Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 124
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Emphasizing the Negative

Research demonstrates new principles of group decision making that will change persuasion tactics.

The next time you face a group charged with making a decision of some consequence, and you want to influence that decision, you'll want to remember a recent discovery made by a research team led by Marali Chandrashekaran, from the University of Cincinnati. If you do, you'll change the strategy you use.

Chandrashekaran, and his team, discovered that when groups make important decisions they become very sensitive to negative information and follow a strategy of combining negative beliefs to eliminate alternatives. They ignore positive information and sometimes forget it altogether. The winning alternative is the remaining choice, the one with the fewest negatives.

Chandrashekaran's team conducted a field experiment in a college sorority. They offered to pay for a theme party and gave the sorority three alternative choices. In return, the researchers were allowed to closely observe the young women as they made their decision. A theme party risks a sorority's prestige in the Greek community, so the decision was important.

As expected, the young women initially favored one of the parties and after several days and two votes, they revealed a substantial shift in favor of the initially most-favored choice. Past researchers have discovered a similar pattern, and had assumed it was because the early favorite had advocates who stressed positive features of the choice they preferred. Chandrashekaran found that wasn't true.

Positive beliefs held early in the decision process were forgotten by the end, especially for less favored alternatives. Negative beliefs spread quickly and widely, and influence attempts centered on increasing negative beliefs for less favored choices and inhibiting the adoption of any positive beliefs at all.

That's not the way we've understood group decision making in the past. Indeed, we train our salespeople to list as many positive features as possible about our products hoping to build an overwhelming case in customers' minds to buy them. It's perfectly logical. Could it be that we've been wrong all this time?!

We preach at our salespeople to investigate the buying situation of their prospects. We want them to know customers' needs and be familiar with alternatives they are considering. And yet, our salespeople only have a limited time available to them to influence buying decisions . . . often a drastically limited time. What should they do? What ideas should they call attention to? Chandrashekaran's research suggests it should be negative ideas about competitors.

For example, if you learn a customer is considering alternatives A, B, and C, and your product (B) is priced between the other two, then you should say "'A' is too cheap, and 'C' is too expensive." You needn't say anything at all about your price, it will be forgotten anyway.

And another example: If a large group will be making the decision, this research suggests you should offer different negative beliefs individually to influential members from differing functional areas. They will talk to each other, and the negative ideas will spread like crabgrass.

It's a sad commentary that caution creates a sensitivity to the negative. And it's sad that this process favors those who master its intricacies as an influence strategy. But it shouldn't be surprising. How often in a presidential election year do we turn to our companions and wonder aloud how we ever ended up with such dismal choices. Now we know.

Of course you could also think of this research as a warning. Your business makes decisions too, and most likely, you've been following this negative decision strategy yourself. Maybe the next time you make a choice you should list and compare only positive ideas about the alternatives and see what happens. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Reference: Chandrashekaran, Murali, Beth A. Walker, James C. Ward, and Peter H. Reingen (1996). Modeling Individual Preference Evolution and Choice in a Dynamic Group Setting. Journal of Marketing Research, 33, (May 1996) 211-223.

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