Self-Persuasion Is Best For A Lasting Change

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Volumes have been written about how to persuade others, but it is hard to find information giving insight into self-persuasion. It is a pity because self-persuasion generates more powerful and long lasting changes.

If you adopt one great idea as your own and let it influence your thoughts and imagination, it can stretch you to the heights and depths that you didn't think possible. When you persuade yourself to change, you become virtually unstoppable.

Big companies like Coca-Cola, Colgate, and Bayer spend millions of dollars on ads trying to persuade consumers to persuade them to buy their brand. If they can persuade mere 3 to 4 percent of consumers to buy their product, they consider their promotional effort to be "highly successful." If therapists succeed in persuading only 3 to 4 per cent of their clients to change, they will be out of business. A therapist's success rate has to be at least 80 to 90 percent. So, they try to learn everything they can about self-persuasion.

People become motivated to change when they experience inner tension. Inner tension is created when we say or do something that runs counter to our beliefs and especially when it threatens our self-concept of being a fair and decent person.

Perception of hypocrisy is another example of inner tension. Nobody wants to see oneself as a hypocrite. If people say or do something that makes them feel hypocritical, they are likely to do one of the three things: 1. Stop saying or doing that which make them feel like hypocrite 2. Change the specific behavior, quality or attitude so their actions become consistent with their beliefs 3. Try to convince their own selves by some distorted logic that they are doing the best that can be done under the circumstances.

One way to nudge people on to the path of self-persuasion for change is to put them in situations in which they are compelled to change their old ways. Psychologist Elliot Aronson has spent 40 years placing people in carefully designed situations and observing how they change themselves. One such experiment was conducted in a classroom. I will discuss it in this article because it is remarkably simple and easy to replicate in any classroom.

The experiment was designed to reduce teasing, which is often based on ethnic and racial prejudices. We all know that it is very difficult to eliminate stereotypes and prejudices by giving children such admonitions as, "It's not nice" or "It's not fair." Also, simply placing minority children in a class with majority children won't do it. Schools have a highly competitive climate. Competition tends to increase teasing and hostility among children.

Aronson came up with the idea of structuring a classroom learning situation in such a way that pupils are forced to cooperate rather than compete against one another. Here is what Aronson did:

He placed culturally diverse 5th grade pupil and gave them small group assignments that required them to work in harmony and pay close attention to one another. He called it "the jigsaw method," that is, that each child was given a piece of the puzzle. Until all the pieces were put together, nobody won; thus, forcing children to enter into a cooperative enterprise.

In this experiment, a group of six 5th grade pupils were given the task of preparing the biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. Teachers summarized her biography in six paragraphs. Each of the 6 pupils was given one paragraph to master and teach the other five. Thus, each one had only a piece of the puzzle and he or she had to pay close attention to his or her classmates to construct the whole story. They were given a short time to read their part and teach the others. They were also told that they would be tested on their knowledge.

In one such group there was a Mexican American boy, "Carlos." Carlos had some difficulty in communicating in English. In the past, whenever he had to speak, he stumbled and stammered. Children teased him about his accent and awkward choice of words. Carlos avoided speaking in the class to avoid embarrassment. Some kids thought he was "stupid," and let him know it.

Carlos who had to report on Eleanor's years in the White House first stammered and stumbled in communicating his portion of the story and surely, his classmates, as predicted, rolled their eyes and ridiculed him. The teacher reminded them that such a behavior was not going to help them learn about Eleanor Roosevelt's years in the White House or pass the test that was to take place shortly.

The classmates could not gain anything by putting Carlos down. In fact, they stood to lose a great deal. After several group assignments of jigsaw type tasks, the classmates realized that the only way they could learn Carlos's portion of the story was by paying close attention to what he had to say. This change of attitude helped Carlos to relax and communicate better. His classmates discovered that Carlos was a lot smarter than they had previously thought and Carlos began to see them not as teasers but a helpful bunch of classmates. Some change, huh!

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