Persuasive Web: Where Psychology Meets Conversion

DAY 21: A Flawed Persuasion Principle?

Posted in 30 Days of Persuasion by persuasiveweb on June 22, 2009


What happens when you look for a flaw… but find nothing? The athlete who must be on steroids… but isn’t. The 24-year-old millionaire who must be a drug dealer… but actually runs a successful start-up. The beautiful actress who you hope has veneers & extensions, gets Botox by IV, is brainless & shallow… but who’s actually naturally gorgeous, a PhD and a math tutor for inner-city kids on the weekends. 

There’s power in looking for flaws and being proven wrong. It’s persuasive. Research into consumer decision-making behavior even proves it. 

The Experiment: The Power of Being Proven Wrong

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What if someone sat you down in front of the aspirin message to the right (from Bayer’s Aspirin website) and said, “Tell us what you think about this product”? And what if they then sat your friend down and said, “Tell us all your negative thoughts about this product”? 

Drs. Derek D. Rucker and Richard E. Petty of Ohio State University conducted that experiment almost exactly. The widely held assumption in consumer research, prior to their research, was that people can’t be persuaded once they’ve started to argue against the claims or messaged benefits of a product. …So when Rucker and Petty asked one group to focus on their negative thoughts about aspirin, they might’ve expected that the effect of all that negativity would be “anti-persuasion”. 

The actual result? People who aggressively considered drawbacks to aspirin but found none concluded that they had truly few negative thoughts about the product… which actually increased their certainty in choosing aspirin. Those who sat and objectively processed the aspirin message — that is, those who were asked just to ‘think’ about aspirin — were less certain about choosing aspirin. Why? Because they had not attempted to find fault and come up empty-handed. They hadn’t engaged in battle and lost. They hadn’t been proven wrong. 

What Happens If They Counter-Argue… And Are Proven Right?

Umm… don’t let that happen. 😉 As researchers Tormala and Petty found, people who successfully counter-argue a message ended up feeling even stronger negative feelings towards a product… because they’d been proven right. Their negative attitudes stuck and even further solidified. Good luck breaking down that wall! (Well, it can be done… but why go there if you don’t have to?)

Examples of Companies Who Benefit from This “Flawed” Persuasion Principle

Some companies use guarantees, inviting consumers to investigate their products for flaws and return the product if there are, in fact, flaws in it. The truth is that any company that has a truly great product can confidently encourage people to try to find their flaws. When no such flaws are revealed, the effect is a more positive attitude towards the company and/or product.

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The moral of the story? As Rucker and Petty put it:

Aggressively considering drawbacks to a product, but finding none, allows individuals to conclude they have truly few negative thoughts, which increases attitude certainty. Individuals who objectively process a message have not aggressively considered the faults, and therefore are not as certain.

Are you ready to put yourself out there? Is your product so good that, when put to the test, consumers would talk themselves into using your product rather than talking themselves out of it? 

It’s a big challenge, putting yourself and your brand out there to be picked apart — but we’ve seen that, if you’re as good as you claim to be, there’s no reason people should choose the competition. So the real question is whether you’re as good as you claim to be. And no number of persuasion principles — even expertly applied — can help you if you aren’t. (Not in the long run, at least. 🙂 ) 



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