Sunday, April 13, 2008

From sex to hot coffee - how the unconscious shapes our choices every day

This is the text of my That's Men column in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 8th April, 2008. A collection of That's Men columns will be published by Veritas this summer.

Oh dear, can it really be true that those sexy images in the ads influence the behaviour of men?

I am afraid it is. But the women need not snigger. They too are prone to being influenced by attractive men in ways they might not expect.

Researchers at Stanford University showed men a series of erotic images and then invited them to gamble some money. The gambling exercise had no overt relationship to what went before. And yet the men who had viewed erotic images took greater risks in gambling than did men who had not seen these images.

But women interviewing men for jobs can find in their decisions influenced, unconsciously, by the attractiveness of the chap in the seat opposite.

Women in a mock job interview situation who were shown photographs of applicants tended to pick the more attractive looking men for the more high status jobs. They were also more generous to attractive men than to attractive women applicants.

Men in this experiment did not seem to discriminate between more and less attractive females. That surprises me given the number of guys in high status jobs who just happen to choose very pretty secretaries.

So I am not saying that these pieces of research are the last word on the influence of sex on men and women. And yet the influence of the unconscious on our everyday behaviour – sometimes in remarkable ways – is well established.

Consider this piece of research reported by Dr Christian Jarrett in the latest Psychologist (access restricted). A number of university students was asked questions, individually, by a researcher. While the questioning were going on, there were asked to hold the researcher’s drink. In some cases this was a hot coffee and in others it was an iced coffee. Later, another researcher came along and had a little chat with each of them.

The students were then asked whether they would recommend the second researcher for a job. The ones who had held the hot coffee cup said they would. The ones who held the cold cup said they wouldn’t.

So if you want someone to give you a job, buying them a hot coffee might work. This is especially so since people who drink coffee are more open to persuasion. For instance, in an Australian study, participants given a drink laced with caffeine were more likely to change their views on controversial topics such as euthanasia than those who were not.

Which goes to show that fellows who ask a girl in for a “coffee” at two o’clock in the morning are being a lot more clever than you might think.

Now, suppose you got a job from the manager who had a coffee in his hand at the time and suppose he sends you into a negotiation which you really need to win.

You take the bright new shiny briefcase your mother bought for you and you plonk it on the table, just to show you mean business, right? Wrong. If you ask two people to play cards and you place a briefcase in view, they will play more competitively than otherwise. So no briefcase, please.

Needless to say, you will offer your competitor a nice cup of coffee, though, won’t you? And if you want to be really sneaky, you yourself will just have a glass of cold water, thanks very much.

Here’s another one you can use. Getting people into a state of disgust or sadness will strongly influence their subsequent buying behaviour. In one experiment, students shown a film calculated to make them feel sad (The Champ) were later prepared to pay more for a bottle of water than people shown a film which made them feel disgusted (Trainspotting). So don’t make ’em laugh, make ’em cry and you’re on the road to riches.

And if you can’t make ’em cry, at least you can imitate them. Studies show that if you mimic the body language and mannerisms of a person with whom you are negotiating, you will end up with a better deal than if you do not. And, by the way, persons whose behaviour is mimicked are subsequently more benevolent towards others, a Dutch study shows.

The lesson? Don’t beat yourself up too much over your sillier decisions. It’s nothing to do with you, really.

Now, coffee anyone?

Got an opinion? Comment here.

No comments: