Influencing human behavior by Harry Allen Overstreet - Summary

This book is a jack of all trades. It goes into capturing peoples attention, how to speak/write, planting ideas in people, analyzing crowd behaviors etc. while being one of the most excellently literary books I’ve read in a long while.


The key problem: capturing the attention

What we attend to controls our behavior. What we can get others to attend to controls their behavior.

=> is the key to influencing human behavior

  • to create attention “movement” is needed.
  • “movement” towards something which can not be predicted

Get a student to say “No” at the beginning, or a customer, child, husband, or wife, and it takes the wisdom and the patience of angels to transform that bristling negative into an affirmative.

  • Directing question directly at the audience arouses more attention than stating the same topic as a generalization.

  • Throw down a fair challenge without boasting and any egotism involved.

  • Involve something new while incorporating old parts to give a sense of familiarity to everyone.

  • Focus on a few things instead of spreading out too thinly. Simplicity is key.

The appeal to wants

We capture attention when what we say or do is in response to people’s wants. There, apparently, is at least a clue!

No appeal to reason that is not also an appeal to a want can ever be effective.

  • appeal to a group of fundamental wants instead of just one

  • don’t forget wants which imply pleasing other people around us

  • fundamental wants:
    • sex
    • playing
    • security and avoidance of fears
    • owning something
    • being efficient
    • social esteem
    • personal appearance
    • cleanliness
  • appealing to wants is far better than appealing to a sense of duty. it’s psychologically and morally superior.

The problem of vividness

  • get inspired by authors like Tolstoy, Anatole France, Shaw, Huxley, Emerson, or Carlyle to build up a vocabulary of picture words.

  • 2 types of pictures:
    • imitative: photograph or a photographic drawing
    • selective: diagrams, graphs, curves, cartoons. (more important)
  • learn to see what makes pictures in galleries stand out

The secret of all true persuasion is to induce the person to persuade himself. The chief task of the persuader, therefore is to induce the experience. The rest will take care of itself.

The psychology of effective speaking

  • think of your audience; don’t be a bore by unloading your own interests and acting selfishly; think about what your audience is interested in; shouting at a child is simply an unloading of feeling, it seldomly achieves its intended purpose

  • there is a difference between looking towards your audience and looking at your audience.

  • have a good attitude towards your audience.

  • talk about things that interest oneself as speaker as well as the audience.

  • being the know it all by unloading all your knowledge to your audience fosters a sense of inferiority in the audience and they start to resent the speaker => don’t boast

  • try to talk with your audience instead of at your audience

  • keep your audience thinking with you
  • keep thinking with your audience as speaker

  • use humour only in fine nuances and use it to keep your audience’s attention

try to cultivate a musical voice of a fairly wide range and flexible use.

  • try to avoid too many filling sounds like ‘er’

accuracy of phrasing develops accuracy of mind

The psychology of effective writing

  • in contrast to speaking, one has the time to find the right words in expressing one’s ideas while writing

  • what makes writing dull:
    • using the “standard verbal equipment”
    • too much blabbering for explaining an idea
    • too much circumlocution (get to the point)
    • involved phrases, long sentences, ideas baldy arranged
    • awakes no curiosity in the reader
    • no vivid pictures; pale
    • absence of rhythm
    • monotony of rhythm
  • people have: “novelty” wish and the wish for a “chase”
  • be aware and use the different shades of meanings in words effectively
    • country vs nation
    • government vs state
    • marriage vs wedlock
    • home vs house
  • correctly employ “affect” words which stir up emotions like:
    • cocky
    • mooning
    • tears
    • sighed
  • be sensitive to which words fit together

  • one does not need big words for big effects as exemplified by the poem “Renascene” by Edna St. Vincent

All I could see from where I stood was three long mountains and a wood. I turned and looked the other way and aw three islands in a bay. So with my eyes I traced the line of the horizon, thin and find, straight around and till I was come back to where I started from.

  • Compare the 2 sentences below where the first one stands out:
    • The teaching of the schools stops where the wee bit begins. – Tolstoy
    • The schools are unable to teach the wee bit which constitutes art.
    • notice: contrasting words (stops-begins); picture/action words; rise and fall of rhythm
  • Or, compare the following two sentences:
    • Through every clause and part of speech of a right book, I meet the eyes of the most determined of men: his force and terror inundate every word: the commas and dashes are alive; so that the writing is athletic and nimble - can go far and live long. – Emerson
    • Whenever I read a great book, I feel the strong personality of the author; I feel the force behind his words. They seem quite living.
  • a phrase is distinguished if others would not say it like that. Possible features:
    • a brilliant picture
    • an unexpected turn
    • a new combination of old words
    • a suggestion of contrast
    • a surge of rhythm
  • try to analyse existing distinguished works to build an awareness what makes something distinguished

  • pay attention to the rhythm of your words as it determines whether your readers will read along => of utmost importance

  • one’s personality shines through one’s writing. To change one’s writing, one must change one’s personality first.

  • use phrases that are:
    • arresting
    • clear and concise
    • have dramatic quality

Crossing the interest dead-line

  • comment: great chapter on advertisements

  • lure the reader on to keep him engaged

  • by describing a situation the writer can create a lure for the reader

Note again that our novelist starts, not with general observations, but with a concrete, easily visualized, and interesting situation. Nor is the situation a static one. Each sentence is a situation, which is part of the larger one; and each moves us on to the next.

  • Artistic geniuses:
    • Huxley
    • Pasteur
    • Bergson
    • William James
  • create so called “vacuums” of information to make the reader continue along

Present a cause in action. The mind will demand the outcome.

For example:

The lady descended upon me after my lecture like locomotive spurting steam. I edged back from the spary of her words. So you are the man who that nasty article about Americans in Mexico? …

  • present a “shock” to make the reader cross the interest dead-line like in the comparison between a sick mother and sick hog (P. 121)

  • illustrate a conflict that matters to the reader

Making ideas stick

  • don’t use dull words of every day use
  • give a certain twist to words to make them stick and the ideas as a result like:
    • passive resistance
    • a new twist to old words
  • avoid circumlocution if possible

Only as our minds are sharpened are we able to fashion the phrases that stick.

  • don’t overdo it with slogans and clichés to make ideas stick

  • vague words indicate vague thoughts

How to change persons: the entering wedge

A person, in short, is what he is by reason of the more or less unified aggregate of his habit systems.

  • solving one deficient habit can make a person’s character bloom and improve other habits in exchange

The building of habits: associative techniques

the environments we provide are habit builders.

  • not only in the way they build habits by assimilation but also by being supportive and pleasurable (hard vs soft seats in schools)
    • persons: parents, teachers, managers, foremen
    • environments: homes, school buildings, classrooms, churches, factories, offices

Our unconscious fabrication habit

Ignorance, relative or absolute, is always the fertile soil for fabrication.

  • for instance, snobbishness arises out of an unwillingness to be critically honest about other people

The problem of straight thinking

  • schools trying to teach children accuracy by having them learn different topics by heart can result in a resentment towards the general topic of accuracy in other areas of their life.

  • learning from a single source of truth for examples a single history book, teaches pupils a sense of inaccuracy because of this dogmatic method; who knows whether or not everything in this specific book is true or not.

  • rationalization is a system of creating justified reasons for a person to do something or acknowledge something which before could not be done with their current belief system

He[The average adult in an average small city] is now a man of between thirty and forty. He has read the newspapers and popular magazines; has gone to “happy ending” plays; perhaps to church; has learned to make a fair amount of money. He has never had the chance to subject his mind to a thorough overhauling as far as the really crucial matters of human life are concerned. HIs mind, therefore, is, save in rare cases, a museum of immature fixations, snap judgments, picked-up prejudices, and unverified “hand-me-downs.” It is the mind of a child on a the shoulders of an adult.

Diagnosing the public

  • habit systems have dependencies on each other. One habit may only be an effect of another habit.

  • observe the aggregate habit system of the public to find the critical habits which make the society work. Then and only then can a change in the public be achieved by employing or altering an existing habit.

Training the creative mind

  • tabus and old superstitions hinder the development of more efficient advancements in every aspect
  • but, given the environment of the business person, he is usually the one who embraces change to have an advantage compared to his competitors.

  • often objections in social matters come from handed down values or god given facts and should not be changed

Conflict and invention

  • conflict should be seen as a way to create invention.
  • Be open to what the other side has to say and try to understand their viewpoint

The technique of humor

  • implying that someone has humor, implies that he has a spirit to play, which again implies that he has a spirit of humour and creative spontaneity

  • the humorous person is aware of other people’s weaknesses and his own. he does not look down on others.

  • humorous people are:

    • playful
    • free
    • creative
    • not priggish
    • not fanatic
    • not bigoted
    • not afraid to laugh at respectabilities
    • not censorious
    • refreshingly unexpected

Judge not, lest ye lose the fine power of indulgent laughter.

  • to be humorous note incongruities in life and try to exaggerate them to laughable conspicuousness

The individual and his world

  • Summary of all chapters


  • Excellent writing style

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The mind agrees.