Thursday, January 9, 2014


We all want things. In many cases, other people do not want the things we want. So we want them to want what we want.

We've all put down a book or walked out of a movie so life-changing that you can't even see straight. Your first impulse, after the initial rush has died down, is to seize the first person you see and shout "You have to see this! You'll love it! It will change your life and you'll never be sad again."

Despite your evangelical zeal, they don't seem to take your endorsement very seriously (maybe it had something to do with your glazed eyes and dribble of drool). Instead of running to the nearest bookstore and buying this book (as they should) they promise to get to it next week. Three weeks later, you've left fridge reminders, passive-aggressively asked them about it multiple times, and finally physically handed them a copy with your physical hands. But they still haven't read it. Why, they even seem to be (gasp!) avoiding it!

You've casually recommended them books before and they liked them. What the heck is their problem now?!

Why do enthusiastic endorsements backfire?

Let's empathize
See through their eyes.

It might be helpful to think of an instance when someone tried to convert you to one of their preferences and failed. What did they do wrong? For instance when your mother mentions "that nice girl down the street", and shoots a significant glance your way. Or when an old mentor figure hands you a sacred dog-eared tome along with the solemn sanction to read and ingest its wholesomeness, as they and their father before them has done.
These are people we care about. People whose opinion we respect, who have our best interests at heart.
Why exactly then are we so uneasy to take their advice?

Ok, we've spent some time on the other side of the table. Let's switch back to your perspective. Why didn't your friend take your recommendation?

It's a matter of taste
Specifically, mine vs. yours.

Believe it or not, but people have different preferences, and what is to one man the very essence of hilarity is to another just a British kid biting his bro's finger. And often that's ok. We like that, know that and respect that. But if you've gone batcrazy about this book, your friend might have decided to skirt around the edges of the issue rather than face the full fury of your evangelicalized fervor. "I haven't had time to read it" is easier to say than "I don't think I'll like it, and given your level of fanaticism, I never intend to risk our friendship on finding out."

And so, depending on the situation, a fanatic endorsement can be less effective than a casual one[1]. The more you hype something the higher the stakes. And from your friend's perspective*. If I tell you I hate it, I make you sad. If I tell you I like it (or tolerate it), you try to make me vice-president of the fan club. It's a lose-lose situation, and the risk of losing friendship is higher than any potential gain of maybe reading a good book.

You might as well be playing high-stakes poker with friends. It doesn't matter whether I lose the money or win the money and lose the friends, I'm losing either way. The only winning move is not to play[2].

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation
Being coerced lowers our intrinsic motivation

If you know me, you've probably heard me talk about intrinsic motivation. Some things (like reading, eating, calling friends) you do because you find them inherently rewarding, you are intrinsically motivated. Other things (going to work, driving the speed limit, showering[3]) you do because there are external factors, or extrinsic motivations (money, social pressure) which push you to do them.

Studies have shown that if you pay somebody to do something, they don't like to do it as much. This is true even if you're paying kids to play videogames. Yes, you heard me right. Pay kids to play videogames, and they won't like playing videogames as much. They'll probably do it more, but like it a little less. When you have to do something to get paid, your ulterior motives take the edge off the enjoyment.[4]

In one study, they rewarded school kids for eating certain veggie or fruit portions during lunch. And surprise! The kids ate more of their specified rewarded-food.


They liked that food less. And they still liked it less 7 months later. So you can pay your picky kid to eat beans, but he'll stop when the cash runs out, and he'll likely dislike beans for the rest of a long time.

This means that not only can pressuring/extorting someone to Do Thing can backfire, even simply paying them to Do Thing can backfire. It might work in the short-term, but you lose in the long-term.

I can't go into it attribution theory as much as I'd like, but let's leave it at this: The more pressure you're under, the more you'll think "I did it to get so-and-so off my back" and the less you'll think " I did it for its own sake".

People like to have control over their own lives
And don't appreciate you taking it from them

Whaaaaatt?? I know right? Whooda thunk?

When you give advice, that's fine. When you invite, that's also cool. But when you take a piece of cake and jam it down my throat with a toilet plunger, don't be hurt when I can't compliment the flavor. I probably  can't even taste it because I'm picking chunks of it out of my lungs.

I've fallen into this trap myself before. I think a few of my friends still have minor panic attacks when they hear the title of my favorite book, for fear I'll jump out from behind a corner and throw it at their head. This is a valuable lesson. Try to force a person to like it, and they'll hate it. Sad as it is, my pressuring and cajoling has permanently filed "Joseph's favorite book" under "Items that Provoke Intense Fear" in their brains. It's hard to enjoy something after that.

And as we learned from Intrinsic Motivation, even when terror is not an issue, influencing other people's attitudes is complicated, man.

So how do you convince them? Unlike many other kinds of human interaction, this is not coercion, this is not strong-arming.  I can force you to eat pickled beats, but you'll still hate pickled beats and you'll hate me even more. Forcing a person to do something is easy; you want them to like it. How do you do that?

I'll… uh-- I'll tell you next week. I'm sorry. Really sorry. Frankly, I'm surprised you've kept reading this monstrosity of rambleness this long[5]. The only explanation I can think of is that you await with a burning hunger for the secret to manipulating your friends like clay, or sock puppets.

Well, tune in next week folks!

[1]Under some circumstances. As always there are exceptions and I overly caveat all things I say.
[2]As Joshua would certainly tell you.
[3]Just for you, Ruth.
[4] Anecdotally, I've heard basketball players say the game becomes less fun once it's no longer a game.

[5] I should have cut that chunk about intrinsic/extrinsic, shouldn't've I? Or at least axed the redundancy of the forced vegetable consumption scenarios.


  1. Yet institutionally the most common practice for teaching behavior to young children continues to be token economies and modified versions of Lee Canter's assertive discipline ( which rely heavily on carrots and sticks. Somehow you tend to end up with happy and orderly kindergartners and unhappy fifth graders when these methods are used exclusively. Many learned what to do, but miss the internal rewards--and internalizing the why's entirely.

    On an institutional basis, Glasser's Reality Therapy (, while flawed, incomplete, and usually used reactively, at least addresses intrinsic motivation and globally applicable social growth.

    As far as persuasion--while there are many great principles that can help to persuade others--one that I find very interesting is Benjamin Franklin's astute reversal of the maxim that when we choose to serve someone, we learn to love them. From his autobiography:

    "My first promotion was my being chosen, in 1736, clerk of the General Assembly. The choice was made that year without opposition; but the year following, when I was again propos'd (the choice, like that of the members, being annual), a new member made a long speech against me, in order to favour some other candidate. I was, however, chosen, which was the more agreeable to me, as, besides the pay for the immediate service as clerk, the place gave me a better opportunity of keeping up an interest among the members, which secur'd to me the business of printing the votes, laws, paper money, and other occasional jobbs for the public, that, on the whole, were very profitable."

    "I therefore did not like the opposition of this new member, who was a gentleman of fortune and education, with talents that were likely to give him, in time, great influence in the House, which, indeed, afterwards happened. I did not, however, aim at gaining his favour by paying any servile respect to him, but, after some time, took this other method. Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return'd it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, "He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged." And it shows how much more profitable it is prudently to remove, than to resent, return, and continue inimical proceedings."

  2. Ouch! Charlie! That really hurt!... and it's still hurting