“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” is a famous line from an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem. Counting the reasons you love someone (or like a friend, enjoy your car, prefer a certain store, etc.) is only good advice if you don’t have to count too high. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say don’t have people count past one hand. Allow me to explain.
I’ve been rereading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. If you want a great overview of how your subconscious and conscious minds work then you’ll want to pick up his book. He touches on our irrationality, similar to Dan Ariely’s work in Predictably Irrational, heuristics (click-whir responses) as mentioned by Robert Cialdini in his classic Influence Science and Practice, as well as many other concepts about how our minds work.
As I’ve been reading I’m struck by the reality that our minds work in ways that are quite often opposite of what we might expect. For example, who would be more persuaded to buy a BMW? The person who is asked to list a dozen reasons BMWs are great cars or the person who is asked to list just three reasons? Most people would intuitively guess the person who lists a dozen reasons. After all, if you can come up with 12 reasons it must be a good car, especially when considered against just three reasons. Unfortunately you’d be wrong.
In several different studies cited in Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman clearly show people who are asked to generate fewer reasons are more persuaded than those who have to come up with many more. Why is this the case? If you can easily come up with three reasons you are probably pretty confident a BMW is an excellent car. However, if asked to come up with lots more, and you do so but struggle in the process, you start to wonder if the BMW is really as good as you think. The struggle allows doubt to creep in.
This feature of thinking is common to all people. When we can quickly come up with a few reasons we are for gay marriage or against it, for a political candidate or against the candidate, for tax increases on the wealthy or against them, or for or against anything else, we will be even more confident that our position (for or against) is the correct decision. However, if asked to list many more reasons we might just wonder how strong our case really is.
Pause to consider this if you happen to be in marketing or sales. Inundating people with reasons your product or service is the best might not work as well as hammering home three to five reasons because your prospective customer will probably easily recall two or three of those reasons. However, a laundry list of why your offer is so great will only work against you!
There’s a saying, “Sometimes less is more,” and it’s certainly the case when you want someone to believe your product or service is the right one for him or her. By the same token, when it comes to love, “How do I love the? Let me count the ways,” will work much better if you save your loved one some time and energy and just ask them to tell you two or three things they love about you!