Most divorce and breakups could be avoided if the partner most dedicated to the relationship could effectively persuade or influence the other to adjust their behavior or communication habits in relationship-strengthening ways.
In real life, the problem often lies in one person believing their ideas, opinions and ways of doing things are right while their partner’s hare-brained ideas, opinions and stupid way of doing things are wrong.
Sadly, it frequently breaks down along gender lines.
It’s good for all of the people who can benefit from the whole Mars/Venus, Men are Like Waffles, Women are Like Spaghetti concept.
It’s bad for all of the people who don’t fit neatly into those molds, and value things like equality and not being pigeonholed by stereotypical labels.
I think most rapists and serial killers are white men. It would be awesome if people didn’t assume I’m a threat to rape or kill someone based on my gender and skin color. I think other people with different skin colors and gender profiles probably feel the same.
Yet, mountains of Gottman Institute data has demonstrated that the top predictor of divorce has direct ties to gendered behavior, and that is: A husband’s willingness to accept his wife’s influence has the greatest statistical correlation to, and is the No. 1 predictor of, whether or not a marriage will last.
Understanding What Influences Human Behavior
That’s a powerful word.
I like it. I like how it sounds, what it means, and the idea of people being influential (if you’re not an evil dickface planning a poison Kool-Aid® party or whatever).
Setting aside my belief that many men are accidentally sexist because of their Father Knows Best upbringings where they were exposed to women catering to, or being belittled by, men who were the bosses, primary decision makers, and group or organizational leaders by virtue of their stoic manliness and not being slaves to their emotions and menstrual cycles like all those diaper-changing, laundry-folding, lunch-packing women… setting all that to the side for a moment…
Human beings, regardless of gender or any other categorical label, often believe things or react emotionally to things in ways that are radically different than another person. It happens all the time, every day, in every conceivable type of relationship or life scenario.
First, something happens.
Then one person thinks and feels one way about it. And another person thinks and feels something different. It’s common for the two people to debate whose thoughts and feelings are better, or right, or most accurate.
Sometimes the debates are reasonably friendly and/or professional.
Other times, such disagreements can lead to name-calling, or fistfights, or divorce, or homicide, or violent riots and rebellion, or one country bombing another country.
It’s a problem.
An incalculable amount of human misery is generated by the equivalent of someone with colorblindness identifying something as being green (the color they accurately see) fighting with someone who sees the same object as being red.
When we tell people that their feelings and life experiences are wrong, and deny honoring their wants or needs simply because they’re not the same as ours, we end up breaking a lot of things AND being stupid assholes. Because if we had the same eyes and brain as the person we’re talking to, we’d see the color green, too.
The 6 Principles of Influence and Persuasion
The most sensible solution, I believe, is to master the skill of empathy and teach it to our children at home and in schools.
But that’s like saying the most sensible solution to our financial problems is finding hidden pirate treasure or riding our pet unicorns to Leprechaun McGee’s pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The transformation of the current human race into a more empathetic version that won’t fight and troll one another on the internet at every opportunity will probably take longer than it takes my 8-year-old to put his shoes on before school. (An inexplicably and painfully long time.)
So, we turn to the next-best thing: Persuasion.
We develop the ability to influence those within our influential sphere—the most important being our marriage/relationship partners, our children, our co-workers, etc.
The long-time thought leader in the psychology-of-persuasion space is a man named Dr. Robert Cialdini, a professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, and author of the classic Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.
Cialdini spent 35 years studying what moves people to change behavior, and broke it down into six basic principles.
Cialdini wrote the book to help people protect themselves from manipulative mind tricks (from con artists and shady sales pitches), and to help marketers tap into the human psyche ethically to succeed in their profession.
But since only a small percentage of people work in marketing and since I believe marriages and families matter more than product sales, I thought it might be interesting to explore how we could use persuasive behavior to positively influence our partners in an effort to strengthen our relationships.
Principle #1: Reciprocation
We feel indebted to people who give us gifts or do nice things for us. And we are societally conditioned to think of people unwilling to reciprocate favors as assholes. And since we don’t want to be assholes, we are much more likely to do things for people who have done things for us.
“The implication is that you have to go first. Give something: give information, give free samples, give a positive experience to people and they will want to give you something in return,” Cialdini said.
I know what many of you are thinking: “But Matt!!! That’s bullshit!!! I do EVERYTHING for my spouse and children, and they don’t do anything for me!!!”
I get it.
Your partner and/or family takes you for granted. Welcome to the human experience.
This exercise isn’t about what feels fair.
It’s about influencing another human being to do something we want them to do. When we are willing to go first, and give before we try to get, we have a MUCH greater chance of cooperation from anyone.
What nice thing could we do for our partners that they don’t expect that might earn us a kind and empathetic ear when we want to ask them to do something for us?
Principle #2: Social Proof
When people are uncertain about a particular course of action, we tend to look around for cues from others to help guide our actions and decisions.
Cialdini and a research team conducted an experiment to see what type of messaging on hotel room signs would result in hotel guests reusing their bathroom towels.
Sign #1 cited environmental reasons.
Sign #2 said the hotel would donate a portion of laundry savings to an environmental cause.
Sign #3 said the hotel had already made the donation and asked “Will you please join us?”
Sign #4 said the majority of hotel guests reused their towels at least once during their stay.
When guests were told that most other hotel guests were reusing their towels, they were more likely to comply with the request. Sign #4 got 48 percent of experiment participants to reuse their towels.
I would STRONGLY discourage someone from telling their spouse that “So-and-so does all these great things for his/her spouse! Why can’t you do them for me, loser?” and contrasting undesirable behavior with something that looks more attractive. That will prove counterproductive.
But, how might we use proven, successful relationship behavior from other people to help influence our partners to change a harmful behavior?
Principle #3: Commitment and Consistency
Obviously, people don’t always do what they say they are going to do. That probably includes more than half of everyone who has ever made a public marriage vow.
However, the science is the science. People are more likely to do something after agreeing to it verbally or in writing.
People strive for consistency in their commitments, and prefer to follow pre-existing attitudes, values and actions, Cialdini said.
How might we (with kindness and good intentions) get our partners to reaffirm their commitments to our relationships in ways that might foster more connection and positive love- and intimacy-related feelings?
Principle #4: Liking
“People prefer to say yes to those they know and like,” Cialdini said.
Physical attraction, shared traits, and being paid compliments MAJORLY influences who we like.
People struggling in shitty relationships often love, but don’t really “like” being around, their partners. Try to look beyond that for a minute.
In the context of this psychological principle, something super-subtle like having a similar name nearly doubled the likelihood of someone responding to a survey request by actually participating in it.
For example, someone named Robert James was almost twice as likely (56% to 30%) to comply with a request if asked by someone with a similar name like Bob Ames, than he was by someone named Matt Fray.
The key takeaway for relationships, I believe, is learning how to be knowledgeable about our partner’s existing preferences.
Sales people greatly improve their chances of making a sale by demonstrating that they understand their customer’s personal preferences.
Couldn’t that same principle work in our behavior toward our spouses?
Principle #5: Authority
Most people tend to respect authority figures. Not just our bosses at work or police officers, but even people like the medical office workers checking our insurance cards and asking us to fill out sign-in sheets at our doctor appointments, and others, such as flight attendants.
That’s why con artists commonly pose as company officials via email, on the phone, or by wearing some type of uniform when they knock on doors. It’s to appear “official” and authoritarian.
We tend to follow the lead of real experts.
There are an endless amount of helpful resources on improving relationships and marriage, with one of the most obvious being the Gottman Institute, and their science-based approach using big data to uncover the secrets of happy marriages, and the hallmark traits of relationships that are doomed.
How can we cleverly use an authentic expert to influence our partner to take a certain action?
Principle #6: Scarcity
Ahh. Good ol’ scarcity.
The genesis of all “Act fast! These deals end soon!” messaging and the reason why those brilliant countdown clocks on Amazon and Living Social products sometimes prompt us to click that “Buy Now” button sooner than we might otherwise.
It’s the most basic premise of economic theory: The less there is of something, the more valuable it is.
People are drawn to, and willing to overpay for, rare and uncommon things that other people also want.
Cialdini didn’t need to conduct any new experiments to prove that people OFTEN want what they can’t have.
This bears out in shitty marriages all the time. Husbands frequently demonstrate indifference in their romantic relationships with their wives, and fight with her when she calls him on it, but then freak out and cry a lot when she finally decides to leave him.
While it might be tempting to threaten divorce or withhold sex in a misguided effort to manipulate our partner in a reverse-psychology sort of way, I think any relationship-damaging behavior (which any type of cruel or unloving manipulation would be) defeats the purpose of using persuasion and influence to strengthen our connections with those we love.
But the question remains: How can we use the SUPER-powerful “Fear of missing out” phenomenon to influence our partners in healthy ways to adjust a behavior that might save or strengthen our marriage?
Influencing others isn’t about luck or sorcery. It’s science.
It’s simply caring about something enough to figure out how it functions, and how best to care for it to keep it operating at a high level for a very long time.
It’s simply caring enough about the people we love to figure out how best to care for them in a way that keeps their hearts, minds and spirits functioning at high levels for a very long time.
Like, longer than my son’s putting-his-shoes-on process.
A version of this post was previously published on MustBeThisTallToRide and is republished here with permission from the author.
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