The Value of Expertise in Persuasion: Going beyond the Obvious

Applying expertise to business and non-business situations

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

Persuasion tactics for making the sale (in business and life) include door-in-the-face and foot-in-the-door techniques, as well as the scarcity effect. Professor Vishton introduces another method that’s even quicker for getting results.

Electronics employee helping customer pick phone
Consumers typically value the expertise of others when making purchasing decisions about a product. Photo By Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock

Value of Expertise

Let’s consider another way in which you can influence the unconscious thoughts and actions of others. There’s a shortcut that we often use when we make decisions: relying on expertise.

We could gather and process all of the relevant information. In some cases, we would have to do a lot of work to complete this task properly. 

If it’s a decision about something we don’t already know much about, there might even be some training and education involved in getting to a place where we could make a fully considered decision. In a lot of cases where decisions require a lot of effort, and even when decisions require a little effort, we choose to rely on the decision-making of experts.

This is a sensible strategy in many cases. If you’re sick, you’re not going to medical school so you can diagnose yourself. You find a doctor you trust.

Perhaps because we do this so often, for so many different problems, an unconscious tendency—another one of these cognitive reflexes—influences our tendency to be compliant with the advice and requests of someone. We assess their expertise, determine whether or not to trust them, and then largely stop thinking for ourselves. 

Studies on Expertise

If you have relevant expertise, be sure that your expertise is known as you prepare to ask someone to do something. A variety of studies suggests that this type of expertise information can influence people’s decision-making. 

Some of the experiments are simple. For example, in some studies, participants view an advertisement for a new health-related product in which a spokesperson describes a series of benefits associated with it. 

A randomly selected group of the participants watch the same person deliver the same advertisement, with one small change. At the beginning of the ad, the spokesperson mentions that he is a licensed physician with many years of experience. 

Not surprisingly, people indicate a greater willingness to buy the product if it is recommended by someone with relevant expertise. 

“It’s not an accident, I think, that many professionals hang their diplomas on the walls of their offices in a place where potential clients will typically see them,” Professor Vishton said.

Subtle Studies on the Effect

A range of more subtle studies, however, further characterize the effect. For example, just wearing a suit and tie makes people more likely to follow the buying suggestions of someone in a business setting.

This applies outside the business setting as well. One study was conducted on a street corner with a traffic light and a crosswalk. 

On this particular street, there were many instances in which the lighted sign clearly indicated a don’t walk signal, even though there were no cars near the intersection. If you are standing on a corner in this situation, do you cross the street? 

What if someone else starts across the street first—would you follow? In general, it turns out that people are more likely to cross against the signal if someone else does first. 

People are significantly more likely to follow if that person who starts walking into the street is wearing a suit and tie. If someone in shorts and a T-shirt walks first, people are less likely to follow—presumably because greater expertise and authority is attributed to the person in that standard business attire. Thus, if you want to persuade people to follow your lead, dress for the occasion.

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.