Nod if you agree, that’s the accepted head gesture we do when we are presented with an idea and want to show a positive response to it. Well, it turns out, nodding before you even hear about the idea sets you up to accept it after it is laid out.
How about that? Get a nod before to get a nod after.
Strange as it seems, this is how our brain works. We don’t really control the decisions we make. Cognitive psychologists have done experiments to prove this. In one such experiment, people were asked to check the quality of a set of headphones by shaking their head to test the equipment, all the while listening to radio editorials. Half the group nodded their head up and down, while the rest shook it side to side, the way we do when we want to show refusal. The nodding set, it was found, tended to agree with the radio editorial messages while the side to side shakers tended to reject them.
In other words, simply acting out the accepted physical gestures of acceptance and rejection made people more prone to form opinions in line with the gesture. Among psychologists, this is called a priming effect.
Think about what this means for our daily lives.
If you want to get your boyfriend to go to the new chick flick with you (that he will resist with all his might), tell him a few things that you know he agrees with to get that head nodding. They don’t even have to be related to the movie, just positive comments that make him want to agree with you. Primed this way, he is ready for the kill and you have a date.
Or, if you’re making a presentation to your boss that requires her sign-off, start with some facts that elicit agreement before laying out your idea. The more and bigger the nods, the better chances your presentation has of succeeding.
And, if you want to get a bunch of conservative friends to go to the experimental restaurant that has opened up, draw their nods with stories, even if they are unrelated, that you know they will agree with. They’re likely to be open to that restaurant soon after.
Salespeople know this about human behaviour. That’s why a good salesperson always starts with feel-good chatter that draws smiles and nods from the prospective customer. Even something as simple as the greeting you get when you enter a store, “nice day, isn’t it?” isn’t so simple. It gets you to agree, after which you are a lot more likely to try on those clothes that you can’t afford but the sales rep feels will look just marvelous on you. You’ve been primed.
We like to think of ourselves as rational beings, thinking through things before we make a decision or give an opinion. We pride ourselves on our careful use of knowledge and having a calm approach. We couldn’t be more wrong. Our own brain has a devilish side to it, playing a joke on us. Irrational and so shrewd that we don’t even know it’s there, it makes decisions for us before we are even aware of it.
That’s why, if you find yourself nodding a lot around your teenager, be on guard. There could be a request for the latest smartphone coming up.
Note: the idea on priming and the experiment described have been drawn from Kahn, Daniel, Thinking Fast and Slow, 2011.