Those of us in the business of persuasion could learn something from a very telling research study.
A 1981 study at the University of Missouri (Petty, Cacioppo and Goldman), asked students to listen to a persuasive audio recording.
Students were to consider if a comprehensive exam should be implemented before college seniors would be allowed to graduate.
HOWEVER, one important variable was altered among test subjects. Some students were told the exam would be implemented before they graduated and others were told it would be long after they had graduated.
The results were VERY interesting.
If the exam would not personally impact them, students were overwhelmingly persuaded that this was a good idea. However, when students were told they were going to be personally impacted by such a decision, the tables turned.
As Robert B. Cialdini, author of Influence: Science and Practice puts it, “Those subjects with no personal stake in the topic were primarily persuaded by the speaker’s expertise in the field of education; they used the ‘If an expert said so, it must be true’ rule, paying little attention to the strength of the arguments. Those subjects for whom the issue mattered personally, on the other hand, ignored the speaker’s expertise and were persuaded primarily by the speaker’s arguments.”
As Cialdini discusses in his book, most people rely on innate decision making processes, such as “is the author credible” when making decisions. However, when you cross a line, such as the above study did, credibility is not important. Rather, readers will put on their critical reading glasses and be ultra-critical of your proposal.
THE LESSON: Authority and expertise can persuade when the target reader has no personal stake in the topic. However, strong arguments prevail when the reader will be personally impacted by the topic.
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