It’s one of the toughest questions in politics: How do you get people to change their behavior?
Five hundred years ago, Machiavelli came up with three possibilities: force, trickery, or agreement. The great thinkers of the Enlightenment inaugurated the age of democracy with a fourth option: persuasion.
Today, political psychologists are adding a fifth weapon to this arsenal of change – and strategists are just beginning to grasp its revolutionary potential. Welcome to the new psychology of influence.
Psychological influences are different from attempts at rational, emotional and material persuasion because they do most of their work outside conscious awareness. Hiding in plain sight, they trigger involuntary responses in the human subconscious that most people are powerless to resist – even when they know they’re being influenced.
Over the past century, thousands of these unconscious influences have been discovered and tested. But it’s only in recent years that experts have distilled them into general principles of psychology. Here are just six of those principles and examples of how they might be applied to a fundraising program.
Social proof. We take most of our cues from other people. That’s why we follow the crowd and look to see if others started eating before we do. Applications: If you have a collection jar at your event, add a significant amount of money to the jar before the start. This will unconsciously “prove” that giving is a popular thing to do, prompting more and bigger donations than you would receive if you started with an empty jar.
Tangible triggers. Objects and symbols like national flags and mirrors can trigger more or less of certain behaviors. Applications: Dollars signs trigger financial prudence, even stinginess. If you want people to give more, drop the dollar signs in front of the amounts in your next direct mail piece or email solicitation.
Status and authority. Signs of status and authority like a lab coat or an honorific title tend to induce trust, admiration and compliance. Applications: Give your fundraising staff impressive sounding titles, no matter how low they rank on your organization’s totem pole. Who do you think your donors more likely to write a big check to: the Senior Vice President for Development or a lowly Fundraising Associate?
Scarcity. Our brains evolved to equate great rarity with great worth. The mere possibility of losing something instantly raises its value. Applications: Put an artificial deadline on your next matching grant. You can always extend the deadline if donors fail to meet the match in time. Also, call to renew memberships before they expire, not after.
Suggestive surroundings. Smells, sounds, and tastes – even one’s surroundings – have a way of influencing behavior. Applications: High altitude is associated with high-mindedness and pro-social behavior. Arrange to make the ask on the top floor of a building. If you can’t do that, put a picture of an airplane flying high above the clouds in the room where you normally meet with donors.
Liking. We all like our friends. We also like people who are attractive, flatter us with sincere compliments, and display qualities we like about ourselves. When we like someone, they hold extra influence over our behavior. Applications: Offer sincere compliments to your major donors during the introductions. If you share common interests, by all means bring them up. And don’t forget to smile.
These and the other principles of psychological influence have applications for lobbying, field, communications, and even human resources. No matter what type of work you do, you can use the new psychology of influence to reach your political goals.
David Rosen is the founder of First Person Politics, where he brings clients in politics, advocacy, and consulting the most cutting edge ideas and tools from political psychology.