How politicians' words influence other people's actions

by Marc Wilson / 13 November, 2018
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Politicians like to pretend their words don’t influence others’ actions, but if that’s so, why utter them?

In recent weeks, US President Donald Trump has said he’ll cut taxes for the middle class and bring the price of medicines down. He’s stated he’ll remove birthright citizenship and that refugee caravans include killers and other ne’er-do-wells.

It’s this last that has got him in even more hot water than usual, fuelling claims that, by normalising xenophobia, he is indirectly responsible for the actions of Robert Bowers, the man arrested for killing 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

The shootings came on top of a series of pipe bombs sent to prominent Trump opponents, including Hillary Clinton, allegedly by Floridian Cesar Sayoc, a bloke who claims native American heritage and has a van festooned with symbols referencing the Ku Klux Klan.

Nope, Trump says, his inflammatory shouts of “lock her [Hillary] up” and “fake news” have nothing to do with these actions.

Closer to home, Judith Collins was variously accused of trolling – or inciting others to troll – the couple featured in the Government’s recent KiwiBuild public-relations exercise, questioning whether they should have been eligible for the scheme. She denied any wrongdoing.

I’m not putting Collins in the same ballpark as Trump. My focus is politicians’ routine denial that words can influence other people’s actions. I think I have a knock-down argument that proves them wrong. At least, I think I have one that proves they don’t believe their own press on this one. If words don’t influence actions, why do they spend pots of cash on political advertising? Why stump at all during elections? Why open your mouth at all, because people are going to think and do whatever it is they do with nary a hint of persuasion?

Trump and Collins have in common that they blimmin’ well hope their words make a difference. “Words don’t matter” is clearly rubbish. It’s deluded, hypocritical, or a marker of self-serving inconsistency.

What do we know about persuasion? I can recommend the book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive, by Robert Cialdini, Noah Goldstein and Steve Martin. It’s a good pop-psych intro to decades of research on getting people to do or buy what you want.

I’m pretty sure that it’s not that Steve Martin –  you know, the actor who also plays the ukulele. The real name-drop here is Cialdini – he’s been around for a long time and is a big deal in persuasion literature. A man so famous in my circles that he doesn’t even have a Google Scholar profile.

Cialdini’s best-known book is one of his first: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

Cialdini distilled persuasion down to six principles, which he is said to have gleaned from several years of sneaking around used-car lots, sales rooms and charity organisations. These might have been hot stuff in the 80s but I bet they’re foundational for anyone who wants to get into marketing now.

In some ways, they’re not rocket science. If you give someone something small, they’re more likely to do something bigger when you next ask (reciprocity). The less of something there is, the more desirable it appears (scarcity). When you’re trying to make a decision, people you think are experts are more likely to persuade you (authority), as are people you like (likeability). People will trust you to do in the future what you’ve done in the past (consistency), and they’ll look at what other people are doing if they’re uncertain what they should do (consensus).

You can see these principles in hotel rooms (90% of guests recycle their towels) and in doctors displaying their degrees on the wall. Trump’s midterms campaign slogan? “Promises made, promises kept.” If I give you a 10% tax cut, then you’ll vote for me …

This article was first published in the November 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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