Three Words That Can Double Your Influence with Gregg Sparkman: PYP 268

A thought experiment: you walk into a restaurant near the Stanford University campus, and you want to encourage the patrons waiting on line to order a meatless option for lunch? You can tell them one fact. What would it be, and how would you say it?

Take your time; I'll wait.

[Jeopardy theme plays]

To save us some time, I'll give you two options. Which one will work better?

Option A: “Some people limit how much meat they eat. This is true both nationally and here at Stanford. Specifically, recent research has shown that 30% of Americans make an effort to limit their meat consumption. That means that 3 in 10 people eat less meat than they otherwise would.”

Option B: “Some people limit how much meat they eat. This is true both nationally and here at Stanford. Specifically, recent research has shown that 30% of Americans have started to make an effort to limit their meat consumption. That means that 3 in 10 people have changed their behavior and have begun to eat less meat than they otherwise would.”

What do you think? Option A or Option B?

If you're like me, and the dozen or so people I've informally asked, you chose Option B. It just seems much friendlier and, well, more convincing. But why?

Meet Gregg Sparkman

Today's guest, Gregg Sparkmann, PhD, ran this experiment to test the idea of dynamic norms. That is, the concept that what's considered normal and acceptable can change.

Sparkmann and his mentor, Greg Walton (last week's podcast guest), hypothesized that because change is hard, the knowledge that people are changing might indicate to a person that there was a good reason for it.

Also, they sensed that one of the things that stops people from changing and adopting new habits, behaviors, and ideas is defensiveness at being late to the party. That is, if I go plant-based and you don't, you can just dismiss me as a weirdo. But if I go plant-based first, and you follow, then my status has to go up relative to yours because I got there first. So you'd rather dig in your heels and convince yourself that going plant-based is just stupid.

So when people are told that 30% of the population is already doing something virtuous or smart, they bristle. They resist. They shut down.

By contrast, when people are told that 30% of the population is just starting to do something, they get intrigued. If it's just starting, then they can get in on the ground floor. They can be an early adopter, a maven (to borrow a Malcolm Gladwell term that he borrowed from my grandmother), a key influencer. Plus, the fact that people are changing suggests good reason to join them.

In Sparkmann's restaurant study, 17% of the participants who were told Option A chose a meatless lunch. And of those who were given Option B, 34% went meatless. Basically, adding the phrase “have started to” doubled the effectiveness of the message in changing behavior.

I'm delighted to share this conversation with Gregg Sparkman with you. In it, we covered:

  • the power of norms to dictate behavior
  • the meat-eating norm: a salient default
  • dynamic vs static norms
  • why we resist going second
  • bandwagon effects
  • Robert Cialdini's hotel towel studies
  • “change isn't easy, so there must be a reason”
  • social proof that change must not be that hard
  • overcoming cognitive biases
  • eroding strict identity categories
  • “do-gooder” derogation and anger at vegetarians
  • dynamic norms assure you that your current behavior isn't your fault
  • “behaviors are a product of cultural momentum”
  • positive and possible nefarious uses of dynamic norms
  • Tyson Foods' public acknowledgment of the meatless future
  • and much more…

Enjoy, add your voice to the conversation via the comment box or audio recording box below, and please share – that's how we spread our message and spread our roots.

Talk Back


Research Paper: “Dynamic Norms Promote Sustainable Behavior, Even if It Is Counternormative,” by Gregg Sparkman and Gregory M. Walton

Gregg Sparkman's Stanford profile page

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