The Question

How To Persuade People Without Them Realizing It

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Let's say you and your friend are sitting down to watch TV. You're kind of in the mood for something serious, but when your friend turns the TV on, its set on "Bob's Burgers." "Hm, I wanted something more dramatic," you say, and your friend agrees. "That sounds good. This show is kinda dramatic sometimes, though." You reply, "I guess so. I liked the one where Louise dreamt that all her toys came to life." "Yeah!," your friend says. "That was great. Super relatable, and the music was good, too. Let's watch this!" "Sure," you say, trying to shake the feeling that you just got played. Well, guess what: you were just a victim of the Amplification Hypothesis.

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Passive Aggressive, Or Just Persuasive?

The amplification hypothesis was first put forth in a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2008, and it basically works like this: If there's something that you want but you know the person you need to convince will be inclined to disagree, your first step is to never disagree with them. Instead, you express some halfhearted agreement with any point they make, while also putting forward some ambivalence: "You're right, we can't afford to order in tonight. There's nothing to eat in the house though." Then, when they say anything that could be construed as being on your side, you agree enthusiastically: "Yeah, you shouldn't go out to the store tonight, you just got home! I guess we should just order some sushi." Bingo — they might even think it was their idea.

The method works because people tend to harden their beliefs when they are challenged directly, but soften them when others seem to be agreeing. So if you'd said "Yes, we can afford to order takeout," they might have replied "Not if we're trying to save money," and soon enough you'll be stuck eating boring, sensible eggs on toast. But if you ostensibly agree with their statements while subtly cutting them down, you can gently nudge them in the direction you want. We can't guarantee they won't eventually catch on though (or that you won't come off as really passive aggressive in the process).

Countering The Method

Once you become aware of this technique, you might start to recognize that behavior in somebody you know. But here's some good news: there are ways to counteract it. If you get the sense that somebody is trying to mirror your attitudes to drive you towards a certain decision, just throw them a curveball.

If they're appealing to your logical argument ("You're right, we can't afford it. Although..."), then switch over to an emotional one ("Actually, I'm really in the mood for fettuccine. I'll just pop over to the store and get some noodles."). That switcheroo works just as well the other way — the point is to keep them uncertain about how you reached the conclusion that you did, so they're not sure what part they should be agreeing with.

Yeah, it's also pretty manipulative, but you know what they say: turnaround is fair play. Also, maybe you guys need to see a couples' counselor.

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