If you’ve never before worried about how to arrange chairs in a meeting room or office, time to start. Researchers have recently found that whether chairs are in a circle or square can impact your ability to influence your customers, so take a seat and read on.
The study by researchers Zhu and Argo looked at the impact of seating arrangements on persuasion.
Grouping subjects in rooms with either a circular seating arrangement or angular, the researchers showed participants two alternative advertisements for holidays. One version of the ad contained messages highlighting the benefits for the consumer and their loved ones (e.g. “Treat those who are special to you…”) whereas the other highlighted benefits for the consumer specifically (e.g. “Make yourself a priority”). Reactions to these ads were then evaluated by the type of seating arrangement.
It was found that those in the circular configuration were more persuaded by the ad that focused on relationships whereas those in the angular arrangement were more persuaded by messages focused on self.
Underpinning the difference in response was what is called “priming” – how we are cued to behave by our environment. The research has shown that circular seating configurations prime consumers to evaluate material more favourably when it conveys family-oriented, inclusive information because it taps into our need for belonging. This is therefore great for consensus decisions.
In contrast, an angular arrangement provoked a state of uniqueness and self-orientation. If you are seeking an independent decision, then this is the way to go.
In other words:
- Circular seating primes our need to belong
- Angular seating primes our need for uniqueness
The research also points to the importance of congruence between the explicit message (e.g. what the ad says) and implicit message (e.g. the environment). When people are primed for belonging and inclusiveness, messages that celebrate the self may jar and lead them to rejecting the ad.
Likewise, priming people for an independent, personal focus will mean that messages about benefits for others may not work very well. This relates to the concept of “fluency” where your customer will respond better to messages that fit with the context.
Perhaps the most interesting element of the research was the use of “social proof”. In general terms, people are influenced by what others do, which is why so many businesses chase Facebook “Likes” as evidence that they are popular.
In this case, groups saw an ad for a museum and were told that “90%” or “10%” of previous participants liked the ad. Consumers primed for belonging (circular seating) were more favourable toward the ad when told that a majority of people like it (i.e. 90%) than minority (10%) and vice versa for the uniqueness-primed groups.
What this suggests is that social proof needs to be used judiciously depending on what type of decision you are asking your customer or stakeholder to make. For example, imagine a stakeholder for whom independence and uniqueness is particularly strong; they may react negatively to messages of consensus such as “John and Betty have already given their support to this business case”. A stakeholder who loves to be liked on the other hand may be positively influenced by that same message.
Designing for influence
The key reminder from this research is that we should not underestimate the impact the decision-making environment has on those whom we are trying to persuade.
Crafting the proposition is one thing, but where and how will your customer be reading it? Is it a decision they are making on their own behalf or for others? And what can you do to prime fluency and ensure congruence between the message and the decision?
Bri Williams runs People Patterns Pty Ltd, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.