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Get What You Want from People by Making Them Think They Have a Choice

Remember, "freedom is slavery."
February 8, 2013, 2:00pm
If this doesn’t work, there’s a better way to persuade someone to do something revolting. Image via MySpace.

When Dale Carnegie published How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1937, it was an instant success—one of the first self-help blockbusters, selling more than 15 million copies to date. The book provides 30 rules of behavior geared toward getting what you want, like “Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.” Warren Buffet, the third-richest person in the world according to Forbes, said it changed his life.

Thirty rules is a lot to memorize. Luckily a new survey of 42 academic studies about the subtle art of persuasion, drawing on data from 22,000 subjects, says there is one persuasion technique that is so effective it may obviate the need for most others: Researchers call it the “but you are free” technique.

The findings were the result of a recent meta-analysis by Christopher J. Carpenter, a communication professor at Western Illinois University, published in the latest issue of the journal, Communication Studies. In his analysis, Carpenter found that the technique consistently doubled the chances someone would comply to a request.

We’re all familiar with the technique, whether we’ve stopped to notice it or not. It’s where we ask people to do something but make it clear they are free, Bartleby-style, to prefer not to—even if you’re the boss and they really aren’t. It’s all about creating at least the illusion of freedom.

As the writers at PsyBlog explain , the specific language isn’t as important as the message. Taken literally, one could very effectively say “I’d really appreciate it if you put the new cover sheet on those TPS reports, but you’re free not to.” But one could just as effectively say, “No pressure, baby, go home drunk by yourself if you want. But it’d be awesome if I came with you instead.”

Remember, of course, that you’re only doubling whatever chances you started with. So if your chances with regard to the latter were zero, twice zero still equals zero.