Pathways to persuasion – The neuroscience of influence

| August 18, 2015

The idea of trying to persuade others can make us uncomfortable. Executive coach Leah Sparkes has looked at the science behind it and says it’s much easier than we think.

I have been working with a client that works for a large financial institution over the last couple of months. One of his goals for our coaching is to become more effective at influencing key stakeholders across a couple of business units. Two of these stakeholders are often very slow in committing to proposals and do not respond to deadlines. This causes stress and increased workload throughout other teams, as suddenly high volumes of work need to be executed in very short timeframes.

He asked me for input on how he could become more influential in getting timely responses and better commitment up front.

So I thought it might be useful to look at the science behind persuasion and influence. It is something some of us are better at naturally or can it be cultivated?

The body of research called social neuroscience has enabled us to have a much better understanding of how our social connectedness has a deep impact on how our brains functions and vice versa. We have two important organising principles of the brain: to avoid danger and to approach reward.

Another important discovery is that our social relatedness is key driver of our behavior. We are highly sensitive and attuned to our connection with others. If we experience any form of rejection or loss of status we experience pain in the same regions of the brain as we would physical pain. Studies have even shown that by taking a painkiller you can relieve the pain of social rejection in the same way as a headache.

So what does this have to do with influence?

From my research I think it is fair to say it means we have more persuasive ability than we realise. Each human is deeply driven by the need to belong and be accepted. To not comply with what others are saying is very uncomfortable. To be ostracized or left out socially is perceived by our reptilian brain as life threatening (just ask any teenager). Very dangerous indeed!

The hierarchal nature of most organisations means that our social brain gets highly activated at work. Our status, fairness and sense of connectedness is constantly being monitored by our social brain. Because many companies emphasise the structure and conformity of these hierarchies, employees tend to assume that their influence is dependent on their roles or titles — and that if they lack seniority or power, they can’t ask for anything.

But the thing is that senior leaders have those same organising principles in their own brains – the same need for connection, cooperation and being part of the group. Senior leaders want to be respected and liked, and they have a strong aversion to having to say no or disappointing others. Their social brains are strongly driven to comply with the needs of others. It is often very much harder for someone to say no than to say yes.

Even if they do say no they will feel bad about it. People are very motivated to comply with requests because to say no usually triggers activity in the amygdala – a fear response. Equally, to say yes to a request will trigger a reward response kicking off production of feel-good hormones such as dopamine.

And our brains really like to conserve energy. A simple, direct request can be processed quickly by the brain, while convoluted (indirect) requests are likely to be ignored or avoided as they take up more processing power.

So the first step to become more influential is to just ask for what we want. If we put ourselves into the shoes of the person we are trying to influence and understand that their own unconscious social needs and drivers are very compelling, it will be easier.

In his lecture on social influence Josh Davis, Lead Professor for the NeuroLeadership Institute, talks about two personal traits that can impact on our persuasiveness. The first is likability, which includes attractiveness and our capacity to show empathy, the second trait is credibility, encompassing expertise and sincerity. The research seems to indicate that how much impact these traits will have is in part dependant on how important the topic is to the person being persuaded.

Another great resource on this topic is The Six Principles of Influence, developed by Robert Cialdini and published in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. He is widely considered to be the foremost authority on the topic of influence and persuasion.

The principles Cialdini presents are: reciprocity, commitment, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. When you look at each of these principles they can be related back to the needs of our social brain – move way from danger and move toward reward.

My few simple tips to be more persuasive are:

  1. Ask for what you want and be direct – so many people just do not ask in the first place.
  2. Think about the person you are asking and put yourself in their shoes (build empathy). Know that they are strongly driven to cooperate, so they are already on your side.
  3. Ask with conviction (sincerity and certainty). This is something most successful salespeople already know.
  4. Do not be afraid to ask again. If someone has gone against the grain of their social brain and said ‘no’, they most likely will feel very bad and will want to make amends (this is something most kids seem to know instinctively – it is called pester power).

Once my client understood some of the information about the social brain, he felt a lot more confident in asking for the commitments that he needed from his stakeholders. Also, when he explained how much it would help the other teams, he was really appealing to their innate social drivers of wanting to help.

The idea of trying to persuade others can make us uncomfortable. Fortunately, our universal human need for social connectedness and belonging means it is much easier than we think.