Making that Horse Drink: Using Persuasion Principles to Influence Student Behavior

Posted July 10, 2017

By Christie Cathey

A Team Approach to Teaching Introductory Psychology

Those of us who teach Introductory Psychology at Missouri State University work closely together as a team of five full-time faculty members. Although we each have our own assigned section with 300 students, the course is highly standardized, and we all share a common syllabus. The team meets together weekly to talk about how our classes are going, brainstorm new class demonstrations and activities, and come up with solutions to the problems we encounter. We’ve tried to structure the course to help our students not only master the course content, but also become more effective learners in all their college classes. (1)

Focus on Study Skills

We spend a lot of time trying to help students develop better study skills, and much of this focus happens at midterm. We time this attack on study skills at midterm, because while many freshmen enter college with ineffective study skills, they don’t necessarily realize that they need better ones until they’ve received a few rounds of feedback on their performance. (2)

Midterm Meetings for Struggling Students

One particular study skills intervention focuses on students who are underperforming at midterm. We email each of our students with grades of ‘D’ or ‘F’ and invite them to meet with us one-on-one to discuss their course performance and to help them devise a more effective study plan for the rest of the semester. During these individual meetings, we give students a “prescription sheet” and have them write down their plan of action with a list of the specific study strategies we discussed.

Our email invitation contains a link to our YouCanBook.Me page and encourages students to sign up for a meeting within the next two weeks. Incidentally, if you’re not familiar with YouCanBookMe, you should check it out. It’s free, very user-friendly, and when students sign up, appointments go directly to your calendar. We think it’s a real life-changer.

Meetings Help!

Over several semesters, we tracked attendance at these midterm meetings and students’ subsequent performance. We found that students who met with us show more improvement by the end of the semester compared to those who didn’t. Obviously, there could be self-selection bias at work here – more motivated students are probably those who are more likely to come see us -- but still, we’re convinced these meetings really helped.

Still image of Tom Cruise's character Jerry McGuire with the caption, "Help me help you."

Non-Stellar Attendance Rates

Given the presumed value of midterm meetings, it frustrated us that so few of the D/F students we emailed (typically around 25%) actually came to see us. Our frustrations about our low attendance rates led us to spend a lot of time in team meetings wringing our hands, muttering stuff like “You can lead a horse to water…,” and fantasizing about grabbing certain students by the shoulders and shaking them while channeling our very best Jerry McGuire.

Using Persuasion Principles to Improve Meeting Attendance

At some point, though, it occurred to us that as psychologists, we should know a thing or two about influencing behavior. There had to be a way we could use what we know about human psychology to manipulate students into doing what’s best for them, and what better place to look than to the work of the great Cialdini, social psychology’s persuasion guru. Surely we could use one of his principles of persuasion for good. But which?

The Six Principles of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini - 1) Liking, 2) Reciprocity, 3) Social Proof, 4) Commitment and Consistency, 5) Authority, 6) Scarcity

The Principle of Scarcity

We began with the principle of scarcity. This technique seems to work well for QVC. Tell an at-home audience that there are only a few mauve sweaters left, and the phones magically light up with calls from people who suddenly can’t live without one. Surely the same would work on our students, right?

That semester, we sent two versions of an email inviting D/F students to meet with us. One version, our control, was the standard invitation. The scarcity condition email contained an additional sentence that suggested that meeting times with us were in short supply.

“These meetings times fill quickly, so be sure to sign up for an appointment as soon as you can.”

Sadly, while the principle of scarcity might motivate people to buy ugly sweaters, it didn’t seem to move our students – there was absolutely no difference between conditions.

Manipulating Social Proof

A few semesters later, we decided to try again – this time with the principle of social proof. The idea behind social proof is that when people are unsure about how to behave in a given situation, they look to similar others and model their own behavior after those people.

For example, Cialdini and colleagues found that simply hanging signs in hotel rooms that say that most other guests reuse their towels leads guests in those rooms to be more likely to reuse their own towels. This really struck us as the perfect principle to try next, because after all, what should be more persuasive to the typical 18-year-old than information about what other 18-year-olds are doing?

Three Email Conditions

For this new attempt at persuasion, we sent three versions of our email to D/F students at midterm. Once again, we had the standard, control invitation to meet. A second version of the email included one additional sentence, which was our manipulation of social proof:

Last semester, more than 60 students took us up on this offer for help.

Note that this number was technically true (when we combined attendance numbers across all sections of the course from the prior semester). Our IRB was fine with this slight deception.

A third version was our attempt to manipulate students’ perceptions about the likely outcome of meeting with us. The additional sentence in this version told the truth:

Of the people who came to meet with us last semester, 83% of them improved their grade by at least one letter.


Once again, we tracked meeting attendance, and this time, we found something really interesting. There was no difference in the attendance rates between students in the control group (22% attended) and the outcome focus group (28% attended), and these rates were similar to what we typically see. However, among students in the social proof condition, a whopping 43% came to meet with us.

Other Applications of Social Proof

The most surprising thing about these findings is that students seem to be more influenced by information about what other students do than by how a particular behavior is likely to pay off for them. This really seems to highlight the value of using information about peer behavior for good, and there are likely many other possible applications of this simple, but seemingly effective, manipulation of social proof to positively influence students’ academic behaviors.

For example, our team’s next move will be to see if we can use social proof information to increase student attendance at the Introductory Psychology help desk in our library that’s staffed by our course’s undergraduate learning assistants. We also have a colleague at a community college in Texas who’s attempting to use social proof to increase attendance at optional Supplemental Instruction sessions.

Being Mindful of Subtle Uses of Social Proof

After considering the influential power of the things we say to students about their peers’ behaviors, it occurred to us that perhaps we unknowingly convey that sort of information all the time. Perhaps it can sometimes have bad consequences.

For example, what about those times when we tell classes about their collective bad behavior in order to motivate them? We’ve all likely said things to classes like, “Not many of you have started this week’s assignments yet.” Given what we know about social proof, shouldn’t such messages actually serve to decrease the behavior we want to see? It seems we’d be much more likely to change behavior if we were to say to a class (even if it’s a white lie), “I’m so happy to see how many of you have already started on this week’s assignment.”

I used to try to convince my students that I truly wanted to see them in my office hours by telling them how lonely I get when no one comes by. I see now that I was likely driving students away by suggesting that not coming is the norm.

As teachers, it might be worth being mindful of how easily we seem to be able to sway students’ behavior (for good or for bad) with subtle changes in wording, especially when those words convey information about how other students behave. So consider putting a positive spin on things when you talk to your classes about typical student behavior. The perceived social pressure might be good enough for them to rise to the occasion and engage in the behaviors that will help them most!


Christie Cathey received her BA from Hendrix College and her PhD in Social Psychology from the University of Connecticut. She’s held faculty positions at Missouri Southern State University and Ozarks Technical Community College and was a visiting professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. She is currently a faculty member at Missouri State University where she is Coordinator for Introductory Psychology. In her free time, she enjoys dominating her opponents in spicy food eating competitions.


(1) For details on how we redesigned our course, its current structure, and the resulting outcomes in student performance, success rates, and course perceptions, see Hudson, Whisenhunt, Shoptaugh, Visio, Cathey and Rost (2015).

(2) For details on an optional study skills class we offer at midterm, see Cathey, Visio, Whisenhunt, Hudson, and Shoptaugh (2016).


Cathey, C.L., Visio, M.E., Whisenhunt, D.L., Hudson, D.L., & Shoptaugh, C.F. (2016). Helping when they are listening: A midterm study skills intervention for Introductory Psychology. Psychology Teaching and Learning, 15(3), 250-267.

Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York: Collins.

Hudson, D.L., Whisenhunt, B.L, Shoptaugh, C.F., Visio, M.E., Cathey, C., & Rost, A.D. (2015). Change takes time: Understanding and responding to culture change in course redesign. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1(4), 255-268.

Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R.B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 472-482.