Category Archives: BS Guys

BS Guys

The Four Ways You're Being Manipulated (and How to Stop It)

The following article was first published on May 5, 2015.

You and I are shockingly easy to manipulate. Decades of social science experiments show that we can be induced to donate or steal, stand for justice or proliferate racism, vote or stay home, torture or pity.

It’s time we stopped reading social science for fascinating facts about humans in general, and started using it to navigate our own lives. It’s time we acknowledge how little control we have over our own behavior—and start taking control of the things that control us. Only then will we be the real agents of our own behavior. Only then will we be able to live up to the morals, goals, and aspirations we most cherish.

A great place to start taking control of the things that control you is to become an Influence Spotter. As you move about in public, engage with media and interact with others, pick one influence tactic at a time and spend a week learning to spot examples of it. Our research shows that you are least subject to manipulation when you are most conscious of its attempt. For example, if you know someone is raising her voice in order to intimidate you, you may feel a bit less intimidated.

Here are four great “spotting” exercises to begin with. They come to us from Stanford Psychologist Albert Bandura. In Bandura’s latest book, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves, he describes four common ways people like you and me are manipulated into supporting and doing despicable things. To help bring them to life—see if you can spot them in our most recent Behavioral Science Guys experiment.

1. Minimizing the behavior. This is often accomplished by using sanitizing euphemisms to describe what we’re doing that sanitize it. There’s a reason CIA officials insist on referring to waterboarding as “enhanced interrogation” rather than “torture.” In our experiment, we test whether having a confederate urge teens to “sweeten their score” causes more to compromise their morals than if we call it “lying.”

2. Minimizing consequences. In our experiment, the confederate helps subjects minimize the consequences of their choices with advantageous comparisons—for example, “It’s not like we’re killing someone here!” For years, tobacco companies attempted to salve consciences by refuting connections between smoking and cancer. The murkier they made the connection, the less repugnant their product appeared. We sometimes minimize consequences in our own minds when we make choices inconsistent with our values—for example, “One ice cream cone won’t cause a heart attack!”

3. Dehumanize victims. Last year, the world was in an uproar about the apparent North-Korean-backed cyber-attack on Sony Studios. The alleged goal was to stop the release of “The Interview”—a comedy depicting an assassination of Kim Jong Un. Absent from all of this moral outrage is appropriate disgust at a comedic representation of the assassination of a sitting head-of-state. Why no outcry? Because we see Kim Jong Un as a ruthless buffoon. He is a caricature not a human—so we give ourselves permission to act toward him in ways we would not toward say, President Obama. Imagine our reaction if another country produced a television sitcom celebrating the kidnap and torture of our sitting head of state. Manipulating the representation of victims is one of the most common tactics practiced on you.

Sometimes it’s used in reverse. For example, a study showed that voters are 90 percent more likely to favor protecting a species called the furry-nosed otter than the same creature if called the sharp-clawed otter. Change Sheep-eating Eagle to American Eagle and we are 75 percent more likely to take it under our wing. In our experiment, some teen subjects were told they were competing against a team called “The Rats” while others were told it was simply “Team B.” On hearing their name, one boy wryly commented, “That’s an unfortunate name.” Notice also that as we debate the use of various coercive methods in the US, we refer to those whom we practice them on as “enemy combatants.” An unfortunate name if you want people to consider your humanity.

4. Finally, the granddaddy of all manipulations: moral justification. We are in peril of disconnecting from our conscience when we begin to justify our means with noble-sounding ends. In our experiment, some subjects were offered the chance to donate their winnings to a children’s charity (we did, in fact, make the donation). They were told that the fictitious other team was keeping their winnings for themselves. As subject kids cheated, it was common to hear, “It’s for the children!” Dr. Bandura pointed out a painful hypocrisy in our own experiment: “You are justifying lying to kids in order to pursue knowledge—how do you feel about that?”

When we loaded our subjects (if you just noted that “subject” is a dehumanizing word you’re already influence spotting!) with all four manipulation tactics they made more than three times as many dishonest choices. Think about it! These aren’t bad kids—these are normal kids being subjected to powerful influence tactics. Their choices were far less about them than about the things controlling them. Which is why you and I need to learn to take control of the things that control us.

Now, let me hasten to add that I am not taking a position here on decisions like the manufacture of cigarettes, the use of water boarding, or deception in social science experiments. I have my own feelings on those topics and I suspect you do as well. What I am suggesting is that as you and I sort out our opinions, there are things we and others do that cloud and confuse the moral calculation. If you want to stay connected to your conscience, the best course is to learn to spot these manipulations—both self-imposed and external—and reframe the choice in an honest way.

“I am breaking my commitment to myself by ordering a Mucho Grande Mocha Latte. Do I want to do that?”

At times, the answer may be yes. But at least it will then be a thoughtful yes.

Join me in creating a better and more conscious world by becoming an Influence Spotter.

Good Luck,
Joseph

BS Guys

How to Avoid Social Backlash in the Workplace

Research shows that women who speak up at all are risking more than men. Something as minor as telling observers that a CEO “tends to offer his (her) own opinions as much as possible,” and that, “Compared to other CEOs, Mr. (Ms.) Morgan talks much more than others in power,” caused observers to respect Mr. Morgan more and Ms. Morgan less.1 This approval or disapproval was based on gender alone. It isn’t fair.

Speaking up in forceful, assertive ways is even more risky for women. They are burdened with cultural stereotypes that typecast women as caring and nurturing.2 Speaking forcefully violates that cultural norm and women experience a more punishing backlash than men.

In a landmark study, Victoria Brescoll and Eric Luis Uhlmann asked the question, “Can an angry woman get ahead?”3 Their study documented the unequal penalty women experience for showing anger at work, but then went further to explore the reasons behind this gender effect. Their results suggest that the penalty occurs because observers attribute women’s anger to internal characteristics (“she is an angry person,’’ or ‘‘she is out of control”) while attributing men’s anger to external circumstances ("he's having a bad day," or "things were out of control so someone had to take charge").

What this previous research, along with our own, confirms is that emotional inequality is real and it is unfair. And while it is unacceptable and needs to be addressed at a cultural, legal, organizational, and social level—individuals can take control. We wanted to develop specific skills women can use on the job to be forceful, assertive and honest—without experiencing social backlash. Our first step was to recreate the social backlash and emotion-inequality effects in a controlled laboratory setting. We wanted to demonstrate the effects in a reliable way, so we could test ways to reduce them.

We created videotaped interactions so we could control what observers would see. The videotaped interactions featured either a male or female actor and took place in a meeting room seated at a table. The actors used identical scripts and we coached them so that their performances were as similar as possible. The only difference was that one actor was male and the other was female.

In this first study, 4,517 participants played the observer role. Each saw a single 30-40 second performance, and then rated the “manager” using a 20-item survey. The chart below illustrates the social backlash and emotion-inequality effects we observed. The bars represent the percentage drop averaged across status, competency, and worth, in that order.
Emotion-Inequality Graph A
Next, we decided to test whether brief framing could reduce the emotion-inequality effects. We tested three frames: a Behavior Frame, a Value Frame, and an Inoculation Frame.

• Behavior Frame: The actors described what they were about to say before saying it: “I’m going to express my opinion very directly. I’ll be as specific as possible.”
• Value Frame: The actors described their motivation in value-laden terms before making the statement of disapproval: “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand.”
• Inoculation Frame: The female actor suggested it could be risky for a woman to speak up the way she was about to: “I know it’s a risk for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly.”

In this second study, 7,921 participants played the observer role. Each saw a single 35-45 second performance, and then rated the “manager” using the 20-item survey from Study 1.

Each of the frames worked. The chart below illustrates the positive impacts of the different frames.
Emotion-Inequality Graph B

This study shows that framing statements can help to solve social backlash and emotion-inequality effects. We believe that each frame works in a different way.

Behavior Frame: “I’m going to express my opinion very directly. I’ll be as specific as possible.” We think the Behavior Frame works by setting an expectation. It makes sure the statement that follows doesn’t come as a surprise. Without the frame, observers are blindsided by the force of the emotion and may assume the worst—that the person has lost his/her temper. The frame works by preventing this negative conclusion.

Value Frame: “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand.” We think the Value Frame works by giving a positive reason for the emotion. In fact, it turns the emotion into a virtue by turning it into a measure of commitment to a shared value.

Inoculation Frame: “I know it’s a risk for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly.”

We think the Inoculation Frame works by warning observers that they may have an implicit bias. It causes them to try hard to be fair, or to adjust their judgment in an effort to be fair.

We were a bit surprised at how well it worked and we are skeptical that the Inoculation Frame will work if used repeatedly. It could be seen as “playing a card”—in this case the “gender card." Our concern is that it may create short-term benefits, but damage a user’s reputation.

Explain Your Intent Before Stating Your Content

Speaking forcefully creates a social backlash for both men and women—though it’s more severe for women. This backlash occurs when observers use the emotion to draw negative conclusions about the speaker’s intent. The backlash is reduced when the speaker takes a few seconds to explain his/her positive intent before stating the content.

We tested three of the statements a person could use to explain his/her intent—Behavior, Value, and Inoculation Frames. We can conclude that the Behavior and Value Frames are effective and are safe to use repeatedly. The Inoculation Frame works in the short term, but we won’t recommend its repeated use until we’ve tested it more thoroughly.

If not acknowledged or managed well, emotional inequality and social backlash can adversely affect an individual’s career and can prove costly to an organization’s effectiveness. We believe the implications of this research will empower individuals and leaders to engage in and encourage candid discussion while minimizing negative impacts.

1Victoria L. Brescoll, “Who Takes The Floor And Why: Gender, Power, And Volubility In Organizations,” Administrative Science Quarterly, 56, no. 4 (2011): 622-641.
2Alice H. Eagly and Steven J. Karau, “Role Congruity Theory of Prejudice Toward Female Leaders,” Psychological Review, 109, no. 3 (2002): 573.
3Victoria L. Brescoll and Eric Luis Uhlmann. (2008). “Can an Angry Woman Get Ahead? Status Conferral, Gender, and Expression of Emotion in The Workplace,” Psychological Science, 19,no. 3 (2008): 268-275.

Sincerely,
David

BS Guys

Got an Awkward Conversation?

Everyone has an awkward conversation they are avoiding. Perhaps you have a co-worker who smells bad, a boss who’s impossible, or a regular, well-paying customer with outrageous demands. Sometimes the situation is temporary, or we don’t deal with it very often, so we don’t address it. Sometimes we bottle up our feelings in situations we deal with regularly—and do so for extended periods of time. Instead of finding a way to deal with an awkward situation in a healthy way, we endure years of pain and torment.

In the hit 90’s sitcom Seinfeld, Elaine, along with Jerry, George, and Kramer, lock away their darkest secrets in the vault (“I’m putting it in the vault! I’m locking the vault!”), a place where their confidences—too awkward or damaging to tell—were supposed to go to die. Sometimes we do the exact same thing.

So, why do we do this? Because we focus on the immediate risks involved in speaking up, but completely ignore the certain and ongoing costs of not speaking up.

We recently conducted a study of 1,409 participants asking about their “vault” (this study is the latest subject of our new BS Guys video). Fifty-six percent of respondents stated they have been safeguarding toxic secrets or workplace grievances for more than a year! Keeping these secrets “in the vault” creates problems that are decidedly non-comedic and can be costly to an organization.

We asked people to imagine that we just handed them a “magical free pass” that would allow them to say anything they wanted to one person at work—with immunity from any consequences. Then we asked them what they thought would happen if they could actually follow through and hold that conversation. These were the surprising results:

• 66% believed their organization would be helped
• 57% believed everyone who interacts with this person would be helped
• 43% believed the person themself would be helped
• 39% believed a huge emotional burden would be lifted

We were amazed at the things employees have bottled-up for years, and were dying to tell a colleague, and yet were too scared or worried to discuss. For example, one school principal longed to tell her aging school media specialist:

“You need to retire. You’re overpaid, unhealthy, and out of touch—you can’t move well enough to even answer your phone. Oh, and you have a serious problem with hoarding.”

In spite of the enduring and substantial cost to the school, the principal, the students—and likely even to this employee—the principal’s concerns have stayed locked in “the vault” for more than a year.

People’s suppressed concerns ran the gamut, from terrifying to disgusting to heartbreaking. Common examples included:

• Speaking truth to those in power (50%): “You are the worst boss I’ve ever had. I used to fantasize you’d get into a car wreck on the way to work. My heart goes out to anyone who has to report to you.”
• Criticizing a peer’s performance (31%): “Your fake, sugar-sweet ‘kindness’ tinged with sarcasm and bullying to everyone, as well as your lying and backbiting, has made me not trust you or believe a word you say.”
• Talking about the elephant in the room (2%): “Your hygiene and habits are repulsive and offensive. No one wants to hear or smell your bodily functions. Stop leaving food garbage at your desk and using the bathroom sink to wash up like a squirrel at a birdbath.”

The most surprising finding of this study is how much pain we are willing to endure and for how long—for years and years in many cases—rather than open the vault. We are so intimidated by the initial conflict that could arise, we risk losing the incredible payoff of resolving the awkward issue.

This study uncovered another problem—these secrets are not truly locked away. When it comes to frustrations, if you don’t talk it out with the person and resolve it, you’ll act it out in unhealthy ways. Consider all the people who hate their managers. More than half of the respondents stated that they had either shared their resentments with others or have hinted about it to their boss.

So how do we open up the vault? Here are some tips to help you have “serenity now and avoid insanity later” as you follow through with that awkward conversation you’re avoiding:

Assume people can change. More than half of respondents haven’t spoken up because they don’t believe the person could or would change. But people do change all the time. Ask yourself, “If I were in the other person’s shoes, and I had a true friend who knew what I know, would I want them to tell me?” Most of us say “Yes!” because we care and have confidence we can change. Do the person the favor of letting them try to change.

Determine what you really want. Many of people’s grievances sound like, “You are a jerk!” These are accusations, rather than aspirations. Before speaking up, ask yourself what you want to accomplish—not just for yourself, but for the other person and for your working relationship. Use this long-term, inclusive goal to make the conversation constructive rather than destructive.

Approach as a friend, not a foe. We live in a low-accountability culture, where speaking up is often seen as an attack. Avoid this misconception by explaining your positive motives up front. For example, “I’d like to discuss a concern. My goal is to support you and to help us achieve the metrics you’ve set for our team . . . ”

Stick to the facts. Concerns that have been in the vault for months or years grow big and hairy. Specific incidents and facts are hidden beneath layers of conclusions. Avoid broad conclusions such as, “you don’t care” or “you’re incompetent.” Instead, focus on specific incidents, events, and actions such as, “The last three staffing decisions were made without input from the managers in the affected areas.”

I hope these tips help you have the courage to step up to the awkward conversation locked away in your vault.

Sincerely,
Joseph

BS Guys

One Simple Skill to Overcome Peer Pressure

“If your best buddy jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?” Too often, the answer is yes.

Patients die because nurses and doctors who know better go along with bad decisions. Planes crash because crew members go along with plans they know could kill them. Organizations fail because employees sit on their hands in meetings—going along to get along. Social influence can turn geniuses into fools. However, there’s an easy way out of this trap.

We decided to demonstrate the problem by repeating a classic conformity study from the 1950s. We sat seven teenagers around a table and asked each in turn to answer a very simple question.

“Which of the three lines on this poster—Line A, B, or C—matches the line on the other poster?” The answer was very obviously Line C. It was the only line that was even close.

But here’s the trick—the first teenagers to respond to the question were confederates. They were working for us . . . and we told them to give the wrong answer. They all picked Line B.

This answer was obviously wrong, but we were interested in how the group’s answer would affect the final person. The actual subject was not in on the trick. What would the subject say?

Nearly two out of three subjects went along with the crowd. They picked the obviously wrong answer. Afterward, we asked them whether they knew they were picking the wrong answer and they said, “Yes.” They knew the answer was wrong, but they went along anyway, “because everyone else was.”

This is not dissimilar to what Solomon Asch found with adults; we tend to go along with the group—even when we’re confident that the group is wrong and even if we’re fairly certain that our conformity will come back to hurt us! Social influence is tough to buck.

Though we had finished interviewing the subjects, we weren’t quite done with our experiment. In the next round we made a tiny adjustment. We asked one of the confederates to express polite doubt about the group’s answer. The confederate said something similar to, “I might have seen it differently. I think it’s C.”

This polite doubt had an astounding impact on our results. In this condition, nineteen out of twenty subjects gave their actual opinion—they were honest!

Here’s the BS you can use. We have an innate fear of being shunned by valued groups. But even if you feel like you’re the odd person out, don’t stifle your concerns. Simply express them respectfully. It turns out this small dissent can provide powerful permission to the silent concerns of others.

You don’t have to risk being an outcast in order to test your concern. You don’t have to scream and yell. You don’t have to call others names. The quiet, polite expression of doubt can turn the rest of the group from zombies into thinkers.

David

BS Guys

Why We Lie: A Surprisingly Simple Way to Spur Greater Honesty

Fifteen-year-old Jake is a high school basketball star. We invited Jake to go into another room and toss beanbags through holes of various sizes in a plywood target, then report back to us with his final score. Our hidden camera recorded that he scored six out of a possible fifteen points (not too good for a basketball phenom). As Jake approached our table to report his score, we wondered—would he embrace his shame and tell the truth? Or would he lie to get the extra $1 per point we promised him? Eighty percent of his colleagues in our experiment had lied. Would Jake follow suit—or fess up?

Most of us lie. Studies have shown that lying is actually the natural order of things. From the time we are small, we learn there are powerful incentives to say what works rather than what’s true. The question is, why? Do we lie because we are morally bankrupt from birth? Or is there something more fixable going on? Given the importance of trust to healthy relationships, families, and communities, how can we help people do the unnatural? How can we, in spite of all the immediate incentives to do the opposite, influence people to tell the truth?

The answer—at least in part—is surprisingly simple. And it begins with understanding one truth: most of our immoral actions are due not to moral defect, but to moral slumber. Thus, what we need is not a radical exorcism, but a bit of a wake-up call.

Let’s set lying aside for a moment and look at a different example of ethical decision-making and how little it takes to influence people to make decent choices.

Have you ever wondered whether a cook having a bad day takes it out on your food? Ryan Buell and colleagues from Harvard Business School did a fascinating experiment in a restaurant to test the effect of cameras on food quality. In one condition, customers were able to see the cooks as they prepared their food. In another, it was the reverse—cooks were provided with screens showing diners receiving their food. Which intervention would you guess made the biggest difference in food quality? Surprisingly, it was the second! You might think allowing customers to inspect quality would put cooks on notice and compel better quality. It didn’t. What made a difference was not inspection but connection. When cooks could see those eating their food, they cooked better (as judged by customers) and faster (as judged by a stopwatch)!

All the cooks needed in order to care more about taking care of customers was to feel connected to them. It’s easy to get morally dozy when you can’t see the effect of your work. And it’s remarkably easy to invite people to greater integrity by simply connecting them with the moral and human content of their actions.

Now back to lying and the beanbag toss. In the first round of our experiment, we asked teenagers to report their own scores (which we verified using a hidden camera), and we paid them $1 for each point. Eighty percent of the subjects lied. Some of them lied by more than 200 percent. And ironically, many of these kids had recently attended a Bible study class!

In the second round, we tested the power of a self-administered moral wake-up call by simply encouraging participants to think about their own morals.

Psychologist Albert Bandura suggests that you and I spend most of our lives morally disengaged. We make choices without thinking about their human consequences. When our phone buzzes as we drive in freeway traffic we feel tempted to read and respond to the message. When we do, it’s not because we don’t care about the safety of ourselves and others. It’s because we aren’t thinking about safety. We’re thinking instead about the profound urgency of the text message reverberating in our mobile device. If cooks make better choices when they feel connected to customers, would teens make better choices if given an opportunity to connect with their conscience?

After explaining the beanbag toss to the second-round subjects, we gave them a slip of paper that asked them if they were willing to commit to be honest about their score. Then we invited them to sign a statement committing to do that. All chose to do so.

Jake was one of the second-round subjects. After completing his pitiful performance he approached the table, hung his head, and with a self-conscious smile, told the truth: “I got six.”

When participants were invited to think about their own values and make a voluntary commitment to abide by them, the outcomes were completely reversed. This time, 80 percent of the subjects told the truth.

The most powerful way to improve the moral character of our world is not policing, but connecting. We can help one another stay morally engaged by simply connecting people with their own values and with the consequences of their choices.

Joseph

BS Guys

How to Change People Who Don't Want to Change

In our latest BS Guys video, we asked two boys to approach smokers on the street. Their goal was to get the smokers to consider quitting. They used one of two strategies: “tell” or “ask.” In the tell condition, they did what many have tried before—they told the smokers why they should quit. In the ask condition, the boys asked the smokers for a light. It was fascinating to see how the smokers responded.

When you’re trying to influence people who need motivation, but not information, don’t offer more information. Instead, use questions to create a safe environment where they can explore motivations they already have.

For example, suppose you want your spouse to improve his fitness. How would he respond to a lecture? He’d get defensive, right? So instead, try asking a question. “If you wanted to increase your fitness level, what changes would you need to make? And what would make those changes difficult or unpleasant?” This question creates a safe environment where he can examine the facts he already has.

The problem with reminding people of facts they already know is that it feels patronizing or controlling. People’s natural response is to resist and exert their independence. Psychologists call this “reactance.”

Think about how we usually try to get smokers to quit. Most smokers already have a grasp of the facts. They’ve read the warning labels and they’ve seen the public service announcements. More lectures aren’t likely to be very influential. So we wanted to test the power of influential questions.

We hired two boys to be our confederates. They approached smokers on the street to see if they could get them to consider quitting. In the tell condition, they used the traditional lecture approach, and then asked the smoker if they’d like information on how to quit. In this condition, 90 percent of the smokers responded resentfully, and fewer than half took the paper with the information on how to quit.

In the ask condition, the confederates carried fake cigarettes, and asked the smoker for a light. The smokers’ reactions were dramatic. None offered a light, and none ignored the request. Instead, they stopped what they were doing, and began lecturing the kids on the dangers of smoking. The question prompted strong anti-smoking tirades—from the smokers themselves!

Then the kids asked a second influential question: “If you care about us, what about you?” Then they offered the information on how to quit. In this condition, 90 percent of the smokers committed to trying to quit.

Did the smokers really quit? We don’t know. However, when the ad giant Ogilvy & Mather originated this study in Bangkok, Thailand, calls to the helpline went up 40 percent on the day of the experiment—showing that the influence extended beyond words to action.

Try this technique the next time you want to help someone take on a difficult change. Instead of repeating facts they already know, try asking questions. The goal is to allow them to explore their own motivations without feeling pushed by you. Below are a few questions you might try.

“What is it that makes you even consider changing?”
“If things worked out exactly the way you want, what would be different?
“What are the pluses and minuses of changing or not changing?”
“If this change were easy, would you want to make it? What makes it hard?”

Good Luck,
David

BS Guys

Does Santa Make You Selfish?

In our newly released video, Santa’s Elf holds out two tantalizing foil-wrapped chocolate Christmas bears to Emma and Alex. One chocolate bear is a wonderfully chubby eight inches tall. The other is tiny—the size and girth of a clothespin. “Sorry,” the Elf says, “we only have one big bear left.” He turns to Emma, the subject child: “Here, you choose—which do you want?” Will Emma take the big one and stiff Alex, or in the spirit of the season, will she decide it’s more blessed to give than to receive?

Words matter. A lot. The words you choose to frame a problem powerfully influence the way you and others feel about it.

For example, if Ethan takes a cupcake without asking, a parent who begins with, “Ethan, you disobeyed Mommy,” sets up an entirely different conversation than one who says, “Ethan, you have broken my trust.” A boss who says, “We have an unacceptable error rate,” has framed the problem as meeting the boss’ expectations. One who says, “Our error rate is putting patient lives at risk,” has framed it as a moral imperative.

Research shows that small tweaks in verbal frames can provoke resentment or invite commitment about the same issue! Reviewing that research made the VitalSmarts research team wonder, “What about Christmas?” Each of us could think of Christmas mornings where kids had behaved like ravenous hyenas, tearing through wrapping paper to get at the next indulgence. Yet, we could also recall instances of sweet, selfless generosity, where a child sacrificed hard-earned cash to bring a smile to someone they loved.

After surveying our various memories, we were left asking, “Overall, does Christmas make us naughtier or nicer? Or is it the way we talk about Christmas that determines the influence of the season?”

So we invited roughly sixty kids, ages six to eight, to a Christmas party. After enjoying a rollicking good time decorating, eating cookies, and playing holiday games, the children were invited to visit with Santa, two at a time. The first child was a subject, and the second was a confederate—our secret scientific helper!

In the first condition, Santa used his age-old script, “What do you want for Christmas?” Kids have been preparing for this dialogue since they were in diapers. All of them were armed with a Christmas shopping list for the Jolly Old Elf. When they finished, Santa said, “Thank you for visiting me! If you’ll go over there and see my elf, he has a surprise for you!” The kids gleefully complied. The pair of tots faced the elf who announced sadly, “Oh no! I’m almost out of big chocolate bears. I only have one big one left. One of you can have the large one and the other will get the small one.” The elf then turned to the subject child and said, “Here—you choose. Which do you want?” Few deliberated for long. Over two-thirds snatched the big one. One little guy didn’t even wait for the elf to finish. When his eyes landed on the gargantuan bear he seized it, exclaimed “I’m out of here!” and fled.

In the second condition, the children had the exact same experience but with one small change—just a few words. Santa greeted the kids warmly and asked, “What gifts do you want to give this Christmas?” Most of the kids couldn’t even hear him! They began to recite wish lists like a kidnapper dictating ransom terms. Santa would smile and say, “Those sound like great wishes! And are there any presents you want to give to someone?” After two or three attempts to clarify his bizarre departure from the sacred Santa liturgy, their eyes would widen, and they’d offer a few thoughtful ideas.

Now came the moment of truth. The subject and confederate would approach Santa’s helper. The elf would sadly announce the tragic chocolate bear situation. He would offer the choice to the subject child. This time, not only did most kids answer more slowly, they responded more generously. One little girl removed both bears from the elf’s hands, examined them closely, reading the label, “Hmm . . . melted chocolate. Hmm . . . . Here—you take the big one!” She smiled, gripped the little bear and skipped out of the room. Simply changing the Christmas “frame” influenced over forty percent of kids to behave more graciously!

When you’re talking about problems at work, decisions with family members, or goals with colleagues, the words you choose to frame the issues are very influential. We at VitalSmarts hope the words you use this holiday season will bring you great joy, meaning, and connection with those you love.

Sincerely,
Joseph