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Influence in seconds...

What do the following phrases have in common;


£2000 tax hike.

Get Brexit done.

Take back control.

Strong & stable.


They’re all UK political campaign slogans used to influence the voting public in elections or referendums. Conflict is omnipresent in all our lives – watching the first couple of election debates here in the UK before our general election on the 4th of July – underlines this. For some, the conflict unfolding during these events may also stimulate our inner conflict where we can relate to, or have sympathy with, differing views, opinions and ideals (I did say it’s omnipresent).


When I look at the above slogans a couple of things jump out at me – they’re all short and they all have an overt or covert message about what might happen if you don’t buy into their particular ‘call to action’.


These observations are not a coincidence. In his international bestseller, “Thinking Fast and Slow” the late Daniel Kahneman describes two different ways in which we process information. He describes System 1 thinking as our ‘fast, instinctive, and emotional’ thinking which accounts for 90% of what we use to aid us in our decision-making. More recently he increased this to 95% to reflect today's hyper-information-overloaded world which has, as a result, reduced our attention spans.


Microsoft underlined this in their 2015 study where the stated average attention span of a goldfish of nine seconds was contrasted with people who generally lost concentration after eight seconds. I’m guessing that now in 2024 it might be lower still as the above slogans take about three seconds to deliver.


It’s very apparent why politicians love these three word phrases that they can deliver in three seconds – they resonate with the System 1 thinking that we use almost all the time.


When the phrase is given context with an overt or covert threat of not responding positively to the call of action (e.g. Take back control), this amplifies the influencing power. Studies have shown that loss and gain framing are powerful influencing activators –but loss framing (highlighting things we might lose) tends to be more impactful than gain framing. Framing represents a form of scarcity – one of Robert Cialdini’s seven influencing principles. Using scarcity in conjunction with commitment & consistency (another influencing principle) ‘motivates action’ – i.e. don’t vote for them! If you look carefully at the debates so far, you’ll see other influencing principles also on display – areas such as Liking, Authority and Unity are all already visible.


When the political party manifestos are released this week, it may signal the start towards more negotiation-orientated behaviour. For example – ‘If you vote for me, then I promise I’ll deliver on X, Y and Z’ - pay close attention to the specificity of the offers and the timescales here against possible future ‘U’ turns. People often influence first and negotiate second – it doesn’t cost anything to offer people a view of what a downbeat future might look like, it does however ‘cost’ to make promises about what you’re going to commit to – this may be in terms of finance, resource or even reputation!


Expect more three-second soundbites before polling day on the 4th of July - the influencing doesn’t stop when the negotiating starts. Influencing and negotiating are also not mutually exclusive. One famous slogan I remember from the past was ‘Labour isn’t working’ (together with a visual of a long line of unemployed people), I wonder what new slogan might surface this time, “Another 14 years (of the same)?” – this could of course be viewed positively or negatively, depending upon your point of view!


Sam Macbeth, 10th June 2024

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