how to be persuasive

The Persuasive Benefits of Sincerity

Sometimes it seems people will do anything for a buck. Would you betray your values for a quick bit of cash? If the betrayal is deep enough, you probably don’t think you would. But a mild endorsement of a product you haven’t tried but seems like it couldn’t be that bad? You might smile for the camera in exchange for a few dollars.

The question is: does it make you less persuasive? In other words, can you really persuade people if there’s a personal incentive? Might you be less convincing when your real goal is personal gains?

sincerity03This scenario might appear in a bunch of situations. For example, a retail employee could recommend the expensive TV because he actually thinks it’s better or because he knows his commission is higher for that TV.

A cooking instructor might recommend one brand of knives because he truly believes it’s the best or because he’ll get some of the money if you buy that one.

A girl scout might tell you should buy a box of Thin Mints because they’re “super yummy” or because she’s on a secret mission to win a trip to Disneyland by selling more boxes than anyone else.

In each of those scenarios, does the person’s intentions matter for their persuasiveness? New research shows that it does–and it matters because people pick up on sincerity.

Incentives and Charitable Donations

One place where this comes into focus is in the world of charitable donations. I might try to convince you to donate to your local food pantry because I actually believe that this is a good thing to do and an effective way to help people[1]  And I do–donate to you local food pantries, people! or because the food pantry promised to give me a small reward for each can of food I can get people to donate.

sincerity02smIn a recent study, several behavioral scientists tested the success of each case. They asked people to videotape a pitch for a charitable organization.[2]  In one study, everyone made a video for a breast cancer charity, but in the other studies, participants picked charities they already supported.

But there was a catch. Some people simply recorded their pitch however they wanted, but some people got an incentive. Specifically, the researchers told some of the potential persuaders: “As a bonus, for every $10 that the potential donor gives to your charity organization, we will send you a $1 reward.

Then they took the videos that the participants recorded and played them for a group of potential donors. Some donors saw a video from someone who didn’t get the promise of an incentive and some donors saw a video from someone who did.

The donors had a chance to donate up to $3 to the charity after watching the video. The results showed that people donated less in response to videos made by persuaders who were promised the incentive, compared to videos made by persuaders with purer motives.

The Subtle Power of Sincerity

sincerity04What was it about the videos made by incentivized persuaders that missed the mark? Across a few studies, a group of independent raters watched and evaluated the videos made by the two groups of persuaders. They didn’t seem that different.

People who were given an incentive for getting people to donate didn’t produce longer videos and didn’t mention more personal connections to the charity than the no-incentive group. The incentivized persuaders themselves didn’t think they put forth any more effort, didn’t feel any more sympathetic, and didn’t feel any more uncomfortable than the non-incentivized persuaders. So, what is it?

Well in some of their studies, the researchers gave donors a chance to rate the persuader in the video they saw. Remarkably, the donors picked up on the persuaders’ sincerity. That is, donors thought the persuaders who got an incentive were less sincere than persuaders who didn’t get an incentive. Of course, the donors had no idea that the person in video got an incentive or not. But it didn’t matter. They could still pick up on the difference in sincerity, which is ultimately what guided their donation decisions.

How to Be Persuasive: Be Sincere

These studies nicely show the persuasive power of sincerity. When people advocated for a charity because they truly saw value in it, they were more successful at securing donations. When people advocated for charity because they’d get a kick-back if people donated, they were less successful. Of course, it’s not as though the incentivized persuaders failed to secure donations–they just didn’t do as well as their more purely motivated counterparts.

At least when it comes to charities, we care about sincerity. Other social science studies show that we care a lot that other people are genuine when they act on behalf of others. We also have an aversion to people who have ulterior motives for being nice to others. The same is true across other forms of persuasion. We just don’t trust people who don’t seem sincere.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  And I do–donate to you local food pantries, people!
2.  In one study, everyone made a video for a breast cancer charity, but in the other studies, participants picked charities they already supported.

Leave a Comment