Persuasion and the Social Code

When I speak about the art of persuasion, one of the primary thrusts of the speech is about adherence to our innate “social code.” In other words, as social creatures we have a certain level of social expectation by which we must abide. If someone does something nice for us, the social code dictates that we do something nice in return. If someone needs help, we feel an obligation to help.

Sociologists, anthropologists and biologists have often studied whether this social code is part of human nature or whether it has to be taught/learned. Many of these scientists take a dim view of human nature. But a new book by Michael Tomasello, Why We Cooperate, suggests that we are born with an innate desire to help others.

From age 12 months, infants display a desire to help adults by looking for lost items, or holding a door, or picking up a dropped object. As children grow older they are more selective with their helpfulness depending on how they are treated by the person seeking assistance. Children also rigorously enforce the social code when it comes to fairness. If children are shown how to play a game and another child attempts to change the rules, the original participants object.

A way for parents to encourage this social behavior is by “inductive parenting.” This is simply communicating with children about the effect of their actions on others and by emphasizing social cooperation.

This premise of this book fits perfectly with what I have been emphasizing when it comes to the art of persuasion. People expect us to adhere to social norms and obligations. If we fail to do so, we are not going to get very far with our prospects.


One thought on “Persuasion and the Social Code

  1. At the risk of entering into a religious discussion, I hold as a matter of faith that the “social code” is our natural state of being as we come into this world. “Life” adds layer upon layer of learned responses that can override that natural state. Learning to accept, acknowledge and return to that natural state defines our life journey and is the central message of most of the world’s religions.

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