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Verbal Persuasion and the Observer-Expectancy Effect

How we speak to others makes all the difference. Not only our words, but our tone, body language, attitude, demeanor, and level of formality all play a role. As we speak, we’re influencing others. “Pardon me, could you please direct me to Michigan Avenue?” (said politely to a stranger on the street) differs from “Where’s Michigan Avenue?” (said abruptly, without introduction). While both statements convey the same message, the former exhibits care before intruding upon another’s personal space. The speaker is aware that another is being asked to respond with information and takes care to show a degree of respect and deference before asking.

“The observer-expectancy effect (also called the experimenter-expectancy effect, expectancy bias, observer effect, or experimenter effect) is a form of reactivity in which a researcher‘s cognitive bias causes them to subconsciously influence the participants of an experiment. Confirmation bias can lead to the experimenter interpreting results incorrectly because of the tendency to look for information that conforms to their hypothesis, and overlook information that argues against it. It is a significant threat to a study’s internal validity, and is therefore typically controlled using a double-blind experimental design.”

Persuasion is its own category of verbal communication, unlike any other. A Professor standing in the well of a lecture hall is not called upon to persuade, merely to inform. When those graphs and formulas go up on the screen, the Professor is making no effort to argue for or against a certain position. To persuade someone of something implicates an entirely different skill set, one involving an awareness of what others will need before they can make up their minds. Some verification that what’s being said is true and should be believed, some compelling reason why another decision is not equally as valid––fact and reason, truth and justification––these are the starting points.

“An example of the observer-expectancy effect is demonstrated in music backmasking, in which hidden verbal messages are said to be audible when a recording is played backwards. Some people expect to hear hidden messages when reversing songs, and therefore hear the messages, but to others it sounds like nothing more than random sounds. Often when a song is played backwards, a listener will fail to notice the “hidden” lyrics until they are explicitly pointed out, after which they are obvious. Other prominent examples include facilitated communication and dowsing.”

Conveying information does not necessarily persuade since a fact must be interpreted in a certain way before it can be used to convince another to reach a certain conclusion. Within a contested case, context, chronology, circumstance––––none of these will persuade unless it’s been shown that they’re atypical, aberrant, that they fall significantly outside the range of normal. Normalcy, as well, cannot be assumed, but must be established as an end in itself, worthy of protection. A persuasive act anticipates a reaction; messages are shaped in anticipation of what that reaction will likely be.

“In research, experimenter bias occurs when experimenter expectancies regarding study results bias the research outcome. Examples of experimenter bias include conscious or unconscious influences on subject behavior including creation of demand characteristics that influence subjects, and altered or selective recording of experimental results themselves.” “Experimenter-bias also influences human subjects. As an example, researchers compared performance of two groups given the same task (rating portrait pictures and estimating how successful each individual was on a scale of -10 to 10), but with different experimenter expectations. In one group, (“Group A”), experimenters were told to expect positive ratings while in another group, (“Group B”), experimenters were told to expect negative ratings. Data collected from Group A was a significant and substantially more optimistic appraisal than the data collected from Group B. The researchers suggested that experimenters gave subtle but clear cues with which the subjects complied.”

Are we influencing others without our being aware? Every verbal and non-verbal signal we exhibit must be supportive of our position or we run the risk of inadvertently giving off “subtle but clear cues” which others will sense. “Experimenter expectations”––have we taken inventory of these? Has our own “cognitive bias” caused us “to subconsciously influence” the participants of the experiment? “Expect positive ratings”––suggestion alone can affect outcomes. Have we seized control of the process? It starts with the basics of verbal persuasion––and an awareness that we may be, without intending, exerting an influence.

All quotations from:  Observer-Expectancy Effect

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