It is frequently said that everything in life is a negotiation. Certainly convincing a child to do their homework is both a 'sale' and a 'negotiation' and neither is easily accomplished. We all have an agenda that changes constantly over the years and even over the course of the day as our need for food and sleep varies.

In the process of this need for persuasion, I propose it is helpful to develop a balanced three pronged approach to persuading people aligned with their motivations. Specifically the goal of this article is to put forth an easy-to-use motivational framework - an actionable framework to design a persuasive system for people.

I am setting out by humbly standing on the shoulders of giants such as Mancur OlsonHardin and Clark & Wilson. I have not done them justice in that my simplifications omit subtleties of their work. Still I like simple, so we will layer on complexity only after first laying three simple foundation bricks in this article.

People are motivated in three ways: material, social and ideological.

When designing a persuasive system such as a political cause, seeking employment or just a shopping trip, it is helpful to do two steps:

  1. Define the audience.
  2. Build a balanced persuasive system across two, or maybe all three, of our foundation stones of material, social and ideological motivations.

Material Motivations of People

By saying 'material' motivations, I am referring to cash, discounts, or benefits with monetary value, such as a politician's golf trip to Scotland. Another material benefit might be insider information that results in a sure-fire economic benefit.

The good news is that material motivations are the most direct and transparent of the three motivations of people.  Pay X amount for Y. A coupon is worth X amount towards the purchase of Product Y. Given company Z manufactures Y and wants A (you!) to buy it; X coupon makes sense. Or just put it on sale. Or give it away. Give A an economic incentive to do your bidding.

Of course daily life is more complex than a purchase at the corner store. And that is the point - material incentives are typically clear. Pay this, get that. Done.

Material incentives include actions that create value in other manners as well, perhaps unrealized by the recipient until revealed. A good example of this is a Blogger linking to your brand thereby helping your Google rank - most likely without you knowing. This is an indirect but very real financial benefit to the linked site.

The time-value of money matters. People who have mastered the basics of economics and can provide for themselves will frequently choose a larger deferred payment over an immediate but lower payment. Money has value in relation to currency and time, but mostly time. So consider timing carefully when putting a material motivation in place.

Transparency matters. Be clear on the price of the goods or services you wish to sell. This can be extended to include educating the consumer so they reframe their understanding of the material value. Advertising does this regularly as does public relations.

Material incentives can be divisive for social motivations. Putting bonuses in place for great ideas is a fine program, but only if the bonuses are small enough that they don't lead people to cut out their peers. Ask anyone who has ever had to define a commission system. They can tell you the challenges and unusual behavior created by a poorly designed material incentive system.

Bottom line - above a baseline material level, don't mess with material incentives. At higher levels, humans are far more influenced by social factors. Again - this is above a certain level and definitely varies by personality. So be careful introducing complex material systems without taking social and ideological factors into consideration.

Material incentives dominate the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy. Money or things of value like arrowheads let you buy a house and a buffalo brisket. You literally buy your way in. This is clear and fair and your first motivational tool.

When material incentives are offered in a transparent and fair manner they are likely the most ethical form of persuasion. Everyone understands exactly what is going on.

Social Motivations of People

Social incentives are by far the most complex of our three. Humans are social creatures. The right relationship can solve all of your material needs. So it can be argued that social motivations are stronger than most material incentives. Above some baseline of course.

Social motivations include:

  • Identity
  • Social belonging
  • Relationships
  • Sex (and therefore immortality)
  • Achievement in a public forum
  • Self-esteem (relating with yourself)
  • Organized religion (see also ideological)
  • Politics and political influence
  • Authority (see Milgram experiments)
  • Fame

Even our most personal inner thoughts are framed by our social world view. Am I beautiful? Well that depends on if you lived along the Nile 10,000 years ago, were a flapper in the 1920's, aspired to be Marilyn Monroe or related to Christy Turlington in the '80s. It may be your own perception of you, but it is 'framed' by your time and social perspective. To identify is social.

Social belonging is best summed up as - we all want to be loved. We want to be accepted. 

We are not that different in this respect from dogs. I love my dog and she is a member of our pack. The harshest punishment for a pack animal is to be shunned from the pack. Historically, being kicked out of the pack included material losses such as shelter and food, perhaps leading to very real death. Luckily, in modern times, pack membership is not so life-and-death. Yet it remains a powerful motivator. And a complex one.

Most luxury goods are bought and sold based on social factors - not material.

Social motivations can further be divided as:

  • You
  • You and family
  • You and larger groups

Even for extroverts, self-perception and roles within groups start with you. So from a persuasive perspective, it is easiest to assume everyone is somewhat selfish and introverted.

The few self-actualized Buddhas in our midst are so used to being approached this way, that it won't even bother them.

To improve your own standing in a social group, you must provide social or material benefits to other members of the group. Or engage in actions that are aligned with ideological beliefs of others. This demonstrates ideological solidarity creating a stronger social bond.

If you want to encourage the growth of a group, then facilitate this social value exchange. Grocery stores do this by putting flower bouquets near the register. They encourage you to buy flowers for others.

Receiving flowers has a value of X. Receiving flowers at work has a value of X squared! The difference? Social. And clearly not material. Imagine having a courier deliver a one hundred dollar bill to your sweetheart's place of work. With a note. The note reads 'Thanks for last weekend. Love you!' Ya, let us know how that works for you. So flowers are a social incentive. A one hundred dollar bill with a note is simply a bad idea.

Enable identity and encourage aligned communication to engage the power of social forces.

In future articles I will address engaging the listed social forces (identity, belonging, sex, etc.) in greater detail.

Ideological Motivations of People

Ideological motives are by far the hardest to harness. And before even considering leveraging ideological motivations of people, you must carefully examine the ethics of the situation.

Consider the business started by a passionate entrepreneur who has always dreamed of opening an art gallery. For years she struggles, working 70-hour weeks for little to no pay. Her first employee will be paid more than she takes home. Why? Because the art gallery is her dream, not the employee's dream.

Because people's dreams and beliefs are so hard coded (Middle East Peace anyone?), it makes more sense to seek out ideological affinity groups rather than try to convert people.

Yes, it is true that a strong charismatic leader with financial resources and a strong social 'pack' can impart ideology in people. But consider their tools. Televangelists preach the prosperity gospel (material) to their flocks (social) for a reason. Just how much of an ideological leap is it to convince people that God wants them to be rich? They employ material and social tools to convert listeners to an easy self-interested ideological position. Whether this is true biblically or not, I have no idea. The point is that, as an example, the prosperity gospel preachers successfully leverage material and social powers to a low ideological threshold.

It is better for you to seek out and align yourself with those whose passions are in line with your objectives. If you run a pet store or an animal shelter, advertise at the zoo and on the nature channel. If you manage a sporting goods store, sponsor local athletes. (Remember, Nike didn't advertise for 20 years - they did sponsorships!)

Two corollaries of ideological motivations of people are 1) that start-up businesses make terrible clients. The founders do not understand why a vendor doesn't stay up all night working for free like they do! And 2) that hand off from a founder to the next generation in any business is almost always bumpy. Those with strong ideological beliefs find compromising to purely material or social motivations almost an insult. Of course it isn't, but think of this as a world-view problem. Accept and deal with humility and you will have greater success.

The good news is that with search engines, it is so much easier to find people along ideological lines. Build a database of like-minded people. Help them first. Link to their blogs. Sponsor their events. Be transparent about your motives and build trust over time. Long term, you will gain advocates with one of the strongest motivations possible - shared beliefs. And you may even form a social group!

Other Motivations

For the purposes of this article I have enclosed all motivations under one of three umbrellas; material, social and ideological. Some of these aren't a perfect fit for all people at all stages of their life. The sex drive is a good example of this where it leads to offspring, which is both a social and ideological incentive. But perhaps also material in cultures where children care for their parents exclusively. So this is complex. For our purposes however, the three motivations framework should be sufficiently actionable.

How to Apply the Framework

Simple. Keep it simple. Take out a piece of paper and:

1)     Determine first what you want to accomplish. This is a mini mission statement. Perhaps as simple as I want them to buy widget X.

2)     Determine the audience. Who do you want to buy widget X?

3)     Write three columns on a piece of paper: material, social and ideological. In those three categories strategize how you can reach out to your audience.

Yes, a piece of paper with the audience (or better yet a persona) written at the top. Three columns labeled material, social and ideological. Your strategies for each motivation written below that. The columns for material and social should have more in them than ideological of course.

Good luck! Having used this for a while now, I can say we have had great results using this framework. I wish you luck as well!


3 Motivations Mapping
Harding Exceptions to Mancur Collective Action book Clark & Wilson Schipul 3 Motivations
Selective Incentives
  1. Cash
  2. Gift Cards
  3. Free Stuff
Material Incentives
  1. Tangible rewards (money)
  2. Wages
  3. Interest
  4. Fringe benefits
  5. Patronage
  1. Cash
  2. Discounts
  3. Volunteers get free admission to events
  4. Linkbacks to your sites
  5. Promotion*
Political Entrepreneurship
  1. Power
  2. Fame
  3. Publicity
Solidarity Incentives
  1. Intangible rewards derivedfrom association
  2. Sociability
  3. Status
  4. Identity
  1. Networking
  2. Socialization
  3. Identity
  4. Certification/validation
  5. Professional/Development
  6. Sex
  7. Relationships
  8. Organized Religion (see ideals too)
  9. Status
  10. Esteem
  11. Some politics
  12. Achievement
  13. Self-esteem*
  14. Promotion
Extrarational Behavior
  1. True Ideologues
  2. Belief based behavior
  3. Fanatics
Purposive Incentives
  1. Intangible rewards related to the goals of the organization
  2. Satisfaction from working on an election campaign for a candidate whose position agrees with yours
  3. Perceived rewards of a pacifist who contributes time and money to antiwar groups
  1. Belief in a cause
  2. Long term political goals
  3. Religious / spiritual
  4. Self - actualization
  5. Art


References and Sources in no particular order:

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert B. Cialdini - ISBN 978-0688128166

The Logic of Collective Action, Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, by Mancur Olson ISBN 0-674-53751-3

Collective Action, Theory and Applications, by Todd Sandler ISBN 0-472-09501-3

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell - ISBN 978-0316346627

Blue Ocean Strategy, by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne - ISBN 978-1591396192

The Father of Spin, Edward Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations, by Larry Tye ISBN 0-8050-6789-2

Unlimited Wealth, the Theory and Practice of Economic Alchemy, by Paul Zane Pilzer ISBN 0-517-58211-2

Thinking About the Future, Guidelines for Strategic Foresight, by Andy Hines and Peter Bishop, - ISBN 13: 978-0-9789317-0-4

How Customers Think, by Gerald Zaltman ISBN 1-57851-826-1

My Life in Advertising and Scientific Advertising , by Claude Hopkins - ISBN 978-0844231013

No Logo, by Naomi Klein - ISBN 978-0312421434

The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, by Al Ries & Laura Ries - ISBN 978-0060081997

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