will be spending more than £50 million a year on neuro-marketing by 2017.

And then he winked and rubbed his hands together.

I made that bit up.

Of course, the sinister element is that once a company or political party understands your subconscious better than you do, manipulating your behaviour is easy.

One of the key reasons humans are such mad shoppers is dopamine, a euphoria-inducing hormone released by the brain that induces a feeling of security and self-righteousness whenever we hand over a credit card. It’s why we find it so much easier to stick a £900 item on a store card than if we had to physically hand over the cash.

In fact, the last time I bought something expensive for cash the assistant had to prise the notes from my grasp as we wrestled around on the floor.

That shopping is the new religion is no longer a creaky old cliché – it’s more like scientific fact. In previous posts, I’ve recounted how Pepsi activates the ventral putamen in most consumers, which gets stimulated when we find tastes appealing.

But with Coke there is additional activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the region dedicated to higher thinking and discernment. So, although consumers prefer the taste of Pepsi they keep buying Coke.

That’s the power of branding and its influence. The more rational you think you are, the less likely you are actually in control of your choices.


How to Influence Groups Of People

If you’ve ever been the new kid on the block, you’ll know how difficult it is to have your views accepted by the ‘established group’. For instance, imagine you’ve joined a new company and you’re attending a think tank to discuss a problem which is new to them, but old hat to you.

Something you experienced and dealt with in your previous job. In theory, your views should be welcomed with open arms. But in practice, it’s more likely to be open mouths. Who does this up-start think he is? He’s only been here five minutes……

This group behaviour is what Psychologist Matthew Hornsey from the University of Queensland calls ‘Unreasoning hostility’. It consists of having your views largely ignored or over-looked.

In my house it’s called parenting.

Anyway, to test the theory, Matthew’s researchers asked 200 health professionals for their opinions on criticism levelled at their hospital by an independent observer. However, whilst one half were led to believe that the critic was a newcomer who had worked there only three weeks, the other half were told that it was the views of someone who had worked at the hospital for 18 years. Naturally, the criticisms were identical, with the only difference being the apparent source.

As suspected, the views of the ‘newcomer’ were thought to carry less weight than those of the ‘old-timer’. What’s more, their criticism was also seen as less constructive whilst their suggestions were more readily dismissed by the health professionals.

It’s one of the ways groups form their opinions by ‘polarising’ their views. A handful of people feel very strongly that the view of the newcomer is wrong and fellow members of the group - who didn’t feel quite so strong initially, become more and more convinced of the ‘team view’.

So, as a newcomer, how do you worm your way into a group’s affections and begin to generate influence?  The answer is to tread carefully and gain acceptance first. Once you become part of the group you can begin to make all manner of recommendations, however absurd. Newly appointed cabinet ministers are prime examples. For instance, you wouldn’t ask the Minister for Transport for expert advice on a schools matter. You’d wait until the cabinet re-shuffle next week and ask him when he’s Minister for Education.

Bottom line is you have to be part of the group. A fully paid-up member of the club. One of them. You see, consciously or otherwise, people want others to value their group as much as they do. So distancing yourself from an old group or employer increases your perceived allegiance to the new one. And criticism from a committed group member is seen as much more valid. In effect, it sweetens the bitter pill of reality.

Of course, the temptation when joining a new group is to try to make a big splash and impress others with your critical perceptions and new ideas. But this research tells us that toeing the line in the first instance is often the best long-term strategy. Remember, groups are hostile to criticism from newcomers and are likely to resist, dismiss or ignore it. Until you can prove your loyalty.

So if you’re a newcomer and want to gain influence and promote change in your new surroundings make sure you get well-established first. Because sometimes being right just isn’t enough.

And if you should ever find yourself standing in the dock, cross your fingers that you are tried by one solitary judge rather than a panel of three. Because research into 1,500 trials in the U.S. by Thomas Walker and Eleanor Main has shown that when judges sit alone they take an extreme course of action only 30% of the time.
But when sitting in a group of three this figure more than doubles to 65%.
So why is this? Well, again, it’s the phenomenon known as “Group Polarisation”.

And it’s one that’s not only present in courts of law but also in your workplace too. The only difference is that you don’t occasionally send an old lady to jail for twenty years just for holding up the queue in the post office.

Conventional wisdom used to suggest that whenever any group of people arrive at a joint decision, that decision would broadly represent the average view of the individuals - thus averaging out the extremity of views. However, a whole body of psychological research has turned this theory on its head. Instead, it concludes that group discussions tend to polarise a person’s view, making them more exaggerated and extreme.

For instance, few people know this, but the panel who tried Joan of Arc were originally planning to let her off with just a fine. It was only after a series of heated discussions that they concluded, ‘on second thoughts, let’s torch her’.

It’s the same in other situations. After a group discussion, people who already support a war become more supportive; people with a tendency towards racism become more racist; and those with a slight preference for one job candidate over another will end up with an even greater preference for that candidate as more and more people ‘polarise’ towards the candidate.

So how can you use this knowledge to your advantage? Well, in group discussions we know that individuals who don’t initially agree with the consensus of opinion will eventually agree with the majority. Sure, some may be swayed by a rational counter-argument, but most will eventually conform to the view of the group. Couple that with the desire to make the sort of impactful decision that a committee is expected to make and decisions are pushed further towards the extreme.

(Sarita Yardi of Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta and Danah Boyd of Microsoft analysed 30,000 tweets on Twitter regarding the shooting of George Tiller, a late term abortion doctor. Again, they found that like-minded individuals strengthen group identity whereas replies between different-minded individuals reinforce a split in affiliation. People will group together based on opinions and polarise in one direction even when they haven’t met.)

So here’s what to do if you want to influence a group of people.

Lobby beforehand.

Give them the rational argument prior to the meeting. Politicians have lobbied for centuries because they know that you need as many people as possible leaning to your point of view from the outset. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always bribery.


Why We Like Expensive Things

You get what you think you pay for……….

It’s often said that here in the UK we’re a nation of shoppers
Every week our high streets and shopping malls are packed full of people eager to consume goods. So you think we’d be pretty good at it.

But according to the latest research, it seems that most of us aren’t. Sure, we might be able to spot a bargain or two. But when it comes to identifying real quality, we all do pretty much the same thing and go by the price.

The more it costs, the better we assume it is. Of course, that’s not a bad yardstick so long as retailers play ball. But as the research suggests, we’re very easily conned into thinking something is better than it is.

Two recent studies in the US set out to prove that not only do prices affect our expectations of quality, but that we actually enjoy a product more if it’s priced higher. In the study, Professor Antonio Rangel from the California Institute of Technology asked people to sample five different varieties of wine, informing them of the price of each as they tasted it. However, in reality, they only sampled three wines because two were offered twice.

The first wine they were told came from a bottle costing $5. Later, this very same wine was offered to them but this time they were told it cost $45. Similarly, they were given a more expensive wine to taste - $90 a bottle – and then later, offered the same wine but told it cost only $10. Finally, they were offered one sample of wine which was correctly priced at $35 a bottle. I don’t know about you but I’m feeling thirsty.

You can probably guess the outcome. Not only did the subjects rate identical wines as tasting better when told they were pricier, but brain scans showed greater activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex - known to be related to the experience of pleasure. In other words, they genuinely experienced greater pleasure from an identical object when they thought it cost more.

So armed with the knowledge that people prefer cheap wine to the expensive stuff when charged more, what does that tell us? That’s right, we ought to be in the licensing trade.

And there’s more. In another US study, 82 healthy volunteers were recruited to try out a new opioid pain relief pill. They were told it was similar to codeine, only faster-acting. Divided into two groups, one was told that the pill cost $2.50 a pop, the others that it was a mere 10 cents. Then at great expense, ex-professional torturers were flown in from south America to expertly apply light electric shot treatment to their wrists both before and after taking the pill.

I may have elaborated there.

Anyhow, you can probably guess the results once more. Of the patients who took the full-price pill, 85% said they felt less pain after taking it, compared with 61% of those who took the 10-cent pill. In truth, they all took nothing more than a sugar pill with no active ingredient whatsoever. Thus proving the power of the placebo: we experience what we expect to experience.

The conclusion? The price of an item and what we are told about it directly affects our enjoyment and the way we experience its value. We don’t want cheap brands. We just want brands cheap.

And if you want to buy your colleagues and friends a great present what better than a ‘laugh out loud’ hard back book that looks really expensive?


If Money Doesn't Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren't Spending it Right

Money, money, money. Abba sang about it in the 70s, whilst in the 80s it was too tight to mention for Simply Red. Today, it’s both the lifeblood of the economy and, for some, the root of all evil. According to The Beatles it can’t buy you love, whilst others believe that it makes the world go round.

And whilst the headline at the top of this article may sound like the title of yet another ditty from a twentieth century beat band, it is in fact the name of the research paper published by Dunn, Gilbert and Wilson which summarises decades of study into the relationship between money and happiness.
In theory, of course, money is meant to bring you great joy and security. It affords you more choice, allows you to do what you want, reduces worry and harm, and provides you with greater leisure time to spend with family and friends. So what’s the big problem? Well, apparently, we’re very bad at spending it – despite what our credit card bills might suggest.

According to the experts, we spend too much money on things that we expect will make us happy but actually don’t. Often these are material items that provide an instant yet temporary buzz. Like expensive clothing or sports equipment that rarely gets an outing. Or shiny Le Creuset pans that look great in the kitchen but rarely get used. Or the vintage car that never leaves the garage for fear of being scratched. Or the expensive yacht in St Tropez you never get time to sail.

Okay, I’ll put you down for just the pots and pans.

So how are we supposed to spend money in order to maximise happiness when giving gifts?  

       Buy either ‘experiences’ (a box at the theatre, a pair of tickets to a sporting event, a weekend break at a luxury spa etc)


       Spend your money on a few small pleasures instead of one big ticket item

To prove this theory, a couple of academics called Leif Nelson and Tom Meyvis decided to offer volunteers a three minute massage.

(That was their story and, to be fair, they’ve stuck to it right throughout the court case.)

In their experiment one group of volunteers were given a continuous three minute massage, whilst the other had a twenty second break in the middle. Not long enough to nip out for a fag but just enough time to get your breath back and adjust your towel.

Which massage was enjoyed the most? The one with the short break in the middle because it stopped people from becoming acclimatised.

So here’s a bit of pop philosophy for you ~ the enemy of happiness is familiarity and boredom.

Psychologists even have a name for it - Hedonic Adaptation. It’s a sad fact but the more we get used to something, the more we take it for granted, and the less pleasure we derive from it.

So, at Christmas buy lots of small, different pleasurable things for the ones you love and you’ll both get more pleasure overall and feel happier.

My youngest son bought me a ticket for me to go to a rugby game with him last Christmas ~ hence the photo. Hope he does that next Christmas.
Phil at Rugby


How to Use Your Body Language to Your Advantage

The Chameleon Effect. It’s the sincerest form of flattery.

It’s well-known that our body language influences how other people perceive us.
Striding purposefully into a room to deliver an important presentation gives you an air of confidence that the butterflies in your stomach might possibly belie.
Fortunately, nobody can see the butterflies, just the confident stride.

But what is the evidence that you can use body language to your advantage? If you closely mimic the mannerisms and gestures of someone that you want to get to like you, such as a new client or colleague, will it work?

Displaying a degree of empathy with a potential client can obviously help to bolster a relationship. But is it as simple as copying a hand gesture, a particular way of standing or sitting, or a distinctive nod of the head?

Well, there is evidence to suggest that subtle mimicking of another person’s body language can increase their liking of you. For many years, Bush and Blair were thick as thieves. Or, should I say, enjoyed a ‘special relationship’. They both developed a style of public speaking that was almost identical. It would start with dramatic pauses and simple hand gestures, continue with subtle arm movements,  and then often conclude with the invasion of a small country. Coincidence? I think not.

But if you’re still a little sceptical, here’s the proof. Psychologists John Chartrand and Tanya Bargh of New York University carried out a series of experiments to determine whether mimicking another person’s habits really does influence how much they like you. Testing what they called 'the chameleon effect', they divided up their sample of guinea pigs into two groups. Each group spent twenty minutes or so chatting to a member of the researcher’s team whom they had never met before. One group of researchers were instructed to subtly mimic the person’s body language such as folding their arms, scratching their nose, tapping the arm rest, waggling their foot – any little nuance that they could mimic without being rumbled. Meanwhile, the researchers in the control group sat quite still throughout their conversation and didn’t attempt to mimic any body language at all.

Afterwards the participants were asked to provide a mark out of ten to indicate how much they liked the person they had been talking to and how well they had got on with each other. The results supported the theory that mimicking a person’s body language does, indeed, increase their liking of you, with the group whose actions were imitated consistently giving higher scores than those whose body language wasn’t mimicked in any way.
Naturally, you should never copy these traits at exactly the same time as the other person is doing them because that would give the game away. They would probably start to shuffle uneasily in their chair. And when you do likewise, they may even begin to sweat a little. And if you can replicate that, you’ll soon find yourself being frog marched off the premises, whilst screaming to the security guards ‘Keep in step, boys’. That would be taking it too far.

So try the 'chameleon effect' yourself the next time you meet someone new you want to impress and get to like you. Just be careful not to over do it. Because if they’ve also read this article you may find yourself acting out a bizarre Laurel and Hardy routine.


The Importance of the Counter Argument in Persuasion

The ability to persuade people to see or do things your way is an essential skill in business.

From finding a backer for your venture, right through to persuading middlemen and consumers to buy your product requires a well thought out and convincing argument.

But it also requires something just as crucial: the ability to see the argument against your proposition so that you’re fully prepared to counter it. You see, research has shown that when presenting both sides of an argument, you are far more likely to persuade your audience to your way of thinking than if you simply present them with your way of thinking. It suggests that you’ve considered the alternative. You’ve weighed up all the facts. You’ve arrived at the correct decision.
It’s no coincidence that politicians spend half their time telling you where the opposition went wrong before suggesting what they’re going to do. They don’t introduce policies simply to ‘make things better’ but to ‘put things right’. The implication being that the alternative was a mistake.

It’s the same with the X Factor. Simon Cowell will often announce that what he just heard was the worst ever rendition of a particular song and that the wannabe superstar has no talent whatsoever. This will be delivered against a backdrop of boos and catcalls suggesting that the audience may disagree. However, Louis Walsh will take a more pragmatic view. He’ll tell us that they were brave to choose such a difficult song. He’ll continue with some reference to them ‘giving it their all’ and may even highlight a moment where they were actually in tune. But then he’ll reflect sadly that, on balance, they’re probably not quite ready for stardom just yet. Same conclusion, but expressed in a more reasoned way. And we’ve stopped throwing things at the telly.

So when presenting any kind of proposition, remember that there’s always two sides to an argument. Work out what that other side is and be prepared to argue against it. Not in a dismissive manner but in a way that suggests you’ve given it due consideration. Don’t be afraid to highlight its benefits. After all, these are the qualities that people who hold this view will put forward in its favour. But then go on to dismiss this idea by describing the pitfalls and such an approach. This strengthens your own argument and lends it credibility.

But don’t take my word for it. Daniel O’ Keefe at the University of Illinois collated the results of more than a hundred studies on the subject conducted over a fifty year period. 20,000 people took part in the research which saw psychologists compare one-sided and two-sided arguments to see which were the most persuasive in different contexts and with a variety of audiences. It was concluded beyond doubt that two-sided arguments are more persuasive than their one-sided equivalents.

So is this really proof? Well, it’s one side of the argument at least.


Signs to Look Out for in a Rocky Relationship and What to do to Improve it

For over 40 years, the psychologist, Professor John Gottman, has devoted his life to analysing the relationships of married couples.

His wife is furious.

She thought he was out fishing.

During that time, he’s closely observed couples in an effort to understand what kind of behaviours predict either a successful long-term partnership, or a marriage destined for divorce. If you ever wake up and there’s a man at the end of your bed taking notes, it’s probably John. He’ll flash you his ID and be on his way. If he flashes anything else, call the police.

Gottman’s work on the subject of relationships has many parallels in the business world. It’s pretty much all about relationships, after all. So here, courtesy of Gottman, are the four main signs that he’s identified as being particularly unhealthy in a partnership. My wife’s already mastered the first two and is currently working towards her City and Guilds in three and four.
That’s what you call commitment.

1. Criticism
Everyone complains to each other from time to time. Married couples more than most. But it’s a particular type of corrosive criticism that Gottman identifies as being so destructive. Anything that involves a frying pan, for instance. Or, more specifically, when the criticism strikes at the very core of the other person’s being, their personality. For example: “You’re late because you don’t care about me”.

Anyone can be late, of course, but here the criticism implies that you did it on purpose or for some other deeper, sinister meaning. According to John, repeated criticisms of this nature means that the end of the relationship is close at hand. A bit like the frying pan.

2. Contempt
Gottman found that contempt for a partner was the single greatest predictor of divorce. It can involve sarcasm, name-calling, mimicking and eye-rolling. Unfurling a banner on a motorway bridge is also a sure sign. Even if it does say ‘Happy Birthday, Loser!’
Whatever form it takes, contempt makes the other person feel worthless. It cuts across the first three, fundamental psychological drivers.
It’s also bad for your health. Gottman found that couples who were contemptuous of each other often suffered more infectious diseases like colds and flu. Which is why he always took an extra pace back from the bed.

3. Defensiveness
A person is too defensive when they are constantly making excuses for their failures or slip-ups. Sure, we all do it, but when it becomes a persistent theme it often signals the end of a relationship. Worse still is when defensiveness is coupled with trying to score points off the other person. Not like in squash or badminton - that’s just tactics. But in a personal relationship you’re supposed to support one another. After all, life is difficult enough without being attacked from within.

4. Stonewalling
Stonewalling is when a person metaphorically raises the drawbridge and cuts off all communication. There are no nods of encouragement when their partner speaks, no attempt to empathise and no effort to respond or connect. Hence the phrase ‘It’s like talking to a brick wall.’
Stonewalling is often a result of a prolonged period of criticism, contempt and defensiveness. For some people, the only response to this worsening situation is to shut up shop and send the other person to Coventry. Note: you don’t have to be a retailer in the west midlands to practice this.

So there you have it. Or, hopefully, you don’t. But if you do happen to spot any of the above signs creeping into your relationships then it’s a good idea to do something about it before it’s too late.

So what CAN you do if those four things exist in your relationship?

Well, Gottman has found happy couples use five times more positive behaviours in their arguments than negative ones. For instance, humour is a good way to break the tension of an argument.

Just don’t use the terms ‘bat wings’ or ‘lardy arse’ even in a playful manner.

Here are Gottman’s top four tips:

1 Edit yourself
Don’t say out loud every critical thought you have whilst discussing a touchy topic. Much better to just think it. Remember, everything you say to your partner will either nurture your relationship or tear it down. You may win the argument but lose the marriage.

2 Soften your ‘start up’
Bring up problems gently and without blame rather than kicking off with a critical or contemptuous remark. There’s plenty of time for those later. If you are a man you need to know that female bottoms never look big in anything. Ever.

3 Accept influence from your partner.  
In heterosexual marriages, it was discovered that a relationship succeeds to the extent that the husband can accept influence from his wife. So if you’re a bloke, man up and do as you’re told. The good news is that women are already well practiced at accepting influence from men.

4 Learn to repair and exit the argument
In marriage, you often have to yield to win, much like in the martial art of Aikido. Not to be confused with Tai Kwando where you just beat the crap out of each other. Don’t be afraid to give ground, back down and ‘tackle the problem together’.

The most successful couples are those who refuse to accept hurtful behaviour from one another. Plus, when discussing problems, they make five times as many positive statements as negative ones. For example, “We laugh a lot” as opposed to “We never have any fun.”

Remember, relationships are only successful to the degree that the problems you have are ones you can cope with. And what really matters is not conflict resolution, but the attitudes that surround discussion of the conflict. Happy couples have the ability to exchange viewpoints and accept that there will always be differences between them.


How Much Does Someone Have to Like Us Before We Can Start to Influence Their Behaviour?

‘Oh would some power the gift to give us, to see ourselves as others see us!’

Of all the famous lines that flowed from eighteenth century Scottish poet Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns’ quill, perhaps the one above still has the most resonance. I for one haven’t worn a kilt since catching site of myself in the wing mirror of a Ford Zephyr in 1974.  I just don’t have the knees.

According to Estonian psychologist Juri Allik, we all still crave the gift to see ourselves as others see us. What’s more, his research into the subject has turned up some interesting results about how closely our own perception of ourselves matches that of our friends and loved ones.

Allik and his researchers conducted personality tests on people from Europe, the USA, Japan and India. Each participant was asked to fill out a ‘personality questionnaire’ about themselves whilst someone who knew them well did likewise. Five different personality traits were considered: extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness and willingness to try new experiences.

Even across the different cultures, the results were remarkably similar. People were generally perceived by those closest to them as being less neurotic than they themselves thought. This suggests we appear less anxious, depressed or self-conscious than we feel. Also, people were generally rated as more conscientious and having greater competence and self-discipline than they gave themselves credit for. On the subject of extroversion and agreeableness, people were in general agreement. But generally speaking, people were rated as less open to experience, new ideas and values, than they thought. This perceived lack of adventure even extended to our fantasies, which is a real eye opener given that you can’t be prosecuted.

Here’s the paradox. We know that most people consider themselves to be above average when compared to others. But clearly we can’t all be right. However, unlike most of our comparisons which are against strangers, Allik’s study consisted of friends and family. Perhaps these results suggest our loved ones have a natural positive bias towards us which leads them to rate us higher than a stranger on socially desirable personality traits. Who knows? Well, if anyone should, they should.

The bottom line is that, on average, our friends and loved ones have much the same view of our personality as we do. Perhaps we are a little pessimistic on neuroticism and conscientiousness, maybe a little optimistic on our desire for new experiences. But heave a sigh of relief. They see the real you.

Just keep that fantasy under wraps.

And does how well somebody knows you affect your ability to influence them?

Well, it’s much easier to persuade family or friends to do something than it is a complete stranger.
There’s an unspoken commitment to helping people we know.
But perhaps more interestingly, in business, there’s even a propensity to help people we’ve only just met if we discover that we have something in common.
For example, we’ve all got talking to a stranger in a bar about, say, sport and discovered we favour the same team. Within minutes there’s a bond.

The question is, how much does someone have to like us before we can start to influence their behaviour? Well, the answer comes from a study by Jerry Burger at Santa Clara University. This one doesn’t just use the usual sleight of hand but is also admirably sneaky too. In the experimental set-up, participants were told the study was about first impressions and were asked to choose 20 adjectives which best described them from a list of 50.
The idea, they were told, was that they would swap and compare their list of adjectives with that of another participant. However, unbeknown to them, the list that they were given from the so-called ‘other’ participant had been manipulated. By using what psychologists rather imaginatively call the ‘mere similarity’ effect, participants were given lists that either closely matched or varied greatly with their own.
Some had ticked only three adjectives the same as the ‘other’ person and so the perception was that they had very little in common. Some had selected ten of the same adjectives and so were considered to be neutral. But then there was a small group who believed that the other person had chosen seventeen adjectives that they themselves had selected. On the face of it, they had a lot in common with the ‘other’ person thanks to the researchers manipulating the results. But would it make them more likely to do something for that other person? After all, we know from basic psychology that people like people who are like themselves.

The second part of the experiment provided the results.

The participants were then introduced to the person with whom they had swapped lists. Or so they were told. Naturally, this ‘other’ person was a member of the research team. After a brief chat, came the moment of truth. The researcher, in passing, asked the participant if they would do them a favour. They asked them if they would mind reading an 8-page essay and then provide a page of feedback? Naturally, not many people would be keen to do this rather onerous chore for someone they had only just met. Yet 77% of those who had selected 17 out of 20 adjectives the same, obliged. One even offered to clip the person’s toe nails and perform a back wax.

Only kidding.

Of those whose results made them appear to be dissimilar to the other person, only 43% said yes to providing the feedback. Fewer still say they would be happy to trim body hair of any sort.
Just kidding again.

So, what have we learned? Well, it seems that fleeting attraction and perceived similarity can be remarkably powerful in changing ‘no’ into ‘yes’. Whilst relatively small requests are processed in an automatic way using simple rules-of-thumb, when it comes to considering the same request from a stranger, we make a snap judgement based on trivial information and how much we like them.

If we feel they are ‘like us’ we also think we ‘belong’ to a group of like minded people with the same values and beliefs.
So the next time you need a favour from a perfect stranger, be sure to point out the similarities between you before you ask. I do it on trains all the time. It really does work.


How to be Liked by More People

However, it’s also true that people disclose more to those they like. So if that nutter on the train happens to be a major buyer in your industry it’s probably best to smile politely and hear him out. Similarly, people tend to prefer those to whom they have made personal disclosures. So again, stick with it.
The trick seems to be not to disclose too much, too soon, or too often.

Take internet dating.

Research suggests that the way internet daters reveal information about themselves provides clues to developing good relationships. Apparently, self-disclosure in terms of earnest conversations about your deepest hopes and fears is to be avoided. So no initial chat about global warming, quantitative easing or social unrest. Stick to your favourite music, food and books and a relationship will be formed more quickly.

Communicating online also gives you more control over the way you present yourself. Webcams excepted, nobody can see the nonverbal communication that a face-to-face conversation reveals. Like your nervous twitch, constant scratching, or lazy eye. Plenty of time for that over a candle-lit dinner. Truth is, it’s far easier to construct an online identity with crafted emails and retouched photos. A study by Gibbs, Ellison and Heino concluded that successful online daters tended to use large amounts of positive self-disclosure, along with openness about their intent.

The very opposite of many people’s actual practice in online dating.

The idea that self-disclosure is important in relationships is no big surprise. But while it may be easy to understand in principle, the complexity of the process means it’s much harder to do in practice. Generally speaking, it seems best to be open about yourself and honest and clear about your intentions. So don’t be afraid to give of yourself if you want to build a good relationship with someone. But remember that the art of self-disclosure is about giving information to others in the right way and at the right time.

But just how ‘familiar’ should you be?

Does familiarity breed liking or contempt?

Imagine a big house populated by self-serving egotistical idiots with very little in the way of common sense or moral fibre. No, I’m not referring to the House of Commons, although I can see your point.
I allude, of course, to the TV programme ‘Big Brother’. Like it or loathe it, the audience figures suggest that plenty of people find it compulsive viewing.
Personally I’d rather watch paint dry. In fact, I think I saw that episode in series eight.

Now imagine if you were put in a similar house for a week with people you didn’t know. Not a group of outrageous show-offs but ordinary people from all walks of life. A real cross-section with nobody weirder than perhaps a man with an unhealthy interest in steam trains who insists on sleeping with the lights on. How do you think you would get on with your house mates?

(A bit like an office environment really where people from all walks of life are thrown together and expected to get on.)

Psychologists have long since assumed that familiarity actually breeds liking rather than contempt. The theory goes that the more people are exposed to each other, the more they discover the things they have in common, and the more they like each other. When I say ‘exposed’ I don’t mean in the full frontal Big Brother sense. I mean discovering that you share a mutual interest in, say, flower pressing.

But a recent study by Michael Norton of Harvard Business School turned this theory on its head. His work concluded that the more you get to know someone, the more you discover the dissimilarities between you and the less you like them.

Think courtship, marriage, divorce.
Or best friends, holiday, nightmare.

So what is it that backs up Norton’s theory and why is he staring so intently at me and my wife? Well, according to his theory, when we meet someone for the first time we look for similarities, and we typically find them. It may be a mutual interest in a sport, foreign travel, the arts, or stodgy desserts. Okay, so maybe that last one isn’t a basis for a long-lasting relationship but it works for some. Unfortunately, after a while - say 250 servings - the assumption that this person is not only like us, but also likes us, starts to fade. And when this awful truth dawns, we like them less and begin to resent them eating so much of our cake.

So who’s right? Well, in the studies where people interacted face to face, the more they interacted, the more they liked each other. Whereas in Norton’s studies based solely on people’s views on other people’s preferences, the degree of liking was less. And perhaps, more crucially, whether familiarity leads to liking or contempt seems to depend on our motivation. So, is it in your interests to get to know work colleagues really well and generate liking or should you keep your distance?

Well, as is often the case with these conclusions it all comes down to balance. If you hang around with people for long enough, you’ll eventually generate some mutual respect and discover common interests, even if they’re not your type.
So get close, but not too close.

Get them to like you but don’t allow them to know everything about you.


How to get People to Talk Themselves Around to Your Point of View

Persuading people around to your way of thinking is a difficult task, particularly if they’ve already made up their mind. This stubborn intransigence manifests itself in all manner of life. From the child who won’t eat up his greens to the bun fights in the House of Commons.

It’s the reason heart-felt petitions are filed straight into the bin, and it’s also why football fans believe that playing at home in the second leg of a two-legged game provides a better chance of winning the tie. But it’s simply not true if you take a closer look at the stats. Which is exactly what the formidable sounding midfield trio of researchers from Munich University did. Herrs Eugster, Gertheiss and Kaiser studied the results of European ties between 1994 and 2010 and discovered that the chances of winning are exactly 50:50, whether you play at home first or second. Unless, of course, it goes to penalties when the stats show that the British team are all but doomed.
Despite this fact, football fans travel to the away leg of their team’s two-legged tie cup tie with the cheery thought that no matter what disaster befalls them, they can turn it around in the home tie. ‘We’ve done it before, we can do it again.’ Why such confidence? Well, because like most long-held beliefs, once an opinion is formed, we look for as much evidence as possible to support it. Even if the stats don’t really add up.

You see, we resent having our attitudes adjusted by others, and so resist it at all costs. So it’s best if people change their own minds. It’s difficult do it for them. People will listen to themselves and automatically generate arguments that have personal relevance. It’s called self-persuasion and the theory was tested by two researchers from Yale University.

Despite sounding like a hairy pop duo from the early seventies, Janis and King managed to persuade students to take part in an experiment that didn’t involve smoking anything first. Instead, all they had to do was give a talk on a subject to two of their fellow students to try to persuade them about something. Then they swapped things around so each student had a turn at giving the talk.

Janis and King discovered that the students were more convinced by the talk that they gave themselves than when they listened passively to the same argument put forward by their fellow students.  This suggests that we really are persuaded more strongly when we make the argument ourselves, even if it isn't in line with our own viewpoint. That’s probably why it’s a good idea to rehearse speeches and presentations out loud – not just to hear how it sounds but to make the final performance all the more convincing.

Pablo Briñol of Madrid University added more weight to the theory when he studied attitudes to smoking. He found that people were more likely to be put off smoking when they delivered an anti-smoking message themselves than when they passively received it. Simply saying it out loud was more convincing.

So here’s how to get someone to come around to your way of thinking. Simply ask them to put aside their own attitude and beliefs for a moment and try to see it from your point of view. Then ask them to argue the case if they were ~ hypothetically ~ to hold your beliefs. Before you know it, by generating their own arguments on the subject, they will be more inclined to your way of thinking and to changing their mind.


The Most Successful Technique to Persuade Someone to Buy

There’s one persuasion technique that has been consistently shown to work in almost any situation. It’s very practical, can be used by anyone and doesn’t involve a carrot or a stick. In the U.S. it’s known as the 'But You Are Free' technique. Over here, we’d probably say, ‘It’s up to you’ or ‘You are free to choose’.

Why does it work so well? Because it tags onto the end of your request a phrase that reaffirms people’s freedom to choose. You’re not forcing them to do something, you’re simply asking them politely and then reminding them that they’ve got a choice.

Their choice.

When my sons were young I would use this technique to stop them from swinging from a dangerous tree, trying to jump over a fast running stream, or just discouraging them to test the temperature of a domestic appliance by holding it against their bare skin. ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you. But it’s up to you’ I would say. Okay, so maybe it didn’t always work but, on the upside, I did get good value out of the Harrogate and District Hospital A&E service.

But generally speaking, it works a treat. Probably because none of us likes to be ‘persuaded’. By adding ‘It’s up to you’ you are indirectly affirming a person’s freedom to choose. In effect, you’re not threatening their right to say no. Earlier this year, Christopher Carpenter of Western Illinois University carried out research in this area involving some 22,000 people. What he discovered was that by simply adding the phrase ‘But you are free...’, it doubled the chances of people saying ‘yes’ to a request. The only phrase that achieved a higher success rate was ‘Or I’ll kill all your family’.

Just kidding.

But that would probably work too.

So where’s the proof? Well, people have been shown to donate more to good causes, agree more readily to take part in a survey, and give money to someone asking for a bus fare home, simply by adding that phrase. The exact words are not especially important. ‘Totally your choice’ works. As does ‘But obviously, don’t feel obliged’.

When most people would then actually feel more obliged.

The important thing is that the request is made face-to-face, otherwise the power of the technique diminishes. It sometimes works via email, but less so than when delivered in person. What this really underlines is that we don’t like to be hemmed in and have our choices reduced. That only serves to make us even more closed-minded.

As with all effective methods of influence rather than persuasion, this whole technique is about ‘helping’ other people come to the decision you want through their own free will. They need to feel like it was their decision. And it means they are less likely to change their mind later. Respecting people's autonomy has the happy side-effect of also making them more open to influence rather than persuasion.


'You Don't Know Who I Am; You Just Think You Do'

There’s a saying that you should never judge a book by its cover. Naturally, this isn’t something that book cover designers embrace too readily. However, for the rest of us, it’s a reminder that you should never form an opinion about something or someone based on appearances.

Think Susan Boyle.
Okay, you can stop now.

Instead, picture the beautiful young American student, Amanda Knox. Accused, then later found innocent - and then later found guilty again - of the murder of Meredith Kercher, she was painted by the world’s media as something of a femme fatale despite none of them ever actually interviewing her. All the initial assumptions about her were founded less on fact and more on the way that she looked and behaved.

I don’t know whether she’s guilty or innocent. What I do know is that if you read her book, ‘Waiting to be Heard’ you will only draw one conclusion.
Her calm, care-free appearances in court were viewed by some as an act of callous contempt. Her sexy and provocative Facebook photos were interpreted by others as a sign of loose morals. As for the cartwheel in the police station – well let’s just put that down to youthful exuberance and a touch of nerves. Put it all together and it’s no wonder that we gorged on a series of lurid stories based on nothing more than hearsay, conjecture, and wild fantasy.

So why is it that many of us believe we can tell a person’s character just by looking at them, but at the same time are sure we can hide our own true character from others? Researchers at Groningen University in Holland coined the phrase ‘illusory superiority’ to describe this belief. In studies, they found that job interviewers tended to over-estimate how much they thought they could learn of someone’s character in a short meeting. Yet these same interviewers were certain that others could only get the merest glimpse of their character from such a brief encounter.

According to Nico Van Yperen and Bram Buunk, ‘illusory superiority’ leads people to believe: ‘I am infinitely subtle, complex and never quite what I seem; you are predictable and straightforward, and I can read you like an open book.’ (A word of warning: never say this to your partner if you want to watch the TV in peace.) Of course, this is further complicated when all we know of a person is what we’ve read in a magazine or seen on TV.

For one thing they’re always a lot shorter in real life.

So for the world to make snap judgments about what kind of person Amanda Knox is, or what thoughts were going through her mind when she was pictured in court, is plainly foolish. Even four years later when she was photographed smiling whilst boarding a plane home, some interpreted this as the cat that got the cream. And not someone who was relieved that the nightmare was finally over.

So is there a business lesson to be learned here? Well, it seems that an inclination to oversimplify the minds and motivations of others lies at the root of most forms of inter-group conflict at work. People tend to think that those on ‘their’ side are reasonable, reflective, and thoughtful, while those on the other side are not just wrong, but simplistic and dim.

Production don’t believe the sales team understand them. The sales guys think the accountants are just trying to stop them doing their important job.

Deep down, of course, we know that others are as complex and difficult to read as ourselves. However, trying to figure out what others might be thinking is hard work. It requires intellectual application, empathy, and imagination. So most of the time we don’t bother and are happy to accept the stereotypes and prejudices presented to us by the media or our gut instinct.

In my view Amanda Knox revealed what kind of person she really is in her book. But perhaps the image of her smiling as she boarded the plane home will live longer in the memory of those who don’t bother to read it. As for you, my friend, there’s a very simple way that you can improve your ability to really understand people. Assume nothing. Keep an open mind. And ask more questions.

But not just any old questions. They need to be Killer Questions. E mail me today at and I’ll send you a copy of my 50 Killer Questions with pleasure.


I Know Everything About You. I Know Who You Are, What You Want and What You're Really Like

Don’t believe me?
Read this personality assessment and see how well it describes you.

You have a need for other people to like and admire you and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

The assessment shown above was created by American psychologist, Bertram Forer, following his experiment on a group of students to assess their individual personalities. Of course, like most psychological studies, his experiment involved something of a deception. You see, he wasn’t interested in assessing their unique personalities at all, but rather how one, randomly-generated piece of text fitted the students’ own view of themselves.

The results were startling.

On average, students rated their ‘individual assessment’ as 85% accurate. Even though it was prepared in advance and the same result was given to every student.

This fake assessment was created simply by combining random snippets of horoscope readings. It demonstrates how easily people can be led to believe something even when it isn’t true. This is relevant when studying the work of practitioners who use personality assessment as part of their trade.

The technique was even named after Bertram ~ although it was later amended from the ‘Cheating Lying Bastard Effect’ to the more PC ‘Forer Effect’.

Today, the term describes a person’s tendency to interpret general statements as being accurate for them personally. This is particularly true when presented with a random personality assessment and told it has been written especially for them.

They simply look for anything that could be true and this influences them in rating the entire assessment as highly accurate. It’s also the reason why a fortune teller need only get one small fact correct. Believers will latch onto this as proof that other facts yet to occur must also be genuine.

For instance, just by communicating with you via these e-newsletters I can tell that as a small child you once grazed your knee in the school playground and had it lovingly bathed by a nurse Gladys Emanuel-type character. Okay, so maybe that last bit is my personal fantasy but I bet the grazed knee bit is true. How do I know? Because it happened to us all.  

An experiment in 1979 by French statistician Michel Gauquelin proved the gullibility of people when interpreting horoscopes. He asked 150 participants to rate a horoscope reading for its accuracy in describing their character.
94% rated it as on the money.

But, of course, the readings were again fake. In fact, all 50 participants had been given the horoscope of a serial killer named Marcel Petiot.

A serial killer!

I am not making this up.

It’s fair to say that some of them were spitting blood when they found out. Another bizarre coincidence with Marcel.

The experiment didn’t take place on April Fools’ Day, but it might just as well have done. Of course, it could be true that today you do indeed encounter a tall, dark, handsome stranger. But he’s just as likely to issue you with a parking ticket as sweep you off your feet. Which for most of us blokes is probably a bit of a relief.

The Forer effect is found in many areas related to the paranormal. For example, psychic readings, biorhythms, and Tarot card sessions. You name it, it’s working its magic in one way or another. So don’t get caught out this All Fools’ Day and remember the one thing that everybody wants is something you can give them quite easily.

To be treated as an individual




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