Split-Second Persuasion

The Ancient Art and New Science
of Changing Minds

By Kevin Dutton

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

304 pp. $26. nolead ends

nolead begins


Reviewed by Gary Stix


This book is a self-help tome for those who never frequent the psychology and self-improvement section - the ones who generally think the idea of character-building is for losers.

Nominally, it serves as a disquisition on the art and science of persuasion. Don't yawn. Yes, Dale Carnegie took us there nearly 100 years ago. But the type of cajolery that most intrigues Kevin Dutton, a psychologist and research fellow with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge University, is the type often practiced by the demographic serving 20 years to life in a federal penitentiary.

Split-Second Persuasion proceeds with a formulaic recounting of what makes the great persuaders tick. An anatomy of this "super-strain" of influence reduces to the acronym SPICE: Simplicity, Perceived Self-Interest, Incongruity, Confidence, Empathy.

Of course, that kind of behavioral recipe edges perilously close to Carnegie's famed four-phase continuous improvement cycle.

The worldviews of Carnegie and Dutton overlap at times. Both proffer self-confidence as a means of getting your way. But while Carnegie was a classic partisan of brownnosing (smile, never argue or find fault), Dutton sees things through a darker lens. The book builds slowly toward a simple climax: Nobody does it better than the psychopath.

The term psychopath gets defined here quite liberally. Jim Jones makes an appearance. But not all psychopaths inhabit jail cells. Some serve as platoon sergeants. Others prowl corporate suites. Some pretenders may even sleep in cribs. Yes, babies, no surprise to many of us, "lack empathy, are superficially charming, possess not the slightest sense of the consequences of their actions and are out purely for themselves" - all qualities reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter or Gordon Gekko.

So ultimately the book is more Con-Artistry for Eggheads (certainly not Dummies) than How to Win Friends and Influence People, all of which makes it a lot more fun to read than the hackneyed prescriptions of run-of-the-mill self-help gurus and Oprah guests.

Persuasion keeps us alive, Dutton proclaims in the first few pages. Any society worthy of our esteem relies on conviction, not coercion. The author's interest lies not in the mundane garden-variety skill - "let me have the extra pillow, dear, I need to wake up early" - but in milling through the mental circuitry of a select cadre of those who seem to be able to get whatever they want: "reservations, contracts, bargains, babies. Anything." Yes, fame and infamy grace this club. Winston Churchill and Ted Bundy, but also elite salesmen, lawyers, a type of fungus that tricks both plants and bees into doing its bidding.

If being the next Bernie Madoff appeals to you as a new line of work, the advice Dutton offers may seem a bit scattershot. Mantras of confidence and empathy probably won't get you to your first billion. It's not really Dutton's fault. There is, as yet, no grand unified theory of scamming. Yet Dutton gives it his best shot by approaching the topic from multiple vantage points, invoking neuroscience, social psychology, neonatal development, even mathematics.

There is a lot to like. You'll learn how other species as well as our own take advantage of key stimuli for their persuading. A key stimulus triggers a fixed response from its recipient, "neat 200 proof mind control - undiluted by language and the thought fields of consciousness," as Dutton observes.

Lesser species do this much better than we do. Bell frogs have their "quonkquack" love calls. Honeybees dance to convey to their brethren the whereabouts of food. Humans can achieve similar responses, but language, our main persuasion tool, must first penetrate an "ozone layer" of conscious thought. "Only the really special make it through," Dutton asserts.

Our species finds itself wrestling with rules of thumb, or heuristics, some identified through the social-science experiments of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and which gained high visibility through the best-seller Freakonomics. As both the consumer marketer and the con artist know all too well, these cognitive biases help to lead a mark astray. In a social-science laboratory, wine tasters gauged the same average-quality cabernet as tasting significantly better when the price was pegged at $90 than when it commanded $10.

Dutton saves the best for last. In a late chapter, he lays out an absolutely riveting scene in which he interviews (or rather, it turns out, is interviewed by) a con serving time who crawls into Dutton's prefrontal cortex, peers around a bit, identifies a deep insecurity lodged right behind the forehead, and, bull's-eye, executes with perfect aim, so that the psychologist leaves the prison more than just slightly flummoxed.

The charm of Split-Second Persuasion ultimately lies in the lack of pat answers. Yes, Dutton dishes out SPICE. But then, refreshingly, he asks at the end whether anyone can pull it off. The subtext of most self-help books - you can do it if you only try - is mercifully absent here.

It's a question of degree, Dutton points out. Confidence and empathy may help a bit. Maybe if you're persistent and lucky, you will eke out an extra percentage point from your boss on that raise. But entropy, Murphy's law, and our niggling consciences may impede us from ever achieving the art and skill of the true geniuses. World-class purveyors of bull and blandishment may be born, not made. But, as with going to the symphony or the ballet, the inability to master vibrato or a pirouette should not dissuade you from checking out the great performances on full display here.

Gary Stix (gstix@sciam.com) is an editor and senior writer at Scientific American.