Is Persuasion Just Common Sense?

“Persuasion is just common sense.” I’ve heard that from people countless times over the years when I share a little about the psychology of persuasion. I think the reason people reflexively say that is because it’s easy understand everything I tell them.

Nearly everyone can think of a time when a principle of influence was either used on him or her or when they’ve successfully used a principle. Easy recall makes us believe we already understand what’s being shared. Persuasion isn’t rocket science and it’s easy to understand because it simply describes human behavior. But it’s far from common sense and most people struggle to correctly use the principles in daily life to ethically get to yes more often.

As for “common sense,” here are familiar phrases that seem to contradict each other.

  • Opposites attract.
  • Birds of a feather flock together.
  • Eye for an eye.
  • Turn the other cheek.
  • Looking out for #1.
  • It’s better to give than receive.
  • Everyone can’t be wrong.
  • Don’t give in to peer pressure.

What social psychologists attempt to do is tell us the best ways to interact with people based on empirical data. For more than six decades social psychologists and behavioral economists have run experiments so we can confidently go into different situations with approaches that are scientifically proven to have the best chance of success.

So let’s take a quick look at the “common sense” conflicts noted above.

Opposites may attract initially because of uniqueness or curiosity. In fact, if something is presented using the principle of scarcity (we value rare things more) that might cause people to want that thing more. But when it comes to relationships, “birds of a feather flock together” is a better persuasion strategy in the long run. This is true because we like familiar things and that’s especially true of other people (the principle of liking). The more we know and like someone the easier it is to say “yes” and that includes going on a date and getting married.

When someone wrongs us seeking revenge, an “eye for an eye” approach, may feel good in the moment but it also might invite more negative actions in response. This is so because of the principle of reciprocity, which tells us people feel obligated to give back the form of behavior they first receive. Returning bad for bad rarely leads to a positive solution for anyone and yet, when wronged we naturally want to give it back (that’s reciprocity, too). However, we have a chance to engage reciprocity by forgiving and that choice might engage a positive response in return.

Is it better to look out for #1 or is it better to give than receive? No doubt some people hoard and accumulate a lot. Or we see some people who are just out for themselves and seem to prosper. It’s not unlike the manipulative salesperson who prospers…in the short term. However, in the long run giving taps into reciprocity and it builds a network of people who will willingly help when help is needed. Increasing your resources through giving and helping others is a surefire way to accomplish more in business and in life.

We warn our kids to not give in to peer pressure and that’s good because quite often teenagers are trying to find themselves. This time in life can include participating in risky behaviors. However, “Everyone can’t be wrong” is true more often than not. Wisdom of the crowds, a variation of the principle of consensus, is usually the best policy because more often than not the group is correct. That’s why we often hear “there’s safety in numbers.”

There are certainly times when opposites attract. You can probably think of a couple where each person is very different from his or her partner but they make it work. However, I bet you can recall many more couples that have lots in common.

You can probably think of a time when you went against the crowd and it worked out. But if you had to do it time and time again, wouldn’t you feel more comfortable playing the odds?

Persuasion is far more than common sense. If you take the time to learn what the decades of research has to say, and you look for ways to ethically use that knowledge, you’ll come out ahead the vast majority of the time.

2 replies
  1. Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
    Brian Ahearn, CMCT® says:

    An interesting quote from “The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement” by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, Jeff Cox, David Whitford. “We refer to something as common sense only if it is in line with our own intuition.”


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  1. […] someone seated at a table with me and a handful of others remarked, “This is really just common sense.” I’ve heard that too many times to let it go so I chimed in that while it may appear to be […]

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