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Duck Quacks Don’t Echo

Stephen White

Just how good are we at persuasion?

How gullible are you as a negotiator? Not very, you will probably tell me.  You do your prep, you check the facts, you are streetwise, and you can normally see a scam or a piece of B/S coming and react accordingly.

Our propensity to believe the unbelievable is enhanced by a world which is increasingly intrinsically unbelievable. I find myself gawping at the news on a daily basis. Facebook paid $19,000,000,000 for an App which employs only 55 people and doesn’t take advertising? Did your finger get stuck on the zero button? Candy Crush Saga, a moronically addictive computer game, has been downloaded more than half a billion times? You’re pulling my leg. ATMs already exist for a virtual currency which has existed for only 4 years, is prone to vast fluctuations in value, and is often used for money laundering? Surely not.

So the world is full of tales of deceivers and fraudsters who succeed in conning sensible people like you and me. The storylines in two movies, American Hustle and Wolf of Wall Street, both contenders for Oscars this weekend and both based on real events, tell of the gullibility of people who believed implausible claims and were parted from their money as a result. TV programs around the world use gullibility as central theme for entertainment, from the early days of Candid Camera to a current  format of asking intelligent celebrities, and some  stupid ones as well, to identify whether implausible  ‘facts’ are true or false. In the US and UK, the latest of these is called ‘Duck Quacks Don’t Echo’ (actually they do).

But gullibility is as much to do with the ability of the persuader, as the reaction of the persuaded. And recent research, reported in the New York Times suggests that we might be more able at persuasion than we think we are. A group of students was asked to predict what percentage of strangers would comply if the students tried to persuade them to vandalize a library book.  The students’ prediction was less than 30% would comply. In fact more than 50% did so. Some of the strangers protested before they did the evil deed, but they still did it!

The point is that the students significantly underestimated their ability to persuade the strangers. Even more interesting is that the experiment involved not just any old piece of persuasion, but specifically persuasion involving an ethical issue (that defacing a library book is OK behavior), where one might think that people would be less persuadable.

This is particularly interesting for negotiators who wrestle with the integrity of ‘unethical’ persuasion. The buyer who assures the salesman that the competition is cheaper (when it is not), the salesman who threatens that the deal has to be done today or the price goes up (when it won’t). These persuasive ploys have been used for centuries and continue to be popular - because they work. Morals don’t play a part.

So next time you sit down at the negotiating table, well prepared and raring to get on with it, just be aware of your potential gullibility, and factor in some caution to protect yourself.

Stephen White

Stephen White
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