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The Psychology of Lobbying and Subtle Persuasion

As humans, we believe we are pretty immune to obvious attempts to persuade our opinions. We laugh off the daily barrage of automobile commercials on the television, and while we enjoy the snacks given out by the grocery store snack-giver-outer, we don’t actually buy the product he or she is hawking in the aisle.

But of course, the obvious question arises… If persuasion doesn’t work, why do we have television commercials, pharmaceutical salespeople, and grocery store free snack-givers?

Because persuasion does work, even when we believe we are completely immune to its influence.

Elaine McArdle wrote an interesting piece in today’s Boston Globe about being lobbied by the Israel lobby, or more specifically, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). What does Israel and lobbying have to do with psychology? Apparently, quite a lot.

Elaine went on a week-long, all-expenses-paid junket in Israel, as a guest of AIPAC. Dozens of journalists take this paid vacation, even though they don’t cover Israel as a part of their job. I imagine we could get a few free tickets too (well, at least before we wrote this entry).

Not surprisingly, she had little chance to hear “the other side” of the story, that is, the story of the Palestinians. But she didn’t think she was persuaded by the Israeli trip, until she started asking what the purpose of such paid trips are if they aren’t effective…

I called John A. Bargh, a Yale psychology professor who studies nonconscious influences on behavior, and walked him through the details of my junket. Did he think I was swayed by the experience? “Of course you are,” he said. “You’d almost have to be. And you can’t know it.”

A key tool in the subtle art of persuasion, he said, is reciprocity: offer someone a pleasant experience or gift and they feel an almost irresistible obligation to return the favor. The norm of reciprocity cuts across every culture, and the value of the gift is irrelevant: a cup of coffee is as effective as an extravagant trip. Another tool is to provide friendship and human connection — it’s inevitable that a bond will develop when you spend substantial time with someone, especially in a foreign place, where you depend on them.

In the case of the AIPAC junket, it was a one-two punch: an unforgettable and emotionally charged week with warm, likable people – generous hosts and tour guides whom I worried about after returning to the safety of life in Massachusetts.

Emily Pronin, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton who studies how bias works in the human mind, told me that she and others have found that although we are quick to spot bias in others, bias in ourselves operates almost entirely on a subconscious level. She calls it the “bias blind spot.” […]

Doctors who worry about the sway of pharmaceutical companies over their colleagues insist that their own medical judgment would never be affected. Journalists think they’re too savvy to be hustled by lobbyists. We’re all operating under a fundamental misperception about the soft sell: that we’ll see it happening and avoid it.

I write all of this because I think it’s good background when reading Dr. Carlat’s entry about The AMA, Pharma Gifts, and the Power of 8 where he arrived at much the same conclusion, even though he is a prime example of a professional keenly aware of not wanting to be biased by any persuasion techniques used by pharmaceutical companies:

Several days after [the visit by a pharmaceutical rep promoting the use of Ambien CR], one of my patients came in complaining of insomnia which had not responded to several hypnotics. He had tried Ambien, Sonata, and Benadryl, but was unable to sleep through the night. Usually, in these situations, I would offer trazodone, which has a long enough half life to last most patients all night long. But something in me made me think about my Ambien CR rep, who had left the office saying, “I hope you’ll give Ambien CR a try.” I prescribed Ambien CR. As it turned out, this worked no better than regular Ambien, and he ended up on trazodone.

The fact is that pharmaceutical gifting is an effective marketing technique, as much as physicians deny that their medical opinions can be swayed by such small dispensations.

The real question is, given that we know we’re being influenced (or that someone is attempting to influence us), why can’t we simply work against that? Why must we be influenced even when we don’t want to be? Doesn’t free-will exist?

The Psychology of Lobbying and Subtle Persuasion

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). The Psychology of Lobbying and Subtle Persuasion. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 7 Oct 2007)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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