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Split-Second Persuasion: The Ancient Art and New Science of Changing Minds Hardcover – February 3, 2011

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How many times a day do you think someone tries to persuade you? Twenty? Thirty? Actually it’s more like 400. When you imagine a society based on coercion you start to see how important persuasion is; it literally keeps us alive. Now psychologist Kevin Dutton has identified a powerful strain of immediate, instinctual persuasion, an elixir of influence that can immediately help you disarm skeptics, win arguments, close the deal, get the guy. Mapping the cutting-edge psychology and neuroscience of this incisive new influence, he introduces us to the natural super-persuaders in our midst—Buddhist monks, magicians, advertisers, con men, hostage negotiators, even psychopaths. He shows us which simple triggers can make someone trust you immediately; what hidden pathways in the brain lead us to believe something even when we know it’s not true; how group dynamics can make us more tolerant or deepen our extremism; and what we can learn from newborns about winning arguments. Dutton’s fascinating and provocative book will help anyone tap into the power of split-second persuasion.

A Q & A With Author Kevin Dutton

Q: How did the idea for Split-Second Persuasion come about?

A: I was in San Francisco at a conference, and the hotel I was staying in had seen better days. Outside, a whole load of homeless people had set up shop with their cardboard banners and placards ("Hungry & Homeless," "Vietnam Vet," "Six Months To Live," etc.) and during the course of the week I had made quite a few donations!

Towards the end of my stay, I resolved not to part with any more cash (by this stage they had more money than I did.) But then on my last day a new guy had joined the ranks. I took one look at the slogan he was holding up ("Why Lie? I Want Beer!") and, without even thinking about it, put my hand in my pocket (earlier this year, in Sydney, Australia, I saw an even better one: "Schizophrenic. Been On The Street Six Months. Both Of Us." It had the same effect!)

Up until then, as an expert in social influence, I’d regarded persuasion as a matter of due process and negotiation—as influence over time. But suddenly it dawned on me that there was clearly one strain of persuasion that short-circuited effortful processing and worked pretty much instantly.

Q: Would you say that persuasion is an instinct?

A: Yes. In the animal kingdom, courtship rituals, threat displays, and appeasement postures are all about persuasion: persuading another member of your species to mate with you, to back off, or to lay off—pretty much the same imperatives we face in our daily lives! Asking whether persuasion is an instinct is the same as asking whether getting our own way is an instinct. Of course it is—who doesn’t want to get their own way? And, as any parent will tell you, we start at a pretty young age!

Moreover, more subtle forms of influence have also been found in animals. In 2009, Alicia Melis, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, found evidence of negotiation in chimpanzees— suggesting that the basic capacity for arbitration probably emerged before we split from our last common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos.

And biologist Karen McComb at the University of Sussex has discovered something interesting about cats: they employ a special "solicitation purr"—an urgent, high-pitched cry embedded within a contented, low-pitch purr—which hotwires their owners to fill up their food bowls at dinnertime.

Q: Why do you say that babies are the best persuaders in the world?

A: Think about it. On our very first day on the planet, the influence task that faced us was immense. We had to persuade those around us, without language, without consciousness, without anything like the oratorical prowess that we possess as adults, to take care of us—to subjugate their own interests at the expense of ours. And we did it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here talking about it!

How? Well, certainly not through any provision of our own. If we’d had anything to do with it, we’d almost certainly have blown it! Instead, natural selection took care of things for us by equipping us with three features, fitted as standard, fiendishly calibrated to cut straight through our ozone layer of deliberation, to go pounding up the slippery steps of consciousness, and to hammer unrelentingly on the secret emotional chambers of our heart, which are:

1. A virtually unignorable soundtrack that figures at the top of nearly everyone’s list of aversive acoustic stimuli;

2. appallingly cute good looks, that prove pretty much irresistible to anyone caught in the spotlight;

3. and a hard-wired propensity to make eye-contact, to attend to the eye-regions of faces.

And boy, do these features work. In one study, a bunch of wallets were left on the streets of Edinburgh, each containing one of four photographs. A happy family. A cute puppy. An elderly couple. And a smiling baby. Which ones, the researchers wondered, would find their way back to their "owners" most often?

There was no doubting the answer. Of the 40 wallets of each type that were dropped, 28% of those containing the portrait of the elderly couple made it back successfully; 48%, the family snapshot; 53%, the photo of the cute puppy.

And a whopping 88%, the picture of the smiling baby!

Q: Can we all learn to become split-second persuaders?

A: Just as with many things in life, persuasion ability is subject to considerable variation. Some of us are going to be naturally better at it than others. And some of us—a vanishingly small minority—are destined to be persuasion A-listers. So just as it’s true that not everyone can run an Olympic qualifying time for, say, 100 metres, not everyone, I’m afraid, has the raw influence talent to become a split second persuader.

But that isn’t to say that we can’t become better persuaders. "We are what we repeatedly do," wrote Aristotle. "Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." In other words, one of the ways we can become a better persuader is by going out there and persuading people!

When I was writing Split-Second Persuasion, I spent some time with some of the world’s top con artists. These guys are influence black-belts, no doubt about it. Yet natural talent apart, the most striking difference between these evil- influence geniuses and the rest of us is this: persuasion, to them, is a lifestyle. It isn’t something that they suddenly turn on when they want something. Instead, it’s their whole demeanor.

Through a combination of knowledge and practice, we can all increase our influence potential. An example: one of the con artists who I interviewed told me an interesting stat: 99% of people make the same, fundamental error when it comes to persuasion—99% of people think that the secret of persuasion is getting someone to do something for you. It isn’t. The secret of persuasion is getting someone to do something for themselves—the principle of Perceived Self-Interest. Now, once you know that, you start to think in a completely different way. How can I frame my message so that it appears to benefit the other person and not me…?


"In this eminently readable book Dutton, avoiding pop-psychology, presents brilliant and highly original advice on how to get someone to do something. A handy skill in courtship, business, science and law but also useful to us in all our daily lives."
Author of Phantoms in the Brain and A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness

"Offers some powerful insights into the art and science of getting people to do what you want . . . The book contains plenty of tricks to help you get your own way or turn around a sticky situation."

"Hugely entertaining and extremely thought-provoking."
Author of 59 Seconds: Think A Little, Change A Lot

"Kevin Dutton is not the Messiah. But he's got a whole bunch of stories and parables that shed new light on how we are persuaded."

"Entertaining and sometimes illuminating."


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (February 3, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0151012792
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151012794
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #391,133 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Dr Kevin Dutton is a research fellow at the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford. He is an affiliated member of the Royal Society of Medicine and of the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy. He is the author of the acclaimed Flipnosis: The Art of Split-Second Persuasion and The Wisdom of Psychopaths: Lessons In Life From Saints, Spies and Serial Killers. He lives in the Cotswolds.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
SPICE stands for: simplicity, perceived self-interest, incongruity, confidence, and empathy. These are the pillars of persuasion - says Kevin DUTTON Ph.D. From someone who has studied persuasion for so long, one would expect a grand and persuasive performance.

There is lots of useful information in this work on how we change our minds, what factors influence us, and how our brain might operate. I found for instance the last chapter particularly illuminating. Emotion comes first - with a belief - and reasoning is the acid with which we test the validity of the belief. Unless we can "reason away" from belief - we are stuck (pg. 233). Of course the social environment plays a fundamental role, and so many inborn traits.

Simplicity, however, is not the author's strong suit. He has an inordinate fondness for metaphors, at times inapt, many inept - one might suspect some kind of attention disorder, which inhibits him from completing a phrase, or using plain words. His language tends toward obfuscation whenever approaching the gist of the argument. Just an example: "It comprises, in zoological terms, the modern-day equivalent of a key stimulus of influence." (pg. 163). A penny for clarification. Descriptions of experiments are at times shoddy, incomplete, or confusing: one has to go over the material several times in order to understand it - or conclude that the description is imperfect.

Maybe he is pursuing incongruity: he loves biological metaphors applied to consciousness: "persuasion virus", "cancer of the will", "genome of influence" - somehow he wants to get the message across that emotions have an unchanging biological basis - without making the case openly. Unless he happens to be lost in "airspace of perception" - that is.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I really wanted to like this book, but found it tedious, disorganized and overwritten. What could have been said in three or four paragraphs went on for page after page after page. In the end, it just didn't seem particularly relevant. The book suggests you'll learn something about the art of persuasion by reading, but that's not the case. Long stories about bugs and eye contact. Save your money.
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A lot of the "persuasion" this book refers to depends on your being able to deflate someone with a witty rejoinder - "Yes Madam, I am drunk. But tomorrow I'll be sober and you'll still be dumb." Or the persuasion referred to depends on diffusing a situation by making common cause with someone - "I stole a souvenir fork too. But I think the hostess saw us. I suggest we return the forks to the table."

But for most of us, if we can come up with any such rejoinder at all, it will be an esprit de l'escalier - a comeback we think of too late when we're already out the door and down the staircase. We can't be trained to think of these rejoinders. Delivering one on target is often a matter of pure luck. Besides, this isn't the kind of persuasion I had in mind when I got this book. I was hoping to find ways of changing a person's mind on issues important to me, or of influencing people away from what I perceive to be their damaging fixations.

The book does eventually address this deeper aspect of persuasion. There are some insights here, particularly in the middle of the book where Dutton considers the type of influence that molds dedicated cult members and the type of influence that primes a person to become the victim of psychopaths or other very mercenary characters. However, there are a couple of things that detract from Dutton's presentation even in these more serious sections.

For one thing, he offers up a potpourri of brain studies and experiments that show which parts of the brain are involved in different thinking processes. The presumption is that if we can change people's neural pathways, we might be able to change their minds. Most of the brain studies cited are flimsy one-off researches on a limited set of volunteers.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I love books on the psychology of why we make the decisions we do, but I was ready to stop reading this book after the introduction.

When I read Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins Business Essentials) I couldn't put it down. I would have read it straight through if my wife hadn't made me stop to eat. A few years ago I let an employee of mine borrow it and told him to pass it on when he was done, and I still have random people thank me for passing the book along.

Dutton's writing is all over the place, and it's littered with needlessly wordy metaphors. Just turn to any page and you'll find yourself reading a two page story or a joke. It's almost as if he wanted to write a novel instead of an informative book on persuasion, but his story telling skills just weren't up to snuff. He overuses imagery, uses repetitive verbiage, is constantly making quips or being sarcastic, and fills pages with bad dialog that should have just been summarized.

"Do you think of yourself as a lucky person, Kev?"
I'm confused.
"What do you mean?"
He smiles.
"Thought so.
I swallow.
Silence. For about ten seconds.

<Skip Ahead>

"So what would you do?" I say.
"The business."
No Hesitation
"The business?" I repeat.
I'm on the ropes here.
"And what if she's not interested?"
"There's always later."
"Later? What do you mean?"
"I think you know what I mean."
Silence. Another ten seconds.

After a few pages of that you just kind of give up.
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