The Persuasion Wheel
Everyone is in the persuasion business. We persuade our boss to green light a project. We persuade (or try to persuade) our kids to eat their vegetables.
But each person and situation is unique. This means there’s no silver bullet of persuasion that works every time.
To persuade, we must get inside the minds of our audience at the moment of decision and think what they think. To help you get inside the mind of your audience, we’ve created the Persuasion Wheel.
There are many tactics you can use to enhance the persuasiveness of your message.
We highlight the 8 most effective tactics in the Persuasion Wheel¹. For each tactic, you’ll learn the psychology behind why it works and how you can use it.
Use the Persuasion Wheel as a tool and quick reference to design your persuasive message and leverage your impact.
(Click the names below to jump to that topic section)
- Social Proof — We do what we think everyone else does.
- Defaults – We go with the default option unless there’s strong reason to change.
- Scarcity — We feel loss more than we feel gain. Fear of loss is one of the strongest behavior motivators.
- Reciprocity — We easily feel indebted to others. Small indebtedness may lead us to respond disproportionately.
- Attention — We give more causal weight to the things we focus on. If something is prominent, we notice it and give it more importance.
- Messenger — We respond to the messenger sometimes even more than the message itself.
- Commitment — We want to be consistent with what we have committed to publicly.
- Priming — We respond to subconscious cues in our environment, particularly when we are uncertain or lack domain knowledge.
We do what we think everyone else does.
If we are unsure at the point of decision, we subconsciously look to others for cues. If others act the same, it reduces the perceived risk of the action.
Most of our actions operate on autopilot. But when something new or novel comes along, these patterns are interrupted or broken. We freeze, look to others and watch what they do first.
If no one acts, we don’t act.
This behavior can lead bystanders not to help someone injured or attacked. Everyone looks around and sees no reaction, so they don’t act.²
It also works in reverse. You’re not sure how to respond, so you mimic the actions of others. In experiments people will consistently pick answers they know are wrong just to conform with a group.
You see social proof used everywhere in advertising. “7 out of 10 dentists recommend Crest.” Or websites display, “Join the 100,000 on our email list.”
But social proof can be complicated. If you change the context, you can lose the effect.
Often money can highjack the thought process. People start measuring the tradeoffs and start acting more transactional and less social.
For example, a recent Massachusetts highway campaign to reduce texting while driving posted traffic billboards that read, “It’s illegal to text and drive in Mass.”³ A clear message and a good reminder not to text.
But the next line read “$100 fine.”
People are reminded they shouldn’t text and drive but also learn it’s a minor fine. The money frame changed how people viewed the message. The question moved from, “Should I text and drive?” to “If caught, can I afford a $100 fine?”
One note of caution when using this tactic — know your audience. Social proof tactics can backfire when people don’t support the desired behavior.
A power conservation study showed their customers their energy use compared with neighbors. The next month, most customers reduced their energy consumption. Except for one group — political conservatives. They increased their power consumption.⁴
How to use it?
Show the people you’re trying to influence how other people act. Highlight how people just like them support/use/buy/believe in your product or idea.
We go with the default option unless there’s strong reason to change.
Think about your iPhone. Do you still have the default ring? That’s the power of defaults in action.
Its power comes from its ability to shape the moment of decision.
Make one choice the default option, and you make it the path of least resistance.
Since many decisions are on autopilot, the path of least resistance usually wins.
Throughout our day, we face thousands of decisions. Our mind preserves energy and reduces the number of decisions we should actively make. However to decide between unfamiliar choices we look for other mental shortcuts.
Presented with two options, one preselected and one not, we will likely choose the preselected option.
Many companies now change defaults, so new employees auto enroll in retirement plans. This leads to greater retirement savings.
But defaults need to be carefully considered. Once enrolled, many employees never change their savings rate and stick with the 3% default.⁵
How to use it
Consider the point of decision. What do you want people to do? Is there a way to make it the default option? You can achieve huge behavior change by shaping the default path.
For years, Internet Explorer was the most popular browser. It wasn’t great but it was the default.
Additionally, if you don’t want to make the default choice yourself, you can use what’s known as “Active Choice.”⁶ Active choice requires people to decide. Rather than pre-picking a decision, you just ensure they make one.
Pro Tip: Defaults and active choice combine well with Social Proof.
We feel loss more than we feel gain. Fear of loss is one of the strongest behavior motivators.
To truly understand scarcity, we first must understand loss aversion.
Loss aversion just means we feel a loss about twice as much as we perceive gain.
It is one of the strongest forces in our thinking because it hardwires us to avoid losses, sometimes even at a greater cost. So when you lose $100, you’ll need to gain $200 to return to the same level of happiness.
But it’s not just money.
When anything is limited, the fear of loss kicks in and we worry we’ll lose out on the opportunity.
Scarcity is why you see expiration dates on coupons. It’s why sales are “one day only” or countdown clocks are placed at the top of e-commerce websites.
This feeling of scarcity puts pressure on us to act now.
Scarcity is complicated. It gets us to act and make very rational decisions in the short run. If something is going away, we should buy it. Yet long term, it makes us less rational decision makers.
In the book, Scarcity, the authors give the excellent analogy of packing for a weeklong trip.⁷ Packing will take some time but is not that mentally taxing. Alternatively if you can only take an overnight bag, then packing is much harder.
As you pack your bag, every jacket, shirt or pants you want to bring comes at a cost. To add something, you must remove something else. The constant tradeoff is a mentally exhausting balancing act. When people are tired, they conserve energy by thinking in the short term.
How to use it
Scarcity is a powerful motivating tool for action. If you want people to make a decision, give them a reason to act now. Or use scarcity to emphasize what they’ll lose if they decide not to act.
It’s critical we project real scarcity, not fake scarcity. For example, many travel websites display messages like “2 tickets left at this price.” This message creates the impression there are only two tickets left. In reality, there are many available tickets but with a slightly different price. People catch on quickly to half-truths, so use discretion.
We easily feel indebted to others. Small indebtedness may lead us to respond disproportionately.
Present in virtually every culture is the desire to help those who have helped us. It is the feeling we owe a moral debt to someone else when they’ve assisted us in some way.
We use phrases like, “I owe you” or to “owe someone a favor.”
But the debt feeling is often not relative to the size of the favor or gift provided. In fact, people often feel a lopsided level of debt in return for someone’s kindness or a favor. When someone has done something nice for you, you tend to think more with gratitude than pure objectivity.
Think about all the charity donation letters with free stamps and free return address labels. Or the politician’s “signed” photo along with a donation letter. Donors appreciate the free gifts and give even more to support the cause.
How to use it?
You want to be careful using this tactic. Don’t be the “nice” car salesman who gives free hotdogs so your customer agrees to thousands less on the trade-in.
Instead, give away some of your knowledge or skills for free, no strings attached. Create value for other people and when they need your service, they’ll contact you.
Pro Tip: Watch out for unsolicited gifts or favors designed to get you to act against your best interest. (Think “free” popcorn and hotdogs at a car dealership). To protect against this tactic, separate the request from the requestor. Consider this question, “Would I still be doing this if [Insert Name] didn’t ask me?” If the answer is “No” then reciprocity is in play. This answer doesn’t mean it’s wrong to follow through, but you’ll know now why you are doing it.
We give more causal weight to the things we focus on. If something is prominent, we notice it and give it more importance.
If a person is paying attention, they are more likely to respond to your message. Seems simple, but understanding the nuance of achieving and retaining attention will help to increase your ability to persuade.
What we see right in front of us dictates our perception. As we focus on something, we feel it’s more important.
An interesting example of attention influencing perception comes from a study watching two people’s conversation. The first group watched two people from a side profile talking. They reported the conversation as equal, with no one side dominating.⁸
Then researchers changed the perspective. The other group saw the conversation from an over the shoulder view, showing one person’s face clearly and the back of the other person’s head. Seeing one face more than the other changed the conversation. This group reported the person they could see was most dominant in the conversation.
Research of police interrogation films also shows viewers equate greater guilt to suspects if they face the camera directly. Less guilt is perceived from a side profile view or seeing both the face of the police and suspect equally.
Where we focus our attention can blind us to our surroundings.
We see this with the famous invisible gorilla experiment.⁹ In this study, people focused on the task of counting basketball passes and completely miss a woman in a gorilla suit walking across the court for 9+ seconds.
How to use it
“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it,” is how Daniel Kahneman summed up the focusing illusion.¹⁰ This means if we focus our attention on anything it changes how we view its importance.
Drawing attention to something increases its perceived importance. As you craft your compelling message, consider where people will (or should) direct their attention.
We respond to the messenger sometimes even more than the message itself.
You’re better off with a weak message from the right messenger than the right message from a poor messenger.¹¹
This is probably counter-intuitive to your normal messaging development process.
Most of us start with the message, writing a first draft. We hate it, so we edit it, then call someone to help improve it some more. We think it gets better. Next, we send it to the team, improve it some more. Now we’re mostly happy with it and finally use it.
But what’s often left out of this messaging process is the messenger.
To pick a truly great messenger, you must consider three main characteristics.
First, they need to have authority on the topic. Second, they need to have expertise.
These two points we tend to get right. But the third is often overlooked.
The best messengers are like their audience. The audience needs to perceive them as “one of us.”¹²
- Who is the best messenger to this audience?
- Who is delivering this message?
- Will the audience see them as “one of us”?
- How are they perceived, do they have authority?
- Did you consider the messenger before you created the message?
So why do we get the right messenger wrong so often? Finding the right messenger is hard work, and we are rarely rewarded for doing it. Most organizations reward a finished project not the project’s persuasive impact.
Say you are asked to craft messaging to communicate your company’s new benefit change.
Is the CEO the best messenger? Does the CEO relate to the cleaning staff or front line workers? Will the CEO’s words reassure these people the change helps them? Or will they immediately feel detached from the messenger and mistrust the message and tune out? These are important questions to consider. In this case, the same message is much more persuasive coming from a peer or fellow employee who authentically explains why it’s needed.
How to use it
If you have a persuasive campaign, the easiest thing is to start writing the copy. If asked about your progress, you can show the first draft. It’s tangible work. But it’s not the smartest work.
Instead, choose to work smart. Study the audience. Ask questions to tease out who exactly is the best messenger. The process takes more time on the front end to find a unique voice, but the superior results are worth it.
We want to be consistent with what we have committed to publicly.
We all take pride in acting consistent with our values and beliefs.
That’s why a public commitment to a goal can increase our chance of seeing it through.
Consider a public commitment to lose weight. When other people know about the commitment, we will work harder to lose the weight. We want our outer actions to match our belief that we are a individual who achieves their goals.
Political groups use commitment to increase voter participation. They ask voters to fill out a “Voter Pledge” card saying they plan to vote on election day. Days before the election they mail it to the voter to remind them of their prior commitment to vote.¹³
If we commit to vote or lose weight but don’t do it, we feel psychological stress. This stress is called cognitive dissonance and happens when we have two contrary views of our self. The view as a person who keeps commitments doesn’t fit with the person not meeting the commitment.
Cognitive dissonance can initiate a change in us, but it can also cause us not to change.
Our desire to be consistent can blind us to new information. Rather than admit we were wrong, we create tortured explanations of why the rest of the world is wrong.
You see cognitive dissonance on display (usually on Facebook) every election cycle. Supporters go to extremes to explain away the obvious faults or inconsistencies of their candidate. “Sure they lie — but so does the other candidate!”
How to use it
When using public commitment in your persuasion effort, it’s critical to build in reminders of the commitment. The voter pledge card’s effectiveness comes not from filling out a card during the summer. It comes from remembering the commitment and seeing it right before the election.
The specific tactics you use depends on the context of your persuasion. What’s key — get people to commit now to do something in the future. Then remind them of their commitment.
We respond to subconscious cues in our environment, particularly when we are uncertain or lack domain knowledge.
Priming occurs when something seemingly unrelated influences later actions or decisions. This can be anything — a number, color, idea or object.
Let’s say you’re asked to write down the last two digits of your phone number. Next, you’re asked to estimate a bottle of wine’s price. The two numbers shouldn’t be related. But because of priming, they are related.
Many studies show when someone’s phone number ends in small digits, they’ll estimate lower. When it ends in higher numbers, they guess a higher price for the wine.¹⁴
Our minds are constantly overloaded by visual, auditory and mental processes every single day. When we see something unfamiliar we relate it to something we know. If we don’t know the cost of a bottle of wine, we compare it to the last number in our memory –the phone number.
Priming is also found with colors. Many prison holding cells across the world are painted a light shade of pink. This color is called “drunk tank pink”¹⁵ and helps to relax inmates and reduce aggression.
Music and scent primes also affect us. If a wine store plays German music, sales of German wines increase. If Italian music plays, more Italian wine sells. Particular scents, such as lemon, can trigger a need for cleanliness. Studies of office workers on snack breaks found they spent more time cleaning up their crumbs when a lemon scent was in the air.
How to use it?
Priming works if individuals have limited knowledge of the subject matter in question. If you had been asked how many states are in America, you would have answered 50. It wouldn’t matter how many times you had written the last digits of your phone number.
Alternatively, if asked an obscure question like how many counties are in South Dakota, you wouldn’t be sure. Since you don’t know, your answer could be influenced by a number prime. (The answer is 66 counties).
Priming effects can be subtle and are highly context dependent with mostly short-term effects.
Pro Tip: While priming can have an impact, it should never be your only form of persuasion. It’s too fickle a phenomenon to bet your entire persuasion strategy on it.
- The Persuasion Wheel is inspired by Robert Cialdini’s 6 Principles of Influence from his excellent book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and the research of Professor Paul Dolan in MINDSPACE(publication, public report), which was created in a partnership with the UK government and the Behavioral Insights Team.
- The most well-known story of this is Kitty Genovese, also explained in greater detail in chapter 4 of Cialdini’s Influence.
- Signs seen by author in March 2017 along Interstate 93 in Massachusetts.
- As reported in Scientific American. Also see the original study by Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn.
- For more information see The Effects of Default Rates on Retirement Savings. Also over a third of companies now pick 6% as the default savings rate.
- For more info on Active Choice see this overview from the World Bank.
- Sendih Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives
- Original study, Point of view and perceptions of causality. by Shelley Taylor and Susan Fiske. Also see my related article When Seeing Is Misleading
- See original video, also for more info read the excellent book by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us.
- Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow (Kindle Locations 6756–6757). Great read if you want to dive into behavioral science.
- For more information on the effects of the messenger see the “Messenger” sections of the MINDSPACE report mentioned in footnote 1.
- For more discussion on the power of being “of us” in a group see Chapter 11 of Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade by Robert Cialdini.
- Early research on this topic: “Rocking the Vote: Using personal messages to motivate voting among young adults”
- For more info see the Anchoring as Priming Effect section of Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, (Kindle Location 1980). The effects of some priming studies have not been replicated in recent years. For example, the often cited John Bargh study which found college students walked slower after reading words signaling old age. This study has not held up to repeated replication attempts. However, there’s replicated evidence showing clear links to priming or anchoring with numbers, especially when the exact number is vague as described above.
- Also called Baker-Miller Pink, but this name is less catchy.