If it’s a small thing: Lie through your teeth

I was shopping for shoes recently. The salesman told me that the pair I was examining needed a special treatment before being used. I asked him if he could perform this treatment for me before I left the store, if I chose them. “Of course”, he said without flinching.

“OK then”, I said, “I’ll take them”.

We go the counter and he looks in the back room for the shoe treatment agent (or whatever it was). He comes back out with an apologetic look and says “sorry, we didn’t have the agent after all”. “No big deal”, I say and buy the shoes.

Then last week I went shopping for a washing machine (the horror!). The salesman gives us a wonderful performance, elegantly geared towards steering us towards the most expensive of his machines. The whole thing is a combination of personal anecdotes and daring signals of personal integrity (he went as far as to question whether we should by a new one at all – we might have our old one repaired – it would be more environment friendly – I thought he was brilliant). Anyway, before we made up our minds about which machine to get, I ask him if we can get the machine within one or two days. “Of course”, he says, “they’re all in stock”.

So we go home and think and having made up our minds I call the salesman and tell him we want the expensive model. He says: “Excellent choice. Let me just confirm that we can get it to you right away and get back to you”. He calls back in 10 minutes to inform me that delivery will unfortunately take eight days because the supplier is out of stock. “OK“, I say, “just get it to us as soon as possible”.

Here’s the principle: As long as the customer is contemplating a purchase, tell him that any small request can be met, even if it’s untrue or you simply have no idea. Once the customer has made his choice, informing him that the small auxiliary promises unfortunately cannot be kept is very unlikely to make him change his mind about the purchase itself.

The psychology of dough-nut salesmen

Sometimes – rarely – a book manages to forcefully alter the way you view your surroundings. For me, such books are almost always of the popular science variety. I recently, based on Thomas‘ sage advice, enjoyed Cialdini’s Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion in which the author entertainingly describes salesman’s (in the broadest sense) techniques to bend you to their will. I promise that this book will make you enjoy meeting salespeople more – even if understanding the principles (one of the interesting points of the book) does not make one immune to their dark powers.

I experienced the latter quite clearly in a recent trip to Tunesia. On our first day, a dough-nut salesman walked up to me and my 3-year old daughter offering his sugary wonders. I told him no thanks, but he was persistent and finally put a dough-nut in the hand of my daughter who promptly took a bite. He then asked for payment. To put it in terms suitable for this blog I instantly developed somewhat negative feelings towards our dough-nut friend. I told him that he had given away his dough-nut – and I didn’t pay him. He walked off and my daughter threw away the thing quite quickly. And at this point, the situation was: My daughter had had a bite of dough-nut and nobody had suffered any damage. So why did I still feel extremely annoyed: Because he had disregarded my clearly stated interest and used my daughter as part of the bargain, but also because he had made me violate the extremely strong reciprocity principle in human interaction. See Cialdini’s Chapter 2.

In a larger perspective the best of such books does the reader a great service by tying together phenomena that the brain formerly had to process individually. It collapses seemingly separate categories and thus makes room for more. They make you smart.

The triumphant return of… media studies

Okay, here’s an excerpt from a chapter I’m writing on the importance of how one chooses to conceptualize the “player”. I start (more or less) by pointing to the implications of various user/audience views in other fields. Here’s my draft take on the issue in media studies. Comments shall be welcome, here or by email. Continue reading The triumphant return of… media studies

The reliability of the Zahavis

Carrying on my interest in trust and signaling, I just finished reading Amotz and Avishag Zahavi’s “The Handicap Principle“.
Briefly, the handicap principle is the idea that to send a trustworthy signal one sometimes has to accept a handicap. Taking on this handicap proves to the receiver of the signal that the transmitted statement is true.
For instance, in order to convince a skeptical observer that you’re a world-class swimmer you may have to get wet. You could choose to just say it (“Seriously, I am a world-class swimmer”). But that signal would not be reliable.
Similarly, the Zahavis argue that the male peacock lugs around his beautiful tail (handicapping himself since he is more easily spotted, less agile etc.) in order to reliably signal to the female that he is made of strong genetic material. He could have “told” her in other ways, but the tail is an unfakable signal.

There’s a decent intro to the theory of honest signaling here.

Now, Geoffrey Miller, reviewing the book for Evolution and Human Behaviour said it well:

Depending on your viewpoint, they [the Zahavis] act like (1) dangerous hyper-adaptationists even more extreme than Steven Jay Gould?s worst caricatures of Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett, weaving just-so stories out of thin air, (2) harmlessly entertaining, pseudo-scientific fabulists in the tradition of Sigmund Freud and Margaret Mead, (3) classical Victorian natural historians (somehow displaced to contemporary Tel-Aviv University) using the same hypothetico-deductive methods as Darwin himself, or (4) ardent, creative biologists who, whatever one?s qualms about their methods and examples, deliver a revitalizing shock to animal communication theory, sexual selection theory, kinship theory, reciprocal altruism theory, and evolutionary psychology.

Miller adds, as I would have done from the comfort of my layman’s armchair: “I favor this last judgment“.

Anyway, many aspects of the book are fascinating (as are the author’s regular jibes at colleagues who spend too much time arguing against the “obvious” using fancy mathematical models and too little time in the real world).
But two sections struck me as particularly interesting. My limited understanding of evolutionary biology had it that there are essentially two complementary explanations of cooperation among animals (discounting group selection theories that are frowned upon).
The first is kin selection (and the related idea of inclusive fitness). Here, the idea is that individuals should behave altruistically to the extent that other individuals share their genes (or to the extent that other individuals are likely to share your genes). And what-do-you-know? Parents often care about their offspring.

The second is reciprocal altruism. Here, the individual is expected to be altruistic to the extent that he or she expects this altruism to be reciprocated in the future. So, a vampire bat should share its meal with another bat if it believes that this other bat will reciprocate the favor. And Hallejujah! This seems to be the case.

I was somewhat surprised to see that the Zahavis consider both theories to be flawed. Kin selection, the Zahavis argue, is really just group selection among relatives. It may be true that an individual “would like” to increase its inclusive fitness, but wouldn’t it just be much better if your brother did the work instead of you? So, kin selection is vulnerable to social parasitism (the bane of group selection theories).
Reciprocal altruism, on the other hand, seeks to explain something which does not really warrant such fancy models, the Zahavis feel. Many individuals gain prestige by performing altruistic acts, which increasestheir standing in the hierarchy, which increases their reproductive success. Altruism, then, is a signal of superiority – look!, I can share my food, that’s how strong a bird I am (marry me!).

Very interesting even if I don’t entirely know what to think.