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The subtle psychological power of suggestion

As professional communicators it is important for us to understand and appreciate all the tools we have at our disposal.

It is important that we understand and appreciate the power of the psychological art of subtle suggestion.

One of the most powerful tools is 'Suggestion', and in this article I want to delve further into the psychological power of 'suggestion' and consider the implications for us as professional communicators and information marketers.

Sure, we can 'suggest' that people purchase our products or take on our ideas in a direct way: "We suggest you buy Blank's Beans because you'll like them" but in all honesty how effective is that going to be? Subtlety is a major factor in modern communication, especially advertising, and being hit over the head with a blatant message doesn't work anymore; too many people have been bludgeoned to death by over-zealous communicators.

So, like I said, it's important that we understand and appreciate the power of the psychological art of subtle suggestion.



Most of our beliefs are held not because we have verified them for ourselves but for many other, different reasons. Some of those reasons range from the influence of our environment in childhood to the influence of the media in adult life, but although they are various in origin, it probably would not have escaped your attention that they all have one factor in common - their appeal to and their effect upon human suggestibility.

Unless human beings were responsive to psychological suggestion, the influence of parents, peers and the media wouldn't have any effect. Human beings are, however, immensely responsive to suggestion - a fact which is of enormous importance both in our individual lives and in the life of the society in which we live.

Suggestion is responsible for muddled thinking and much worse. If we are to avoid these traps, we must be on our guard. But in order to be on our guard, we must know what the traps are and what form they take. Suggestion can, of course, take many forms and once its nature is understood, can be detected almost everywhere.

I cannot hope to deal here either with all the forms of suggestion or with all the areas in life in which it is found. I will just concentrate upon suggestion in its direct form, and suggestion coupled with 'prestige'. I shall consider the working of these two factors primarily within advertising.

But before I can do that, I need to define what suggestion in its simplest form is.


What is 'Suggestion'?

The psychological basis of suggestibility is simply a tendency in human nature to believe any statement that is repeated a great number of times. This tendency to believe has nothing to do with the 'truth' (or otherwise) of the statement. Reasons for believing the statement to be true or false are not taken into account; the statement is believed solely because it is repeated many times.

There are many explanations for human suggestibility, none of which is entirely satisfactory. Even my own studies into the psychology of suggestibility have yet to uncover a definitive answer. But my intention here is to examine the consequences of human suggestibility, rather than to explain it.

Side note: The serious student of suggestibility could do much worse than check out Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor's superb text, Social Cognition, in particular the chapter on cognitive approaches to attitudes. If you are interested in reading more about this book, please click on this link to go through to Amazon.

The first of these consequences derives from its universality. Although the tendency varies greatly in its strength from individual to individual, every one is suggestible to some extent. However, to pinch an idea from George Orwell's Animal Farm , some individuals are more 'suggestible' than others.

Successful communicators, advertisers and propagandists understand this very well. Suggestion, in the hands of the unscrupulous, is a key to pluck at the purse-strings or the heart-strings. There is no power so persuasive as the power of suggestion. The social consequences, both good and bad, are as obvious as they are widespread.

I have no intention of discussing the age-old problem of whether the ends justify the means. I am only concerned with the social consequences of suggestion.


Confidence is all

The first fact to note about suggestion is that statements which rely solely on suggestion for their acceptance must be simply expressed , confident in tone and repeated often if they are to be effective. A single, halting statement is not at all persuasive. A confident statement, often repeated, is immensely persuasive.

Simplicity in expression, therefore, gives a statement a far better chance of acceptance than complexity. Hence most statements depending on suggestion for their effect should be simple, which is the reason why most advertising is simple, taking the form of 'slogans'. Slogans are given an air of confidence by being expressed in the imperative, as in:

"you must do/have/be this otherwise you won't own/achieve/live that ".

Every day we are ordered to buy something or to vote for someone. And if we are ordered to buy or vote every hour of the day, for days and weeks on end, we eventually do buy and vote.

Example: If a friend remarked to you, "You ought to buy Blank's Beans," you will probably say, "Really?" and promptly forget what you just heard. If, however, in every newspaper and magazine you read, every third tv ad you watch and in every street you walk in, there is a prominent notice saying: "BUY BLANK'S BEANS!" you will, after a few weeks, probably buy them.



Reports I have written:

Measuring the impact and ROI of social media
Measuring the impact and ROI of social media - for Ark Group
Making social media work for your business
Making Social Media work for your business - for Ark Group
Social Media: the new business communication landscape
Social Media: The New Business Communication Landscape - for Ark Group
How to get started with podcasting in your organisation
How to get started with podcasting in your organisation - for Melcrum Publishing
How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues
Contributing author to How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues - for Melcrum Publishing

How to use social media to engage employees
Contributing author to How to use social media to engage employees - for Melcrum Publishing

Contributing author to How to communicate with hard-to-reach employees - for Melcrum Publishing



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