The Persuasive Letter
For this assignment, you will be writing a letter compelling a friend or family member to change either a behavior or a belief with which you disagree. Choose your own topic, but for example, this letter could petition an enthusiastic neighbor to scale down his blinding Christmas decorations, an immature cousin to take a gap year between high school and college, a grandparent to vote to pass the new school district budget, a friend to stop drinking, or a spouse to reconcile with an estranged sibling. Because the letter will be written to an individual of your choosing, you must tailor your language and logic to the person to whom you are writing.
The Persuasive Letter
Government and public health organizations have been tasked with changing behavior — getting people to practice social distancing and sheltering in place for weeks, if not months. Unsurprisingly, almost everyone is relying on the tried-and-true method of driving change: telling people what to do. “Don’t go out,” “Stay six feet apart,” “Wash your hands,” and “Wear face masks” are examples of demands.
While many of us are following recommendations so far, ensuring that everyone sticks with them for the long haul is a more difficult task. Some people are still congregating in groups or have resumed doing so. Some churches, with the support of local leaders, are defying stay-at-home orders. Protesters are also demanding that businesses reopen sooner than experts predict.
Directives are ineffective at driving long-term behavior change because we all want to feel in control of our choices. Why did I purchase that item, use that service, or perform that action? Because I desired to. So when others try to influence our decisions, we don’t just go along with it; we fight back. We hang out with a friend, go shopping more than once a week, and don’t wear masks. We avoid doing what they suggested because we don’t want to feel like we’re being controlled by someone else.
Our innate anti-persuasion radar raises our defenses, causing us to avoid or ignore the message, or, worse, to counter-argue, conjuring up all the reasons why what someone else suggested was a bad idea. True, the governor advised residents to stay at home, but they are overreacting. Maybe the virus is bad in some parts of the country, but I don’t know anyone who has it. After all, many people who get it are fine in any case, so what’s the big deal? They poke and prod and raise objections like an overzealous high school debater until the message’s persuasive power crumbles.
So, if telling people what to do is ineffective, what is? Rather than trying to persuade people, it is often more effective to get them to persuade themselves. Here are three approaches.
1. Draw attention to a void.
You can increase people’s sense of freedom and control by pointing out a gap between their thoughts and actions, or between what they may recommend for others versus what they do themselves.
Consider staying at home. When dealing with young people who may be resistant, ask them what they would advise an elderly grandparent or a younger brother or sister to do. Would they want them to be around potentially infected people? If not, why do they believe it is safe to do so?
Internal consistency is something that people strive for. They want their attitudes and actions to be consistent. Highlighting the misalignment encourages them to fix the problem.
Thailand’s health officials used this approach in an anti-smoking campaign. Rather than telling smokers that their habit was bad, they had small children approach smokers on the street and ask for a light. The smokers, predictably, told the kids no. Many of the adults even lectured the young boys and girls about the dangers of smoking. However, before turning to leave, the kids handed the smokers a note that read, “You worry about me… “However, why not about yourself?” At the bottom was a toll-free number where smokers could get help. During the campaign, calls to that number increased by more than 60%.
2. Ask questions
Another way to give people agency is to ask questions instead of making statements. The public health message tries to be straightforward: “Junk food makes you fat.” “Driving while intoxicated is murder.” “Remain in your shelter.” However, being so assertive can make people feel threatened. The same information can be expressed as a question: “Do you believe junk food is good for you?” If someone says no, they are now in a difficult situation. By encouraging them to express themselves, they’ve had to put a stake in the ground, admitting that those things aren’t good for them. And once they’ve done that, it’s more difficult to justify their bad behavior.
The role of the listener is shifted by questions. Rather than arguing back or considering all the reasons they disagree, they’re sorting through their response to your question and their feelings or opinions on the subject. And this shift boosts buy-in. It encourages people to commit to the conclusion because, while they may not want to follow someone else’s lead, they are perfectly content to follow their own. It’s not just any answer; it’s their answer, reflecting their own personal thoughts, beliefs, and preferences. This increases the likelihood of action.
In the case of this crisis, questions such as “How bad would it be if your loved ones got sick?” may be more effective than directives in motivating long-term or intermittent social distancing and vigilant hygiene practices.
3. Request less.
The third strategy is to reduce the size of the request.
A doctor was treating an obese trucker who drank three liters of Mountain Dew every day. She wanted to ask him to stop smoking cold turkey, but she knew that would be futile, so she tried something else. She asked him to reduce his daily water consumption from three to two liters. He grumbled at first, but after a few weeks, he was able to make the change. Then, on the next visit, she asked him to reduce his intake to one liter per day. Finally, after he was able to do so, she suggested eliminating the soda entirely. The trucker still has the occasional can of Mountain Dew, but he’s lost more than 25 pounds.
Health organizations, particularly in times of crisis, want immediate and significant change. Everyone should continue to stay at home alone for another two months. However, such large requests are frequently turned down. They are so dissimilar to what people are doing now that they fall into what scientists refer to as “the region of rejection” and are ignored.
It is preferable to reduce the initial request. Ask for less at first, then more later. Break down a large request into smaller, more manageable chunks. To some extent, government officials responding to the pandemic are already doing this by setting initial end dates for social distancing measures and then extending them. However, there may be more opportunities, such as when experts allow some restrictions to be lifted — say, on small gatherings — but insist on others, such as concerts or sporting events, remaining prohibited.
Whether we’re encouraging people to socially distance themselves, shop only once a week, thoroughly wash their hands and wear face masks, or change their behavior in general, we all too often take the same approach: pushing. We believe that if we simply remind people or provide them with more facts, figures, or reasons, they will change their minds. However, as the recent backlash against Covid-19-related restrictions demonstrates, this does not always work in the long run, especially when your demands have no set end date.