This week on Find the Red Thread, Tamsen discusses the concept of psychological reactance. It’s the very human response that if we’re told to do something we often want to dig in our heels and do the opposite. This is something that we’re always going to pay attention to if we’re trying to drive action.
What we often miss when we’re putting together a message is the mindset of the person that we’re talking to. There are two phases when we’re making a decision. First, we gather information. And then we look at that information in order to make a choice. People have to learn about something before they’re going to do something or psychological reactance takes over.
The key is to understand where your audience is in this process. If you’re talking to someone in the learning phase, you’re going to put them off by pushing them to buy or do something before they’re ready. You need to know where your audience is in their journey and use the Red Thread to focus in on reaching them where they are.
In 2002, Ohio State researchers did a study on psychological reactance. In this study, participants were asked to choose between one of two equally attractive football teams. Let’s call them Team X and Team Y. Now, after the participants have already decided which team they favored, let’s say I have preferred Team X. Another participant who’s actually a plant for the researchers would come up to the participants and tell them that they definitely had to choose Team X.
What do you think the results were? Did people stay with their original choice, or did they switch? The answer is really important to us as we figure out what’s the best way to create change. I’m Tamsen Webster, of tamsenwebster.com, and this is Find The Red Thread.
So what happened? As it turns out, when participants were approached by that plant by the researcher and told that they definitely had to choose a certain team, even if the participants preferred that team, they switched. They switched their bet 76% of the time.
What’s underlying all that is a really important concept for any of us who want to create action or movement, or change, and the messages, or the presentations that we make. And that concept is something called psychological reactance. It’s what’s going on whenever a parent tells the kid, “Hey, it’s time to go to bed.” And they say, “no it isn’t!” “You’re tired!” “No, I’m not!” It’s a human response that if we’re told to do something, we often will dig in our heels and want to do the exact opposite. Even against all evidence and all rational decision making.
What can we do with that? Why is it so important for us? Well as I said before, for trying to drive action, this is something we’re always going to have to pay attention to. And there’s something that we miss when we’re putting messages together. And a lot of times that simple thing that we’re missing is: what is the mindset of the person that we’re talking to?
What do I mean by that? A couple weeks ago, I had someone reach out to me and they wanted to just have a virtual coffee and talk to each other about what we did. We thought maybe there was an opportunity to work together. But it was pretty clear within the first two minutes of this conversation that we had completely different expectations. I was looking forward to seeing what she was doing and how I might be able to help. And she was looking for whether or not I was interested in becoming part of her network marketing program.
Now, there’s nothing wrong necessarily with network marketing program and there is nothing wrong with me wanting to help her out. The problem happens when two people have two different expectations of what’s going on. You’ve experienced that too yourself too. Either when someone approaches you at a cocktail party and starts to pitch you or even worse, you’re at a conference, and you’re there to learn something exciting and all of a sudden the presentation turns into a giant pitch. We get mad. And we get mad because of that gap between what we were expecting to get and what we’re actually getting.
The way to think about it is this: when people are making a decision to change or to do something differently, and whether that’s a customer, or an individual, or a business, or a market, there’s really two phases that we deal with. One is where we’re gathering information and another is when we’re choosing amongst those pieces of information to make a decision. Now is it much more complicated than that? Is there a journey? Does it go back and forth? And is there a funnel? Yes, but I think you can agree that those two phases are generally the case and most often one has to precede the other.
People have to learn about something before they’re willing to do something. Here’s how this ties into creating messages with The Red Thread. We have to understand which phase somebody is in. Because if they’re at a learning phase, then the goal that they want, the problem that they have, the idea that will help get them receptive to change, even the change itself is going to look and sound very different than somebody who has already decided to act.
For instance, if I’ve got somebody who is at a conference and trying to learn about some new content marketing program or some new content marketing approach, then even if ultimately, I want them to buy a product or service that I have, I need to understand that in that moment, they’re still willing and ready only to learn. Which means that the problem they have can’t be that they don’t have my service. That the idea can’t be that my service is the only one that does things. And the change cannot be, “hey, buy my thing.”
The problem has to be with something about how they see the world. “You are looking at content marketing as a series of channels,” for instance, “but not really looking at the quality of the content.” The idea has to be something that explains that problem, that helps them see things in a new way.
Something like, “people still make decisions the same way.” And so, that leads to a change. “If we design content around how people make decisions, we’ll be able to navigate changes and channels much much more easily.”
Now, even if I’m selling a service that helps people develop better content, I’m not going to mention that in that situation. Because what I’m doing now, instead of invoking psychological reactance, is allowing people to come to those conclusions themselves. I am creating a space for agreement.
When somebody has decided to move, they decide to move from learning about something to doing something about it. Once they decide to move, then the answers to those questions can be different. Their goal now is to explore why your particular service might be better. Or they’re deciding between which service is going to be best. And in that case, the problem is going to reflect that goal.
The problem is that if we approach that goal one way by focusing only on the channels, we’re going to run into some other problems. “But, we at this particular company see that goal another way. We look at it as, “let’s look at the content and how it’s put together.” Which leads to an idea which now allows me to put my specific message in place.
I can say, “well at content whatever company.com, we believe X.” That’s the idea. Which now allows me to say, “that’s why at content company X, we approach this particular goal this way. Which is why we’ve developed our products that are x, y and z. Don’t you want to learn more?”
It all comes down to understanding that mindset. When we want to create change, we need to understand where somebody is. Are they in a learning mindset? Or are they in a doing mindset? And then, we use that to determine how do we fill in the blanks of The Red Thread from there? I’m Tamsen Webster, of tamsenwebster.com. Now go find your Red Thread.