Mastering Small Talk May Be the Key to Persuasion

What we can learn from babies about the power of persuasion

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Professor Vishton offers an intuitive tip—if you want people to say yes to your requests, you should try to make a personal connection with them. Ideally, deliver a compliment before you make a request. People have the tendency to say yes if they like you. Surprising is how powerful that tendency is and how easy it is to engage this deep-seated reflex in their brain.

Two people having a conversation outdoors
Our brains are wired to respond positively to requests during persuasive interaction if we like someone. Photo By GaudiLab / Shutterstock

Infant Morality

As it turns out, there’s a link between small talk and persuasion. We can start by looking at a study by Yale psychology professor Karen Wynn, who studies the morality of infants—nine-month-olds in this particular case. 

Infants in her study start by choosing a food from one of two bowls—one with green beans and the other with graham crackers. Not surprisingly, almost all of the infants choose the graham crackers. 

The babies then watch a puppet—sometimes a fuzzy rabbit. The fuzzy rabbit makes the same choice given the two bowls. Sometimes the puppet chooses the same food as the child—the graham crackers. For other experimental conditions, the puppet chooses the green beans.

The infants then watch the rabbit puppet trying to do some task—attempting to get a ball out of a box, for example. The puppet has some trouble doing this. As the rabbit is struggling, a second puppet comes on the stage. Sometimes that second puppet helps the rabbit, holding the box open so the rabbit can get the ball. In other cases, the second puppet hinders the rabbit, pushing down on the lid to stop the rabbit from succeeding.

After all of this, the babies are allowed to see and sometimes play with a choice of the puppets. Two important tendencies were observed in these studies. First, if the rabbit chose the same food as the child—the graham crackers—this little nine-month-old expressed a preference for puppets that had helped the rabbit and an aversion to puppets that had been mean to the rabbit.

If, on the other hand, the rabbit chose a different food, the children expressed a positive preference for puppets that had been mean to the rabbit. These nine-month-old infants—kids who can’t walk or talk yet—already seem pretty machiavellian here. 

If the rabbit is seen as “being like me,” then the baby seems to want to see that rabbit treated well. If the rabbit picks green beans and is seen by the infant as “different from me,” now the kids seem to want to see the rabbit treated badly.

Small Talk and Persuasion

This sort of behavior seems to be present right at the beginning of our lives. Fast forward a few decades, and you have a middle-age adult. 

We’ve learned a great deal, collected thousands of social experiences, learned language, and generally developed tremendously. However, this tendency to be nice to people whom we perceive as like us is still relevant.

If you start a persuasive interaction with another person through a conversation, it might seem like just small talk, but that small talk can be essential for larger gains, later. For example, the simple question of “How was your weekend?” could reveal that both people in the conversation love to play tennis and also have kids. 

This personal connection can simply trigger the brain’s deep-seated unconscious reflex of the tendency to say yes to a request made by someone that we like. Many research studies suggest that if you make a request after connections have been made apparent, you will be far more likely to get a yes response. 

In studies of business negotiation behaviors, the likelihood of a successful outcome is more than tripled in some cases when the negotiation itself is preceded by a few minutes of conversation. In the control condition of a research study, pre-negotiation conversation was hindered by noting to both parties that time is money and to get down to the details of the negotiation directly, so as not to waste any more time.

If indeed, time is money, then the results of the research in this area are clear. If you want to save both, you should definitely invest some time in small talk before you start with any other persuasion techniques. You will definitely end up saving a lot of time and money.

Other Persuasion Techniques

In summary, Professor Vishton has discussed three main persuasion techniques in these articles. One, give a gift, even a small one, and people will unconsciously have a strong urge to give you one in return. 

Two, make a small request first in order to get your foot in the door. Three, make a personal connection, highlight your similarity to someone, and then make a request.

“All of these techniques are grounded in solid behavioral and brain science,” Professor Vishton said. “I also urge you to look out when someone is asking you to do something. Your unconscious reasoning system may be saying yes, but you still have a choice.”

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.