The Persuasion Instinct
judge: I find you guilty as charged and hereby sentence you to -seventy-two hours’ community service and a fine of £150. You have a choice. You can either pay the full amount within the allotted three-week period or pay £50 less if you settle immediately. Which is it to be?
pickpocket: I only have £56 on me at the moment, Your Honor. But if you allow me a few moments with the jury, I’d prefer to pay now.
A policeman on traffic duty pulls a motorist over for speeding.
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t write you a ticket," he says.
"Well," says the driver, "last week my wife ran off with one of you guys. And when I saw your car, I thought you were bringing her back."
A Spewrious Tale?
In 1938, in Selma, Alabama, a physician by the name of Drayton Doherty was summoned to the bedside of a man called Vance Vanders. Six months earlier, in a graveyard in the dead of night, Vanders had bumped into a witchdoctor and the spook had put a curse on him. A week or so later Vanders got a pain in his stomach, and decided to take to his bed. Much to the distress of his family, he’d remained there ever since.
Doherty gave Vanders a thorough examination, and grimly shook his head. It’s a mystery, he said, and shut the door behind him. But the next day he was back.
"I tracked down the witchdoctor and lured him back to the graveyard," he announced. "When he arrived I jumped on him, pinned him to the ground, and swore that if he didn’t tell me the exact nature of the curse he’d put on you, and give me the antidote, I would kill him on the spot."
Vanders’s eyes widened.
"What did he do?" he asked.
"Eventually, after quite a struggle, he relented," Doherty continued. "And I must confess that, in all my years in medicine, I’ve never heard anything like it. What he did was this. He implanted a lizard egg inside your stomach—and then caused it to hatch. And the pain you’ve been feeling for the last six months is the lizard—it’s been eating you alive!"
Vanders’s eyes almost popped out of his head.
"Is there anything you can do for me, Doctor?" he pleaded.
Doherty smiled reassuringly.
"Luckily for you," he said, "the body is remarkably resilient and most of the damage has been largely superficial. So we’ll administer the antidote the witchdoctor kindly gave us, and wait and see what happens."
Vanders nodded enthusiastically.
Ten minutes later, his patient vomiting uncontrollably from the powerful emetic he’d given him, Doherty opened his bag. Inside was a lizard he’d bought from the local pet shop.
"Aha!" he announced with a flourish, brandishing it by the tail. "Here’s
Vanders looked up, then retched violently again. Doherty collected his things.
"Not to worry," he said. "You’re over the worst of it and will soon pick up after this."
Then he left.
Sure enough, for the first time in ages, Vanders slept soundly that night. And when he awoke in the morning he had eggs and grits for breakfast.
Persuasion. No sooner is the word out than images of secondhand car dealers, mealy-mouthed politicians, schmoozers, cruisers, and a barrel-load of life’s other users and abusers come padding—brothel-creepers and smoking jackets at the ready—across the dubious neuronal shag piles of our minds. It’s that kind of word. Though undoubtedly one of social psychology’s hippest, most sought after neighborhoods, persuasion also has a dodgy, downbeat reputation: an area of Portakabins and bars, sleazy garage forecourts, and teeming neon strips.
Which, of course, is where you often find it at work.
But there’s more to persuasion than just cheap talk and loud suits. Or, for that matter, loud talk and cheap suits. A witchdoctor and physician go head to head (quite literally) over the health of a local man. The witchdoctor deals what appears to be a knockout blow. His opponent rides in and effortlessly turns the tables. This extraordinary tale of a shaman and a split-second persuader encapsulates influence in its simplest, purest form: a battle for neural supremacy. Yet where does persuasion come from? Why does it work? Why is it possible that what is in my mind, when converted into words, is able to change what’s in yours?
The ancient Greeks, who seemed to have a god for more or less everything, had one, inevitably, for persuasion. Peitho (in Roman mythology, Suadela) was a companion of Aphrodite and is often depicted in Greco-Roman culture with a ball of silver twine. These days, of course, with Darwin, game theory, and advances in neuroimaging, we see things a little differently. And with the gods up against it and the Greeks more interested in basketball, we tend to look elsewhere for affirmation. To science, for instance. Or Oprah.
In this chapter we turn our attention toward evolutionary biology—and discover that persuasion has a longer family history than either we, or the gods, might have realized. We go in search of the earliest forms of persuasion—prelinguistic, preconscious, prehuman—and arrive at a startling conclusion. Not only is persuasion endemic
to earthly existence, it’s also systemic,
too; as much a part of the rhythm of the natural order as the emergence of life itself.
Note to architects who are currently in the process of designing modern, shiny, glassy buildings for affluent, leafy, tree-lined neighborhoods: spare a thought for the local bird population.
In 2005, the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge was having trouble with kamikaze pigeons. The courtyard of a brand new extension block was proving a black spot for avian suicides, with as many as ten birds a day dive-bombing the window of the state-of-the-art lecture theater. It didn’t take long to fathom out the reason. Reflected in the glass were the surrounding trees and bushes. And the birds—like some architects I could mention—couldn’t tell the difference between appearance and reality. What to do?
In contrast to the diagnosis, the remedy proved elusive. Curtains, pictures—even a scarecrow—all came to nothing. Then one day, Bundy Mackintosh, one of the researchers who worked in the building, had an idea. Why not talk to the birds in their own language?
So she did.
Mackintosh cut, out of a sheet of colored cardboard, the profile of an eagle and then stuck it in the window. Deep in their brains, she reasoned, the birds would have a console—a sort of primitive mental dashboard on which, silhouetted as birds of prey, would appear a series of hazard warning lights. As soon as one of these predators came into view, the corresponding light would immediately flash up red—and an ancient evolutionary force-field would suddenly engulf the unit, repelling the birds and diverting them from the danger.
Talking to animals in their own native tongue (as Bundy Mackintosh did in a very simple way with her cardboard and scissors) involves empathy. And learning the syntax of biological vernacular. And if you think it’s just humans who can do it, think again. Biologist Karen McComb of the University of Sussex has discovered something interesting about cats: they employ a special "solicitation purr" which hot-wires their owners to fill up their food bowls at dinnertime.
McComb and her coworkers compared cat owners’ responses to different kinds of purr—and found that purrs recorded when cats were seeking food were more aversive and harder to ignore than other purrs played at the same volume. The difference is one of pitch. When cats are soliciting food, they give off a classic "mixed message"—embedding an urgent, high-pitched cry within a conten...