I have long been a huge fan of Robert Cialdini’s first book, Influence. The original printing is the best because it retains the maximal emotion. He was horrified to discover that people had these clever tricks for manipulating his behavior. The book is written as a kind of handbook for how to defend your self. Later editions, and his later books, are colored by a more even handed attitude, and sometimes you think he’s gone entirely over to the darkside. I’m suspicious the makes a good living giving talks to salemen.
I’ve not read the most recent book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive but there is a nice short summary of all 50 techniques to be found here.
Reading those I was struck by one entry:
As time goes by, the value of a favor increases in the eyes of the favor-giver, and decreases in the eyes of the favor-receiver. Researchers asked a group of people in the random office environment to exchange favors and then rate the value of the given/received favor in their eyes. A few weeks later the same employees were reminded of the favor, and asked to evaluate the favor again. Favor-givers consistently assigned higher value to a given favor, while as the time passed by, favor-receivers tended to assign lower value to the received favor.
Ha! That’s amusing, but the reason why it’s amusing should be drawn out. It’s amusing because the entire statement is an oxymoron, a farce in one line. Such misunderstandings are always amusing. It’s a category error. Favors are gifts, they are not economic transactions. When you do a favor your are not collect IOUs in the currency of some pseudo economy. If you think you are, well then your not doing actually favor, your playing a game. Keeping score. And there is nothing wrong with playing a games, lots of games in this life. Certainly lots of activities labeled as gift exchanges are in fact just point scoring in some game or another. But if you think your playing such a game you presuming that the recipient knows the rules of your imaginary game fraught with affordances for misunderstandings. And, that is the stuff of farce.
It helps to recognize that it is in the nature of public goods that the books do not balance. To push them into that frame is to miss the point. Recently I’ve come to saying to people who are suffering from this category error: “Those books don’t balance, nor should the, but if we must think in those terms how do you want the accounts to look when you arrive at your deathbed?”
Persuasion is often the art of moving the decision into an advantageous frame.