So we’re talking about an issue – let’s say water conservation. I ask you to think of 10 reasons why conserving water is a good idea. By the time you’ve finished, you’ll be more convinced than ever of the importance of saving water, right?
Wrong. In fact, you’ll probably be less convinced.
It makes sense to us that a person who has just thought of 10 reasons to do something will be more inclined to do it than someone who has just thought of two reasons. What this doesn’t take into account is how hard it is to come up with the reasons.
Norbert Schwartz has done a number of experiments in this area. In a 1991 study, he and his colleagues asked some participants to recall either six or 12 examples of situations in which they “behaved very assertively and felt at ease”. Other participants were asked to think of six or 12 examples of situations in which they “behaved unassertively and felt insecure”. Afterwards, the participants were asked to evaluate several characteristics of themselves, including their assertiveness.
I would have guessed that the participants who came up with 12 examples of their own boldness saw themselves as more assertive than those who only had to come up with six. I would have been wrong.
Exactly the opposite occurred – in both groups. Participants asked to recall 12 examples of their own courage rated themselves as less assertive than those asked to recall six examples. Participants asked to recall 12 examples of their own timidity rated themselves as more assertive than those asked to recall six.
Schwartz and colleagues theorized that these results reflected how easy or difficult it was to recall the requested number of situations. If it was hard to come up with a lot of examples of a behaviour, people assumed they didn’t do that behaviour much.
It applies when making choices, too. Another study asked participants to choose between two similar digital cameras or microwave ovens. Before making their choice, they were asked how difficult it would be to identify two reasons (or 10 reasons) to support their choice. (Notice that they weren’t asked for the actual reasons, just how difficult it would be to come up with them.) Significantly more participants asked about the difficulty of producing 10 reasons chose to defer making a choice, compared with those asked about producing two reasons. Somewhere their brains figured that if coming up with reasons to support a choice is difficult, they must be doubtful about that choice.
Both these studies looked into whether this effect could be reversed, and it appears that it can. Acknowledging the difficulty of the task (“I realize it’s hard to come up with that many”) or ascribing it to something else (“This may be particularly hard today because of all that noise”) makes people much less likely to interpret their failure to produce reasons as proof that there aren’t enough reasons.
In the real world, keep this in mind if you ever find yourself asking people to come up with a list of arguments, examples or benefits of your idea. On the flip side, you might be able to weaken someone’s belief by asking him to give you five reasons he believes it. Please try to use this power for good.
In conclusion, you’d expect me to ask you to think of two reasons you like this blog, right? I would never be that predictable. Just think of one – but share it with all your friends. That will do nicely, thank you.