The Persuasion Instinct
judge: I find you guilty as charged and hereby sentence you to -seventy-two hours’ community service and a fine of £150. You have a choice. You can either pay the full amount within the allotted three-week period or pay £50 less if you settle immediately. Which is it to be?
pickpocket: I only have £56 on me at the moment, Your Honor. But if you allow me a few moments with the jury, I’d prefer to pay now.
A policeman on traffic duty pulls a motorist over for speeding.
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t write you a ticket," he says.
"Well," says the driver, "last week my wife ran off with one of you guys. And when I saw your car, I thought you were bringing her back."
A Spewrious Tale?
In 1938, in Selma, Alabama, a physician by the name of Drayton Doherty was summoned to the bedside of a man called Vance Vanders. Six months earlier, in a graveyard in the dead of night, Vanders had bumped into a witchdoctor and the spook had put a curse on him. A week or so later Vanders got a pain in his stomach, and decided to take to his bed. Much to the distress of his family, he’d remained there ever since.
Doherty gave Vanders a thorough examination, and grimly shook his head. It’s a mystery, he said, and shut the door behind him. But the next day he was back.
"I tracked down the witchdoctor and lured him back to the graveyard," he announced. "When he arrived I jumped on him, pinned him to the ground, and swore that if he didn’t tell me the exact nature of the curse he’d put on you, and give me the antidote, I would kill him on the spot."
Vanders’s eyes widened.
"What did he do?" he asked.
"Eventually, after quite a struggle, he relented," Doherty continued. "And I must confess that, in all my years in medicine, I’ve never heard anything like it. What he did was this. He implanted a lizard egg inside your stomach—and then caused it to hatch. And the pain you’ve been feeling for the last six months is the lizard—it’s been eating you alive!"
Vanders’s eyes almost popped out of his head.
"Is there anything you can do for me, Doctor?" he pleaded.
Doherty smiled reassuringly.
"Luckily for you," he said, "the body is remarkably resilient and most of the damage has been largely superficial. So we’ll administer the antidote the witchdoctor kindly gave us, and wait and see what happens."
Vanders nodded enthusiastically.
Ten minutes later, his patient vomiting uncontrollably from the powerful emetic he’d given him, Doherty opened his bag. Inside was a lizard he’d bought from the local pet shop.
"Aha!" he announced with a flourish, brandishing it by the tail. "Here’s the culprit!"
Vanders looked up, then retched violently again. Doherty collected his things.
"Not to worry," he said. "You’re over the worst of it and will soon pick up after this."
Then he left.
Sure enough, for the first time in ages, Vanders slept soundly that night. And when he awoke in the morning he had eggs and grits for breakfast.
Persuasion. No sooner is the word out than images of secondhand car dealers, mealy-mouthed politicians, schmoozers, cruisers, and a barrel-load of life’s other users and abusers come padding—brothel-creepers and smoking jackets at the ready—across the dubious neuronal shag piles of our minds. It’s that kind of word. Though undoubtedly one of social psychology’s hippest, most sought after neighborhoods, persuasion also has a dodgy, downbeat reputation: an area of Portakabins and bars, sleazy garage forecourts, and teeming neon strips.
Which, of course, is where you often find it at work.
But there’s more to persuasion than just cheap talk and loud suits. Or, for that matter, loud talk and cheap suits. A witchdoctor and physician go head to head (quite literally) over the health of a local man. The witchdoctor deals what appears to be a knockout blow. His opponent rides in and effortlessly turns the tables. This extraordinary tale of a shaman and a split-second persuader encapsulates influence in its simplest, purest form: a battle for neural supremacy. Yet where does persuasion come from? Why does it work? Why is it possible that what is in my mind, when converted into words, is able to change what’s in yours?
The ancient Greeks, who seemed to have a god for more or less everything, had one, inevitably, for persuasion. Peitho (in Roman mythology, Suadela) was a companion of Aphrodite and is often depicted in Greco-Roman culture with a ball of silver twine. These days, of course, with Darwin, game theory, and advances in neuroimaging, we see things a little differently. And with the gods up against it and the Greeks more interested in basketball, we tend to look elsewhere for affirmation. To science, for instance. Or Oprah.
In this chapter we turn our attention toward evolutionary biology—and discover that persuasion has a longer family history than either we, or the gods, might have realized. We go in search of the earliest forms of persuasion—prelinguistic, preconscious, prehuman—and arrive at a startling conclusion. Not only is persuasion endemic to earthly existence, it’s also systemic, too; as much a part of the rhythm of the natural order as the emergence of life itself.
Note to architects who are currently in the process of designing modern, shiny, glassy buildings for affluent, leafy, tree-lined neighborhoods: spare a thought for the local bird population.
In 2005, the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge was having trouble with kamikaze pigeons. The courtyard of a brand new extension block was proving a black spot for avian suicides, with as many as ten birds a day dive-bombing the window of the state-of-the-art lecture theater. It didn’t take long to fathom out the reason. Reflected in the glass were the surrounding trees and bushes. And the birds—like some architects I could mention—couldn’t tell the difference between appearance and reality. What to do?
In contrast to the diagnosis, the remedy proved elusive. Curtains, pictures—even a scarecrow—all came to nothing. Then one day, Bundy Mackintosh, one of the researchers who worked in the building, had an idea. Why not talk to the birds in their own language?
So she did.
Mackintosh cut, out of a sheet of colored cardboard, the profile of an eagle and then stuck it in the window. Deep in their brains, she reasoned, the birds would have a console—a sort of primitive mental dashboard on which, silhouetted as birds of prey, would appear a series of hazard warning lights. As soon as one of these predators came into view, the corresponding light would immediately flash up red—and an ancient evolutionary force-field would suddenly engulf the unit, repelling the birds and diverting them from the danger.
Talking to animals in their own native tongue (as Bundy Mackintosh did in a very simple way with her cardboard and scissors) involves empathy. And learning the syntax of biological vernacular. And if you think it’s just humans who can do it, think again. Biologist Karen McComb of the University of Sussex has discovered something interesting about cats: they employ a special "solicitation purr" which hot-wires their owners to fill up their food bowls at dinnertime.
McComb and her coworkers compared cat owners’ responses to different kinds of purr—and found that purrs recorded when cats were seeking food were more aversive and harder to ignore than other purrs played at the same volume. The difference is one of pitch. When cats are soliciting food, they give off a classic "mixed message"—embedding an urgent, high-pitched cry within a contented, low-pitched purr. This, according to McComb, not only safeguards against instant ejection from the bedroom (high pitch on its own) but also taps into ancient, mammalian nurturing instincts for vulnerable, dependent offspring (more on that later).
"The embedding of a cry within a call that we normally associate with contentment is quite a subtle means of eliciting a response," explains McComb, "and solicitation purring is probably more acceptable to humans than overt meowing."
Or, to put it another way, cats, without the linguistic baggage of forty thousand words (the estimated vocabulary of the average English-speaking adult), have learned a faster, leaner, more efficient means of persuading us to do their bidding—exactly the same strategy that Bundy Mackintosh hit upon to "talk" to the pigeons of Cambridge. The deployment of what is known in ethology as the key stimulus.
More Than Words Can Say
A key stimulus is influence in its purest form. It is neat, 200 proof mind control—undiluted by language and the thought fields of consciousness— which is knocked back straight, down the hatch, like a shot. Key stimuli are simple, unambiguous, and easily understood: persuasion as originally intended. Officially, of course, the definition is somewhat different: a key stimulus is an environmental trigger that initiates, solely by its presence, something known as a fixed action pattern—a unit of innate behavior that continues, once initiated, uninterrupted to completion. But it amounts, more or less, to roughly the same thing.
Numerous incidences of key stimuli are found within the natural world, not least when it comes to mating. Some are visual, like Bundy Mackintosh’s eagle silhouette. Some acoustic, like the solicitation purr. And some kinetic, like the way honeybees dance to communicate the location of a food source. Some combine all three. Chiroxiphia pareola is renowned for its cobalt coat, its sweet and melodious warble, and its elaborate courtship ritual (which, uniquely, involves a dominant male supported by a five-strong backing band). No, Chiroxiphia pareola is not the Latin for Barry White but a tropical songbird found deep in the Amazon jungle. It has a brain the size of a pea.
Chiroxiphia pareola is no member of the Seduction Community. Yet there’s nothing you can tell it about pulling. When the male of the species encounters a suitable mate he doesn’t, all of a sudden, start beating around his bush. Quite the opposite, in fact. He dances straight out of it. And scores.
In certain species of frog it is sound, primarily, that makes up the language of love. The Green Treefrog is one of Louisiana’s most instantly recognizable critters—especially if you’re tired and trying to catch forty winks. More commonly known as the Bell Frog (because of the distinctive sound of its mating call, which resembles a ringing bell: quonk, quonk, quonk), it’s equally at home in a variety of different environments such as ponds, roadside ditches, rivers, and swamps. Not to mention well-lit verandas where it feeds, among other things, on sleep deprivation.
The acoustical arsenal of the Bell Frog is actually more complicated than it appears. When calling in unison, for instance, individuals frequently coordinate their efforts—and the resulting cacophony will often emerge as a harmonious (though exasperating!) "quonkquack, quonkquack" refrain. Research has also shown that males tend to vary their calls depending on the circumstances. At dusk, for example, as a precursor to hitting the breeding pool, they will issue a preliminary "territorial" call (one that tells other males to back off), and then, while en route to the pool, resort to a rather more prickly sounding chunter as they gruffly, and somewhat slothfully, bump into each other. It’s only on reaching the breeding pool that they really open up—cranking up the chorus to its anthemic "quonk quonk" finale. So resonant, in fact, is this eponymous mating call that female Bell Frogs can actually make it out from up to 300 meters away. A statistic, oddly enough, not lost on local residents.
Croak and Dagger
Up until now, the influence that we’ve been looking at in birds and frogs has been the kind of honest, straight-down-the-line persuasion we see repeated a million times over in human society—the only difference being that these guys do it better. From finding a partner to nailing that crucial deal, success depends on speaking a common language. And they don’t come any more common than the key stimulus.
But the importance of this common language in persuasion—this mutual understanding, or empathy—is brought into even sharper focus when we consider a completely different kind of influence, mimicry: when a member of one species assumes or manipulates the characteristics of another (though this can also occur intraspecies) for the purposes of personal advancement.
Let’s stay with Bell Frogs for the moment. For most frogs, the dating game is set in stone. I mean, face it—when all you can do is croak, there isn’t much room for maneuver. What tends to happen is this. The males just sit there and croak . . . and the females, if they get lucky, come hopping. It couldn’t be any simpler. But Bell Frogs have figured something out. These little buggers have incorporated an element of skullduggery into the proceedings, and it’s by no means unusual for a deeply resonant baritone in full quonk to be stalked, completely unawares, by a silent, shadowy cadre of male hangers-on.
This bears testament to the steely ingenuity of natural selection. Think about it. A hard night’s quonking uses up vital energy stores. And because of this, one of two things can happen. On the one hand, the caller might draw a blank, and—exhausted—hail a taxi. On the other, he might get lucky and finish up down by the breeding pool. On whichever note the evening finally ends doesn’t really matter. Observe, in either case, what happens to the original calling site once its former occupant slopes off. Suddenly it goes on the market. And turns, in the process, into prime location real estate for any one of the nonquonking identity thieves to clean up in. Any unsuspecting female who shows up after the quonker has left discovers—as if nothing has changed—a nonquonking impostor in his place. But how is she to tell the difference? Bottom line is: she can’t.
As a weapon of persuasion mimicry is ingenious. If the key stimulus is influence taken straight, then mimicry, you could say, is empathy taken straight. Just like the key stimulus, there are several different kinds—not all of which, as we’ve just seen with the Bell Frogs, are benign.
For a start, there’s the most obvious form—visual mimicry—which is sort of what the nonquonking love rats get up to down in Louisiana. But depending on the scale of the biological forgery, and how sophisticated it is, there are also more subtle varieties that incorporate, alongside visual cues, both auditory and olfactory ones too.
A good example of this hybrid mimicry is found in plants (when I said that persuasion was integral to the natural order, I meant all of it). The discomycete fungus Monilinia vaccinii-corymbosi is a plant pathogen that infects the leaves of blueberries, causing them to secrete sweet, sugary substances such as glucose and fructose. When this happens something rather interesting occurs. With the leaves, in effect, now producing nectar—thus fraudulently impersonating flowers—they begin, like flowers, to attract pollinators, even though they actually look nothing like flowers and still, in every other respect apart from smell, resemble leaves. Natural selection then takes care of the rest. A bee drops by believing the sugar to be nectar. It slurps some up (during which time the fungus attaches itself to its abdomen) then subsequently moves on to the blueberry flower proper where it transfers the fungus to the ovaries. There, on the ovaries, the fungus reproduces—spawning mummified, inedible berries, which hibernate over the winter before going on to infect a fresh crop of plants in the spring. Clever, huh?
But the hustle doesn’t end there. There is, it turns out, a whole other level to this seedy little love triangle. The olfactory emissions from the surface of the blueberry plant’s leaves aren’t the only ones. The infected leaves, upon analysis, also reflect ultraviolet (which, under normal circumstances, they absorb)—but which the flowers emit as a low-level come-on to insects. Suddenly, it turns out, the leaves have snitched not just one aspect of the blueberry flower’s identity but two, visual and olfactory. Now that, for a common or garden fungus, really is clever.
Web of Deceit
As an example of natural mimicry the discomycete fungus’s antics are actually somewhat unusual. Ordinarily, rather than implicating a third party in the scam—in this case, leaves—the mimic does its own dirty work. Pygmy Owls, for instance, have "false eyes" on the reverse side of their heads, to fool predators into thinking they can, quite literally, see out of the back of them. Conversely, Owl Butterflies have eyespots on the underside of their wings so that, on suddenly flipping over, they resemble the face of an owl (see Figure 1.1). Hairstreak Butterflies go one better and, like a number of species of insect, possess filamentous "tails" at the ends of their wings. These tails, when combined with other elements of wing patination, create the distinct impression of a false head—which bamboozles predators and misdirects attack. Two heads, as they say, are often better than one.
Less benign uses of distraction are glimpsed in the world of arachnids. The Golden Orb Weaver (a spider quite common in the New World) gets its colorful appellation from its dazzling golden web, which it spins (not, at first sight, the most brilliant idea in the world for rustling up dinner if you’re a spider) in conspicuous, brightly lit areas.
But there’s method in the Golden Weaver’s madness. Research reveals that bees, contrary to common sense, find it easier to steer clear of the web when they should actually find it more difficult: when the light is poor, when the filaments are harder to see, and when the yellow pigmentation is indistinct. Why? Well, think about it. When it comes to nectar-producing flowers, which do you suppose is the most common presenting shade?
Support for such a theory comes from experiments that have ingeniously varied the color of spiders’ webs. While the bees have little trouble in associating other pigments with danger—red, blue, and green, for example—and subsequently learning to avoid them, it’s yellow, time and again, that poses them the greatest difficulty.
Similar zoological scams are also found in the insect world. The "honey trap" may well have been the stock-in-trade of some of Hollywood’s best-known secret agents over the years, but ever wondered who thought of it first? You need look no further than the firefly. Studies have shown that female fireflies of the genus Photuris emit precisely the same light signals as females of the Photinus genus issue for mating calls. But that’s not all. Research has also revealed something else. Male Photinus fireflies attempting to make out with these masquerading femmes fatales get quite a lot more than they bargain for. They get eaten. I had a date like that once.
It All Ads Up
So far in this chapter we’ve been looking at how animals—and plants—"do" persuasion. How, in the absence of language, interests are served and influence is wielded. And it is, without a doubt, influence—exactly the same kind of influence that we see at work in humans. Only faster, less messy, more concentrated. How else would you describe it? Contrary to outward appearance, the Golden Orb Weaver spider doesn’t have a diploma in fine art; nor does it attend night classes in interior design. And yet its web is yellow. Why? For one reason, and one reason only. To manipulate bees into doing something silly. Into doing something that they otherwise, as bees, wouldn’t dream of doing. Dropping in for a visit.
It’s the same with our discomycete fungus. This unscrupulous, psychopathic fungus with its dodgy botanical morals knows only too well that bees and other pollinating insects will not, in the normal run of things, touch it with a barge pole. So what does it do? It does what any other unconscionable, upwardly mobile social predator would do: enlists the help of an innocent third party and ruthlessly exploits it as a go-between. Just because there’s no language involved doesn’t mean to say that there’s no persuasion involved—as I discovered pretty soon after I got married. One simple glance speaks volumes.
The dividing line between animal and human persuasion gets even more blurred when we consider just how much of the human variety is, like its animalistic counterpart, instinctive. The secret of good advertising often lies not in its appeal to our rational, cognitive faculties, but in its ability to get straight through to the emotion centers of our brains: primal, ancient structures that we not only share with but actually inherit from animals.
I remember when I was a child local town planners, reporters, and crash scene investigators being completely bamboozled by a sudden spate of accidents that had, seemingly overnight, begun to occur at a busy, though previously unremarkable, road junction. A week or so later, the local paper ran a story on its front cover. It featured a bunch of blokes from the council removing a twenty-foot billboard of a curvy, scantily clad blonde from a prominent position nearby.
Sex sells, always has. Even the word "sex" sells. In fact, research conducted in 2001 revealed that "sex" appeared on 45 percent of all Cosmopolitan and Glamour front covers. That simple combination of letters—SEX—acts as a powerful, eye-catching, interest-grabbing, money-spinning key stimulus.
Take, for instance, this clever little flier for an estate agent that came through my front door not so long ago, shown in Figure 1.2.
Of course, marketing supremos and other captains of industry are constantly bombarding us with sneaky, subradar key stimuli. In the relentless campaign for that most lucrative copy space of all—the one between our ears—the deployment of the key stimulus is the psychological equivalent of using a nerve agent. Take the picture of Marilyn Monroe in Figure 1.3.
Notice anything strange about it? What about the waist? Does it appear, perhaps, a bit too "hour-glassy"? Images like this, in which the model—either through sheer biological good fortune, überzealous corsetry, or the odd dab of airbrush here and there—exhibits inordinately evocative features, are found all over the place in society (at which point I should explain that this diabolical state of affairs is as distressing to us guys as it is to you girls). And why? Because they sell. But a more pertinent question than "why" is "how?" How do they sell? What is it, exactly, about Marilyn Monroe’s midriff in this photograph that gets us so excited? Actually, the answer to this question is simple. What we have here is a biological caricature—a Bell Frog with a megaphone. Or, to put it another way, a "synthetic" key stimulus. Let me explain.
Let us, for a moment, consider Herring Gulls. Herring Gull chicks instinctively respond to a small red spot located on the lower bill of the adult female. Pecking at this spot will result in the adult regurgitating food—the red spot, in other words, constituting a key stimulus. But what exactly is it about this stimulus that makes it "key"? Research has indicated five major factors. By presenting the chick with different models of beak, it’s been shown, for instance, that variations in the color of both head and bill are actually of little significance. On the other hand, the red spot itself, narrowness of the bill, movement, low positioning of the head, and a downward pointing of the bill are all essential in generating a response. In fact, so integral to the response are these five core components that a refined, synthetic representation—what is known as a supernormal set of stimuli—does the job even better. A thin brown stick with three red stripes near the tip, when moved in a low position, elicits, over and above its original Darwinian prototype, not just a positive response but an enhanced positive response. In other words, it pushes the Herring Gull’s pecking buttons even harder.
Well, here’s the deal.
Precisely these same processes of persuasion at work on Herring Gulls also work on humans—for exactly the same reasons, and by exactly the same mechanism. Supertoned tits and bums, genetically modified lips, six-packs chiseled out of granite, and legs that go on to infinity . . . all of these artifacts are the human sexual equivalents to those three red stripes and that thin brown stick. They are caricatures—quite literally—of the "red-spotted" sexual stimuli that might, at one time or another, have first "caught our eye." And so our responses to them are enhanced.
Winning Hands Down
Fortunately for Herring Gulls, the commercial deployment of the key stimulus remains exclusive to humans. Yet it’s not just on a corporate level that we’re susceptible to this kind of influence. Flashes of the ancient—when persuasion was made of biology rather than psychology—may also be glimpsed in simple, everyday behavior. And when they occur they are -dazzling.
I’d been told about Marco Mancini by a friend of a friend at a party. She had worked with him, once, at the Job Centre before handing in her notice and going to live by the sea. She had left, in fact, after only a couple of months—struggling, as many had before her, to keep up the payments on her sanity. Four times, one week, the fire extinguisher bounced off the wall. Not to extinguish fires, but rather to stoke them up, catapulting against the cast-iron security grille that had separated her workstation from the waiting area. Then someone pulled out a gun.
Marco, she said, was different. And a lot of it was in the way that he spoke to people. While everyone else cowered behind plate glass, Marco worked face to face—doing everything out in the open. He always had some coffee on the go. And his desk was right in the middle, where anyone and everyone could see him. That, to her, seemed reckless in the extreme. Insane, even. And, I had to admit, I agreed. But that was the funny thing. Despite all the trouble—and there was, I was told, a lot of it—in the two and a half years that Marco had been at the Job Centre, there wasn’t a single recorded instance of him ever having been attacked. Not one.
But there was something else about him, too. It wasn’t so much the way he talked to people, it was also . . . no, she shook her head. But once people came in to contact with him they seemed to just . . . chill out. As if a switch had flicked or something. Nobody knew why, but everyone had noticed it. Maybe he was crazy, they said. And other crazy people picked up on it.
I was surprised by Marco when I met him. I had expected . . . not sure, really. De Niro in Heat? Pacino in Scent of a Woman? But I was confronted instead by a trendy, urban Jesus who looked like he worked in a juice bar.
"So, Marco," I said. "In the two and a half years that you’ve worked at the Job Centre you’ve been trouble free. What’s the secret?"
The secret, it turned out, was surprisingly simple. He sat on his hands. That, plus there was something going on with the chairs. The one for the client facing his desk was adjusted just that little bit higher than his own, so people could literally talk down to him while he listened. Oh, and one other thing. Once things had calmed down a little and the worst of it was over, he would look them in the eye, these angry, crazy people, and smile. And he would touch them, once, on the arm.
"I never forgot something that happened to me when I was ten," Marco told me. "There was this kid at school and he had said something to the teacher about me and I was angry. Really angry. I went out looking for him in the playground, and when I found him I was going to beat the shit out of him. And then, when I did find him, all I did was shout. And then I shut up.
"It was something about the way he was sitting. He was sitting low down, on a wall, on his hands. I mean, how can you hit someone who’s sitting on their hands? It’s like shooting someone in cold blood. How can they defend themselves? Plus he had his head down all the time I was shouting, and then he sort of looked straight up at me, still sitting on his hands. It was like he was saying: OK, well, here I am. Hit me if you want. And I couldn’t. Somehow I just couldn’t. So I left. I walked away."
Such an extraordinary feat of knife-edge persuasive genius should not be undertaken lightly. As well as making the right kind of moves, you need also—if you aspire to be the kind of split-second persuader that Marco Mancini clearly is—to display the right kind of qualities: first and foremost, the confidence and empathy we touched upon briefly in the Introduction (and which, in animal form, we revisited earlier in this chapter). But the moves, nonetheless, are still important—and here’s where it gets interesting. On closer inspection, the anatomy of Marco’s approach bears a striking similarity to the principles of animal appeasement: symbolic, ritualistic gestures aimed at defusing conflict and "talking your way out of trouble." When escape is not on the menu, and you are.
Take, for example, the thing with the chairs: one being higher than the other. If mimicry is empathy taken straight, then the primordial power of an appeasement key stimulus lies wholly in the art of surprise. Incongruity. Or, as Darwin puts it in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, the "principle of antithesis." A subordinate baboon—regardless of gender—will turn its back on an aggressor and present itself in the mating posture (pseudocopulation). OK, the unfortunate subordinate might, on occasion, actually find itself mounted by the dominant party—mercifully, only briefly—but more often than not the gesture, the antithesis of aggression, is accepted as submissive and the subordinate is granted clemency.
Then there’s the sitting on the hands. Recent work on crayfish goes one step further than that on baboons—and suggests that appeasement might even be a superior strategy to dominance. When male crayfish compete for female mates, they show each other who’s boss by flipping their rivals over onto their backs and then assuming a mating posture. The subordinate animal has one of two choices. It may, on the one hand, offer resistance. Or, on the other, antithetically, take up the receptive female position in submission. Fadi Issa and Donald Edwards of Georgia State University have discovered, much to the delight of the more metrosexual members of the crayfish population, that kicking back and letting the macho types get on with it actually pays dividends. After twenty-four hours of pairing off, half of the resisters were killed while all of the submitters survived.
Taking it lying down, or in Marco’s case sitting down, clearly has its -advantages.
Stooping to Conquer
The knowledge that we have of key stimuli, of how they work, and of the powerful influence they exert in the animal kingdom, allows us, as we just saw with Marco, to turn them to our own advantage. Just as the largest, sturdiest buildings can be made to collapse under their own weight by the careful placing of explosives, so even the most intractable of problems can be dismantled by a few carefully bestowed words and gestures. Throughout history the great persuaders have known this.
In the Gospel of St. John, for example, Jesus finds himself cornered. The Pharisees present him with a woman accused of adultery, and petition him for advice.
"Master," they say. "This woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned. But what sayest thou?"
The Pharisees, of course, aren’t really interested in Jesus’s moral take on the matter. And Jesus knows it. Instead, their motives are altogether less salubrious. What they’re actually trying to do is get him embroiled in a legal wrangle. According to Mosaic law, the woman, as the scribes correctly point out, should be stoned. No problem there—under normal circumstances. But with Palestine now under Roman occupation, things have changed. Mosaic Law has ceded to Roman law—and if Jesus upholds the former over the latter, he leaves himself open to the inevitable charge of incitement. But that’s the least of his worries. Conversely, if he decrees that the woman should not be stoned, he stands accused of precisely the opposite charge—turning his back on the ancient traditions of his forefathers. And that’s no picnic either.
A crowd has gathered, and tensions are running high. Getting out of this, it would seem, is a pretty hard task even for the smoothest of smooth talkers—let alone an itinerant carpenter with no rhetorical training whatsoever. What happened next is described thus:
This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. (John 8:6–9; author’s emphases)
This passage from the Gospel of St. John is unique. It’s the only recorded occasion in the entire New Testament during which Jesus writes anything. Speculation is rife among Biblical scholars as to what those words might have been. The sins of the woman’s accusers? Their names, perhaps? They will, of course, forever remain a mystery. But from a psychological perspective, precisely why Jesus should feel the need to write anything at such a moment constitutes an even greater conundrum.
It doesn’t make sense.
Unless, that is, he had something up his sleeve. Might the words themselves have been a smokescreen? The significance of his actions lie less in the writing itself—and more in the act of producing it?
Let’s take another look at Jesus’s body language during his encounter with the Pharisees. The exchange, in fact, comprises three distinct phases. On first being challenged, what is his initial reaction? Well, we note from the text that he immediately "stoops down" (antithesis: incongruity: appeasement). Then, when the elders persist in their sophistry, he "lifts himself" back up again to deliver his famous riposte (confidence: assertiveness)—before reverting to a stooping posture and resuming a pose of appeasement.
It’s a well-crafted move aimed at shifting and stealing momentum.
Sure, Jesus certainly has a great line in "casting the first stone." And, what’s more, he almost certainly knew it: it’s one of the finest examples of split-second persuasion I’ve ever come across. But he does, however, still have a problem. At the end of the day, no matter how great a line it may or may not be, no matter how insightful the argument, it still delivers a challenge to the Pharisees. And could, despite its genius, have seriously pissed them off.
An eventuality, no doubt, of which Jesus was well aware.
And which explains, contrary to theological conjecture, why he didn’t just speak in the one language, he spoke in two. One modern, phonemic, opaque. One ancient, silent, profound.
Fire and Rescue
Marco Mancini and Jesus have little in common. True, Marco did look a bit like Jesus when I met him. But that, I would guess, is where the similarity ends. Marco first learned the secrets of split-second persuasion in the school playground. Jesus . . . who knows? The point is that one doesn’t need supernatural powers to excel at persuasion like this. The ability lies within all of us. But unlike our animal brethren, we have to work at it.
Neither, of course, is such influence restricted to flashpoints. OK, it may, from time to time, help get us off a ticket. Or the end of somebody’s fists. But it can also help us in other ways as well. Think about it. The more you can say without actually having to say it gives you one hell of an advantage no matter what situation you’re in.
Take business. Research has shown that top salespeople often lean slightly forward toward their clients when doing deals—a double whammy signifying not only empathy (through increased proximity) but also a sneaky subservience.
Or parenting. Next time you find yourself having to lay down the law to a wayward six-year-old, try laying it up instead. Rather than towering over them, draw them up close, crouch down next to them, and then—in as calm a tone as possible (I know, easier said than done)—say what you have to say.
Bringing yourself down to someone’s level like this often speaks volumes. Remember Churchill and the dinner party thief from the Introduction? What you are saying (without actually having to say it) is this: "Look—it’s not just you that’s in the shit here. It’s both of us. So why don’t we see if we can’t work as a team from now on. Deal?"
Here’s Winston again—up to his old tricks.
In the summer of 1941, Flight Sergeant James Allen Ward was awarded a Victoria Cross for clambering onto the wing of his Wellington bomber and—while flying 13,000 feet above the Zuider Zee—extinguishing a fire in the starboard engine. He was secured at the time by just a single rope tied around his waist.
Some time later, Churchill summoned the shy, swashbuckling New Zealander to Number 10 Downing Street to congratulate him on his exploits.
They got off to a shaky start.
When the fearless, daredevil airman—tongue-tied in the presence of the great man—found himself completely unable to field even the simplest of questions put to him, Churchill tried something different.
"You must feel very humble and awkward in my presence," he began.
"Yes, sir," stammered Ward. "I do."
"Then you can imagine," said Churchill, "how humble and awkward I feel in yours."
In this chapter we’ve looked at the ancestry of influence. How persuasion was done before the advent of language, and how it’s still being done in the animal kingdom today. The conclusions we’ve come to are stark. With the arrival of language, and the rise of the neocortex, persuasion, rather than becoming more effective, has actually become less so. When it comes to persuasion, animals do better than we do.
The secret of persuasion in the animal world is thrift. In animals, the basic units of influence are what ethologists call key stimuli—persuasion silver bullets which, when fired by one member of a species at another, generate instinctive, preprogrammed response sets. These silver bullets—innate, immediate, and incisive—resolve situations quickly, and with a minimum of cognitive fallout. With humans, however, it’s different. Wedged between us and the expediency of instinct is an ozone layer of consciousness—which language, our influence tool of choice, often finds hard to penetrate. Only the really special make it through.
The question, of course, is how to fashion such influence. Are all of us capable of hitting these persuasion sweet spots? Or is it just the preserve of a handful of influence elite?
You may find the answer surprising. Each of us is born under the star of persuasion genius. But as we get older its luster slowly wanes.