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A master of persuasion gives up the secrets

It took until almost the end of the evening before someone compared the advertising industry to a bunch of con men. This was on a recent Tuesday night in downtown Toronto, where about 75 members and friends of something called the Association for Science and Reason were stuffed into the top floor of the Fox & Fiddle pub. The occasion was a monthly event known as Skeptics in the Pub, but the group seemed to throw out their skepticism as they threw back the pints and listened to Kevin Dutton, a Cambridge research fellow in social psychology who was outlining some of the science behind persuasion.

If he seems at first an unlikely persuader - possessed of a lisp, a five o'clock shadow, and lank hair - Mr. Dutton, 43, knows how to keep a crowd engaged. After about an hour of sharing some of the more entertaining and surprising anecdotes contained in his new book Split-Second Persuasion (subtitle: The Ancient Art and New Science of Changing Minds), someone asked how, "con men, magicians, and advertisers" knew how to ply their persuasive trades even before his work was published. Mr. Dutton replied that the grifters he'd met in the course of research may not have known the names of the scientific principles they used to fleece their marks, but they had something far more valuable: good gut instinct.

Over the phone from Cambridge a few days later, he went further, admitting the book probably doesn't contain much that would surprise people in the various persuasion industries. Still, he added, "I think probably what it has managed to do is distill and crystallize the wisdom that's been floating around out there for generations."

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The book is a brisk read, written with an eye to the same social science audience that keeps Malcolm Gladwell's books on the bestseller lists. (That echo of Mr. Gladwell's Blink you hear in the title of Split-Second Persuasion is itself a form of persuasion.) Mr. Dutton's goal is to help us see the ocean of sweet talk we're swimming in, to make it obvious that persuasion is not just something that happens when we ask the boss for a raise or Apple buys ad time to make our eyes sparkle with the promise of a shiny new toy. He dips into the animal kingdom for illuminating examples, from the deeply seductive quonking of Bell Frogs (deeply seductive to female Bell Frogs, that is), to the uniquely bright web spun by the Golden Orb Weaver spider.

But don't start thinking human beings are far removed from those animals. Mr. Dutton notes that women find men with more masculine features (Bruce Willis) more attractive than those with more feminine features (Leonardo DiCaprio) when they're ovulating; making sure to play to both sides of the gender fence, he produces statistics indicating strippers earn better tips when they're ovulating. He points out that natural selection outfitted all of us with the essential tools (big eyes, a surgically effective wail) to persuade someone to care for us at birth. And he includes enough stories in the book of master persuaders (Jesus Christ, Winston Churchill, a handful of pseudonymous psychopaths) that readers will find themselves not just learning some tricks of persuasion, but aspiring to their level.

Which, alas, is probably fruitless. In compiling a couple of hundred case studies of what he called in a Scientific American story "supersuasion," Mr. Dutton realized that both art and science are involved. Which is to say some people have a talent for it and some people don't.

"Persuasion's like any skill, like any aptitude, it's on a continuum," he says. "It's just like the 100 metres: Some people are going to be able to run the 100 metres in under 10 seconds, other people aren't going to be able to do that. But we can all improve our times."

His advice? "Go out there and absolutely do it," he says. "By trial and error, you learn what works and what doesn't work."

First, though, you need to outfit yourself with the basic knowledge, and Mr. Dutton's research suggests there are five key elements, which he wraps up in the acronym SPICE. (His use of quippy anecdotes to begin each chapter, and his instinct for neologisms - the book was published in the U.K. as Flipnosis - illustrate his own canny knack for persuasion.) SPICE stands for Simplicity (that is: don't complicate matters), Perceived self-interest (someone will only be persuaded if they believe what's on offer will benefit them), Incongruity (the tactic, which throws off the target, often takes the form of humour), Confidence, and Empathy. Most of these, of course, are incorporated in the best ads for products, services, and politicians. But they also form the basis of the come-ons of, say, used car salesmen, so Mr. Dutton positions his work as an antidote to unwanted appeals.

"I think the people who read the book will not only learn the tricks of the trade - how to persuade - but they'll also know what to look for when such persuasion is angled at them," he says. "With knowledge comes protection."

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The fact that some need that protection more than others - some are more persuadable - has led to a frenzy of scientific research. Neuroscientists are busy trying to read the brain's responses to various persuasive stimuli: Indeed, a study published last month in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience suggested there is a network of regions in the brain that responds to the act of being persuaded by an argument.

Mr. Dutton, meanwhile, is in the middle of a study involving 8,000 pairs of twins to determine if there is a genetic component to impressionability. "Persuasion is about transmitting a message, but it's also about receiving a message," he cautions. "It's exactly like radio waves: You can have the best transmitters on the planet, but if you haven't got a receiver, no matter how good the message is, it's not going to work."

But Split-Second Persuasion points out that, sometimes, our responses are so deep-rooted that we simply can't resist. Mr. Dutton cites one 2007 study in which hotel guests were presented with signs requesting they reuse towels. The pleas covered a range of tactics, and included: "Help save the environment," "Help the hotel save energy," and "Help save resources for future generations." The most effective appeal? The one that said 75 per cent of guests who had stayed in that particular room had reused their towels.

"It's tapping into the brain's hard-wired preference to be part of a group," observes Mr. Dutton, who draws a strong connection in the book to the long-ago human discovery that safety was usually found in numbers. In other words, all those ad campaigns suggesting we buy something that's popular are secretly trying to leverage the human instinct for self-preservation.

"That was our first insurance policy - it was extremely important, and it's something we've never ever grown out of. We never will. We're hard-wired to be part of a group, and one of the real ways of tapping into someone's perceived self-interest is to say, 'Look, if you don't do this, you're going to be on the outside.'"

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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