Three ways to convince rejecters of the value of your offer

Confirmation bias makes it difficult to persuade people who don’t want to change, but experimental evidence shows three effective ways to overcome this.

Generally, advertisers target those predisposed to their services. That makes sense – if you have a finite budget, it’s often better to focus on the most easily persuadable.

However, there are occasions when you might need to target rejecters. Maybe you want to persuade anti-vaxxers to get jabbed or encourage hardcore smokers to quit, or perhaps you’re working in a new category that requires people to break from their previous behaviours. Well, if so, this article is for you. We’re going to investigate how behavioural science can be used to win over rejecters.

The problem of confirmation bias

Persuading rejecters is tricky because people don’t interpret messages neutrally but through a lens of their feelings for the communicator. So, a group that dislikes you is likely to sceptically evaluate even a powerful message.

That’s not speculation. During the 2015 general election one of the authors of this piece, Richard Shotton, surveyed more than 1,000 voters about their views on a fictitious policy – raising VAT by a penny to fund 10,000 extra nurses. The results were then split by political affiliation. The twist was that half the respondents were told it was a Conservative policy and half that it was a Labour initiative.

At a loss with pricing? Try applying behavioural science

Respondents were four times more likely to agree with the policy if they thought that it came from their party. The scale of the effect means that policy is far less influential than existing party affiliation. People interpreted political messages through a lens of their feelings.

How to solve the problem of confirmation bias

So, how do you win over those who don’t want to change? Well, luckily for us, behavioural scientists don’t just describe problems, they also suggest solutions.

The first relevant study comes from two Stanford psychologists, Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser, who were interested in understanding how you get people to make big changes to their behaviour.

In their experiment, they visited Californian homeowners and gave them a short talk about road safety. Afterwards, the psychologists asked the participants to put up a large sign, saying ‘Drive Safely’, in their front garden. It was an ugly sign measuring more than 16 square feet so, unsurprisingly, only 17% agreed.

Next, they approached a second group of homeowners. The psychologists gave them the same safety talk but this time they asked the homeowners to put up a tiny sticker in their window supporting road safety. Virtually everyone agreed.

Two weeks later, the psychologists returned and asked the homeowners to put up the large ‘Drive Safely’ sign. Among those who had displayed the window sticker, 76% agreed.

The two-step approach led to a tripling in compliance.

If you want to encourage a big piece of behaviour change, begin by asking the audience to make a minor change.

Freedman and Fraser argued that a two-step approach is effective as it taps into people’s strong desire to be consistent with their past behaviours.

If you want to encourage a big piece of behaviour change, begin by asking the audience to make a minor change. It should be small enough that it takes minimal effort, but large enough to change the self-identity of the target audience. Then, once they have done that, follow up with your genuine ask. This tactic, called the foot-in-the-door technique, is a great way to change the minds of those who have been resistant to your past entreaties.

You can see it in action in the design of Stoptober, one of Public Health England’s most successful campaigns to persuade people to quit smoking. They applied the foot-in-the-door technique brilliantly by asking people to begin by giving up for a month – a  much less daunting task than going completely cold turkey.

The power of the oblique

A second relevant study comes from Leon Festinger, a Stanford psychologist, who identified when confirmation bias is weakened. In 1964, he ran a study among members of college fraternities. He began by playing the listeners an audio argument about why fraternities were morally bankrupt. The recording was either played on its own or accompanied by an unrelated silent film.

After the students had heard the recording, Festinger asked them whether their views had shifted. Those who had heard the argument at the same time as the silent film were more likely to have changed their opinion.

The psychologist argued that the brain is brilliant at generating counterarguments that maintain its existing point of view. However, when the brain is distracted, that ability is hampered.

You can apply this finding by identifying and targeting moments when people are partially distracted. That leads to a counterintuitive media strategy. If you want to win over rejecters, don’t focus on moments of full attention, such as appointment-to-view TV programmes or blockbusters in the cinema. Instead target an auxiliary medium, like radio, which is consumed alongside other activities.

It’s not just in media where you can apply this idea. There are creative applications too. Robert Heath, in his wonderful book, Seducing the Subconscious, draws on Festinger’s work to argue that the best way to convert rejecters is through indirect, rather than direct, communications.

Heath’s most famous example is British Airways’ repositioning in the 1990s. He argues that the brand persuaded people of its merits by using the same piece of haunting classical music in every ad. Since they avoided explicit claims about their luxuriousness, the brain’s ability to generate counterarguments wasn’t activated. Instead, the beautiful strains of Lakme’s Flower Duet insinuated luxury by association.

Confirmation bias suggests that overturning entrenched beliefs is a difficult challenge. Before embarking on such a task, it’s best to consider whether it might be more appropriate to focus on a more ambivalent audience. However, if you’re sure that it’s rejecters who you need, then behavioural science suggests a few potential solutions – the foot-in-the-door technique, prioritising moments of distraction and using oblique communications.

Richard Shotton is founder of the consultancy Astroten and author of The Choice Factorya book about applying behavioural science to advertising. He tweets at @rshotton.

Will Hanmer-Lloyd is head of strategy at Total Media.