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Social psychology for social good

Pulling a fast one

August 22nd, 2011

Speed upSothisismy100thblogpostandI’mratherproud ofmyselfforgettingthisfarandnotcoppingout andjustpostingpicturesofmycatsorsomething!


If you’ve been exposed to popular culture in the past couple of decades, you’ve probably seen the stereotype of the fast-talking salesman (it’s almost always a man, for some reason) who manages to sell people things they don’t want by talking so fast that the overwhelmed customers give in.

It’s an annoying stereotype – and what’s even more annoying is that the technique works – although not always, as you’ll see.

Some early research compared the persuasiveness of various messages when the same words were spoken slowly (at an average of 102 words per minute) or rapidly (195 words per minute). The researchers found that not only were faster speakers more persuasive, they were perceived to be more intelligent and more objective than slower speakers making the same arguments.

Simple, right? Nope. Further research showed that the relationship between fast talking and persuasiveness was more complicated than that.

Pierre-Luc in a fast talkSteve Smith and David Shaffer compared the effectiveness of arguments given at slow, moderate and fast speeds, but they also varied the appeal of the arguments to their listeners. The study participants were university students, and some heard an argument in favour of lowering the legal drinking age while others heard an argument in favour of maintaining the current legal age of 21. (As you might guess, the students tended to have firm views on this subject.)

What they discovered was that when they were trying to sell an unpopular message (in this case, keeping the drinking age higher), listeners were most persuaded by fast talkers, just like in the earlier experiments. (Intermediate-speed talkers were less persuasive, while slow speakers were the least persuasive.) However, when they were pushing a message the listeners already agreed with, slow speakers were most persuasive.

Slow DownWhat’s going on? It appears that when we hear a fast message, we don’t have time to evaluate it and think up reasons we agree or disagree with it. This benefits the speaker with an unpopular message, since fast talking prevents the audience from coming up with counterarguments. But it’s a disadvantage to the speaker with a popular message, since her audience doesn’t have time to think about all the reasons they agree – which would otherwise cement their opinion even further.

Applying these findings means talking fast when selling an unpopular message, which may work but feels a little slimy, since it basically amounts to persuading people by distracting them from the downside of your argument. I’ll leave it to your consciences whether you want to take that route. However, I do recommend talking more slowly than usual when you’re preaching to the converted: give them time to think about how sensible your arguments are.

And. Since. I. Know. We’re. All. Friends. Here. I’ll. Speak. Very. Slowly. While. Saying. That. This. Actually. Is. My. 100th. Blog. Post. And. Isn’t. That. Awesome? I. Think. So. Too.


Apology to my regular readers: If you’ve ever signed up to be notified of new comments on particular posts, you probably got notifications about spam messages last week. Sorry about that! My blog has apparently been discovered by a spambot and there were several hours between when the spam started and when I set all comments on moderation status.

Also, if you’ve left any comments in the past few days, there’s a possibility they got deleted in the spam flood, so if they were important, please leave them again or contact me directly. Sorry for the inconvenience.

2 comments on 'Pulling a fast one'

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  1. Emyloo

    22 Aug 11 at 1:26 pm

    Yup. James Carville.


  2. Dad

    23 Aug 11 at 11:51 am

    This is a test reply to make sure your comments are now under control. Blog number 100 was, as always, great.


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