We are more easily manipulated if we show loyalty, intelligence or common sense, say psychologists

Credit: Adobe Stock
Credit: Adobe Stock

When we have to demonstrate an important trait - loyalty, intelligence or common sense, we are easier to manipulate - say psychologists from the SWPS University.

According to one of the main authors of the study Professor Dariusz Doliński, this technique, called the egotistical trap, turned out to be very effective in their experiments. The co-authors of the study are also Professor Tomasz Grzyb and Dr. Wojciech Kulesza.

The psychologists explain that various types of social influence techniques have been studied since the 1960s, and their new variations continue to emerge. One of them is that it is easier to fulfil a request if we are first asked to fulfil a similar but much easier request. You can also use the authority of others. It is enough to suggest that your actions are inconsistent with opinions and commonly held values. Another effective method is convincing someone that they are an expert in a given field, then they might agree to fulfil even a seemingly absurd request.

According to Professor Doliński from the university’s Faculty of Psychology, effectively influencing other people is a necessary element of our everyday functioning. 'Learning the techniques of influence can help us achieve our goals in an honest way, and at the same time increase the chances that we ourselves will not be manipulated,’ he says. 

In the journal Social Influence, psychologists from the SWPS University presented the concept of a new technique of social influence, so far not described in the psychological literature. It involves the use of suggestions regarding loyalty, intelligence or common sense.

According to the researchers, in the case of this technique, the request is formulated in such a way that the respondent believes that people with a given positive trait (for example, high intelligence) would fulfil it. Then the respondent usually agrees to such requests. If the respondent refuses, they indirectly admit that they do not possess this trait. 'The practice of everyday life shows that often, already at an early age, we unconsciously fall into such traps,’ say the experts from the SWPS University.

They explain that when a parent says to their young child, 'At this time of day, well-behaved children brush their teeth and go to bed', the message is not limited to 'brush your teeth and go to bed.’ They parent also says: 'If you think you're a well-behaved child, prove it and behave like well-behaved children'.

Two or three years later, the same child will learn that a 'true scout' is not afraid to spend the night in a tent in the middle of a dark forest, and that a 'good friend' is always loyal. Adults also encounter messages constructed in this way. For example, a woman may hear that a good and caring mother always makes sure that her children take lunch to school.

To verify the effectiveness of the described technique, the scientists conducted two experiments. In the first, the egotistical trap concerned the use of the term 'intelligence' because most people consider themselves intelligent, and belief in one's own intellectual abilities is an important element of self-esteem. The researchers therefore assumed that mentioning this trait would increase the chances of the request being fulfilled. The study included 532 women and men.

In the controlled conditions, the researcher approached a person standing at a bus stop and, posing as a student, asked them to complete a questionnaire necessary to obtain credits for studies. Under experimental conditions, the researcher extended the request by arguing that answers from intelligent people were needed.

In the first, control part, 174 out of 532 respondents (nearly 33 percent) agreed to take part in the survey. In experimental conditions, it was 279 people (over 52 percent). The difference was therefore statistically significant.

The researchers decided to extend the study to include another element. They did so because the design of the first experiment was such that the obtained results could be interpreted in different ways (for example, in terms of a compliment). There was a statement that we are looking for smart people and you seem like a smart person. However, the second experiment dispelled these doubts.

'Secondly, if two experiments, conducted according to different scenarios, produce an analogous pattern of results, the researcher is assured that it is not a coincidence. Thirdly, if there was only the first experiment, there would be doubts as to whether this technique works only in relation to obtaining consent to participate in a survey, and will not be effective in conditions of more serious decisions, for example ones concerning money,’ explains Professor Doliński.

In the next part of the experiment, the researchers appealed to the subjects' reason. In the controlled conditions, an employee of a car dealership called the customer to say that the annual inspection of the car was approaching and asked if the customer would like to do it at an official service centre. If the respondent answered positively, an appointment was scheduled. In the experimental conditions, the course of the telephone conversation was almost identical, but immediately after the question about the willingness to have the car inspected at an official service centre, the interviewer added that, according to research, sensible customers carry out car inspections at official service stations.

In the first scenario, 25 out of 60 subjects (nearly 42 percent) agreed to have their cars inspected at an official service centre. However, when the researchers appealed to common sense, as many as 43 out of 60 subjects agreed to take advantage of this offer (almost 72 percent). Taking into account the actual behaviour of the respondents (their arrival at the service centre for inspection), 22 people (over 36 percent) from the control group and 40 people (over 66 percent) from the experimental group (appeal to reason) came to the appointment.

Professor Doliński points out that any technique of social influence can both serve noble purposes (e.g., inducing people to quit smoking, donate blood or bone marrow) and be manipulative. We deal with the latter when the person exerting influence has only own benefit in mind, and does not care about the good of the person on whom the influence is exerted.

He points out that in the case of any technique of influence, the tool of defence is reflection. One should not act automatically, the social psychologist adds. (PAP)

Zbigniew Wojtasiński

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