Feb 21, 2018

The 7 Deadly Sins are 7 Keys to Persuasion

{This post is part of the Archive of Human Exploits}

Another way to describe human exploits is human weaknesses. Of these, vices are the most fundamental. Ancient Christian thinkers articulated seven major vices, the so-called "seven deadly sins." According to Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica, they are:
  1. Pride
  2. Greed
  3. Lust
  4. Envy
  5. Gluttony
  6. Wrath
  7. Sloth
It's unnecessary to discuss how trained persuaders use greed/envy to entice and lust (sex) to sell. However, the other vices are non-obvious from a persuasion perspective and warrant further consideration.

Pride. Flattery will get you everywhere. Flattery engenders "liking," the fifth of Dr. Cialdini's seven principles of persuasion. (It seems these things come in sets of seven.) Another aspect of pride involves the sense of ownership we have for our own ideas or possessions. A whole host of exploits derive from this, including confirmation bias (inability to recognize information that contradicts our beliefs), the endowment effect (overvaluing things merely because we own them) and so on.

Gluttony. 24-hour buffets. Endless shrimp. Bottomless bowls of pasta. Everyone is perpetually on a diet, and few believe overeating is acceptable, yet these gimmicks continue to win business in the restaurant industry. Ancient thinkers were less interested in what such behavior says about a person's stomach than what it says about his mind; i.e. his judgment. What might someone who is so focused on the basest of human needs be willing to give up to satisfy that need? The classic example is the biblical story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob, whose name means a pejorative for persuader (deceiver), convinced his famished brother Esau to give him his birthright in exchange for some bread and lentil stew. As far as we know, he didn't even have to offer Esau a "bottomless" bowl of said stew to do it.

Wrath. Selling to an angry customer. Negotiating with a furious partner. It may seem odd to think of fighting as persuasion, but consider this: A boxer or MMA striker can spend a considerable amount of time trying to convince his opponent to drop his guard or make some other ill-advised move, exposing him to attack. He feints and sets traps. Indeed, one of the more effective traps is intentionally angering his opponent, throwing him off mental balance and instigating errors. (This is same strategy behind "trash talking" in football, basketball and so on.) Re-framed this way, it's possible to see other ways a trained persuader might exploit this vice for gain. Anger is ultimately a weakness and no one operating out of weakness can withstand the steady strength of a calm opponent. Anger also leads to remorse and exhaustion, two emotional states that cause people to overcompensate in the opposite direction. Persuaders resilient enough to weather the storm will often find it easy to get their way when wrath has blown itself out.

Sloth. We tend to think of persuasion as getting someone to take an action, but getting people to choose inaction can be just as effective. This is strategy behind: a) negative-option selling, where a customer has to "opt out" to avoid getting charged for something; b) continuity schemes, where a customer has to cancel to avoid a monthly charge; and c) the default effect. This list is by no means comprehensive, either. People will also take action now to avoid having to take more action later. That idea is behind everything from selling washing machines to insurance plans, explains the success of mini-grocery stores in drugstores and much more. In other words, "convenience" is just another way of saying "slothful behavior."

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