boy protecting cat rain large

The Power of Nice Influence

Jeff Kreisler
Editor and Co-Author “Dollars and Sense”

Editor’s note: If you’ve paid attention to the news lately – over say, the last 2,000 years, but especially the last few – you’ve seen a lot of stories offering a dark view of humanity. Luckily, there are people whose lives and work recognize that potential darkness while maintaining a positive outlook and using all the tools at their disposal to create and amplify light. Professor Zoe Chance is one of those people.

Ironically, I first met her when exploring humanity’s darkness. I was on tour with my Get Rich Cheating “wealth-building seminar” and she and Mike Norton were guests on my Boston stop. At least one of us has moved on to bigger and better things (hint: it’s her… and probably Mike, too).

Now at Yale’s School of Management, Professor Chance teaches Mastering Influence and Persuasion – or, as she calls it, “Doing Uncomfortable Things That Make You a Better Person.” She’s writing a book tentatively titled, “Influence is Your Superpower: Science-Based Strategies to Open a World of Possibility,” to be published by Random House.

Speaking of uncomfortable things that make her a better person, Zoe took time out of her busy schedule to speak with me about influence, privacy (RIP), why businesses rarely experiment,  consulting, and, sigh, millennials.  

This is a long-ish piece for PeopleScience, but, trust me, it’s worth your time.

** The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Also, I messed up the recording so it’s not audio, too. Next time. **


JEFF KREISLER (JK): What are you working on right now that excites you?

ZOE CHANCE (ZC): The book is what really, really excites me. The idea is Dale Carnegie updated with cutting-edge behavioral science and written for a diverse world in which it’s not just straight white men doing business with each other anymore. It applies behavioral economics’ basic theories and findings to interpersonal interactions.

Really nice, really smart people often suck at interpersonal influence in a specific way. They’ll just dump information on people, assuming they have their attention. and expecting them to come to the best, right decision. But you needed to get their interest before giving them the facts.

JK: When I do communications training, we preach that you need to have a hook. Give people a reason to be interested, a problem to solve.

ZC: Right.

JK: Where do you see these interpersonal communications challenges? Is it in the workplace? In personal relationships, the community, everything?

ZC: Yes. Anytime we’re talking about basic fundamental psychology, it’s applicable everywhere. Most of the examples that I use are business examples, as well as some political activism and things like that.

I try not to distinguish too much between business and work because we all work.

But the second most common situation I get asked about, after all the business stuff, is parents trying to influence their children. Kids are extremely recalcitrant and difficult to influence. JK: Yeah. I have a 6-and-a-half-year-old boy, and a 1-year-old daughter. She’s not yet a scientific experiment for me, but he is. I can give him all the information and ask him to make a choice, or I can give him purpose and get him engaged in something. That’s my little trick is to tell him that we have to get somewhere and suddenly it’s his mission, to like, defeat the invaders of the supermarket.

ZC: Oh, that’s so fun.

JK: He gets into it, and he feels invested, because I’ve come into his world. I don’t know if that falls under a particular behavioral principle, but certainly kids are tough to crack. If you can design something to get kids engaged, it’s probably going to work on adults too.

ZC: Yeah, and that falls into the overall System One/System Two – not telling him, “This is why we have to go to the supermarket, because we need protein and nutrition and we’ve got to have food or we’ll die.” But rather, “Let’s defeat the interplanetary attackers. Dun dun dun!

Kids are extremely recalcitrant and difficult to influence. 

Most Experiments Die on the Vine.

JK: That brings up the challenges of implementing some of these behavioral principles outside of the lab setting. Have you seen those challenges, or confronted companies that are reluctant to try something because they’re afraid of failure? What’s your view of organizations’ willingness to experiment? It seems like everything is a sub-Saharan African test. We rarely test these principles in everyday American life.

ZC: People in organizations get really excited about the idea of experimentation … and then most of the ideas die on the vine. It’s not that individuals don’t want to do it. They get it, they see the benefit and they’re stoked. But there are so many different obstacles in the way of actual experimentation. So very few experiments are ever carried out.

There are so many different obstacles in the way of actual experimentation.

We teach this three-day behavioral economics immersion here at Yale. It’s a group of 50 or so people who have jobs related to behavioral economics or behavioral science. They’re really into it. They’re willing to spend several days of their lives here. And even their firmsaren’t doing a lot of experimenting, and most of these people don’t have a solid grasp of randomization and controls, which you need to be able to establish a causal effect.

JK: Right, because your intervention might increase productivity by 50 percent, but at the same time productivity in general might be going up 49 percent.

ZC: Exactly. It’s also technological feasibility. Engineering resources in most companies are spread so thin. So they don’t spend their time on “some little experiment” that may or may not work. They aren’t against it; it’s just never rises to the top of the priority list.

JK: There’s that cost and resources element, then there’s the understanding of what is an experiment, and then there’s the culture – whether or not the company encourages these things. Whatever you think about companies like Netflix and Amazon and their intentions, they clearly have a culture of experimentation from the top down. It’s easy to try new stuff there.

I think it’s going to take success on a big scale – from a legacy, industry company like J.P. Morgan or General Motors – to convince other companies to embrace experimentation. Until then, most companies trivialize these experiments and think, “What's the point?”

They aren’t against it; it’s just never rises to the top of the priority list.

Scoping Is Half the Battle.

ZC: We've been talking about experimenting on customers, and also talking about employee engagement. Companies are much more willing to experiment with customers than they are with employees – understandably. Because not only might the experiment fail, it could also really piss people off.

JK: As an example, if you were to say, “Let’s try a new salary structure for 50 percent of the company,” people might get a little ticked off if they’re in the control group, depending on what the setting is.

Companies are much more willing to experiment with customers than they are with employees – understandably.

ZC: Yeah, and it also comes back to basic loss aversion. People who are going to experiment with their employees should always keep in mind The Kaheman Rule: Thou shalt not take anything away. Almost all employee backlash starts with the firm taking something away.

JK: Most companies have a lot to learn about behavioral science, and they don’t realize everything that goes into it. You can’t just read Dan Ariely’s book or your book and say, “Oh, here’s the solution.” It’s a process just to design an experiment, let alone to actually run it.

ZC: Yes.

The scoping of the challenge is perhaps the hardest part of any consulting relationship. It’s a combination of (a) What is the organization’s pain point? and (b) What can the consultants uniquely offer? There’s an art to deciding when to help an organization with their stated challenge, and when to say “You think that’s your problem, but maybe we should help you with this much bigger, more important problem.”

It’s a combination of (a) What is the organization’s pain point? and (b) What can the consultant uniquely offer?

Millennials Get a Bad Rap.

JK: I think an especially interesting challenge is the changing nature of work. That’s what makes your idea of focusing on interpersonal relationships so compelling. We'll always have that same core to our problems, even if the touch points or interactions are different.

ZC: Yeah. The changing nature of work is being driven by so many factors. One that’s interesting to me is Gen Y and Gen Z having higher expectations for being treated like human beings, which is awesome.

JK: I feel like Millennials get a bad rap, but they want to know why things are the way they are. It seems like they question things a little bit more, which is great. Hopefully that curiosity will foster solutions.

ZC: Right. If you think about loss aversion and resistance to authority, every time you’re trying to influence somebody, you’re taking something away – you’re a threat. You’re a threat to their autonomy, you’re a threat to their time, you’re a threat to their attention, maybe you are a threat to their social capital.

To go back to the example of your son, every time you tell him to do something, he’s deciding if he’s willing to let you have that authority over him, right?

JK: Absolutely. And whenever you try to assert it as authority, that doesn’t work well. It makes me think about the level of transparency in nudges or interventions. That brings me to a question – it’s a big question – but what’s your perspective on behavioral science and economics, where they’re at, and the ethics of applying them? Do you have guiding principles for how behavioral science can be applied in a way that doesn’t just sell more widgets, but sells more widgets if that’s what people want?

ZC: Yeah, that’s such an important question because the whole field has been founded on this notion of libertarian paternalism, which is fundamentally an ethical stance. The idea is that you nudge people in a certain direction but leave them freedom of choice. The question is: Do they feel like they had freedom of choice? And if they don’t feel like they had freedom of choice, then where is the ethical boundary?

A lot of resistance and the backlash comes from feeling either manipulated or disrespected. A lot of customers feel manipulated and a lot of employees feel disrespected. That’s where transparency comes in.

What level of transparency is needed for customers to not feel manipulated, and employees to not feel disrespected?

If they don’t feel like they had freedom of choice, then where is the ethical boundary?

JK: There was a recent study that Leslie John at Harvard was involved with, which had to do with recommended items on a website. If we say we’re recommending these items to you because of your previous behavior on our website, you’re OK with that even though it’s essentially data mining, right? You’re OK because you understand that’s what you’re getting and why, versus being in the dark and harboring a vague suspicion or mistrust. You might feel manipulated if we don’t admit what we’re doing, and especially if you discover what we’re doing on your own.

Even right now, this stuff with the GDPR, every site saying, “We’re using cookies.” Most people think, OK, thank you for letting me know. On the other hand, most people can’t grasp the level of complexity behind cookies and the way these sites mine their data. In that sense, this disclaimer might create a false sense of trust. It’s like reading a boilerplate 10-page sign up for your Adobe Premiere. I don’t really read that, and I don’t know what I’m agreeing to. Do people know what they’re agreeing to when they agree to cookie use?

ZC: We’re all just hoping other people are reading these things carefully.

There Is No Chance of Privacy.

ZC: Regarding transparency, I found it really interesting talking to people in China. I was teaching in Beijing in January, and I asked about privacy concerns and it was so unanimous among the handful of people that I talked to – not a representative sample, I know – that the benefits they get from sharing their information outweighed the perceived costs. And they share a lot more information than we do; the things that go on in China get reported here as if it’s 1984 and Big Brother is watching.

JK: Yeah, like this whole social credit thing feels like an episode of “Black Mirror.”

ZC: They get discounts on all kinds of things. So of course makes sense to share your information, because it’s a benefit to you.

JK: I think if people took a moment to at least consider the motives or intention of things like offers, or whatever comes out of all the data being shared, that might mitigate some of their discomfort. Like, what are they really trying to get you to do, and why? If your data has been shared and you’re getting all these recommendations to travel to the Caribbean, instead of getting mad, think about the potential reasons why you’re getting them. We now live in a culture of data-driven choices.

ZC: Yeah. I find it super interesting, and I also just feel there is no chance of privacy in the future. Maybe I’m a sad cynic about that, but I cannot foresee a future in which we maintain privacy. And if the death of privacy is inevitable, then we should stop being upset about it and say, “Alright, what’s the best way to move forward?”

If the death of privacy is inevitable, then we should stop being upset and ask, “Alright, what’s the best way to move forward?”

JK: I think we need motives behind that lack of privacy that aren’t just for profit and control. That’s my cynicism, is knowing that technology is often driven by profit. I don’t have an inherent anti-capitalist bias, but there are benefits to public goods and communal things, and I sometimes think that those who are in favor of public goods just don’t frame it well. You can frame communal assets in a way that satisfies the needs of self-interest.

I don’t want to lean into the political angle of this, but stuff that is good for everyone can be good for enthusiastic capitalists, too. America made its fortune when it was an 80 percent tax rate, when a rising tide lifted all boats.

Plus, in a future without privacy, if you can’t keep any secrets, you might be less likely to do shady sh*t.

ZC: The Aspen Daily News recently changed its tagline to, “If you don’t want it printed, don’t let it happen.” Hopefully it’s a deterrent. But also, we need to have some sort of norm-shifting toward some tolerance and forgiveness, and it’s OK to screw up, and you don’t have to be perfect. So there’s an expectation of being a normal human, which includes lots of flaws and mistakes.

What Is the Public Sphere?

JK: No one is totally pure. I mean if you’re a repeat offender, you’re not learning from your mistakes. I don’t think Harvey Weinstein deserves any benefit of the doubt. But a onetime mistake, if you learn, I think that would be great – rather than people who attain their worldview at 16 or 26 or 36 and sort of call it a day.

ZC: The Harvey Weinstein thing was such a gross abuse of power, and to me, abuses of power should have their own extra penalty. I hope that we’ll continue to hold powerful people to a higher standard because of all of the benefits and the privileges that they get, and the influence that they wield. Certainly they shouldn’t need to be perfect, but they should be held to a higher standard.

This comes up in discussions as to whether faculty should lose tenure or lose jobs for making racist comments. My perspective is you have such privilege getting to be in this position at a university that you don’t get to speak for yourself anymore. You don’t get to voice those sh*tty opinions in the public sphere. You can voice them with your friends and with your family at dinner. You are who you are, but when you rise to a position of power, you are now representing the organization that you work for. So it’s not just your reputation that you’re trashing.

JK: That raises the question, “What is the public sphere?” If there’s no more privacy, dinner with family or an email to a friend might actually be in the public sphere – or wind up there.

If there’s no more privacy, dinner with family or an email to a friend might actually be in the public sphere – or wind up there.

ZC: That’s a great point.… We are going so far off track.

JK: Just say the word “business” so it relates to business.

ZC: Business. B-U-S-I-N-E-S-S – boom! Mic drop.

JK: You did literally drop the mic. (Editor’s note: She did literally drop the mic.)

Not Enough Companies Blind Resumes.

JK: I saw you wrote a piece in Psychology Today about people not speaking up about harassment and the pay gap. There’s not an easy answer here, but do you think that there is room for behavioral science in addressing some of these workplace biases and uncomfortable situations?

ZC: Such an important question. I’m not an expert in implicit bias training at all, so I’ve asked some people, and there’s not yet a lot of research to point to and say, “Here’s what works.” We don’t quite know yet. And the extra super important layer is that we don’t know what the consequences of implicit bias are. There is a lot of uncertainty around looking at actual effects of the implicit-association test (IAT). So yes, while we all have implicit bias (some people more than others), there have been exceedingly few studies showing that implicit bias leads to actual biased behaviors.

There is, though, a very interesting QJE paper looking at the effects of manager bias on supermarket clerks in France. It’s a large data set across many supermarkets. There weren’t any differences between managers in explicit bias, but they different in implicit bias, and higher levels of implicit bias reduced performance among their minority employees—even though those people performed at least as well as nonminorities on the days they worked under unbiased managers. The authors weren’t eveneven suggesting the biased managers were jerks, just that they didn’t interact as much with minority employees. So their minority employees maybe didn’t feel so comfortable or appreciated.

I’m going to say something now that people will get mad at if you write it, but it’s fine.

JK: I’ll run it by you.

ZC: OK. Implicit bias training doesn’t feel like low-hanging fruit.

JK: It does not?

ZC: It does notIt was important for Starbucks to take a stand on caring about employee bias. That being said, we should start with process interventions, like blinding and analytical comparisons. There aren’t nearly enough companies that blind resumes before they get reviewedJK: “The Daily Show” does it, for what it’s worth. They take the names off writers’ submissions. Samantha Bee’s show did it, and then “Colbert Report.”

ZC: No way! That’s awesome.

JK: I only say that because I didn’t get hired for any of those shows when I submitted, so it’s clearly still biased.

ZC: That’s obviously why. (Editor’s note: Obviously.)

We Need More Bystander Training.

ZC: My perception about a lot of bias issues is also in line with what Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer have written , that many of the gender differences observed are actually power differences in disguise.

When I look at interactions in my workplace, certainly there are loads and loads of interactions that could seem like gender or racial prejudice. But my perspective is that there are a lot of mostly unintentional power plays going on. So maybe our interventions should focus on power, since families and schools and companies are all so hierarchical, right?

JK: Definitely.

Many of the gender differences observed are actually power differences in disguise.

JK: I think back to Harvey Weinstein, and having been in show business, I’m not at all surprised about what he did. In Hollywood there’s this desperation. You’re either like a big star or you’re struggling. Some people just want to work and just want to survive in the industry, but the industry also breeds people who just want to get that power, not because they necessarily love the work. They want that power. They want the girls, and they want to be able to tell people who remind them of their high school bullies to f*** off.

ZC: We need more bystander training. It’s really hard to stand up to somebody if you’re the person who is being abused or mistreated. And you can’t expect training bullies to make much of an impact because bullies enjoy bullying.

I’d love to see behavioral intervention training for observers, so they can call the bullies out and support each other.

JK: Whenever there’s a physical conflict, like a bar fight or a physical altercation, people tend to circle around and they grab their cameras.

ZC: And they watch. And they film. Yeah.You see this in so many Black Lives Matter videos and police interventions, right? You see white people in the background just watching this s***.

JK: There is one video of a girl who got punched on the beach by a police officer. Watching this, I’m thinking that instead of people yelling, “Don’t resist” or “Stand back,” why don’t they get in there and … What? What are they going to do, tackle a police officer? They would then be subject to the same physical abuse. So what do you do? I mean that’s a relatively extreme example, versus a work dynamic of verbal abuse or something like that, which falls on an HR department.

Now That I’m a Parent…

JK: Anyway, what’s interesting for me is that I have a new perspective now that I’m a parent. I have a responsibility, even if I might get hurt or lose my job or whatever, to show my child what it means to be a good person. To do that, I have to be someone who intervenes and doesn’t turn my back.

ZC: I feel the same way you do. But when I had a kid, I realized how much less heroic I was in reality than in my mind. I like to think that if I’d lived in the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad would have gone through my basement. Or if I had been in Germany during World War II, Jews would have been hiding in my attic.

When I had a kid, I realized how much less heroic I was in reality than in my mind.

But there’s this book, The Altruistic Personality, researching who risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust. Heroes were less likely to be parents. But overall, there wasn’t any personality difference. Rather, there were massive differences between countries. It really came down to social norms and conformity.

JK: That’s very interesting. America took a while to step in during World War II, and I’m not sure we’ve ever faced a challenge like that at home. In the Civil Rights era, maybe, which I’ve always thought of as the greatest era in American history. But otherwise, we haven’t really had to rise up and test our own character too much. Some people think we’ll have more of a national identity if we have a national enemy.

We’re never going to not have an in-group, out-group thing, but we can try to expand the in-groups.

ZC: That comes back to bias, and the fact that in-groups and out-groups have been core to our psyche since we were chimps. So we’re never going to not have an in-group, out-group thing, but we can try to expand the in-groups.

JK: One of the things I say when I give my little talks is that we can’t change human nature, but we can create systems and environments to use human nature to our benefit, instead of having it used against us.

ZC: Boo-yah.

Jeff Kreisler
Editor and Co-Author “Dollars and Sense”


Get the latest behavioral
science insights.