Archive for August, 2009

6 buttons for persuasion

Posted in psychology with tags on August 28, 2009 by gohelpyourself
Photo from

A psychological remote control? (Photo from

By Anthony O. Alcantara

It would be cool to have a remote control we can use to persuade anyone.

One push of a button persuades your child to finish eating his food. Another push of a button persuades your noisy neighbor to shut up. And another push of a button persuades your boss to give you a raise. I’d definitely pay a hefty sum for that.

I was therefore delighted to have stumbled upon psychologist Robert B. Cialdini’s work. He is close to bringing us that remote control, though a psychological one. But it’s not mind control or hypnotism so, to a certain extent, it’s ethical to use.

He discovered these six universal principles of social influence:

  1. reciprocation (we feel the need to return favors to other people)
  2. authority (we respect experts who know better)
  3. commitment/consistency (we feel the need to be consistent with our beliefs and values)
  4. scarcity (we want what others can’t have)
  5. liking (we like to say yes to people we, well, like)
  6. social proof (we pattern our behavior to what others do)

“I scratch your back, you scratch mine”

Let me deal first with reciprocation. Whether we like it or not, we tend to reciprocate the good deed that others have done to us. Thus, we return favors.

So how can we use this principle to persuade somebody? For example, you want your office colleague to do something for you. One way to convince him is to remind him about a past favor. “How did you find that book I lent you? Did it help you with your report?”

Of course, you have to do it in a subtle way. After the gentle reminder of a past favor, you can now make your request.

“I trust the authorities”

The second principle, authority, has been used to launch successful ad campaigns in the past. Endorsements by influential celebrities filled a lot of people’s pockets.

But then even non-celebrities can become “authorities.” We listen to our friends’ recommendations. That’s how word-of-mouth works.

I tried this principle recently when a friend asked for help in his election campaign in an organization. Instead of him introducing himself to strangers and asking for their votes, I was the one who introduced him, enumerating his most salient credentials.

There was no way of measuring exactly how this move worked. He still lost, but only by a hair’s breadth. There’s enough anecdotal evidence, however, that it helped a lot, especially since he was a newbie in the election.

“I am committed to me”

Commitment/consistency is another very effective principle to use. People just don’t want to do anything that is inconsistent with their values, beliefs or commitments.

If you want people to attend a meeting next week, the best way is to ask them personally beforehand if they will indeed attend the meeting. And since they’ve made a commitment to attend the meeting, they’ll likely attend the meeting.

I’ve seen this used in a profitable way by a priest in our church. Every year, the church sells calendars in December. During his sermon, the priest tells the congregation that there are beautiful calendars for sale, and that they should buy multiple copies for their families and friends. He then asks them, “Who among you love God with all your heart?” Not content with their answer of “Yes,” he asks them to raise their hands. So everybody does. “With God as witness, all of you have agreed to buy these calendars which will help fund our projects,” the priest declares jokingly. Everybody laughs. But the calendars are soon all sold out.

“I have to have that last one”

The principle of scarcity is also a good tactic to use. If you want to increase the sales of your top-of-the-line product, you introduce a more expensive and slightly better model. The notion that the lower-priced but still superb product would soon be phased out persuades people to buy the next most-expensive model.

You’ve probably heard about the new and more powerful iPhone 3G S model that has been released. Shortly after that, Apple drastically cut the price of the older iPhone 3G. That looks like a manifestation of the use of scarcity to me.

“I like to be liked”

Liking is another principle that, well, we all like. We are easily convinced by people we like. But if we are trying to convince someone we’ve just met, we can get them to like us more easily if we mirror or sync with their movements and language. Repeating words and phrases they’ve just said can help.

Researchers do this in their interviews with subjects. They mirror body language and repeat words and phrases to make their subjects feel comfortable. The result? A statistically significant difference in the number of subjects who agree to go through a lot more tests and surveys.

“If others do it, maybe I should, too”

Social proof is another principle that is almost irresistible. No one is totally immune to its intelligent application.

Cialdini mentioned one experiment at the Petrified Forest National Park in the US, where the principle of social proof, in this case, negative social proof, was tested to devise messages that would help minimize wood theft.

The first group was exposed to signs that said, “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest.” This was accompanied by a picture with several park visitors taking pieces of wood.

The second group saw signs saying, “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest.” A picture of a lone visitor picking up a piece of wood accompanied the message.

The control group did not see any sign or picture.

The result? The first group stole 7.92 percent of the pieces of wood in the area compared to the control group with only 2.92 percent. It tripled theft! The second group only did slightly better, with 1.67 percent.

The lesson? Messages focusing on negative behavior can backfire. Focusing on positive behavior is better and more prudent.

There are a lot of techniques that can be derived from these six principles of persuasion. When you can’t seem to convince someone to do something, think of the six principles of persuasion: reciprocation, authority, commitment/consistency, scarcity, liking, and social proof.

Add a little imagination, good judgment and good timing, and you may come up with the perfect button in your psychological remote control.



Bam Speaks: Of video games, Transformers, rallies and public service

Posted in Uncategorized on August 21, 2009 by gohelpyourself

(Dear loyal readers, I just want to share with you a story I wrote in 2006 about Bam Aquino, Ninoy Aquino’s nephew. This is the closest I got to writing about our hero.)

Bam Aquino

By Anthony O. Alcantara

At a very young age, Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV, nephew of hero Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, led a dual life that was quite unusual for children in 1983.

In school, six-year-old Bam took the usual lessons and played with his friends and their Transformers robots. At night, however, he became a justice-craved activist and eloquent orator.

“I was six when he was shot,” related Bam, referring to his famous uncle. “When he died, it really affected our family. Talagang bumaligtad ‘yung mundo namin. So even though I met him only once or twice even when he was in jail, I feel very close to him, ‘coz all throughout my life, he was a very, very big influence.”

He said his family would go to rallies and his uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters of his Tito Ninoy, would speak before the crowds.

Young orator

“’Yung tatay ko kasi, sa mga Aquinos, siya ‘yung shy eh. ‘Yung mga brothers and sisters of Tito Ninoy, all of them are very loud. We would go out, but he wouldn’t speak. So I was the one who gave the speeches. At six years old, meron akong seryosong speech. I would go to school, kain, tulog then ikot na kami, then wake up the next morning, pasok na naman sa school.”

It is not surprising then that Bam grew up with a burning desire for public service. After taking up Management Engineering at Ateneo de Manila University and graduating with honors in 1999, he went on to work for the ABS CBN Foundation instead of trying to make big bucks in the corporate world.

Joining NYC

He eventually went to law school until EDSA 2 occurred. He stopped when he was asked to join the government through the National Youth Commission (NYC).

Hindi ko kaya pagsabayin, mahirap talaga. Then ABS CBN asked me to become a host (for Breakfast). That was from 2001 to 2006,” he explained.

Bam finished his term at NYC last February. He was commissioner for two years and chairman for three. The NYC became his life for five years but then he had to leave and explore other opportunities.

Aside from an endorsement offer for the ICafé Plus, he’s now editing a book for the ASEAN.

“ASEAN is coming up with its 14th anniversary and they chose me to make a 14th anniversary book on young achievers in Asia, in Southeast Asia. They asked me to edit the book as the former chairman of NYC,” he said.

Becoming an entrepreneur

Being a Management Engineering graduate, Bam is also trying to hone his entrepreneurial skills. He and some of his friends recently put up a business connected to servicing the outsourcing industry. He wouldn’t give the details, saying it’s still premature.

He also revealed that after he left Breakfast, ABS CBN has been cooking up a new show for him. But that would come after his endorsement obligations with ICafé Plus.

“Public service is still the main goal, public service in a very broad sense, whether it’s in TV, in an NGO or in government. ‘Yung mga ginagawa ko naman on TV, it’s not really pure entertainment although some part of it is entertainment.”


Bam is particularly proud of his achievements at NYC, where he was able to contribute to policy making for the youth.

“We not only gave the plans for the youth to the concerned agencies. We went to the next step and looked for funding to implement those plans at the local government level,” he said.

Despite his serious side, Bam is a movie buff and a video games addict. Once, while displaying his knowledge of a video game in an Internet café, a young lad expressed his disbelief and surprise that Bam really knows the game.

“’Sir alam nyo pala ‘yun? Sir na ngayon ang tawag sa akin,” Bam chuckled.

“I love playing basketball, too, pero ‘yung mga kaibigan ko tumatanda na rin. When we were young, we joined the Ateneo League. Very active pa rin kami ‘dun. I was a wrestling fan for a while. Inuman with friends, nothing too different. Iba lang siguro ginagawa ko sa work side, pero sa playing side, typical Filipino,” he said.

Hope of the nation

As for his message for the youth today, he echoed Jose Rizal’s message.

“Tayo pa rin ‘yung pag-asa ng bayan. People who are below 40, leaders in the political world, business world, our generation, we have to step up na eh. The next generation has to take over. At the end of the day, we have to know what’s happening kasi if we just leave the country to the dogs, then we’ll just be in a dog pound, we won’t reach the level we want,” he said.

With his illustrious pedigree, leadership skills, passion for public service, and down-to-earth ways, Bam is certainly somebody to watch out for in politics.


How to boost brain performance (last of 2 parts)

Posted in book review/summary, health and fitness, optimal performance on August 13, 2009 by gohelpyourself

brain in hand

(continued from last week)

By Anthony O. Alcantara

Now that I’ve had a break and managed to spare some time to write, here are some of the other tips from Dr. Richard Restak.

On Cognitive Performance

  • Improve your forward digit span.

Forward digit span is a measure of the amount of discrete bits of information you can hold for a given time.

Many years ago, my digit span was tested when I applied for work. It went like this: The test proctor read a string of numbers and I was asked to write the digits down on a piece of paper after the proctor finished reciting the numbers. The proctor recited the numbers at 1 second intervals.

It was easy at first. Two digits, three digits, four digits were a breeze. But when it reached seven digits, I began to squirm in my seat, and it was not because of constipation. I couldn’t remember when I eventually made a mistake. All I know is that my brain burned a lot of calories.

Restak said this challenging exercise can increase brain performance, specifically, attention, concentration, sequencing, number facility and auditory and visual short-term memory.

He suggested a website for this: It contains exercises you can play online to improve your visual and auditory forward digit span as well as general memory.

  • Improve backward digit span.

This is self-explanatory. Instead of reciting the digits forward, you recite it backwards. It’s much more difficult than the forward digit span exercise.

This exercise develops attention and working memory, which is the ability to manipulate or hold information for later retrieval, or when focusing on other things. You can also use the website I mentioned.

  • Cultivate the art of remembering.

There are techniques to memorize numbers, words and other information. The loci method, peg words and converting numbers into letters are just a few. I will not elaborate on them here since there are too many. Besides, I haven’t mastered them.

I’ll just give you the two websites that Restak mentioned: and The techniques are all there.

  • Develop working memory.

Restak suggested several ways to do this. One exercise involves semantic (category) fluency.

In one minute, name as many animals as you can. After that, shift to vegetables, fruits, authors, singers… the categories are almost inexhaustible. If you want to repeat a category, you can narrow it down further. For example, animals in the farm or animals in Africa or wherever.

Another exercise involves lexical (letter) fluency. In one minute, recite distinct words beginning with the letter A. Variations such as allow, allowed, allowing are not acceptable. You can try out all the other letters.

Restak said 20 to 30 should be the target for the two exercises. Just like with the other exercises, you can make your own variations.

There is also an exercise involving designs. It develops the right hemisphere of the brain. In four minutes, draw as many distinct abstract and original designs as you can. They must not be nameable. Triangles, squares, circles are not allowed. This is a test of design fluency.

Here are some examples. Please don’t criticize. I drew them.


  • Do reminiscence exercises.

What can you remember about the year 1986? If you were already born that year, you can probably come up with something. But how many details can you remember? Where were you at that time? What were the significant events in your life that year? Who was the winner of the Miss Universe pageant? What was the greatest scientific discovery that year?

This exercise can be enjoyable. And it can help you prepare for your high school or college reunion, and spare you from embarrassment.

  • Expand your vocabulary.

One thing that we can expand continuously is our vocabulary. Restak said learning new words enhances our understanding of the world. It exercises our working memory and long-term memory.

Learning a new word everyday is easy, especially now that you can simply subscribe to a mailing list so that you can have a new word to learn everyday in your inbox.

Restak suggested for this.

  • Play video games.

You may say this is beneath you, that you are not a gamer, that you’re too old for video games. However, Restak said gamers actually fare better in tests of attention, reaction time, processing speed, etc.

He does have some caveats. He suggests a limit of two to three hours per week of playing to avoid addiction. He forbids violent games such as Manhunt, Grand Theft Auto and Take-Two.

And as for so-called brain gyms, he said most of them get really boring after some time, even if they do have some effects. For him, enjoyable and stimulating video games are better.

  • Develop a magnificent obsession.

Obsessive character traits can be good for us, according to Restak. It can engage our minds and help us improve our moods. He advises us to take up something that is interesting but preferably something new to us. By developing this magnificent obsession and taking a year to learn everything we can about the subject, we expand our intellectual horizons.

The object of obsession need not be an intellectual pursuit though. It could be golf or carpentry or knitting.

  • Get into the habit of deliberate practice.

K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, has made a career out of studying superior performance. After studying people engaged in physically-demanding sports such as running to intellectual pursuits such as chess and memorizing numbers, Ericsson thinks he has pinned down the secret of excellence.

Restak managed to get some beautiful quotes from him.

Here’s one: “For the superior performer in any field the goal isn’t just repeating the same thing again and again, but achieving higher levels of control over every aspect of their performance. That’s why they don’t find practice boring. Each practice session they are working on doing something better than they did the last time. Intense solitary deliberate practice is the hallmark of the superior achiever in every competitive field that I have studied over my forty-year career.”

For me, the operative phrase here is “intense solitary deliberate practice.”

Restak made his own conclusion: “In practical terms, research confirms that exceptional performers aren’t endowed with ‘superior’ brains. Rather, the brain, thanks to its plasticity, can be modified by deliberate practice and the use of innovative strategies. That combination will enable you to achieve high levels of performance in the area of your choice – if you are willing to put in the effort required to achieve mastery.”

The italics are Restak’s.

I finished the book with a happy thought: There’s hope for all of us.


How to boost brain performance (part 1)

Posted in book review/summary, health and fitness, optimal performance with tags , on August 7, 2009 by gohelpyourself


By Anthony O. Alcantara

“Citius, altius, fortius”

Swifter, higher, stronger. That’s the Latin-inspired Olympic motto. Though it refers to physical prowess, I believe it applies to mental ability, too.

We’re all thinking beings. We belong to a species of primates, with cute opposable thumbs, called Homo sapiens, which means “wise man” or “knowing man.”

And because of that, many of us would like to improve our mental ability. That’s also probably why my earlier post on “How to keep your brain fit” was one of the most-read posts.

So despite wanting to write about something else, I thought of giving you a second helping.

I recently came across this book by Richard Restak, M.D. entitled “Think Smart!” I believe the science is pretty well-backed up. Restak, a neuroscientist who has done a lot of research on the brain, thought of picking on the brains of other eminent scientists and colleagues specializing on different aspects of brain performance.

He asked them a simple question: “What are you doing to keep your brain functioning at its best?”

I was certainly interested in their answers, especially when sometimes after dialing a number on my office phone, I forget who I was calling. Embarrassing!

Anyway, before I forget what this post is all about, here are some excerpts from “Think Smart!”, a distillation of cutting-edge knowledge from some of the world’s leading scientists on brain performance.

Just like with the exercises and suggestions I listed in an earlier post, I have found some to be interesting and useful, while the others seemed pretty boring. I guess the key here is to choose the ones that will give you the most benefit and enjoyment.

Some of the exercises and suggestions here may overlap with the earlier list, but many here have a different twist and are more specific.

On Nutrition

  • Reduce dietary fat and empty calories.

High cholesterol levels and obesity can impair memory and general brain function. Fastfood should be cut to a minimum. Controlling your weight is necessary. It may not appeal to some of you, but if you’re serious about getting your brain up to speed, this is paramount.

  • Eat more fish.

Fish, especially those rich in omega-3 fatty acids, can help improve memory and clarity of thinking. It can also reduce the likelihood of developing depression. Tuna, salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines, sablefish and trout are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. It can also help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, too.

  • Use supplements judiciously.

Restak said there was a study that showed men who take more than one multivitamin a day increase their risk of prostate cancer by 32 percent. More is not better in this case. It’s a good thing that I take my multivitamins every other day, especially since not all of the vitamins are used up anyway. It’s still best to get your vitamins from fruits and vegetables.

  • Consider increasing daily caffeine intake.

Well, this is not for everyone obviously. Some people get arrhythmias or heartbeat irregularities. Check with your doctor first and experiment with the amount of caffeine you can handle. In any case, caffeine has been found to slow down memory impairment and improve overall cognitive performance.

On Cognitive Performance

  • Sharpen sense memory.

Since memory starts with the use of our senses, it is important to develop them first. Restak said director Lee Strasberg, founder of Actors Studio, has developed sense-memory exercises for actors that are perfect for developing anyone’s sense memory.

The first exercise involves an empty cup, which the student examines exhaustively using his sense of sight. Every ridge, every shape, every color, every blemish should be carefully noted. After every visual aspect of the cup has been exhausted, the student can now proceed to another one of the five senses. This is done at least 15 minutes everyday. Soon the student will be able to conjure up the exact image of the cup at will. You can come up with your own exercises involving other objects and in different situations. The idea is to sharpen all five senses.

  • Extend your peripersonal space.

Restak quoted science writer Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee in their book “The Body Has a Mind of Its Own” to illustrate what peripersonal space or PPS is:

“Your self does not end where your flesh ends, but suffuses and blends with the world, including other beings. Moreover this annexed personal space is not static. It is elastic. It morphs every time you put on or take off your clothes, wear skis or scuba gear, or wield any tool. When you eat with a knife or a fork, your peripersonal space grows to envelop them. Brain cells that normally represent space no farther out than your fingertips expand their fields of awareness along the length of each utensil, making them part of you.”

It reminds me of the concept of ma-ai in martial arts, or proper distancing or interval. It’s different when you’re empty-handed compared to when you’re wielding a sword or an arnis stick. Speed of movement also affects ma-ai.

Restak suggests this preliminary exercise. Stand straight with your eyes closed, extend your arms horizontally to your side and make sure that your hands are exactly at the level of your shoulders. Then make two fists, with your two hands of course, and stick out your forefingers. Slowly bring your two fingers, preferably along with your hands and arms, in front of you in an sweeping motion. Then when you feel that your fingers are just about to touch in front of you, open your eyes. See if they are at the same level. Chances are they are off by a few centimeters. Repeat until you get it right.

Another exercise is to sit on a chair, straighten one of your legs, close your eyes and, using your right hand like a gun with your forefinger jutting out, aim for your big toe. When you think you’ve got your big toe directly in front of the barrel of your “gun,” open your eyes. Repeat until you hit the mark.

This shows that we’re over-reliant on our sense of vision. Developing PPS is one way to counteract that.

So there you have it. These are the preliminary exercises and suggestions that will prepare us better for the other exercises. I’ll reserve that for my next post. I really wouldn’t want to bombard you with too much information. Besides, my concentration is faltering already.

(to be continued)