Andrew Ladd wonders if men are a little too excited about the power to control minds.
While the pundits are still commenting on the 2011 State of the Union address for all sorts of reasons—as pundits generally do—Obama did one thing in particular this year to which I would like to draw your attention: he bucked a trend that has been true of pretty much every first-term set of State of the Union addresses for as long as there’s been a Union to talk about.
That is, while most presidents pepper only their first addresses with nuanced language about lofty, abstract principles—as Obama certainly did—they tend, by the time they get to this point, to start jettisoning those grander aspects of their speeches—as Obama arguably did not, this year—and to revert to the simplest possible statements of policy. The reason is straightforward: the further through his first term a president gets, the more heavily re-election weighs on his mind, and it’s the simple speeches that convince the voters.
Or so says Kevin Dutton, Ph.D., author of the new book Split-Second Persuasion: The Ancient Art and New Science of Changing Minds. In fact, he tells us, it’s the simplest appeals that people find the most persuasive in all sorts of situations. In one experiment, for instance, subjects asked to agree with the simple statement “I oppose Rick” (where Rick was the name of a fictional political candidate) were remarkably resistant to change even when Rick’s “policies” were dissected. (In another, all researchers had to do to persuade more subjects an aphorism was “true” was make it rhyme.)
These are examples of what Dutton enshrines as Simplicity, the first of five qualities that he says make up the holy grail of all social interaction: split-second persuasion, or the ability to make anybody do exactly what you want with just a few words. The other four qualities—and these are printed on the dust jacket, so I’m not giving much away—can be remembered with the endearingly lame acronym SPICE: after Simplicity come Perceived self-interest, Incongruity, Confidence, and Empathy. By incorporating these five qualities in your day-to-day attempts at persuasion, apparently, anyone can become a “persuasion grandmaster.”
Dutton is hardly among the pioneers of “persuasion studies”—to coin an ugly term—nor is he the most obsessive. He does, however, share one trait with many others in both groups: he’s a guy.
I don’t mean to suggest that women can’t make (or haven’t made) valuable contributions to social psychology, or to persuasion studies in particular. But read through a list of the fields’ top contributors and you can’t fail to notice how heavily men dominate: Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram on the classic social psychology side, and Robert Cialdini (and Dutton, among others) on the modern persuasion studies side.
In part, of course, this is probably down to lingering institutional sexism that dictates who gets tenure, who gets published, and so forth. But I wonder if there isn’t also something about men themselves that makes them particularly keen to study how persuasion works—if there’s something in how men see the world (certain men, anyway) that makes them that extra bit excited about the potential to gain control of another person’s will.
Because there’s often an almost creepy enthusiasm with which men like Cialdini and Dutton rave about how close they can get to mind control. Take the following excerpt from the latter (to which I’ve added some extra emphases). “In this chapter,” Dutton begins,
we examined three areas of cognitive process: attention, approach, and affiliation. In each of these areas we saw how the brain may be brought to its knees …
In the next chapter, we … look at how psychological cat burglars such as lawyers, advertisers, salespeople, and cult leaders … crack our neural thought codes. It’s easier than you think. The brain’s security isn’t exactly tight—and if you know what you’re doing you can be in and out in seconds.
Am I the only one to whom this seems to border on pathological? When did life turn into something where you want to bring people to their knees, metaphorically or otherwise? What is noble or desirable or praiseworthy about “burgling” someone’s mind—about tricking someone, essentially, into doing your bidding?
(Cialdini’s just as bad: he talks about things like “weapons of persuasion” and “moments of power,” and if you watch this, I guarantee your skin will crawl at how excited he gets about the weakness revealed in the phrase “thank you.” Persuasive or not, it just ain’t pretty.)
The easiest way to explain men’s enthusiasm for this kind of stuff is to weave it into the existing cloth of stereotypes about how men are naturally more concerned with winning and naturally more attracted to power—and to suggest that these enthusiastic persuasion gurus simply see, in their field, an opportunity to have more of both.
That explanation isn’t perfect—because I don’t really believe that all men are driven by competition all the time—but it can still teach us something useful.
Getting your way is great, and I doubt most men or women would turn down an opportunity for it to happen more. But it seems like these guys who become consumed with getting their way, who spend their lives desperately seeking strategies to guarantee victory every time, are taking it way too far. (It’s instructive, I think, as Dutton, tells us, that the most effective persuaders tend to be diagnosable psychopaths.)
Obviously, I can’t claim any great insight into Dutton, or into Robert Cialdini, as I haven’t met either (nor will I ever, probably, after this). But I can tell you what I think is wrong with approaching every social interaction like a battle to be won or a bank vault to be unlocked.
First of all, it seems just as likely to lead to depression and insecurity as it does to happiness and success. OK, if every conversation is a competition and you always win, fine—but even the most persuasive of the persuaders won’t get their way in every situation, and for the rest of us that means a lot of time losing every day that I, at any rate, would rather spend doing something else.
But more importantly, treating life as a constant battle seems only to beget more battles. The thought of people everywhere running around with a copy of Split-Second Persuasion tucked in their belts, trying their best psychological tricks to make others give them what they want is, if you ask me, a pretty bleak one. Why not a book called Split-Second Compromise? Why not a world where everyone agrees to openly and willingly do as much to help each other as they can? Why not a world where persuasion is barely necessary, because we’re all just trying to give each other a break?
None of this is to say that Dutton hasn’t written a lively, engaging, and even occasionally insightful book. If nothing else, it helped persuade my girlfriend not to sit on the couch with me while I’m reading social psychology—I must have interrupted her own reading with an interesting anecdote or study finding about 20 times.
But if you read it yourself, try and do so with Obama’s recent State of the Union in mind. Not as a speech that was “successful” or “flat,” as the pundits are so eager to frame it, but as a speech that didn’t sacrifice complexity of thought to the desire to win an argument, or an election, or anything else. As a reminder that sometimes, no matter the stakes, there’s more to life than getting your way.
—photo by jurvetson/Flickr