Behaviorist Jen Shang, who specializes in the psychology of giving, has shown in recent studies that words – especially words of kindness – can be very persuasive. From her studies, she says that when some combination of nine adjectives – kind, caring, compassionate, helpful, friendly, fair, hard-working, generous and honest – are included in fundraising solicitations, women increase their giving by an average of 10 percent. Clearly, women strive to be moral.
Men, she says, tend to respond to words like strong, responsible and loyal. I guess gender differences are still more pronounced than I would have suspected, though I would like nothing better than to be considered kind and caring, and I know many men who feel the same way.
And while stark images of starving children or earthquake victims get people’s initial attention and may persuade potential donors to learn more about the crisis, the images do not necessarily encourage giving over the long term.
So, it would seem that words are persuasive, maybe more so than images – which is not a big revelation to someone who writes for a living.
On the other hand, some words are too abstract to get a rise. Words like “environment.” Policymakers and environmentalists have long been frustrated by people who claim to worry about the environment – and consider themselves “environmentalists” – but are unwilling to adjust lifestyles or change their behaviors in any significant way. No surprise here. All I have to do is look in the mirror.
According to Professor Robert B. Cialdini of Arizona State University, that’s because people tend to respond more to the “normative” behaviors of their community than abstractions. Does this suggest, we’re brainless sheep? Maybe.
Here’s an example that many travelers will recognize. When a hotel urges guests to reuse their towels for the sake of the planet, convenience and luxury tend to work against the noble goal. Perhaps the more cynical among us may just see this as the hotel’s way of cutting costs.
Nevertheless, Professor Cialdini’s research has found that the best way to persuade guests to reuse towels is to inform them that a majority of the previous guests in that room did NOT change towels daily. Similarly, in a study to determine how to get people to reduce home energy use, subjects were more likely to comply if they were told that all their neighbors were doing it. Conserving energy to save money or the planet didn’t do the trick.
“People need to be in alignment with their contemporaries,” says the professor. “It validates them. It becomes something they should do and can do.” Perhaps this is why wind turbines in Europe are accepted in counties with high-priced homes, but are resisted like the plague (Not in my backyard!) in the U.S. Variations in the attitudes about community responsibility seem to make the difference. Imagine the differences in the cocktail party chatter in the suburbs of Houston and the suburbs of Amsterdam.
So the word “environment” may be too abstract, but if you bring the subject down to earth, and tie it to a reward of neighborly alignment then, bingo, you get the response you want. Like it or not, most people, essentially, follow the crowd.
Does this mean words aren’t persuasive? Of course they are. It just depends on which ones you choose and how you use them – or whom you pick to string them together. The key is to provide context and connection to other human beings to get the results you want.