After a new judges’ houses format that may need a little more thought, finally we know our final 12, the only significant surprise for punters being the inclusion of Max Stone at the expense of Jennifer Phillips. The Sofabet team is now going into purdah to ponder our traditional pre-lives predictions. White smoke will appear later in the week. Until then, here’s a book review.
In the 1980s, psychology professor Robert Cialdini signed himself up for a variety of training courses in sales. He learned the tricks of the trade, analysed them from a psychological perspective, and wrote a book that became a classic – Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. It’s a fun read, based on the premise that if you recognise the techniques, you can protect yourself against salespeople using them on you.
Can the book teach us anything about the techniques deployed by the X Factor and similar shows to “sell” certain contestants to the voting public, while steering them away from others? (Hat-tip to commenter zoom for raising the question ages ago.) Influence has seven chapters, and at least five seem to be describing techniques we have observed on the X Factor over the years.
Line up three buckets of water: cold, room temperature, hot. Hold your left hand in the cold one and your right hand in the hot one. Now plunge both hands together into the room temperature one. Notice how your left hand feels much warmer than your right hand, even though they’re in the same bucket?
This is the contrast principle at work – we are hardwired to perceive things not as absolutes but as relative to recent experience. Caldini gives the example of a car salesperson who waits until the price has been negotiated before suggesting a range of add-ons – metallic paint, alloy wheels, go-faster stripes. Having just signed up to pay a five-figure sum for a car, adding another couple of hundred here and there feels negligible in comparison.
The contrast principle is why a slow song after a fast song feels even slower, a fun song after a dirge feels even more fun, and so on. We especially see it at work in the technique of the big-name sandwich – when producers arrange the running order so that a mediocre performance by an act they’re hoping to get eliminated is both preceded and followed by much more memorable performances, helping to make it seem even more mediocre in comparison.
Chapter 2. Reciprocation
We are hardwired to feel obliged to return a favour, and this feeling kicks in even if you didn’t ask for the favour – Cialdini’s examples include the Hare Krishnas foisting “gifts” of flowers or books on passers-by, then asking for donations. We don’t see an obvious application of reciprocation in motivating X Factor votes – the show isn’t in a position to have favoured acts bestow small favours on viewers to create a feeling of obligation to give a vote in return.
Chapter 3. Commitment and Consistency
Purely hypothetically, if you were to be asked to spend three hours collecting money for a cancer charity, do you think you might agree? Quite a lot of people say “yes” to this question, safe in the knowledge that it’s only hypothetical and they won’t actually have to follow through on it. If you simply ask people to spend three hours collecting, the number who agree to do so is much smaller.
Now, imagine you’re asked the first, hypothetical, question – and, a few days later, you’re unexpectedly asked to do it for real. Cialdini relates that when a cancer charity tried this sneaky technique, it resulted in a 700% increase in the number of people who put in the three hours.
This is the principle of commitment and consistency at work: we experience unpleasant cognitive dissonance when we are aware that our actions are in conflict with our beliefs about ourselves. To avoid that cognitive dissonance, we have to alter either our actions or our beliefs. Uncomfortably aware that we have already committed to a view of ourselves as the kind of person who’d agree to collect for charity, we feel the need to act consistently.
The principle of commitment and consistency may be one reason why producers like to front-load the favoured acts into the first audition show: they encourage viewers to emotionally commit to an act at an early stage, making it harder for later auditionees to dislodge those acts from viewers’ affections.
Another possible way in which the show can exploit this principle is to encourage viewers to conceive of themselves as committed fans of a certain act – perhaps by coming up with a name for an act’s fans. Once a viewer has mentally committed to this kind of self-identification, they may feel more compelled to be consistent by voting every week.
Cialdini, incidentally, emphasises that commitment and consistency are a danger for punters – the example with which he opens the chapter is a study which found that racetrack punters who had just placed a bet expressed much higher levels of confidence in their selection than punters who were just about to place a bet. His explanation: doubts are prominent in our minds when weighing up the bet; but once the money is committed, it would risk cognitive dissonance to dwell on the doubts, so we mentally shut them out.
When that study was carried out, bets were effectively irrevocable. It would be interesting to re-do the study among punters on Betfair, which now makes it possible to close down bets in running at any stage – does the awareness of this possibility reduce that feeling of cognitive dissonance and maintain the degree of doubt?
Chapter 4. Social Proof
We tend to see an action as being more appropriate when we observe others doing it. The uses of this principle are myriad – laughter tracks on sitcoms, Comic Relief presenters showing us people giving money, product placement in entertainment shows, and so on.
The X Factor uses this principle in many ways. In the audition stages, for example, there are cutaway shots to both the judges and the audience to suggest to viewers at home how we should be reacting: bored, surprised, enthralled. During performances on the live shows, cutaway shots to the judges have the same purpose.
VTs use the principle, too – in both positive and negative ways. Social proof is why One Direction’s VTs showed them being besieged by screaming fans: these girls love them, you should too.
Social proof is also behind the infamous “Sophie Habibis in an empty pub” VT from 2011. For those who didn’t see it, poor Sophie was filmed in a taxi crossing London for a hometown visit, explaining how she was leaving the X Factor bubble to see how excited everyone is about the show. By the time Sophie enters the pub where she used to work, we’re expecting her to be greeted by a cheering crowd. Instead, she is met by one friend. They are shown chatting, Sophie’s friend assuring her “everyone’s supporting you” as we see others in the half-empty pub ignoring them completely. It was cruel and effective – Sophie left that week. Being shown that nobody else is interested in Sophie Habibis, subconsciously we draw the lesson that we shouldn’t be, either.
Cialdini explains that social proof is most powerful when the people we observe doing the behaviour are people like ourselves. Footage of screaming girls didn’t do a great job of broadening One Direction’s vote appeal sufficiently to enable them to challenge for the win in 2010, but it nicely primed their intended fanbase for their post-show career. And if you want to undermine an act’s repeated survival in the public vote, you can suggest their votes are coming only from a segment of the population that most people don’t identify with – old-age pensioners voting for Chris Maloney, for example.
Chapter 5. Liking
We are more likely to be influenced by people we like. It’s a simple principle, exploited in many ways in everyday life: salespeople try hard to be agreeable; advertisers get popular celebrities to endorse their products.
It’s no coincidence that most X Factor winners are portrayed during their time on the show as likeable and humble. One way you can undermine an act’s appeal to the voting public is by using a VT to suggest that they are arrogant, miserable or difficult to work with.
Endorsements from celebrity guests also use the liking principle, analogously to the rationale for getting celebrities to advertise products. When celebrities pop up in the X Factor audience, it’s usually worth listening out for which act they say they’re supporting – on the assumption that producers will have ascertained what the answer will be before deciding to have the presenter ask them the question live on air. This technique was heavily in evidence in 2011 and 2012, when you could safely predict that the answers to those questions would be “Little Mix” and “James Arthur” respectively.
Chapter 6. Authority
Cialdini uses the famous Milgram experiment as evidence that we tend to allow ourselves to be influenced by figures we perceive as having authority or expertise in their field.
On shows like the X Factor, this is the role of the judging panel. They’re supposed to have the credibility to be able to tell us that the solid performance we just witnessed from an unfavoured act was just barely passable, and that the tuneless screeching we just heard from a favoured act was world class and deserving of an immediate recording contract.
The first bit is easy enough, as pretty much anyone can dial down enthusiasm with some lukewarm praise. It’s the credible hyping of acts that’s difficult: Simon Cowell’s unique genius in the early days of the show was to persuade people that he was a tough-but-fair judge whose praise, being hard won, could be trusted to be genuine.
Chapter 7. Scarcity
Any waiter knows that the way to sell a particular dish is not to wax lyrical about its virtues, but to casually mention that “the chef says we’re almost out of this, so if you want it then you’d better order it now”. We can’t immediately think of any X Factor applications of the scarcity principle.
Are there applications of Cialdini’s ideas that we’ve missed? Do let us know below – and, of course, keep the conversation going about this year’s acts. One request, though – please hold off from posting your 1-12 predictions in the comments for now, as it’ll be easier to calculate bragging rights at the season’s end if we keep all the entries under our own 1-12 article. We’ll post that as soon as possible.