In many ways, our opinions define us. We scream them from the mountaintops of social media and spend our coffee breaks getting into embarrassing slap fights with Vince from accounting because he prefers the wrong brand of phone. But salespeople and scientists both know that our opinions are not as constant as we believe. Every single day, scores of weird and seemingly insignificant things are twisting our preferences.
For example ...
If you take a look at a list of the most popular romantic movies of all time, you notice something weird: Half of the top 10 came out in November or December. This is despite the fact that normally summer blockbusters make all the money. Scientists decided to look into this and noticed that you find the same trend in movie rentals as well -- romance does better in winter. Then, they found that in Europe, you can actually chart what genre of movie does best in a country by measuring its average temperature.
It all points to the same thing: You're simply more likely to enjoy a good romance when the weather is cold.
"Whaddaya say we go inside and watch Jennifer Lopez love things?"
OK, you think, maybe it doesn't have anything to do with preference, maybe the big studios just release more of this type of movie in cold seasons or climates (although if they're trying to cash in on Valentine's Day, they're releasing two or three months early). So, in what we think might have started as a torture technique for terror suspects, scientists locked a bunch of people in a cold room until they enjoyed romantic comedies.
All right, there was more to it than that. In one experiment, they put half of their participants in a cold room with iced tea and the other half in a hot room with hot tea. After a while, the audiences were asked which movie they'd prefer out of four different genres: romance, thriller, action, or comedy. And sure enough, being physically cold made them prefer romantic movies.
While being hot made them hand-feed the elderly for some reason.
Their theory is that it's just your brain's attempt to get you warm. We do, after all, think of romantic feelings as getting us "hot" (moist palms, blushing cheeks, an accelerated heart rate). It seems like you actually get even warmer by running through the desert from a chainsaw murderer, but whatever. We also associate closeness with other people with "warmth" (if you say relations between two people have grown "cold," you sure as hell don't mean they're hugging a lot), so when you get cold, you want to watch other, sexy people steadily getting closer for 90 minutes.
Our brains subconsciously tell us that we need heat during cold weather and make us crave this psychological "warmth." Unfortunately, achieving this requires being repeatedly subjected to Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher, but hey, no one ever said survival would be easy.
"We may be stranded in these woods, but Love Actually on my iPhone will keep us warm."
Really persuasive people know that it's all about touch: the salesman or politician is quick to pat you on the back or shake your hand; the waitress knows that a touch on your arm gets a bigger tip. If the thing they're selling is a physical product, they know they'd better let us customers put our greasy mitts on it. This is why car salespeople are so big on making you test drive the vehicle (they literally phrase the technique as "The feel of the wheel will seal the deal").
Why? Because in humans, touch is almost a form of goddamn mind control. Whatever it is, if you touch it for a while, you'll become attached to it.
"OK, I guess I'll keep it."
Not only are people more likely to buy something they've touched, but they're actually willing to pay more -- this is why, if the product comes in a box, the store will try to put a display model out that you can handle to your heart's content. Even if you can't actually gain any information about the usefulness of the product, it doesn't matter. Running your paws over an object makes you feel connected to it, and can even give you a false sense of ownership.
This is exactly how Hitler started out.
Oh, and it also makes a difference how the object feels under our hands. We don't just mean that we judge a new shirt based on how soft it is -- that sort of makes sense. We mean that one study showed that water in a firm cup tasted better than water in a flimsy cup, regardless of the fact that it was the same water. Even when people were just told about the firmer cup, they declared its water superior -- just because the container felt better under their hands. Hey, do you think this is why super-expensive Fiji water comes in thicker bottles that contain twice as much plastic? Or why Perrier still uses freaking glass?
If you want to know what the future of touch-based brainwashing is, well, it involves products that enjoy making you touch them. Sony tried this with their QRIO robot -- a vaguely canine mecha-creature that recognizes faces and responds to touch -- by letting it loose among a bunch of 2-year-olds. Usually, toddlers treat robots like regular toys, tossing them around and using them as blunt weapons before quickly getting bored with them. But QRIO is different -- it senses touch and gives little giggles of pleasure. When it started doing that, the kids accepted it as a living being. Instead of throwing it around, the kids gently touched it, just like it was another child, and even put a blanket over it when it "laid down for a nap." We're thinking the first company that makes a cellphone that squeals with pleasure every time you touch it is going to dominate the market.
We'll just let you make your own child molestation joke here.
Let's say you live in Milwaukee. Look up how many people named Mildred live in the city. Chances are you'll find an overrepresentation. Statistically speaking, the same thing is likely to happen with Jacks in Jacksonville, Virgils in Virginia, and Freds in Fresno. Why? It appears that people move to places similar to their own names. And if you think that's stupid, science shows that it's just the beginning.
"Ahmed Robberty, why do you keep doing this?"
For instance, your name also affects your political stance by subtly altering your voting behavior: In the 2000 election, people whose last names started with a B were more likely to vote for Bush, while Al Gore profited from the G people. But that's just all those misinformed yokels who vote in elections, right? Aren't half those people just flipping a coin anyway? Well, you find it among investors on Wall Street, too -- the name-letter effect scoffs at your puny efforts to look into actual profitability, gently nudging you toward companies that sound similar to your name (like if your name is Michel, you're more likely to purchase Michelin).
"I don't know about this, Stealy Dan."
Looking for a job? The company you prefer might just share initials with you, and the first letter of your name can determine your career path. There is a statistical overabundance of dentists whose first names start with D and lawyers with names like Larry and Laura. What the hell? Are people just ... stupid?
The theory is that this is all because our brains are selfish dicks that think the bits of the alphabet that start up our names are somehow better letters. Some psychologists believe it's linked to a phenomenon called implicit egotism: We respond more favorably to anything that reminds us of ourselves. No matter how illogical and arbitrary.
Chuck Dickerson and his collection of Charlie Daniels CDs.