email communication

Are You Persuasive Over Email? (No.)

Last year, I wrote about some fun research showing that people are more persuasive than they give themselves credit for. In a series of studies, researchers asked people to go out and try to persuade people to do something. Usually it was something innocuous like filling in a survey or lending their cell phone, but other times, it would be a slightly bigger request such as defacing a library book.

They would also ask people to guess how successful they would be at getting people to do these things. Then they would compare those guesses to people’s true success rates.

Over and over, people were more persuasive than they gave themselves credit for.

A new set of studies, however, shakes this idea up a bit…

Face-to-Face vs. Email Communication

email03Even though the requests run the gamut, all of the studies that have shown how people underestimate their influence have considered face-to-face communication. That is, people would actually have to walk up to people and ask them to do something right then and there.

Although in-person interactions are still in fashion, it can sometimes feel like we live and die by our email inbox. So what about this cold, distant communication medium? Are we also wrong about our abilities to influence over the web?[1]  Yes, I said “the web.” No, I haven’t referred to the Internet as “the web” since about 2002, but it felt right in the moment.

There’s reason to think there’s a difference. After all, plenty of studies have shown that making a request in person makes it way more likely that the person will say yes, compared to less personal media.

Over Email, We Overestimate Our Influence

In a recent set of studies, researchers directly compared face-to-face influence with email-driven influence to see whether people were wrong about themselves in different ways.

email02One study asked participants to get strangers to complete a questionnaire. Sometimes, they were supposed to go up to 10 people in person and ask them to take the survey. Other times, they were supposed to email 10 people and ask them to take the survey. In each case, they were first asked to guess how many of those 10 people would actually do the survey.

First, half the results show the same pattern from before: when making a request face-to-face, people underestimate how successful they will be. That is, people are more willing to help than we think. On average, people guessed that about 5 people do it when in reality 7 or so would typically comply.

But things go the other way when we’re talking about email. For email requests, people overestimated how successful they’d be. On average, people thought they’d get about 5 – 6 people to do the survey when in reality, almost nobody actually did.

It’s About Trust

Clearly, people think they’ll be just as persuasive over email as they are face-to-face, even though it’s far from the truth. So what are people overlooking when they form these expectations?


Another study showed the same pattern from before: people underestimated their influence in face-to-face scenarios and overestimated their influence over email. But this one went a step further by asking extra questions about trust.

email04On average, we trust people more when they make a request in person, compared to when they do so over email. This is at least part of why compliance rates are so much higher in person.

But the key insight of this study is that we tend to be blind to this trust difference. That is, persuaders who went up to people in person didn’t think they’d be any more trusting than when persuaders sent email requests. It’s this lack of insight that helps explain the predicted persuasion errors.

In other words, when we consider how likely a stranger will be to help us when we ask them in person, we don’t realize that they have a fair degree of trust in us. But when we consider how likely a stranger will be to help us when we ask via email, we don’t realize how suspicious they’ll be.

Check Your Expectations

This new research adds an intriguing dimension to what I already covered on this blog. The big point is: we’re wrong about how persuasive we are. Oftentimes, we’re wrong because we underestimate our influence. But now we know more about when we’re wrong because we overestimate it. Maybe one day we’ll finally be right about ourselves…but that takes insight and self-reflection, so I’m not holding out too much hope. (But maybe I’m wrong about that, too.)

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  Yes, I said “the web.” No, I haven’t referred to the Internet as “the web” since about 2002, but it felt right in the moment.

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