Persuasion is a science

There's a proven formula for getting people to do what you want them to do - and politicians would b

For as long as I can remember, newspaper managements have issued circulars demanding that journalists claim fewer expenses. Hacks are to take contacts to lunch only once a week or claim taxis home only after public transport has stopped. The pleas invariably fail. Why? Because some journalists would previously claim fewer than one lunch a week or never think of taking a taxi home. Now, aware that others claim these perks, they will do likewise. Managements thus normalise the behaviour they want to discourage.

Politicians and other public figures often fall into the same trap. I would be surprised if there were not a sharp rise in teenagers carrying guns in south London, and perhaps in other urban areas, following this month's decision to put armed officers on the streets and to hold a "crisis summit". Ministers and police make guns seem normal in Clapham, and so any male teenager lacking one will be tempted to arm himself quickly. I suspect similar things happened, over many years, with drugs and teenage pregnancies. I accept the media's role: if ministers failed to act after three fatal shootings in rapid succession, they would be condemned for complacency. But it is striking how rarely politicians think outside this box.

Perhaps Robert Cialdini can help them. Cialdini is a psychology professor at Arizona State University, author of Influence: the psychology of persuasion, and the latest guru to appear on the new Labour scene as the party tries to remake itself after a decade in power. His book was first published more than 20 years ago, and the science of persuasion - a distillation of techniques long used by car salesmen, advertising copywriters and lobbyists - is nearly 60 years old. Moreover, he has "six universal principles" (all American academics, I sometimes think, at heart want to be Billy Graham) and a company offering training and consultancy to business, which suggests he could sell snake oil if he were minded to. Still, he gives research references and precise statistics. He has apparently struck a chord with new Labour and attended a Downing Street seminar last month.

I do not have space for all six principles which, Cialdini says, are behind every successful attempt "to motivate people into action". So, here are two. First, social proof: we are most likely to behave in a particular way if we believe people like ourselves are doing the same.

This supports my examples of journalists and south London teenagers. It also explains why an anti-litter ad showing one person dropping an empty crisp packet in a pristine landscape works better than an ad showing thousands of dropped packets: the latter makes dropping litter look normal.

And the best way to get hotel guests to recycle linen, Cialdini says, is not to put up a notice explaining environmental benefits, but to say that "the majority of guests who have stayed in this hotel" have already done it. Better still, make the notice refer to "guests who have stayed in this room". Cialdini emphasises that such improvements are "costless". One sees the appeal to new Labour.

Second, authority: we are more likely to follow a proposal from someone who seems both expert and trustworthy. So it really is worth putting initials after your name and Dr in front of it. Equally, you create trust by conceding a weakness in your case immediately before (not after) you explain its strongest points. "By mentioning a downside, you establish yourself as a credible source of information."

Cialdini said in a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) this month: "People then listen differently to the next thing you say. They open their ears and minds." So, when recommending someone for a job, mention a weak spot before you rhapsodise about their brilliance.

We can see again where politicians may be going wrong. They rarely admit a weakness at all. If they do, it's called a gaffe.

Pro-social behaviour

Matthew Taylor, the RSA chief executive and former (but still influential) Downing Street policy wonk, has drawn on Cialdini's work to form the idea of "pro-social behaviour", the opposite of antisocial behaviour. He compares politicians to Mark Twain's man with a hammer, to whom everything looked like a nail. They believe all social problems are susceptible to their most accessible tools: laws, regulations and taxes. They should look instead, Taylor says, at Cialdini's principles, which can be used to strengthen desirable social norms (see acrobat/pro-social_behaviour.pdf).

Clearly, a government that managed to create huge opposition to road-pricing at the moment everybody seemed convinced of global warming needs to think hard about how it does things. The Cialdini and Taylor approach, of quietly encouraging change in public behaviour before trying to regulate it, looks promising. Unfortunately, the image of the nail-obsessed hammer-wielder reminds me of someone. Now, who could it be?

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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Labour tensions boil over at fractious MPs' meeting

Corbyn supporters and critics clash over fiscal charter U-turn and new group Momentum. 

"A total fucking shambles". That was the verdict of the usually emollient Ben Bradshaw as he left tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. His words were echoed by MPs from all wings of the party. "I've never seen anything like it," one shadow minister told me. In commitee room 14 of the House of Commons, tensions within the party - over the U-turn on George Osborne's fiscal charter and new Corbynite group Momentum - erupted. 

After a short speech by Jeremy Corbyn, shadow chancellor John McDonnell sought to explain his decision to oppose Osborne's fiscal charter (having supported it just two weeks ago). He cited the change in global economic conditions and the refusal to allow Labour to table an amendment. McDonnell also vowed to assist colleagues in Scotland in challenging the SNP anti-austerity claims. But MPs were left unimpressed. "I don't think I've ever heard a weaker round of applause at the PLP than the one John McDonnell just got," one told me. MPs believe that McDonnell's U-turn was due to his failure to realise that the fiscal charter mandated an absolute budget surplus (leaving no room to borrow to invest), rather than merely a current budget surplus. "A huge joke" was how a furious John Mann described it. He and others were outraged by the lack of consultation over the move. "At 1:45pm he [McDonnell] said he was considering our position and would consult with the PLP and the shadow cabinet," one MP told me. "Then he announces it before 6pm PLP and tomorow's shadow cabinet." 

When former shadow cabinet minister Mary Creagh asked Corbyn about the new group Momentum, which some fear could be used as a vehicle to deselect critical MPs (receiving what was described as a weak response), Richard Burgon, one of the body's directors, offered a lengthy defence and was, one MP said, "just humiliated". He added: "It looked at one point like they weren't even going to let him finish. As the fractious exchanges were overheard by journalists outside, Emily Thornberry appealed to colleagues to stop texting hacks and keep their voices down (within earshot of all). 

After a calmer conference than most expected, tonight's meeting was evidence of how great the tensions within Labour remain. Veteran MPs described it as the worst PLP gathering for 30 years. The fear for all MPs is that they have the potential to get even worse. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.