Can we change opinions by changing expectations?
A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology seems to think so. He conducted a simple but revealing experiment that speaks volumes about how humans form opinions.
Spoiler alert: we are not nearly as independent-minded as we like to think. But that’s good news if you happen to be in the business of trying to influence others.
Today we’ll talk about that experiment and use his findings to help us start influencing outcomes to get the result we are looking for.
How Do You Like Your Coffee?
At MIT, professor Dan Ariely teamed up with two colleagues and opened up an impromptu coffee shop. They offered free coffee to students. In return, all they asked was for the students to fill out a survey after their quaff. As you might imagine, business was good, and soon there were plenty of students lined up for the free java.
Nearby the professors had placed a table featuring the normal additives for coffee like milk, cream, half-and-half, and sugar. There were also other more exotic condiments available: cloves, nutmeg, orange peel, sweet paprika, and cardamom.
Once given their coffee, the professors pointed out the condiment table and invited students to make use of it.
The only thing that changed from day to day was how they presented the exotic condiments on the table.
On some days, they went up-scale, placing them in attractive glass and metal dishes set on a brushed metal tray, with little silver serving spoons and neatly printed labels.
On other days they went low-rent, placing the condiments in white Styrofoam cups, with ragged rims and red-ink scribbling for labels.
The results of the survey were fascinating. Even though no student ever used the more exotic condiments, the way in which they were displayed had a significant impact on student’s overall perception of the coffee they were drinking.
When the spices were presented in the beautiful dishes, the students said that they enjoyed the coffee more, would pay more for it, and more strongly recommended that it be served in the school cafeteria. When they were displayed poorly, the opposite was true. Yet it was exactly the same coffee.
This was just one experiment. In another from this series they added balsamic vinegar to beer and offered students a taste test, comparing this brew to a regular beer.
They found that students who knew ahead of time that the modified drink included vinegar were less likely to like that concoction. Those who didn’t know about the vinegar actually preferred the adulterated beverage over a regular one.
Ariely wrote about these experiments and a host of others in his best-selling book, Predictably Irrational. The implications of his findings are very revealing for us as leaders.
In essence, he found that humans are not very good at independently judging the quality of something. Previously held impressions can cloud our judgment about future experiences.
What we think we know about something ahead of time, how it is presented, and what others say about it has a heavy hand in influencing our own opinions.
What does this mean and how can we apply this insight as leaders?
Whether you are making a pitch, getting ready to embark on a new project with your team, or grappling with a problem that has just come up, influencing outcomes comes down to preparing people’s minds before things get underway. Here are three ideas to help you do just that.
Talk it up. Focus on the positive and talk about your expectations before getting started.
We uprooted our family six times in 16 years during our time in the military; moving can be traumatic for kids. So we always talked with the kids ahead of time about what a great new adventure was ahead of us and how exciting it would be to explore new places.
Do the same. Set positive expectations in advance:
“I’m looking forward to some great communication on this project.”
“This will be a challenging problem, but we always seem to come up with a great solution when we work together.”
Get others involved. If other respected people are also sharing their expectations of a good experience, it helps set the stage for a positive outcome. Or, if they aren’t handy, you can always talk about what they have said.
We see this all the time as social proof in the form of movie and restaurant reviews, and recommendations from friends.
Get others to talk about the positive experiences they have had. Add testimonials to your presentation products. Use survey results and interviews to help set expectations ahead of time.
Dress it up. Find ways to make the environment feel up-scale to improve the impression people will form.
Top end conventions go all out with the quality name tags, pens, flossy brochures, note pads, and take-home materials. The hosts know that attendees will rate their experience at the event much higher when everything takes on the airs of a top-quality events.
Dress up your presentation with quality hand-outs; re-look the physical and visual impressions you have on clients; dress up instead of down for a change.
Influencing Outcomes – The Takeaway
If you want to influence people, the time to help them start forming their impressions is before anything actually happens.
Talk about your positive expectations. Share the favorable experiences of others. Create an environment that raises the perceived value.
When we believe ahead of time that something will be good, it generally turns out that way. When we believe it will be bad, that tends to be true, also.
Shakespeare was on to this insight long ago:
When you set expectations in this way you get a chance to influence how others experience the event and have a better shot at getting the outcome you are looking for.
As for me, I cook for the family on most Tuesday evenings. Sometimes my daughter will ask, “What are we having for dinner?” I used to answer, “Chicken, rice, and broccoli.”
Next time you can bet I’ll be influencing outcomes with a reply like this: “We’re having herb-infused chicken stuffed with fresh mozzarella and a tomato-basil pesto, Minnesota long grain wild rice, and steamed broccoli with shredded fresh Parmesan.”
It’s sure to be a winner!
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