For PR, the factors that prevent full on courtship include shame and lack of self confidence. Some in PR go to great lengths to promote their good intentions as communicators and information providers, and go all squeamish if it is suggested they might be trying to manipulate the way people think and behave. Studying the science of how people make decisions, and learning psychological techniques to trigger certain bahaviours is somehow cheating.... and bad PR for a discipline that is so sensitive to mentions of propaganda and spin.
More importantly, even those who are happy to accept that persuasion is integral to PR, fear the embarrassment of backing the wrong horse in a rather confused race. The challenge, and from where I stand it is a huge one, is to try and distinguish the serious science from the quackery. How does a beginner build a body of knowledge that is sufficiently robust to feel confident in one's judgments?
In Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion, Nathalie Nahai (@TheWebPsych) makes an impressive stab at writing an accessible book that is full of useful insights, but not reticent with caveats and questions.
Nahai, who is billed as The Web Psychologist and clearly has a sharp eye for marketing and self-promotion, brings a common sense approach to some complex issues. It is not easy for a non-expert to assess how influential are the thinkers and theorists that shape her narrative, but her conclusions are sensible and carry the ring of truth. As she says: "When it comes to the art of persuasion, there is no silver bullet. There are, however, many principles that you can employ to significantly increase your chances of success."
The combination of new online technologies and new scientific understanding leads Nahai to predict: "We're witnessing the dawn of a new kind of business, one that utilises neuroscientific research to aid marketing, advertising and the film industries."
In ways which will be familiar to readers of Daniel Kahneman's big selling Thinking, Fast and Slow, she shows how few of the decisions we make are under our conscious control. There are three elements to the human brain, the primal brain, which deals with sex, hunger, motion, contrast etc, the emotional brain (empathy and storytelling) and the rational brain (gut instinct, authority), and that these processes can work in parallel. It follows that messaging that understands this multiplicity can be effective.
A few moments thought about our own individual behaviours will doubtless reinforce the insight that emotion often trumps reason, and that many, many of the "decisions" that feel natural are not necessarilly the most logical or even the most advantageous.
The online world, whether through ecommerce of social networking, seems to highlight the link between behaviours thought to have had evolutionary benefit in the past and a virtual environment which presents few physical dangers but many distractions of pleasure and suffering.
For communicators, Nahai writes convincingly about segmenting audiences, the sue of Hofstede to provide insights into culture, and Maslow's hierarchy of needs, as well as pointing towards apparent gender differences in our approach to online environments.
Her discussion of self-esteem and self-actualisation rings true and present a useful framework to explain the power of sharing platforms, not least Flickr and Pinterest.
Likewise, her observations on symmetry, colour, simplicity and motion, will be of real value to webdesigners and content providers. Although most of us no longer hunt, we are evolutionarily primed to respond to motion, and this can either distract attention from the desired message or provide the contrast that highlights certain eleemts.
Arguing for simplicity and signposting, Nahai says: "The role of well-presented information is to reduce the the cognitive load that you place on your users when they visit your website.... but a break in flow can be used to dramatic effect."
She uses Picasso's Bull's Head to illustrate the enjoyment we derive from discovering implicit, hidden similarities between seemingly disparate items. She shows how our brsins are hard wired to identify and link related features, ie the yellow dots that are lions among the trees), explains why we are drawn to high contrasts in images, which tend to be data rich and how we show an intense dislike of an unusual vantage point, which makes the brain work harder - and can if used properly, grab our attention.
Part 3 of Webs of Influence, titled Sell With Integrity, contains useful sections on influence and reputational capital, and further explores the tensions between cognitive and affective trust (information-based decisions versus the emotional).
Webs of Influence is very good when it seeks to deliver on its cover line, "The secret stratgies that make ius click" but, perhaps understadably, Nahai is a little less forthcoming with an exposition of what it means to sell with integrity.
Overall, I found this one of the most interesting PR-related books I read in 2012 and am very much looking forward to welcoming Nathalie Nahai to Campus Helsingborg to lead a NEMO research seminar in March.
Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion (2012) by Natalie Nahai is published by Pearson