Psychologist Dutton (Research Fellow/Cambridge Univ. Faraday Institute; co-editor, Why the Science and Religion Dialogue Matters: Voices from the International Society for Science and Religion, 2006) unravels the evolutionary roots of the art of persuasion.
While it’s not exactly news that “the secret of good advertising lies…in its ability to get straight through to the emotion centers of our brains: primal, ancient structures that we not only share with but actually inherit from animals,” the author brings some surprising insights to this well-worked subject—e.g., the use of incongruity to distract attention, a tactic perfected by magicians. A good example of this tactic was the Avis rental-car ad in which they admitted that they were No. 2 in the business. Because the approach was unexpected, not only was it an attention grabber, but it aroused viewers’ interest in the product. Social conformity in humans—easily identifiable with herd behavior in animals—is tapped by the canned laughter use in sitcoms, but it can also be used in more subtle ways. Dutton cites the success of changing the traditional “please call now for more information” tag line of a commercial to “if operators are busy please call again.” Although it flags an inconvenience, it also suggests that the item is popular. In extreme cases, members of a cult can be induced to swallow the Kool-Aid, but social stereotyping can also operate more subtly, to lower the self-esteem of members of a minority population and affect their performance. The author describes an experiment, conducted by a professor at Vanderbilt University before and after President Obama’s election victory, which showed a significant improvement in the scores of African-American students as a group compared to Caucasian participants. The test was modeled on the GRE, in which racial stereotyping was deliberately evoked by asking participants to identify their race.
Entertaining and sometimes illuminating.