A Successful Catalyst | Part 2

In my last post we broke down the barriers to being a successful catalyst: Reactance, Endowment, Distance, Uncertainty and Corroborating Evidence. Let’s look at a few case studies in support of these ideas.


When Warnings Become Recommendations

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After Gronk (Rob Gronkowski) and Tide warned people not to eat Tide pods, Google searches for Tide pods spiked to their highest level ever. Four days later they had more than doubled. Within a week they were up almost 700 percent. In all of 2016, there had been only 39 cases of teens ingesting, inhaling, or absorbing laundry packets. In a dozen days following the Tide announcement, there were twice that many. Within a few months, the number had more than doubled than the prior two years combined. Tide’s efforts had backfired.


The Tide Pod Challenge might seem unusual, but another example with a much broader impact includes instructions to jurors. Instructing jurors to disregard inadmissible testimony can encourage them to weigh it more heavily.


Alcohol prevention messages can lead college students to drink more. And trying to persuade the populace that smoking is bad for their health can make them more interested in smoking in the future.


In these and similar examples, warnings became recommendations. Just as telling a teenager not to date someone somehow makes that person more alluring, telling people not to do something has the opposite effect: It makes them more likely to do it.


The Need for Freedom and Autonomy - Arden House Experiment (1970s):

On one floor, elderly residents were told precise instructions for their living arrangements. They had to take care of one house plant in their room. Rooms were arranged according to someone else’s dictate and tastes. Movies in the central recreation room were always chosen for them.


On another floor, the residents were given choices in house plants and movies. Residents were allowed to rearrange their own rooms according to their own tastes. The residents with freedom and autonomy interact and express more happiness. They lived longer.

People have a need for freedom and autonomy. Doing the forbidden thing becomes an easy way to reassert their sense of being in the driver’s seat. Restriction generates a psychological phenomenon called reactance: an unpleasant state that occurs when people feel their freedom is lost or threatened.


Reactance happens even when asking people to do something rather than telling them not to. In the absence of persuasion, people think they are doing what they want. They see their actions as driven by their own thoughts and preferences. Pushing, telling or just encouraging people to do something often makes them less likely to do it.


Reactance even happens when people had wanted to do what was suggested in the first place.


Imagine instituting a new workplace initiative to get people to speak up in meetings.

Some people may want to speak up already, so the initiative should be an easy sell. People want to speak up, the company wants people to speak up, everybody wins. If the initiative crowds out people’s ability to see their behavior as internally or freely driven, it can backfire. Someone is thinking of speaking up now has an alternate explanation for that thought - that they’re doing so not because they want to but because the initiative told them to. It interferes with their ability to see their decisions as their own.



Reducing Reactance

To avoid reactance and the persuasion radar, catalysts allow for agency - they stop trying to persuade and instead get people to persuade themselves.


The most successful campaign ads to reduce teen smoking were based upon smoking looking like an establishment thing, not a rebellious thing. If you want to be a pawn of the cigarette companies, go ahead and smoke. But if you want to thumb your nose at the establishment, don’t smoke. In just a few months, the “truth campaign,” as the program came to be known, led more than 30,000 Florida teens to quit smoking. Within a couple of years it cut teen smoking rates in half. It was the most effective large-scale prevention campaign ever.


Over the course of the national campaign, teen smoking rates dropped by 75 percent. To reduce reactance, catalysts allow for agency, not by telling people what to do or by being completely hands-off, but by finding the middle ground - by guiding their path. Four key ways to do that are: (1) provide a menu, (2) ask, don’t tell, (3) highlight a gap and (4) start with understanding.

  1. Provide a Menu: One way to allow for agency is to let people pick the path. Let them choose how they get where you are hoping they’ll go.

  2. Ask, Don’t Tell: Another way to allow for agency is to ask questions rather than make statements. Questions do a couple of things. First, like providing a menu, questions shift the listener’s role. Rather than counter-arguing or thinking about all the reasons they disagree with a statement, listeners are occupied with a different task - figuring out an answer to the question: "How do they feel about it or their opinion?" Something most people are more than happy to do.

  3. Highlight a Gap: Another route to self-persuasion is to highlight a gap - a disconnect between someone’s thoughts and actions or a disparity between what they might recommend to others versus do themselves. The Thailand Smoking Kid campaign worked because it highlighted a gap, a disconnect between what smokers were suggesting to others (kids) and what they were doing themselves. People strive for internal consistency. They want their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors to align. Someone who says they care about the environment tries to reduce their carbon footprint. Someone who preaches the virtues of honesty tries not to tell lies.

  4. Start with Understanding: The first step isn’t influence or persuasion. Like most people trying to change minds, novice negotiators want to be direct saying, “Let the hostages go now or we’ll shoot," immediately jumping to the outcome they want to achieve. They completely miss the opportunity to effectively persuade the captors.

Thank you for the opportunity to share these findings. This, and so much more are available in Lucas’s Change Management white paper: Mitigating Change Driven Human Error. Download your free copy today. Be sure to check our One Point Taken blog regularly for the latest from the OPT.