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Can Flip-Flopping Make You More Persuasive?

2013 February 18
by Eric Horowitz

Convincing somebody to follow your advice can be a grueling task. Though it may often seem like the only thing to do is continue stating your spectacularly rational argument and hope they eventually see the light, some new research suggests a counter-intuitive twist on that strategy: Initially recommending what you don’t want them to do and then contradicting yourself.

The study, which was led by Stanford’s Taly Reich and Zakary Tormala, found that contradictions can lead people to think about what caused your change of heart, and that can make you more persuasive.

Conventional wisdom and past research suggest that contradicting oneself, or changing one’s stated opinion, should undermine one’s persuasiveness. In contrast to this view, we propose that under specifiable conditions contradicting oneself might offer a persuasive advantage. Across a series of experiments, we find evidence for this contradiction effect and explore its mechanism and boundaries. In particular, we show that contradictions can prompt attributional processing geared toward understanding why a shift in opinion has occurred. When strong arguments are provided, they foster favorable attributions (e.g., the source thought more about the issue and/or gathered new information), which result in increased persuasive impact. When weak arguments are provided, they induce less favorable attributions, which in turn dampen or even reverse the effect. Furthermore, consistent with an attributional perspective, we find that contradictions introduce a persuasive advantage only when they come from a single source and only when trust in that source is high.

The broader lesson is that there’s a lot that can change when something interrupts our relatively automatic cognitive processes. In this instance a contradiction leads to a new evaluation of why a person has a particular position, but research also shows that making people aware they are being persuaded can influence their actions. (In fact, this may contribute to why contradictions, which could signal the absence of a strong persuasion attempt, can be more persuasive.) None of this is to say that “You shouldn’t go out with me…actually you should go out with me” is an effective pickup line, but there do seem to be plenty of situations — particularly when seeking advice from a trusted friend — where contradicting yourself could be a worthwhile strategy.
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Reich, T., & Tormala, Z. (2013). When contradictions foster persuasion: An attributional perspective Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49 (3), 426-439 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.01.004

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