More Pronoun Research

Dr. Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, is on a roll lately.  

His research was picked up by WSJ:

"112 psychology students were assigned to same-sex groups of two. The pairs worked to solve a series of complex problems. All interaction took place online. No one was assigned to a leadership role, but participants were asked at the end of the experiment who they thought had power and status. Researchers found that the higher the person's perceived power, the less he or she used 'I.' "



Hypothetically Speaking

Professor of Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Baba Shiv, showed in a recent study, how "hypothetical questions don't merely measure our current attitudes: such questions can actually sway opinion and affect behavior." He explains the phenomenon of "push polls." This is when pollsters call up a voter and ostensibly asks for the voter's opinion but is really trying to push a viewpoint or agenda. The pollster can affect what a voter thinks about a candidate by posing hypothetical questions. The issue is these hypothetical questions bring up stereotypes in the voter's mind and can then taint what a voter thinks of a candidate.

"For example, if one of your stereotypes of politicians is that they're corrupt, then hearing a hypothetical question about a politician who took bribes will remind you of that stereotype, making you even less likely than before to vote for that politician in the near future."

Pretty sneaky, huh?

Books in 5 Quotes: Robert B. Cialdini

Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D.

Cialdini's book explains with alarming insight all of our human foibles and how they are so easily exploited. Given the new year and the focus on change, I thought I would highlight his quotes on commitment and consistency, in particular, and how the value humans assign to them can be leveraged for behavior change.

1. “It is, quite simply, our nearly obsessive desire to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have already done. Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressure to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.”

2. “Whenever one takes a stand that is visible to others, there arises a drive to maintain that stand in order to look like a consistent person. For appearances’ sake, then, the more public a stand, the more reluctant we will be to change it.”

3. “The more effort that goes into a commitment, the greater is its ability to influence the attitudes of the person who made it.”

4. “It appears that commitments are most effective in changing a person’s self-image and future behavior when they are active, public, and effortful.”

5. “Social scientists have determined that we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressures. A large reward is one such external pressure. It may get us to perform a certain action, but it won’t get us to accept inner responsibility for the act. Consequently, we won’t feel committed to it. The same is true of a strong threat; it may motivate immediate compliance, but it is unlikely to produce long-term commitment.”

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.


Someone once told me that the most powerful word in the English language is the word "because." Reading Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini, I finally stumbled upon evidence for the statement. It seems it's based on work done by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer.

In Cialdini's words: "A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do. Langer demonstrated this unsurprising fact by asking a small favor of people waiting in line to use a library copying machine: Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I'm in a rush? The effectiveness of this request-plus-reason was nearly total: Ninety-four percent of those asked let her skip ahead of them in line. Compare this success rate to the results when she made the request only: Excuse me, I have five pages. May use the Xerox machine? Under those circumstances, only 60 percent of those asked complied."

He goes on to say one might think that the difference between the two results was the additional information she offered - that she was in a rush, but Langer tried a third type of request that puts all the power in the word "because."

"Instead of including a real reason for compliance, Langer's third type of request used the word "because" and then, adding nothing new, merely restated the obvious: Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies? The result was that once again nearly all (93 percent) agreed, even though no real reason, no new information, was added to justify their compliance."

The word "because" according to Cialdini triggers something in us as humans that makes us comply. That's why you should use the word because - because it works.