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Why pain normally outweighs gain when you're trying to persuade

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A lot of the time you are presenting you will be trying to persuade or motivate a group or individual to do (or agree to) something. There are two carrots you can dangle in front of them to get them to do this. One gives them a way to avoid something (loss, pain, disaster, etc.), the other gives them a way to obtain something (gain, pleasure, money, market share, etc.).

In terms of flow, the former is Problem & Solution and the latter Opportunity & Solution.

Either approach can be effective, but 90% of the time the desire to avoid pain is far stronger than the desire to obtain pleasure. Those of you who have attended a seminar know that one of the most powerful things I teach is how your choice of words can be the difference between achieving your presentation's objective and missing it. As a simple example, just consider your immediate emotional reaction to the phrase 'invest $500' as opposed to 'spend $500'. Or even 'waste $500.'

Consider the following experiment where a large number of physicians were asked to choose between two different options in a hypothetical scenario where an unusual disease is expected to kill 600 people. If option A is used, 200 people will be saved. If option B is used, there is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved and a two-thirds probability that no-one will be saved.

72% of physicians chose option A, the safe strategy. They would rather save a guaranteed number of people than risk everybody dying.

They were then asked to choose between two further options. With option C, 400 people will die. With option D there is a one-third probability that nobody will die, and a two-thirds probability that 600 will die. When given the choice between these two, the physicians reversed their original choice.

78% now chose option D, with only 22% choosing option C.

But in case you haven't noticed it (and most of the physicians didn't, so you're in good company), the two scenarios are exactly the same; saving one-third of the population is the same as losing two-thirds! Yet the doctors reacted very differently depending on how the dilemma was put to them; in other words, the words chosen had a dramatic effect on the result!

When the outcomes were stated in terms of deaths rather than lives saved, they were suddenly keen to gamble. They were so keen to avoid any association with loss that they were prepared to risk everything.

If you want another example, look at how most people play the stock market. Studies have shown that most investors are more likely to sell stocks that have increased in value than those that have decreased, which means they end up holding on to depreciating stocks. Over the long term, this results in a portfolio consisting entirely of shares that are losing money (a study at UC Berkley showed that the stocks investors sold outperformed those they kept by 3.4%)!

This is because most investors are reluctant to take a loss, and selling shares that have decreased in value makes the loss tangible by putting a figure on it. The technical name for this is loss aversion.

So whenever you're trying to persuade someone to do something, don't just think of the benefits that will acrue from your proposed course of action (which is what most salespeople do when selling). Instead, think of what pain or loss will be avoided instead.

This pain doesn't have to be concrete, as in a loss of money, profit or market share. It can also be abstract, as in the pain/loss of reputation caused by making a bad decision. For many years during the 1970s/80s, IBM sold its mainframe computers using the tactic, 'Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.' This played upon the fear in many buyers' minds that they might make a wrong decision when choosing a new mainframe. The unspoken implication was that people did get fired for buying other, less well-known brands.

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