Friday, August 22, 2014

The Small BIG

Steve Martin, Noah Goldstein and Robert Cialdini have a new book coming out later this month called 'The Small BIG' and their publisher was kind enough to send me an advance copy. This is the second collaboration by the three co-authors after they published 'Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion' in 2007. Robert Cialdini, aside from being a highly-cited social psychologist within academia, is also the author of the 1984 book 'Influence' which continues to be very popular among both lay audiences and nerds like myself. Their latest book is in a similar mould of describing how persuasion techniques, contextual factors and environment cues can be used to influence others in business and social situations.

When it comes to popular science books I generally take a chicken wing approach of gobbling up the science and skimming the popular aspects as efficiently as possible; in other words my copies of 'Predictably Irrational', 'Blink', Freakonomics' and so on are full of underlined passages and notes next to where the academic papers are referenced. When I want to look up something which I found particularly interesting in one of these books, I thumb through and quickly find the relevant study using this method.

With that said I found 'The Small BIG' refreshingly direct in its presentation. The book is made up of 52 main chapters, each around 4 pages in length and providing a "small" psychological insight that can have a potentially large effect on behaviour (hence the book title). The chapter titles follow the same structure, such as "How can a small change in venue lead to big differences in your negotiations", "What small big can be used to make defaults more effective?" and "What small big could help motivate others (and yourself) to complete a task".

All the chapters draw on the authors' obviously deep knowledge of the social psychology literature in order to relate real-life tips and applications. For example, the chapter "What small big could ensure you're dressed for success?" cites a paper which found that wearing a stethoscope led a nurse's health messages to be recalled more successfully (Castledine 1996), and an older study (Lefkowitz et al. 1955) which found that people were considerably more likely to follow a man (illegally) crossing the street on a red light when he wore a suit compared to casual clothes. Another chapter examining order effects (i.e. the order in which you present options may influence people's reaction to them) cites a paper which found that people perceived "580 [hours of tv] for $285.90" as a better deal than "$285.90 for 580 hours" (Bagchi & Davis 2012). Interestingly this effect disappeared when consumers were presented with a computationally easier choice ("600 hours for $300").The authors then suggest how these kind of findings might apply in a business context, such as framing sales orders by item-first rather than price.

To give a final example, the authors discuss the findings of a recent paper examining how people perceive opportunity cost (Frederick et al. 2009), one of the most fundamental insights of economic thought and a concept which can really change your life if you deeply internalize it. That paper conducted an experiment wherein one group were offered the chance to purchase a DVD for $15 with the options "Buy the DVD" or "Not buy the DVD". The second group were offered the same product but with the options "Buy the DVD" or "Keep the $15 for other purchases". This subtle reframing led to a reduction in purchase rates in the second group from 75 to 55 percent, a finding which sales professionals could take either way in terms of highlighting or underplaying the opportunity cost of following their communications (e.g. look at the phrase used 20 seconds into this De Beers advertisement).

With 117 references in the 52 chapters, I found this book a very effective way to dive into the persuasion/influence literature and I learned of many new studies by reading it.

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