ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
How do you get someone to back your ideas, buy your products or behave in a different way? Whether it’s a boss or a peer, customer or client, supplier or investor – or maybe people failing to wear masks during a pandemic – how do you get them to see things how you do, especially if they start out disagreeing with you, discounting you, or worse, not even knowing you’re there?
Even with irrefutable data and emotional appeals, it can be really hard to change another person’s mind. Most of us get extremely stuck in our opinions, preferences and habits. Today’s guest says it’s possible to push even the most resistant people in new directions. He says that persuasion starts with recognizing the reasons why affecting change is so difficult, and then developing strategies to overcome those obstacles.
Jonah Berger is a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School author of The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind. Jonah, thanks so much for coming on the show.
And a quick note to listeners: we spoke to Jonah a while back before the pandemic and its fallout. But we checked in with him for an update on how these ideas apply now and you’ll hear that conversation at the end of the show.
We know that persuasion is so important in business, politics, all areas of life, really. Some people seem a lot better at it than others. So, what’s the number one mistake that most people make in this area?
JONAH BERGER: You know, everyone has something they want to change. Employees want to change their boss’s mind, and leaders want to transform organizations. Marketers want to change their customer/client’s mind. Sales folks want to do the same. Startups want to change industries. Nonprofits want to change the world.
But change is really hard. Often we push, and we push, and we push, and nothing happens. When we think about changing minds, when we think about changing behaviors, when we think about changing organizations, often we take a certain style of approach. We think if we just add more information, more reasons, more facts, more figures, just send people one more PowerPoint deck, they’ll come around.
And that intuition makes a lot of sense in the physical world. If we’re sitting in front of a chair, for example, and we want to move that chair, a good way to move that chair is pushing. I would push a little bit on the chair, and it goes in the direction we want it to go. But in the social world, that doesn’t necessarily work, because when we push people, they often push back. Asking a subtly but importantly different question, why hasn’t that person changed already? What are the barriers or obstacles that are getting in the way of change, and how can we mitigate them?
ALISON BEARD: So why do people have this instinct to push back, even when the thing being suggested might be good for them?
JONAH BERGER: We all love to feel like we’re in control. We love to feel like we’re shaping, and we’re driving our own lives. We’re making the choice. But unfortunately, when other people try to shape our opinions, we don’t feel like we have control. Think about a few years back to the Tide Pod challenge. So if you remember, a number of years ago, Tide Pod was having this issue. Proctor & Gamble was having this issue where Tide Pods, the things that we all throw in the laundry to make laundry easier – people were eating them. So you think about detergent, why would anyone eat detergent? But there was a funny article on the Onion saying they look good enough to eat. And soon, young people were challenging each other to eat Tide Pods. And so, there was all this chatter online about, oh, should we eat Tide Pods? Should we not? People, you know, shooting videos of themselves doing it. Lots of people getting attention.
ALISON BEARD: Should we eat poison or not?
JONAH BERGER: Yeah. For this sort of ridiculous, ridiculous thing. And so, imagine you’re sitting in Proctor & Gamble’s shoes at the moment. Right? You’re probably sitting there going, why do we need to tell people not to eat chemicals? But you’re probably thinking, you know, just in case, we’ll put out an announcement. So Proctor & Gamble does. They put out a very simple announcement saying, don’t eat Tide Pods.
And in case that wasn’t enough, they hire Rob Gronkowski, or the famous football player we think of as Gronk, to help. So he shoots this quick video for Tide online saying, you know, are Tide Pods ever safe to eat? No, no, no, no, no, no, no, flashes on the screen.
Now, clearly, this should have been enough. It shouldn’t have been a problem to begin with. Right? I mean, people eating chemicals. So, but interestingly, if you look at the data, something funny happens. So if you look at search data for Tide Pods, it’s creeping up as the Tide Pod challenge gets some attention. And then Proctor & Gamble and Gronk make their announcement. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.
So you would think, or you would hope that that would lead people to stop eating Tide Pods. If anything, it should have no effect on Tide Pods. But the exact opposite happens. Search traffic shoots up by more than fourfold. Visits to poison control shoot up as well. And essentially, asking people not to do something had backfired.
ALISON BEARD: And so, how do you get people to overcome this instinct to push back and say, no, I don’t want to be told what to do?
JONAH BERGER: I mean, the funniest and almost worst thing about reactants is it isn’t just when we tell people not to do something. The same thing happens when we tell people to do something, even if it was something they may have wanted to do already. Right? You think about a meeting, where you know, you’re asking people to support a certain initiative. They may have already even thought about supporting that initiative. But if you ask them to support it, it impinges on that freedom and autonomy. Right? They feel like now the reason they’re supporting it isn’t because they wanted to. It was because you told them to, which makes them have this kneejerk reaction, well, maybe I shouldn’t go along.
And so one way to solve this problem is to do something I call “providing a menu.” So imagine just your own personal life, for example. You know, someone asks, what are you going to do this weekend? What do you want to do this weekend? You say, oh, let’s go see a movie. And then they go, oh, it’s going to be too rainy outside, or oh, you know, it’s, why don’t we do something else instead? They shoot it down.
But instead you give them two options, multiple options, it subtly changes their role, because now, rather than sitting there thinking about all the reasons what’s wrong with what you suggested, now they’re thinking about which of the two options you suggested is a better fit for them.
Consultants do this all the time. Right? Consultants say, hey, look, if I pitch one thing to the client, the client will think about all the reasons why they can’t do it. If I pitch two, maybe even three solutions to the client, now they’re strategizing, OK, well, which one of these do I like better? And because they’re focusing on which one they like better, they’re more likely to pick one at the end of that meeting.
ALISON BEARD: So what are some of the other big hurdles that we face when we’re trying to get someone to change? You know, whether it’s an opinion, or the products and services we’re using?
JONAH BERGER: So there are five common barriers I found across situations. We talked about reactance. The next is endowment, which is, we tend to be attached to things we’re doing already. Then there’s distance, too far, if we ask for something that’s too big an ask, people ignore it. And collaborating evidence, which is all about providing more proof.
I think another big issue is uncertainty. And any time there’s a change, any time there’s something new, any time we’re asking people to do something different, there’s a risk associated with doing something different. Old things feel safe, even if they’re not perfect, have problems associated with them. We know what those problems are. Right? Whereas new things, we don’t even know what those problems are. And so, often people feel quite uncertain.
If you think about it, new things often involve switching costs as well. Right? So think about buying a new phone, for example. It costs money to buy that new phone. That’s a cost of switching. But there’s often time and effort cost as well. So if you’re pitching a new project to your boss, for example, they’re not only thinking, OK, well, how much will it cost to do this? But they’re thinking, God, how much effort is it going to be? Who are we going to switch off another project? And all those switching costs lead them to say, well, no thanks.
And even worse, think about when the costs and the benefits occur. Right? So the costs of change are often up front. Well, the benefits are later. We’re not going to know for another month or two whether it’s actually going to make money or actually going to be a good idea. And even worse, those costs are certain, whereas the benefits are uncertain. And so that’s what I’d call the cost/benefit timing gap. Right? Costs are now, and they’re certain. Benefits are later, and they’re uncertain. And so that cost/benefit gap is going to make it hard for change to happen.
ALISON BEARD: So I’d love to give you a few scenarios of people like our listeners who might be trying to persuade colleagues or customers to change their behavior but coming up against these obstacles you’re talking about. And you can give us advice on how they should handle it.
JONAH BERGER: I feel like this is like an advice column in the newspaper. I’ll do my best.
ALISON BEARD: Exactly. And so, I think the first one deals with that uncertainty hurdle that you were just talking about. So, you’re a bank executive charged with getting existing customers to use a new app and making sure that it helps you attract new customers. Go.
JONAH BERGER: So, it’s funny. I did a very similar project like this a few years ago for Yum! Brands. So one of their food brands, Taco Bell, was actually launching an app. And the app was doing OK. People were downloading it, but they weren’t using it. And so one thing we spent a lot of time on was thinking about why, and how to change it.
Is the issue that people don’t know the app exists? So it’s an awareness problem. Do people know the app exists but don’t think it’s any good? Then we need to convince them it’s good. Do they think it’s good, but they don’t want to download it. OK, why might that be? Are they downloading, but not using it? That’s a different problem. And so I think the first thing we need to do is diagnose that problem. Right? Why aren’t people changing? Where is the bottleneck in that process? And then begin to think about how to solve it.
ALISON BEARD: So, let’s say that the bottleneck is people aren’t downloading the app.
JONAH BERGER: Yeah. So I think one question I would say is, well, what are they doing at the moment? Right? So are they happily going into the bank, but they don’t realize that app exists? Or they think, ah, God, you know, I’m not sure it’s going to be trustworthy enough. What’s going to happen with my personal data? If that’s what they’re uncertain about, then the question is, how can I resolve that uncertainty? How can I make them feel more comfortable that it’s actually not a problem?
And so, one thing I think a lot about in those type of situations is, it’s almost like a test drive for cars. Right? So if you think about it, if a car company said, hey, great, you like our car. You think you might like our car. That’s wonderful. Pay $30,000, and then we’ll let you check it out. You’d say, what do you mean? I’m not paying $30,000 for a car before I figure out whether I like it. I want to sit inside and drive it and do all those other things. That’s exactly what a test drive does. Right? A test drive reduces that barrier, that upfront cost of trial
And so I would ask the same thing with the app. Right? What is that cost for those individuals that are not downloading the app? Is it they’re worried about trust? OK, how can you show them how safe their data is going to be? Is it concerns about not feeling they know how they use it? How can you resolve that uncertainty? Maybe you have a white glove concierge service where they come in one day, and you’d have a day every month, almost like the Apple Store, where they do training, where you train people on how to use the app. Notice that the problem is trust, versus the problem is knowledge about using it. Those are very different problems that need very different solutions.
ALISON BEARD: Second scenario: You’re working on a project with a group. And you want to take in one direction, but your teammate is convinced you should go another.
JONAH BERGER: Yeah, so I think that idea of reactance that we talked about before is going to be important here as well. Obviously they have something they want. And so you just telling them about what you want isn’t going to be enough. And if anything, if you see like you’re advocating for what you want, they’re going to push back.
And so, first is to just start with understanding. Right? I talk a lot about them in the book about shrinking distance. You know, sometimes we think about sort of a choice, like in this case, do we go with my option or someone else’s option, almost like a football field. Right? One end zone is my option. The other end zone is their option. And various people in the organization may be arrayed on that continuum. And the problem is, if we ask for too much, we ask that person to do our option, they’re going to say, well, no way. That’s on the other side of the football field. That’s sort of my region of rejection. I’m not even going to consider it. It’s too far away from where I am now. I’m not going to move that far.
In those situations, a couple of things come up. First, often we have to start by asking for less. Right? Rather than starting by saying, hey, completely switch to my side, ask for something that’s a lot closer to where they are already and get them to move just a little bit. And this has two, I think, key benefits. Right? One, it gets them to move in a little bit in your direction. But then it also makes what you were suggesting originally seem less far away.
I talked to a doctor, for example, that was trying to get someone to lose a bunch of weight. It was an overweight trucker. The guy was drinking like three liters of Mountain Dew a day. He was on the road all the time. And the knee jerk reaction of that situation is to tell him to not drink any Mountain Dew. Right? It’s all this sugar in it. It’s like drinking, it’s like eating a couple of Snickers bars a day. It’s terrible for you. Just tell him to quit cold turkey.
Same thing in the office context. Right? Tell your colleague just to switch to your side, which obviously isn’t going to work. Right? It’s so far in their region of rejection, they’re just going to say, no way, outright. So instead, what she did was, she asked for less. She said, hey, rather than drinking three liters a day, drink two. And so he grumbled, and said, oh, I don’t know if I want to do it. And said, OK, fine. And a few weeks later, came back and had gotten it down to two. Then when he got down to two, she said, OK, now go down to one. And then when he came back a few months later, once he moved to one, move from one to zero. And it took a while. Right? Didn’t happen right away. Didn’t happen in a day or a week. But this guy’s lost over 25 pounds by doing this, because it’s not just about asking for less, it’s about asking for less and then asking for more.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So third scenario, you want a raise or a promotion, and are trying to convince your boss that you deserve it.
JONAH BERGER: Yeah, I mean, I think a good one for this goes back to providing the menu that we talked a little bit about before. Right, if you give your boss one option, you say, I want a raise, the boss is going to think about, no, so you can say something like, hey, boss, I’d either like a raise, or I’d like more days off.
And by the way, I’d start with something else. Showing your value to the organization saying, hey, you know, I’ve been here this long, blah, blah, blah. You know, I’d appreciate something, either more compensation, a raise, or more days off, or more equity, or more control, something else. And what that does, again, right, is it gives that person choice. Rather than feeling like you’ve barged in their office, and you’ve told them what to do, because you’re encouraging them to focus on two things you like, they’re less likely to think about that third thing, which is just saying no.
ALISON BEARD: So often when we talk about influence, we hear it needs to appeal to both the head and the heart. You know, so you’re presenting data, and you’re appealing to people’s emotions. How does this play in into overcoming the hurdles you’re talking about?
JONAH BERGER: Yeah, I mean, I think emotion is certainly one of the things that’s wrapped up in this idea. There’s lots of research that shows that people value things they’re doing already more than new things. So a famous study, for example, asked people, hey, you know, look at this product. Imagine you own it. How much would you sell it for? They asked another set of people, you know, imagine you don’t own it. How much would you buy it for? Research finds, if you already have it, it’s the status quo, you’re doing it already, you value it a lot more. We’re attached to old things. There’s even some nice research on home buyers and sellers, for example. The longer you’ve lived in a home, the higher, more money you think it’s worth, even controlling for its actual value. You become emotionally attached to it.
But we’re not only attached to the old. We’re also scared of the new. There’s a lot of work on neophobia, for example that says, look, you know, we’re scared that this new thing is going to work out. We’re anxious about whether it’s actually going to be successful. Any time we don’t know what’s going to happen, we tend to want to hit the pause button. We’re scared of stuff we don’t understand. We’re scare of things that are different from what we’re doing already, both that they might be worse than what we’re already doing, but also they may not be better. And that anxiety, that uncertainty often stems action.
ALISON BEARD: Do these techniques work differently depending on who has more power in the situation? You know, can someone who’s sort of low on the totem pole use them? And then does a boss even need to?
JONAH BERGER: What’s definitely true is that the higher up you are in an organization, the more power you have. Right? The more ability you have to legislate something, the more ability you have to say, this is just what we’re doing. I don’t care whether you want to do this or not. This is just what I say goes. I think unfortunately, as many bosses who are listening are probably well-aware, they may say that, but it doesn’t mean the rank and file move. What I think is nice about these ideas is, whether you’re the lowest employee on the totem pole in an organization, or you’re the boss, and you can legislate things, I think that these tools are equally useful, because to really change minds, we have to understand those barriers. We have to understand the psychology that’s preventing change, and how to mitigate it.
ALISON BEARD: So your first two books were about how ideas and products catch on, how they become contagious, and how invisible influences can shape our decisions. Is the idea between your work on catalysts, that they’re also supposed to be so subtle that we don’t notice them, and all of a sudden, everyone’s buying into our ideas, and everyone wants to buy our products and services?
JONAH BERGER: You know, I think what’s really neat is if you look at success stories in a variety of industries, you tend to see the same patterns. So you know, for this book, yes, I interviewed great bosses, transformational leaders. But I also talked about regular Joes and Janes who got their boss to adopt a new project. I talked to startup founders who got their stuff to catch on. I talked to hostage negotiators who figured out how to get people to come out with their hands up.
And across this diverse set of situations, the same principles come up again and again. And I think some of us may be aware of some of them. We maybe have done something that was successful in one particular case. But we often haven’t codified them in a way that allows us to really apply them. And so that’s why I like a framework. This book has a framework to it that I think allows us to say, look, let me diagnose that problem. Let me figure out what the barriers, which of these five barriers are really getting in the way, and then figure out which of the solutions underneath those barriers I can use.
ALISON BEARD: Do you risk people figuring it out and feeling like they’re being manipulated?
JONAH BERGER: You know, I think that’s true of anything that we do. And so I think some of these tools are a lot more subtle. You know, one of the ideas I talk about is asking rather than telling. Rather than telling someone, hey, support my project, or do thing I want, ask them some questions. I was talking to a guy who was trying to get students to study more. He runs a test prep company. He’s trying to get students to study. He finds if he tells them, hey, you need to study more, they say, no thanks. Just like in that meeting, if we say, hey, we should do this project, everyone says, no, no. They think about the reasons it’s wrong.
So instead what he started doing is asking questions. Right? Well, why are you here at this test prep company? Where are you hoping to get into schools? What grades do you need and test scores do you need to get into those schools? How do you get those scores? And then eventually, how many hours do you need to study to get there? And so by asking the right questions, by guiding the series of questions, you’re allowing people to put that stake in the ground that then they’re committing to the conclusion. Right? If we’re a boss, we’re trying to get people to work harder, we can say, hey, we need to work harder, put more hours in. Everyone would say, I don’t want to do that. But if in a meeting we say, hey, what kind of organization do we want to be? A good organization or a great organization? We ask a question. People aren’t going to answer that question saying, we want to be a good organization. No, we want to be a great company. OK. Well, what do we need to do to get there? Right?
And by asking that question, you’re inviting people to participate. They’re not only coming up with solutions, but they’re coming up with solutions that are their solutions. Which is going to make it a lot harder later on for them to say they don’t like that solution, because they came up with it. Right? And notice you’re not asking any questions. You’re not saying, hey, guys, what do you want to do? You’re picking those set of questions to guide the journey. It’s similar to guided choices. Right? You’re asking the right questions to shape the path and encourage them to get to a conclusion that you want. When they put that stake in the ground, they’re going to commit to it. And they’re going to be much more likely to go along.
ALISON BEARD: So last question. Let’s talk about the flip side of this. What if you’re the intractable one? You know, you’re rigid, stuck in your ways. You don’t want to change. How do you recognize that and fix it?
JONAH BERGER: I think I am the intractable one in my own life. So I’m well aware of this. I mean, talk about the status quo bias, I tell a great story in the book about how I finally got a new phone. So I had, I don’t know, a few years ago I had an iPhone 4. I’d had it for probably four or five years. Loved that thing to death. I was running out of memory. I needed to get a new phone. I didn’t. Rather, I started deleting things on my phone to get —
ALISON BEARD: Let me tell you, this really resonates with me. I was the last person in our organization to have a Blackberry.
JONAH BERGER: Oh, yeah. I mean, it’s amazing. Like, you know, I went months of being able to basically not use any features on my phone because I liked it. I even looked at the new phone, but it was too big, so I didn’t want it. You know, I wanted to hopefully, maybe they’ll come out with a new version that looks exactly like my new phone. It will just have more memory. I even missed a flight. I finally broke down. I buy a new phone. You think that would be the end of it. I waited three more months before I actually used that new phone, because I kept hoping. Right? And so I, more than anybody else, I’m susceptible to status quo bias. We all are. I think this helps us realize why we have these biases. I think sometimes putting a name to some of these things helps us see. It’s not that I’m crazy or I’m stuck in my ways. I’m actually, I’m susceptible to this because I have loss aversion. I’m attached to old things because the upsides aren’t worth as much as much as the downside. By understanding it, I think we can not only understand how to change others’ minds, but how to change our own and our own behavior.
ALISON BEARD: So as I said we decided to call Jonah again and talk about what he’s been seeing in recent months, now that we’re in a post-Covid world. Jonah thanks so much for joining us again.
JONAH BERGER: Thanks for having me back.
ALISON BEARD: We can’t really address this topic in a time of covid without talking about public health. How have you seen governments effectively and ineffectively guide their citizens during this pandemic?
JONAH BERGER: Unfortunately it has been quite ineffective right? We’ve seen a lot of push messaging from wear your mask and stay home and don’t do this and do that and a lot of telling people what to do which as we talked about doesn’t really work. You know it’s been interesting to be talking about these ideas at this time point because I think nothing has shown the challenges of reactance more than recent events. When you push people, they push back.
Even if someone might have been willing to wear a mask, or stay at home or do something else – because you told them to now they’re less interested in doing it. And so, you know what I’ve seen has been more effective is some of the things we talked about more generally. You know, things like highlighting a gap between attitudes and actions.
I was talking to a colleague who was worried about all their folks at the office and they were slowly trickling back in some way shape or form and people weren’t wearing masks enough. And rather than telling them hey, why don’t you wear a mask at the office, why don’t you say, hey, if you brought your parent or grandparent to the office, if you brought your child to the office, would you want everyone to be wearing masks? Probably. Ok then why aren’t you?
And so again not telling them what to do, not pushing them in one direction, but really identifying the barriers to change and mitigating them.
ALISON BEARD: And we are all also in this new world of virtual work that might last for some time – especially if you’re knowledge workers. Is persuasion more challenging when you aren’t face to face with someone?
JONAH BERGER: Yes and no. I think in some ways we think it’s all about standing up tall and speaking slowly and looking someone in the eye and being that persuasive communicator. And that stuff certainly helps. What I think is nice about some of the strategies I talk about in the book is they’re not dependent on face to face or being a great communicator. They are about understanding the science of persuasion and when it works and when it doesn’t.
And so whether you’re talking to someone on the phone, whether you’re shooting them an email, or whether you’re on Zoom. These techniques still can work. You don’t have to be the most confident person in the room, you just have to know what to say when you get your opportunity.
ALISON BEARD: We are in a time of crisis now. Everything’s in flux. Does persuasion become more difficult during those types of periods?
JONAH BERGER: You know I think what’s neat about this moment is while there is a lot going on and it’s certainly challenging, it’s also a time of immense opportunity. People don’t like change. They don’t want to have to change, they would prefer to never have to change.
Now people have been forced to change. They’ve been forced to shop more online, they’ve been forced to work from home. They’ve been forced to go running rather than go to the gym. Whatever it might be. And so because they’ve been forced to change, they’re more open to new ideas than they’d usually be.
I think a good analogy is sort of like a snowglobe. When it sits on your office or on a table at home, the snow is settled and nothing’s really changing. You shake it up, and you’ve got a minute or so where everything’s up in the air and things are moving around and you have an opportunity to move them in one direction or another. And so I think now’s really a time for – whether you’re a marketer thinking about ok how do I give consumers a trial of my product or service? While they would’ve gone usually with a main brand in the space now they’re more willing to try a challenger brand because they’re doing new things.
If I’m an employee and I want to change my boss’s mind, how do I say, look, things aren’t great at the moment. Sales are down, we’ve got a lot of challenges, yes there’s a lot going on but they might be more willing to do something new because they have to do new things in general. And so I think while it is a challenging time if we take advantage of this opportunity we can really make a lot of headway.
ALISON BEARD: I think we did learn that people who are very resistant to certain things can flip the switch very quickly if they need to. You know I used to hate video meetings and now I do them every single day of my life. You do realize that there is a way to break through hesitation, resistance, etc.
JONAH BERGER: And I think in some sense you learn that things may not have been as bad as you thought. A new product or service might have seemed scary or different – you might never have wanted to work from home. But you’ve been forced to try it, you’ve actually learned that it’s pretty good, and afterwards you may stick with it.
ALISON BEARD: Well terrific, Jonah, thanks for talking for us not once but twice.
JONAH BERGER: Indeed, hopefully we get a chance to do it a third time sometime soon.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Jonah Berger, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, and author of The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind. This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.
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