Ep 7: The Science of Teen Persuasion

Episode Summary

Jake Teeny, persuasion researcher and author of the immensely popular course “The Psychology of Persuasion” explains what to do when you need to persuade your teen to do what you are asking. Use these tactics to be more influential in every parent-teen interaction.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

How do you get your Teens to Listen?

Is your teenager listening to you? Like, really listening? 

You could be sharing your story about swimming with sharks or curing a disease and your teen would still still be zoned out on their phone. And even when you do have your teen’s attention, it can seem like your teen is reluctantly enduring your words, so you will leave them alone sooner. It really gets the blood boiling!

When you speak, you hope that your teen is considering all you have to say. You have valuable life experience! Wouldn’t it be fantastic if your teen could put away the distractions and ponder your voice for two minutes?

I think parents should be able to speak inspiringly to their teens and have their voices considered. It isn’t a bad thing for parents to be persuasive and motivational because they have valuable wisdom and life experience to share. However, it is really hard to figure out how to motivate teenagers effectively.

A parent’s voice is usually the most prevalent one in a teen’s life, and teens get tired of hearing it. Just because teenagersare reluctant to listen doesn’t mean you’re going to stop speaking to them altogether. But how do we improve our conversation tactics and learn how to motivate teenagers better?

The Answer: My good friend, Jake Teeny. 

In order to learn some tips on how to motivate teenagers better, I spoke with my good friend, Jake Teeny. Jake earned his PhD of Social Psychology at Ohio State University, and his research largely focused on the psychology of persuasion. He has written for notable international outlets such as Noba Psychology and Go Highbrow. He even created a free online course called The Science of Persuasion to teach research-based influence techniques. I also know from a personal level how good Jake is at persuasive speaking because in high school he beat me for class president! (I’m still not over it!) 

Today we discuss how to motivate teenagers by implementing his tips for persuading teens to make good decisions without taking away their need for autonomy.

Persuasion vs Independence

Getting through to teens is hard, but Jake has some amazing, applicable knowledge for learning how to motivate teenagers better. The first thing he encouraged me to think about was teenagers’ increased need for independence. This makes sense to me. Research shows that a teenager’s desire for autonomy peaks at the age of 14. But how does this relate to persuasion?

Jake explains that every teen has a moment where the lightbulb in their head clicks on and they realize that they don’t have to listen to their parents anymore! He says that as teens begin to want to do things for themselves, parents should shift their thinking of “persuasion” to “self-persuasion.” “Persuasion” is like a request for compliance, and teens are not motivated to comply easily with their parents. By targeting “self-persuasion,” you are now trying to get the teen to convince him or herself to do whatever it is you’re asking.

Parents tend to generate the arguments that they think are the most persuasive, but that’s not always what the teen finds most persuasive. This is challenging, but understanding how to motivate teenagers means taking the time to think of something that will resonate specifically with them. Such resonators could be popularity, fashion trends, or a fear of missing out on the most recent technology. You may not necessarily agree with teens on the importance of these things, but the fact remains that these are what teens believe are important. If you can relate to the importance of these things in a teen’s life, you might have a chance at connecting with them on a deeper level.

Core Identities

If you want to know how to motivate teenagers to do something, recognize that they are only going to respond to messages that they find compelling. Jake says that to get a teen to find a message compelling, you should relate the message to one of their core identities. But what is a core identity? And how do you discern it?

Core identities are the ways we perceive ourselves, and define ourselves to others. Jake says that we often define ourselves by our likes and dislikes. He explains that you can identify core identities in your teens by listening to them and observing what they like and dislike. This shouldn’t be too hard to accomplish with careful attention because core identities are usually what teens want to relate to and talk about.

You might discover that your teen is super passionate about environmentalism, or making money, or action movies. No matter what their likes are, you will gain an understanding of what your teen finds compelling and know another way to effectively motivate them. According to Jake, if you can connect your message to what compels your teen, it’s likely they will continue to consider your input even when you’re not around.

Utilizing core identities makes learning how to motivate teenagers so much easier, however, there are still some pitfalls to be aware of.

Don’t Attack the Identity

It’s helpful to know how to leverage teens’ core identities to learn how to motivate teenagers with a compelling message, but you want to be extremely careful that you don’t attack the identity.

For example, maybe your teen loves track and field and is proud of her athleticism, but is really struggling to keep up with homework assignments. You might want to motivate your teen by saying a “good athlete” would value schoolwork more. This might not be your best move, though.

If you suggested a “good athlete” is one who does better in school, your teen might think you are attacking her core identity as a “good athlete.” She might think you are suggesting she is a “bad athlete.” It might be fair to expect a harsh rebuttal from your teen as she explains why she is an amazing athlete and that her grades have nothing to do with it. She might even double-down and do less schoolwork in order to do more track and field!

As a parent, attacking your child’s identity, even by accident, is one of the worst things you can do. Instead, it’s good to treat the things your teenager finds important with care, even if you do think their identity is something silly, like being an action movie fan. If you can approach their behavior with a warm, positive attitude, it will mean a lot to them, and they will be more willing to give you their attention.

Taking the Conversation Further

Listening to your kids and discerning their core identities is a lot of work, but it’s worth it to learn how to motivate teenagers. By framing conversations around topics teens identify with, you are increasing the likelihood that they really listen to you. You’re making the hard work of having a meaningful conversation with your teen so much easier. Jake brilliantly goes through a handful of approaches to taking such conversations further.

He has so many tools to take some pressure off of parents, and he has great examples of phrases you can say when you accidentally do threaten your teen’s identity. (Check the Parenting Scripts tab!)

Jake doesn’t want parents to feel like they have to bend their teens’ wills to steer them in the right direction. In addition to discussing how to motivate teenagers with these strategies, we also talk about:

  • The Elaboration Likelihood Model
  • “Reactance”
  • Persuading the Internal Compass
  • The Romeo and Juliet Effect (it’s real!)
  • The Power of Warm Tones & Affirmations
  • The Tenets of “Ability” and “Motivation
  • Promotion vs. Prevention Framing
  • And why parents need to be giving teens more options!

I had such an amazing time catching up with my good friend, Jake! He has so many valuable things to say! If I wasn’t sure how to motivate teenagers before, I certainly am now. I learned so much from him in this short time, and I know you will, too.

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Address reactance head-on with an autonomy affirmation

“Hey, I’m your parent but you’re an independent adult. You’re free to make the decisions you want to make. I’m going to provide my advice and guidance.”

-Jake Teeny

2.  Affirm your teenager’s independence:

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3.  Voice a common feeling to connect with your teen:

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4.  Buy some time for your teen’s emotions to cool off:

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5.  Get your teen to do a chore by offering choices, rather than directing:

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Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Uncover the Aspects of Your Teen’s Identity:

Persuasion expert Jake Teeny taught me all about the Elaboration Likelihood Model of persuasion. He revealed that we need to make our message highly self-relevant so that our teenager will think about it deeply. This will give your message the best chance of being internalized by your teen. The first step, Jake said, is to think about what things currently make up your teenager’s identity. What are your teen’s values? Spend a few minutes writing down as many as possible below and then circle the 2-3 values that seem to best represent your teen. Here are some questions to help you get started. What are the themes of some of your teen’s favorite movies and shows? How would your teen describe their 3-4 best friends? What does your teen like most about themself? Who are your teen’s heroes and what qualities do they seem to admire in the people they look up to?

Complete Interview Transcript

Jake: Okay. I think probably a basic point to start with, so persuasion, right. It’s important in all contexts, but particularly with parents and kids. It’s really interesting because we do it all the time, but we rarely explore or examine the psychological components of what goes into persuasion and what makes a persuasive message. Why people are persuaded.

Jake: First I’ll talk about the elaboration likelihood model, that’s what I’ve just been baptized into in that regard. Essentially it’s a very basic model of persuasion and it says, there’s two routes through which people can be persuaded. These more elaborative, you’re thinking heavily about the message, you’re considering the merits of the arguments, that’s called this central route to persuasion. Or there’s more along the lines of peripheral cues that you’re persuaded by. So maybe the message speaker was attractive or they had a really catchy phrase and this is the peripheral route.

Jake: Now with any sort of persuasion context, there are three main variables. There is the source of the message, which is often the parent. There’s the recipient of the message, which is often the child. And then there is the message itself, which is usually a lesson or an Aesop fable or something along these lines. Depending on which side you focus on, the elaboration likelihood model will have different recommendations or different explanations of what to expect.

Jake: So, the parent gives a message to the child, hoping to persuade them. The source gives a message to the recipient.

Andy: Yeah.

Jake: Now on one hand, maybe the kid’s not paying attention very much and just says, yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll do that, sure, mom. And the other case, maybe the kids really thinking deeply about the message and considering, well, why should I do that? What’s the value of it? Even though both routes can lead to persuasion, lead to your kid doing what you would like them to do, they have different consequences. So if the kid’s thinking a lot about it, it’s more likely to instill a strong attitude. They’re more likely to act on that attitude in the future. It’s more likely to resist counter persuasion, so peer pressure influence.

Andy: Yeah.

Jake: So even though maybe you were able to persuade your kid to pick up his room because you threatened to take away the Xbox, it’s not going to instill a strong attitude that’s going to make them act on it-

Andy: Sure.

Jake: On their own accord of sorts. Whereas if you were able to give them a more elaborative message, you explain why you want them to do this, they think of the merits of it. Then maybe they’ll be more likely to do that act in the future, even without the prompting.

Andy: But so is that considered persuasion? If we’re forcing someone to do something, to what extent is that actually even persuasion.

Jake: That’s a great, great question, because persuasion fits within the broader context of social influence. So within social influence, you have obedience, right? Someone tells you to do something and you do it.

Andy: Yeah.

Jake: You have a request, like compliance. So you ask someone to do something and then they have to decide, or you just have conformity without any formal requests. People just go along with what people are doing. Now, persuasion particularly is more like compliance or a request is being made.

Andy: Right. It’s somewhere between there?

Jake: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andy: It’s interesting because I think the teenage years are where we start to shift from obedience to not obedience.

Jake: Yeah.

Andy: And so as a parent, it’s oh my God, wait. My kid isn’t… I can’t just say do this and he does it anymore.

Andy: A lot of parents that I’ve worked with fall into this trap of the request, right? And then that puts you in an interesting position when they say no, or when they don’t comply with the request. What do I do there? And then I think you bring up the other aspect of how do I persuade them. But there’s a certain point in the teenage years, I think this happens to just about every teenager, when the kid realizes that I don’t have to listen to you anymore.

Jake: That independent self.

Andy: Yeah. For me, I think I was 15, 16 and it was like this light bulb turned on, that was wait a minute. I get to really do whatever I want. So the obedience shifted. I think there’s a couple of things that are important for persuasion. One is just the everyday stuff that you need to get your kid to do, right? The lawn needs to get mowed, the dishes need to get washed and we agreed on that, that’s a thing that you’re supposed to do, right? And then the other is the more subtle thing that you’re trying to steer their course a little bit in the right direction.

Jake: I first think it’s really important, this shifting of independence where the child now feels more autonomous, wants to make decisions for him or herself and you don’t have that same dog level obedience that you had before.

Andy: Sure, yeah.

Jake: And at that point, I think what’s important to remember is that persuasion is now self persuasion. You’re trying to get the kid to persuade him or herself to do whatever you’re asking. Because in the end you can make the most compelling message in the world, but if the kid doesn’t think it’s compelling, it’s not going to have any influence on them.

Andy: Yeah.

Jake: And so I think a big mistake people make in persuasion is when they generate arguments to try and convince someone to do something they’re always generating arguments that they think are the most persuasive, that the source thinks is the most persuasive, but that’s not always what the recipient finds to be the most persuasive.

Andy: Sure.

Jake: And that can be challenging. You can do the perspective taking to think how would they react? But again, persuasion is self persuasion first and so you have to generate something that’s going to resonate with this child.

Andy: Yeah.

Jake: Now you talked about two different scenarios, the subtle maybe outside of the home, hey, don’t drink alcohol too young, have safe sex. Versus the daily, just, make your room, mow the lawn, don’t leave your dishes in the sink sort of thing.

Andy: Yeah.

Jake: Aspects of persuasion would apply similar to both, but one thing I think that’s really distinct is that outside of the house, you’re going to get more of that independent child, that autonomous child making decisions for him or herself.

Andy: Right. So then it’s more important what you’re talking about with getting them to convince themself?

Jake: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andy: Interesting.

Jake: One thing that I think that everyone has to keep in mind with persuasion is this idea of reactants. So it’s a common term in psychology where essentially when someone feels like their freedom is threatened, you force them to try to do something. It has the exact opposite effect and they want to do exactly what you tell them not to. You say, don’t press the red button. What’s the first thing they want to do? Press the red button. And this goes for kids all the way to adults. Actually, one of my favorite studies is called the Romeo and Juliet Effect, where essentially they looked at parental interference in the romantic relationships and the amount of love that these children had for their partner. And they found a 0.5 correlation, which is a moderate size relationship between-

Andy: That’s pretty good, yeah.

Jake: The parents have higher interference, the child just doubles down on his love or her love for this other individual. Persuasion has a negative connotation to it. You’re trying to trick someone into doing something.

Andy: Yeah.

Jake: But it doesn’t have to. It doesn’t have to.

Jake: Research has distinguished between negative social control pressure tactics, versus positive social influence tactics or persuasion tactics. With these negative tactics, you have things like talking about the negative emotions they’ll feel if they don’t do something or trying to make them feel guilty or demanding they do something, right? These are all negative association, this negative persuasion tactics.

Andy: Yeah.

Jake: On the other hand you have these more positive social influence. And that would be something like rewarding the good behavior, focusing on the positive side, participating in the efforts to help the child change the behaviors. For the most part, from the research, when the parents engage in that positive side, it’s met with better results than when you try to induce guilt or shame them into doing something. And again, it relates to that reactance. If I’m doing it there to help you and I think it’s for my best benefit too, that self persuasion, then I’m going to be more likely to engage in it. If I feel you’re trying to trick me or trying to force me into something, then I’m going to have negative emotions and want to react against it.

Andy: Right. As a parent, you think it’s so clear to you that they’re messing up in some way. But I think what you’re saying is so face valid, right? As a parent, whatever you say, they’re just going to want to do the opposite, right?

Jake: Yeah. Well, one thing I was going to say, so talking about values. Trying to persuade your child to have the right values. Now those values are going to manifest a bunch of different ways. If you want to instill this value of self-responsibility and doing what’s right for you, then maybe your kid is going to take a gap year, even though you’d like to see him to go to medical school. But you’re still instilling that value and that’s, what’s important because that’s what’s really going to guide their behaviors in these different directions. So maybe you want to persuade your kid to use contraception, but as we already talked about, if you explicitly give a message that you’re trying to get your kid to do this thing, it may promote some reactants and they may want to do the exact opposite.

Jake: But if instead you target the value that’s related to that, being unburdened, going through college or, living young, then that’s what you’re targeting and it’ll have spillover effects on the behaviors related to it. They’ve done studies where, for example, this is a little different than children and parents, but they were trying to get people to be more positive toward affirmative action. So if they give messages directly toward promoting affirmative action, the participant’s, nah, not feeling it. But if instead they give persuasive messages toward equality and why equality is good. Then later on, those participants are more in favor of affirmative action.

Andy: Interesting.

Jake: So again, I think targeting the value is going to be really beneficial for parents because you’re helping to instill the character that you want to see. And now maybe that character manifests itself in ways you didn’t expect or anticipate, but at least you’ve raised them to hold that true compass.

Andy: I love what you’re saying, which as a parent, can you frame a certain message in terms of a value that you know is important to your teenager really effective?

Jake: Yeah, no, for sure. For sure. We’ve been talking a little bit about the elaboration likelihood model and if you want your child to be persuaded on anything, you should hope that they’re persuaded through this central route, through this cognitive route where they’re really considering the merits of the arguments. And one of the ways to get someone, a recipient to pay more attention to the message is to relate the message to a core identity related to something that’s self relevant. By doing that, they’re going to think more on the message. They’ll consider this a little more carefully and the attitude that they form or the opinion they form later is going to be stronger and it’s going to be more likely to guide behavior, having those more elaborative conversations.

Andy: But so what would be some examples of a core identity?

Jake: Yeah. So we often define ourselves by our likes and dislikes. I like action movies and that forms part of my identity or I’m an environmentalist and that forms part of my identity. So they can be as menial as, anything that the person incorporates into the self.

Andy: Roles, social roles too, right? I’m a parent or I’m a aunt or I, personally, am vegan. So I adopt that as it’s just a set of behaviors?

Jake: But it defines part of who you are, right?

Andy: Exactly. Right. Right. So if you can frame things in terms of my identity as being from Oregon, as being vegan or whatever, right?

Jake: That’s absolutely right. And the only way to figure out those identities is like you were saying, you got to listen, you got to listen to the person, you got to observe the person, you can’t enforce identities upon them. You can’t just make it up on the fly. You got to actually listen to the child and hear what’s going on inside their head. I actually have some research that was recently published where we looked at environmentalists and the majority of people support protecting the environment.

Andy: Hey, we probably shouldn’t drill the entire planet to pieces. Yeah.

Jake: Well, we’ll operate off of this maybe fallacy. We took these people who all support protecting the environments, but some people really identify with it as part of their self. This is part of their identity. And then we just essentially threatened it. We pointed out ways that they weren’t good environmentalists. We show they weren’t always recycling all these different things to threaten that identity. And interestingly, for the people who were pro-environment, but didn’t really count it as part of their identity when they were threatened, they disengaged. And they’re, okay, maybe I’m not that good of an environmentalist.

Andy: Yeah. Yeah.

Jake: For the people who identified it as part of themselves, they doubled down on that. They were writing messages about how great environmentalists they were using more intense language. And so these identities, we hold them very central. And so if you’re a parent and you want to shift an identity attacking that identity is the worst thing you could do because that’s just going to make them double down on it. However, if you can leverage that identity in a sense, show them how acting more responsibly in domain X relates to their identity in domain Y again, that’s self-persuasion. They’re going to draw the parallels themselves.

Andy: Right. We talked about psychological reactants earlier. One of the tenants of psychological reactants theory is that the greater extent to which this behavior is a part of my identity the more I’m going to resist you trying to get me to change that. Is it obvious? What are the values and what’s the identity of my teenager, or do we have to check out their Facebook and Snapchat account to figure that out?

Jake: Do a little parent stalking.

Andy: Right, if we’re just trying to frame a message, that’s going to resonate with them and we’ve listened to this interview, Jake [Teeny 00:15:04], we know values, we got to hit those core values, right? So how do we figure that out? What are their values?

Jake: Yeah, yeah. That’s a good question and there’s just so many factors that are going to determine what they identify with, what they think are the core tenants of who they are. And really the best advice I have at least on how to figure those out is just to listen, to talk, figure out what activities they like to do. Oftentimes our friends are people we think are very similar to ourselves. So looking to the friends they keep, the activities their friends do probably will, in a way, reflect the child as well.

Andy: That is fascinating, right. We like people that we see as being like us. Right. So look into their immediate friend group, the people they interact the most with on Facebook.

Jake: Yeah.

Andy: And stalk them.

Jake: Right. Yeah. There was a book that came out in the nineties now that we’re talking about friends and parents that really spurred this idea that parents don’t have much influence over their kids.

Andy: Yeah, yeah.

Jake: And that it’s really their peer groups that are the ones that do it. And to be honest, when I’ve looked at the research, it’s maybe a little more balanced, you definitely have peer influence, but parental influence, even in adolescence is not absent. They did a study looking at alcohol usage and they took into affect the personal beliefs, their peer group beliefs and their parent beliefs. And they actually found when controlling for everything, the parental influence still had a significant effect on whether or not the kids engaged in alcohol.

Andy: Yeah.

Jake: Now, an important moderator of that, or an important factor in making that happen was the warmth that the parents treated their children with. So warm parents, you encourage your child to be who he or she wants to be, you speak to the child in a warm, kind voice. That’s when the parental influence had an effect. For the colder parents, parental influence did not have much of an effect. And so just to say that, yes, the peer groups are going to be influential, but it doesn’t mean that parents have lost all control.

Andy: As a parent, you think in terms of what have I told my teenager and what have I communicated and what rules have I made. Right. But in terms of the scientific literature, if you can communicate clearly to your teenager what your values are and what your attitudes are and what your expectations are, it means a lot, right? It goes a long way.

Jake: For sure.

About Jake Teeny

Already with an M.A. in social psychology, Jake Teeny is currently pursuing his PhD at Ohio State University. His research largely focuses on the psychology of persuasion, having published multiple chapters and empirical articles on the topic.

Jake is the founder of www.everydaypsych.com, where he keeps a weekly blog on fascinating topics in social psychology. Additionally, he has written for international outlets such as Noba Psychology and Go Highbrow, where his courses on Attraction Science and The Psychology of Persuasion have become two of the more popular series.

In addition to science, Jake loves to write fiction, and since 2013, he has published over 20 short stories in literary magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post as well as placed nationally in short story competitions. If you would like to read more about his research or his fiction, head to www.everydaypsych.com