In an episode of the hit comedy Friends, Chandler and Monica were having difficulties conceiving so they decide to look for a sperm donor. Chandler brings home a guy he’s recently met and says to Monica, “So, Zac’s pretty nice, huh?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Monica innocently replies, not realizing the hint.
Chandler tries to be more explicit. “So, how would you like to have a baby that’s half yours and half his?”
“Excuse me?” she asks with a confused look on her face.
“We’re talking about a sperm donor and Zac may be the guy,” Chandler explains. “I mean, he’s intelligent, he’s healthy, he’s athletic—I mean he’s spermtastic!”
Monica laughs nervously in sheer disbelief of Chandler’s intentions.
“Chandler this is crazy. What did you even say to him? Come up, meet my wife, give us your sperm.”
“You know, I invited him to dinner so you could get to know him. You know, if we go through a sperm bank you never meet the guy and get to check him out,” Chandler points out in another attempt at getting through to Monica.
But Monica is not convinced and counters with cold logic, “You can’t just bring some random guy home and expect him to be our sperm donor.”
Chandler gives up and attends to his guest, handing Zac a beer.
Zac looks around and says, “Do you have a coaster? I didn’t want to make a ring.”
Monica abruptly drops what she’s doing and walks over to Zac and says, “So, tell me about yourself Zac.”
The scene was comical for two reasons. First, there is Monica’s irrationality. After arguing against Chandler’s rational, thoughtful reasoning, she ends up being impressed by something as trivial as asking for a coaster.
Second, and more importantly, it’s comical because Monica’s sudden change of heart was relatable. We like to see ourselves as rational, logical beings in total control of our thoughts and actions. Yet time and time again we fall for such trivial and irrational ploys that exploit our unconscious predispositions.
Bellavia’s Surprising Change of Heart
Take the case of United States Army infantry Staff Sergeant David Bellavia. On November 4, 2004, Bellavia and his fellow soldiers returned from a routine mission to find their barracks overrun by reporters, who were there to cover the upcoming battle of Fallujah, Afghanistan. It was expected to be was an historic battle and the media were to imbed with the United States Infantry to report on the key events.
But Bellavia wasn’t a big fan of reporters, finding them overbearing, disrespectful, and just another burden to carry around during battle.
“The sight of so many media types puts us in a foul mood. Good infantrymen have no interest in playing nursemaid to reporters in the midst of combat,” recalled Bellavia.
As he walked into the mess hall for his evening meal, he was confronted by even more reporters. He recalled his reactions succinctly: “It was hard not to be nauseated.”
As he sat down to eat, a reporter came over and, without properly introducing himself, started firing questions at Bellavia.
“How would you describe combat to average Americans back home?” asked the reporter.
Bellavia was not impressed. Bellavia and his men were exhausted from a hard day’s work. The last thing they needed was a rude reporter asking questions as they tried to eat their one good meal in peace. Insulted and irritated, Bellavia and his partner decided to play fools and give stupid answers.
“Combat? You ever play paintball, sir?” Bellavia asked the reporter with complete seriousness.
“No, but I am aware of the sport.”
“Tell America that combat is like paintball. With the exception that the enemy is motivated by fanatical devotion and uses bullets as they attempt to kill you. But basically it’s the same thing.”
“Make sure you get that ‘killing with bullets’ part,” added Bellavia’s partner.
Realising their sarcasm and uncooperative attitude the reporter left. Then they were approached by another pair of reporters, who Bellavia was told would be the platoon’s embedded reporters as they rode into Fallujah.
Where It Gets Interesting
This was where it got interesting. Given his open contempt and lack of respect for reporters you would expect Bellavia to be fractious towards these two men. You would expect him to be rude or offer sarcastic remarks, as he did with other reporters. At the very least, you’d expect him to give them the cold shoulder. But no, Bellavia did no such thing. Instead, Bellavia took quite kindly to the reporter and his cameraman.
“These two stand in stark contrast to their brownnosing and perpetually confused cohorts,” wrote Bellavia.
The question of course was why? Why did a man who was “nauseated” by the sight of reporters speak so highly, of all people, a couple of reporters? Why was he so impressed by these two when he uniformly viewed reporters as “perpetually confused” individuals? Did they have specialised training that made them stand out from the crowd? Had they won journalistic medals or awards that spoke for their ability to handle themselves in battle?
The answer, surprisingly, was neither of those things. What separated these two reporters from their cohorts was not superior training or some other official recognition but something much more mundane and superficial than that. It was the way they looked and acted. Unlike their fellow journalists, these two weren’t dressed in clean and neat Banana Republic clothing. Instead, they wore dirt ridden clothes with a chain of camera batteries crisscrossing their chests like a bandolier belt.
“They wear green cargo pants that quite possibly filthier than anything Specialist Tristan Maxfield wears,” Bellavia said affectionately. “Maxfield is one of my best soldiers, but he emphatically refuses to practice even the basics of personal grooming.”
Then there was the way these two ate. Unlike their elitist colleagues, these reporters didn’t brandish silverware and dexterously dab corners of their mouths with napkins. They ate like Bellavia and his soldiers.
“They just dig in with their hands, soaking up gravy with swift swipes of bread across their plates, as if they don’t know how long they will have to eat or when they’ll get another meal” explained Bellavia.
Intentional or not, these aesthetic cues had a clear and powerful l effect of building trust and liking amongst Bellavia and his soldiers. “In any restaurant back home, they’d be asked to leave, but I’m warming up to them” admitted Bellavia to his growing like for these men.
What Monica and Belavia Have in Common
There is a parallel here between Monica’s sudden change of heart towards Zac and Bellavia’s equally immediate change of attitude towards the two reporters. Both Monica and Bellavia allowed seemingly superficial features to colour their perception of an unknown person. Both made inferences on the likeability and trustworthiness of strangers based on simple observations. And both relied on surface cues rather than any deep inspection to influence their perceptions of the strangers.
And there is a method to their madness. In life, we don’t always have all the information needed to make an accurate judgment about another individual. We are often required to make decisions under uncertain circumstances and with limited knowledge and information. This is where our rapid cognition modules come into play and help us extract global generalities from domain-specific trivialities. They allow us to make inferences about one’s current understanding of the situation, personality, background, abilities, and experience.
In the case of Monica, the simple act of asking for a coaster demonstrated to Monica that Zac was a conscientious and responsible person. It spoke, although indirectly, of his need to take care of things around him, of his understanding of Monica’s world, culture and values. In short, it was a silent recommendation to his ability to make a good father. In Bellavia’s case the reporters’ dirty clothing and the lack of table manners communicated their understanding of surviving on the battlefield. Firstly, by eating the same way as Bellavia and his soldiers the journalists showed respect and a sense of equal footing. Unlike other journalists they did not give off an elitist vibe. Then they showed that they understood the problems faced on the battlefield.
Like Bellavia said “[they eat] as if they don’t know how long they will have to eat or when they’ll get another meal.” On the front lines you didn’t have the luxury of enjoying your meal. A soldier can be called into action anytime. Eating was essentially downtime, an activity required to fuel the body. The quicker the chore was completed the quicker you can get back to fighting. Hence the simple act of eating quickly and with their hands demonstrated that they understood the harsh reality of the battlefield and that they were equipped with the attitude needed to survive. More importantly, it communicated that they were not going to be a liability on the battlefield.
That’s not to say that external cues always provide quality information and allow us to infer accurate internal qualities every time. They can lead us astray and incorrectly colour our judgments. However, they also allow us to safely navigate an otherwise treacherous path that we call everyday life. As a famous Irish Poet and Novelist once said, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.”
But whether snap judgments are a good thing or a bad thing is a moral question and not one we are concerned with here. For our purposes, what is important is that they exist and that they powerfully, albeit subconsciously, influence people’s decisions.
How Clothing Influences Compliance
In the early 1970’s, a group of scientists at Purdue University dressed themselves in either ‘hippie’ clothing or ‘straight’ clothing and stood near a food court in the Student Union and asked passerby for money to make a phone call. They wanted to see whether the way a person was dressed had an impact on compliance.
Predictably, it did. But it wasn’t that one dress type was significantly superior to another at eliciting help. What made the difference was how similarly the requester and the requested were dressed. If the requester was dressed similar to the participant, the participant complied two thirds of the time. If they weren’t that figure went down to half of the time. In other words, hippies were more likely to help other hippies and mainstreamers were more likely to help other mainstreamers.
So Bellavia’s and Monica’s cases aren’t isolated examples of irrational thinking. They accurately reflect our predisposition to make snap judgments and use surface features to infer deep internal traits and qualities. In particular these examples demonstrate how similarities in superficial features like dress sense, manners, or language can help establish one of the most integral elements of any compliance or persuasion situation – trust.
Trust is the bedrock of any relationship. If potential customers don’t trust you, then they won’t be persuaded by your arguments; they won’t have confidence in your claims, and they won’t value your services. If on the other hand they do, then they will forgive your shortcomings, accept what you have to say, and seek you out to buy your goods and services.
Accordingly, salespeople, marketers, and other agents of persuasion can influence how others perceive us by making small changes to the way we look, walk, talk, or act. In effect, we can influence how much our prospects and customers like and trust us by incorporating small changes that show us that we understand their world, their problems, their culture, and their values.
That doesn’t mean you have to start dressing in dirty cargo pants or start asking for coasters every time someone offers you a drink. It just means that pointing out similarities, directly or indirectly, between yourself and potential customers can go a long way in making you more likable, trustworthy, and most importantly, the obvious choice for doing business.