A few weeks ago as part of my graduate work, I wrote a paper about a speech President Jimmy Carter gave to the American public in July, 1979 called “Crisis of Confidence.” It was a fascinating look back at a pivotal rhetorical moment in history, but the success of the speech depends on your perspective. For his part, Carter said, “It was the most successful speech I’ve ever made. It had the largest viewing audience and the highest approbation of any speech I’ve ever made in my life.” Not long after he gave the speech, though, Ronald Reagan’s pollster quipped, “I remember the exact moment I knew Ronald Reagan could beat Jimmy Carter. The date was July 15, 1979.”
History, with a lot of help from the media at the time, hasn’t been very kind to the speech. It’s most commonly referred to these days as Carter’s “malaise speech.” The interesting thing about that label is that at no point in the speech did Carter use the word. Labels get sticky for a reason, though, and I wondered how a speech could seem so good to one person, but appear to be so awful to another?
This kind of puzzle calls for a persuasion super model and I have the perfect one for the task: the Core Motives Model developed by Dr. Robert Cialdini. You’ll find the basis of the model described in Cialdini’s book, Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion. I give copies of this book away to clients because I think it’s one of the most accessible books regarding persuasion. The model lays out in convincing fashion how six influence techniques rule the world of persuasion. Here they are:
- Reciprocation is a technique rooted in social norms. These norms influence us to try and repay what another person has provided us. By virtue of the reciprocity rule…we feel obligated to the future repayment of favors, gifts and invitations.
- Liking is simply the fact that we most prefer to say yes to the requests of someone we know and like. Sometimes, this might mean someone we wish we were like.
- Consensus or social proof is, “one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. We view a behavior as more correct…to the degree we see others performing it” This principle does not rely only on firsthand exposure to be effective. Simply believing that other people believe in a certain way through evidence provided by, for example opinion polls, opens the mind to persuasive argument.
- Authority speaks to the fact that we tend to obey those we perceive to be proper authorities because we tend to believe authority figures have superior access to information and power. Uniforms, specialized clothing (e.g. a doctor with a stethoscope), titles and displayed diplomas are a few ways this principle can be activated.
- Consistency is “our nearly obsessive desire to be, and to appear, consistent with what we have already done. Once we have made a choice or a stand, we feel pressured to stay with a decision. Have a look at my article regarding cognitive dissonance theory to see all the ways we try and avoid deviating from stated commitments.
- Scarcity is the final technique and one that operates on a more primitive plane in the human mind. Scarcity involves the idea of potential loss. In fact, people hate losing so much that they are more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value.
The world gets much less complex when you view it through these six lenses. I’ve actually used the model to help clients set goals for their Public Relations programs and, as mentioned at the top, put it into play in critical analysis.
I’m not sure if Dr. Cialdini would like the way I’m putting his good thinking to work, but in the world of persuasion models, I consider Core Motives a Swiss Army knife, and if you’re interested to see how I cut President Carter’s speech up with it, I’ve posted it here. I got a pretty good grade on this paper, by the way. Thanks Dr. Cialdini!