Where Do Advocates Come From?

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Where Do Advocates Come From?

A strong sense of conviction can both encourage and discourage people from speaking out.
A student shouts slogans during a protest
“If you want to shape people’s behavior, you have to understand how they view the world,” says Stanford GSB professor S. Christian Wheeler. | Reuters/Marcelo del Pozo

Expressing an opinion these days feels less like a right than an obligation. In addition to lively face-to-face conversations, people now routinely engage with strangers on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media over issues big and small, from the competency of presidential candidates to the quality of their local burrito joint.

“There’s an argument to be made, at least anecdotally, that people are expressing their opinions way more than they used to,” says Zakary L. Tormala, a marketing professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “Social media offer increased opportunities to express an opinion, so I think there’s a greater need to understand what drives advocacy, because it’s more a part of everybody’s daily life than it used to be.”

The conclusions of Tormala and Stanford GSB colleague S. Christian Wheeler, in separate papers, could help inform those conversations — as well as strategies for marketers looking to create ambassadors for their products.

Their central questions: What compels people to express an opinion or argue a point of view, and how might those people be convinced to try to persuade others?

Wheeler says his study, co-authored with Stanford GSB PhD graduate Omair Akhtar, concluded that “if you want to shape people’s behavior, you have to understand how they view the world.”

Some people believe that their attitudes and those of others are fixed and therefore difficult to change. If you dislike sauerkraut, for example, there’s not much chance you’ll ever change your mind, and you’re less likely to try to change someone else’s mind about it because you assume they already know whether they like sauerkraut or not.

Other people believe that their own and other people’s attitudes are more malleable. “Maybe the music that you liked as a teenager doesn’t appeal to you anymore, or maybe your politics shifted over time,” he says. “Those people believe we all have the capability to change.”

You can persuade fixed-attitude people to advocate for a point of view “by framing it as standing up for their views rather than engaging in a dialogue.”

Once you know what type of person you’re dealing with, then “you can frame or direct their opinions so that they’re more likely to advocate.” But to do that, Wheeler says, it’s also important to understand which of two factors have inspired their advocacy: Are they trying to persuade others to agree with their point of view, or are they simply trying to stand up for themselves and make their opinion known?

Wheeler’s study found that, in politics, for example, you can persuade fixed-attitude people to advocate for a point of view “by framing it as standing up for their views rather than engaging in a dialogue.” For those who believe attitudes can change, however, the opposite is true.

Wheeler’s study builds on the work of Stanford psychology professor Carol S. Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of motivation and author of the 2006 book Mindset. Dweck’s research has focused on why people succeed and how to foster success. She, like Wheeler, identifies two basic types: people who believe their intelligence, talents, and personalities are set and unchanging (fixed mindset), and people who believe such qualities can be developed through dedication and effort (growth mindset). Dweck found that people can be taught a growth mindset to improve their motivation and productivity.

A parallel but unrelated study by Tormala and Stanford GSB PhD candidate Lauren B. Cheatham, to be published in early 2017, sought to analyze people’s varying inclinations for advocacy from a different angle. Predictably, Tormala confirmed prior research that concluded that true believers are more inclined to publicly advocate for a point of view or a product. But his study also explored the surprising reality that people who are the least certain about something are more likely to advocate for it than people who are moderately certain.

“The question of why uncertain people advocate so strongly was the big puzzle of the paper,” Tormala says. “But if you think about it, it’s not really counterintuitive. Most people don’t want to be uncertain. It’s not a pleasant state to be in,” he says. Advocating becomes a way for them to gather information to become more certain. “This research is guided by an assumption that people who are uncertain don’t want to stay that way.”

In a consumer context, Tormala cites the example of someone who just flew on United Airlines for the first time and had a good experience. “They like United based on that one experience, but they also lack certainty because it was only one experience,” Tormala says. “So they express their opinion to see what others think about United. They might say something like, ‘I liked United, but before I book another flight, I’d like to hear what others think.’”

Follow-up research suggests that people who are less certain might in some cases be more effective persuaders. “We have found that people who are highly certain can come across as more judgmental, even moralizing,” he says. “Uncertain people can seem more open to discussion. This can be helpful for persuasion, especially when people don’t share your view. So if you know people disagree with you, try asking questions, expressing interest in their views, and using qualifiers. It makes you seem more open and reasonable, which could improve your persuasiveness.”

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