Lessons from Cialdini #2: How to persuade using the power of the negative

Pop psychology culture says focus on the positive. But if you do, you’re missing out on huge persuasive power.

In Yes: 50 secrets from the science of persuasion Robert Cialdini and his co-authors explore the concept of “loss aversion“. Loss aversion means that most people would rather avoid a loss than receive a benefit. You can use the power of loss aversion by thinking carefully about how you frame your messages.

This was demonstrated by researchers from the University of California. They told one group of homeowners that they could save 50 cents a day by carrying out energy efficiency improvements in their home. They told a second group of homeowners that they would continue to lose 50 cents a day if they did nothing. The second group were 300% more likely to carry out the improvements.

How can you use the psychology of loss aversion to persuade your audience:

1. Frame benefits in terms of loss

Let’s say you’re presenting to the senior management team of your organisation on the need to implement a new software system. Rather than talk about the time savings (a benefit) talk about the productivity loss that the organisation will continue to suffer if the software is not introduced.

2. Remind your audience of the problems they’re facing

We were working recently with a project manager in charge of implementing organisation-wide change. She was concerned that the management team weren’t doing enough to drive the project forward. She started her presentation by reminding the management team of a recent project that was behind schedule and at risk of failure because they weren’t driving it. Getting the audience to connect with current problems is an effective motivational tool.

3. Engage your audience with the consequences of doing nothing

We often work with public officials involved with emergency management. One of their major roles is motivating the public to “Be Prepared” for a major earthquake or flood. The most effective way of doing this is to paint a picture of what life might be like immediately after an earthquake for the unprepared – worried because they can’t contact members of their family, hungry because they have no emergency food supplies, unable to wash because of lack of water.

So don’t dimiss the power of the negative in your next presentation.

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  1. I think this is what the advertising industry has been relying on for years.

  2. Hi Wendy, I agree – fear and loss are powerful persuasive tools – and the advertisers have known that for a long time. If we educate ourselves as to these persuasive tools – we can both decide to use them ourselves – ethically. And also be more resistant to them, when they are used to attempt to persuade us in unethical ways. Olivia