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May 16, 2002 - Persuasion and Resistance - 2002-05-15

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- the language of persuasion, from an expert.

RS: Eric Knowles is a social psychologist at the University of Arkansas. He heads a laboratory group that recently held a Symposium on Resistance and Persuasion, with the National Science Foundation as a sponsor.

KNOWLES: "Persuasion and sales and offers of all sorts of things have become so regular, so frequent, that people often turn them off, they just tune them out and respond to them in a very scripted or stereotypic or automatic kind of way, typically saying 'no, I don't do that,' that sort of thing. So one of the things we find effective is to throw in an unexpected phrase or element into the offer."

AA: In one experiment involving sales messages, students of Professor Knowles went door-to-door selling some note cards drawn by children for a local charity. The price was three dollars. Sales nearly doubled, though, when they said the price in coins -- "three-hundred pennies" -- and then remarked: "Actually it's a pretty good bargain."

RS: Another experiment involved selling a kind of pastry for the campus Psychology Club. We normally call this kind of pastry a cupcake. But when the seller called them by the odd name of "half-cake," guess what happened.

KNOWLES: " What you need to do is visualize the interaction, and here is a student on campus, a nice young lady, with a tray full of a dozen cupcakes, half of them white frosting and half of them chocolate frosting. And people look at her and they look at the tray and nobody was in doubt what she was selling or how much it cost. It's just when we said it in a slightly funny way that she got about twenty percent more sales than when she just said it in the normal way."

AA: "A cupcake."

KNOWLES: "A cupcake. Now interestingly in that research, one of the ladies who was doing this research had just gotten back from France, spending a semester abroad, and so she sold cupcakes walking up to people in the middle of Arkansas and saying: 'We're selling these petite gateaux for fifty cents, they're delicious would you like to buy one?' That produced sales that were less, although not quite significantly less -- they were kind of in-between the other two. It led us to think that maybe you can say something that's too odd and makes the interaction become suspicious."

AA: "We laugh about this, but do you ever worry about the potential for misuse of your research?"

KNOWLES: "Sure. Here's -- my concern is not that, it's not that the disruption is devious. The disruption by itself is not effective at all in increasing sales. So to go door-to-door and say 'we're selling these for three-hundred pennies' doesn't increase sales at all over 'we're selling them for three dollars.' But it makes the reason that one gives afterwards more persuasive. That is, I think what it does is to wake people up to thinking about and listening to the offer."

AA: According to Professor Knowles, most persuasion research has focused on how to make offers more attractive through such things as added incentives. He thinks a better way to persuade people is to try to reduce their resistance -- in other words, take away their reasons to say no.

RS: The idea is that when people do finally say yes, they will feel more strongly about their decision than if they had simply been persuaded grudgingly with more incentives. And one thing his research shows, Professor Knowles says, is that people are more likely to make a decision when they know they can reverse it.

AA: With sales, that would translate into being able to return an item if they don't like it.

KNOWLES: "Here, I live in northwest Arkansas and our major employer is the Wal-Mart headquarters. And Wal-Mart, Sam Walton, made a fortune in a number of ways, but one of the important things he did was to institute a no-questions-asked return policy in his stores."

AA: Professor Eric Knowles, head of the Omega Lab at the University of Arkansas. Omega is the Greek letter used as a symbol for "resistance."

RS: Now should you feel persuaded to write to us, our address is VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237 USA or And we're on the Web at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Hidden Persuasion"/Frank Sinatra