You’ve heard the trite old saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for life.” It applies to persuasion as well as teaching. When you provide external incentives to get someone to change their behavior, it’s like giving them a fish. It’s easy to get people to do things to gain rewards or avoid punishments, but the desired behavior only lasts as long as you have the ability to a) monitor the behavior and b) furnish the necessary reward or punishment. If you want to drive lasting behavior change, you’ve got to find ways to get people to do things for their own reasons, and the best way to do this is to use their sense of who they are to provide internal, long-lasting motivation.
I actually first learned this when I was 15, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was a member of the Jack Nelson Swim Club. Nelson had been an Olympic swimmer and Olympic coach, and was a legend in swimming circles. I wasn’t good enough to be coached directly by him, so when I was summoned to his office, I was terrified. I had been a smart-aleck and all-around pain in the rear to my coach and pretty much ignored his yelling and threats, but now I knew that I was in for it. I was already figuring out how I was going to tell my parents I had been thrown off the team.
Coach Nelson opened up by telling me he had been watching me. What he said next took me completely by surprise: “You’re a real leader. I see how the other kids pay attention to what you’re doing and go along with it.”
I thought, “Wow, that can’t be me! Really? Well… he must know what he’s talking about—imagine that, I’m a leader!”
But then he said, “Jack, there are good leaders and there are bad leaders. Hitler was a leader, too. Of course I’m not comparing you to him, but when you do things that hurt the team, that’s bad leadership. I need your help; I need you to be a good leader.”
That conversation was a turning point for me, but it took a long time for me to realize why. Coach Nelson tapped in to one of the most powerful motivational and persuasive tools that exist: the concept of self-identity.
Simply put, people have a deeply embedded sense of who they are, and how they should act in specific situations as a result. In his book, A Primer on Decision Making: How Decisions Happen, James March tells us that when confronted with a decision, people make a rapid unconscious calculation that answers these questions: What kind of situation is this? Who am I? What does a person such as I do in this type of situation? Our identities—who we are and how we see ourselves—are extremely important to us.
Each of us is made up of different layers of identities: professional, organizational, religious, national, social and family, and various situations may evoke the decision rules for one of our particular facets as called for. For example, in a class in Germany our professor watched as several students came in late. He singled out the two Germans among them by declaring, “It’s unGerman to be late!”
Striving for the ideal self is so powerful that it can actually stand Maslow’s hierarchy on its head. History is full of examples of people who have risked even survival itself for the self-actualization of living up to their ideal identity. The Economist just last week ran an obituary of Private Bill Millin, who hit the beaches of Normandy as a bagpiper in the British army. “He led the company down the main street of Bénouville playing “Blue Bonnets over the Border”, refusing to run when the commander of 6 Commando urged him to; pipers walked as they played.”
Even economists are starting to notice. 2001 Nobel laureate George Akerloff has recently written Identity Economics, which explores how institutions can use identity to guide behavior. Institutions work hard to shape the identities of their members and create norms. Norms are defined as social rules which define how people should behave in certain situations, and they affect decisions from the trivial such as what to wear, to life-altering, such as whom to marry. The military is the best example, but many civilian companies strive to build unique identities by instilling visions and values that guide the actions and motivations of their employees without having to resort to detailed manuals and rulebooks.
Identity is so powerful that extrinsic motivators can actually backfire. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath tell the story of a marketer of a fire safety video who tested an identity appeal against an incentive appeal. The first question was “Would you like to see the film for possible purchase for your educational programs?” The second question was “Would your firefighters prefer a large electric popcorn popper or an excellent set of chef’s carving knives as a thank-you for reviewing the film?” The first question received unanimous “yeses”; the second question was discontinued after receiving the first two replies: “Do you think we’d use a fire safety program because of some #*$@% popcorn popper?” (I wonder what would have happened if they used cops and doughnuts as a control group.)
Good salespeople have known how to do this for years. Back when encyclopedias were sold door-to-door, salespeople were taught to get parents to articulate how important it was to them as parents that their children be well-educated; it became much harder for them not to buy after this aspect of their identity was brought out.
Great persuaders take it one step further. Coach Nelson didn’t just tap into part of my identity, he helped to shape the ideal self that I would strive for. By implanting an attractive self-concept, he made me responsible for behaving in a way that was consistent with how I saw myself from then on.
When you can connect your message to your listener’s identity in some way, you can plant the desired change deeply, in effect turning the monitoring, motivation and enforcement over to the recipient. Best of all, it’s a gift to them, because it helps people bring out the best in themselves. If there is such a thing as a perpetual motion machine of persuasion, that’s it.