Oscillation is one of the best-kept secrets in human influence.None of the
gurus of persuasion or influence will talk about oscillation (and they may
not know what it is).
Very few people who understand belief and behavior oscillation want
anyone else to grasp the concept. Oscillating beliefs and values are key in
successfully understanding and persuading others.
As you learn about managing oscillation in others I want you to keep
the following in mind:
Core concept:“Yes” is not a true decision. It is agreement or affirma-
tion to a proposal at a particular instant in time . . . and you had best seize
Had you asked for a response five minutes earlier or later you almost
certainly would have gotten a different answer, regardless of what the
Remember when you were 16 or 26 and you were in that moment
when you probably were going to be intimate with someone else? Your
heart pounded.You knew you could get pregnant, or get her pregnant, or
get AIDS or syphilis.You had always thought you believed that you would
never have unprotected or possibly premarital sex. Perhaps you:
Thought it was wrong.
Knew it was against your religion.
Would never take the risk of acquiring a life-threatening disease.
Would never take the risk of pregnancy.
Believed you should wait to have sex until you were married.
Were waiting for the right person.
Remember? Your beliefs were strong. Firm. Written in stone. You
could have preached a sermon about whichever of these beliefs you held
close and lived by. (If this specific example is foreign to you, simply think
of the other firm beliefs you had that you violated within a matter of sec-
onds or minutes of first considering doing so.)
And then you were in the moment.And you had this experience that
was something you knew you wouldn’t do but you did. Upon reflection,
you were surprised at your behavior. Perhaps you were shocked.You now
had to try to justify your actions in some way or determine that what you
originally believed was wrong.An internal mess. Remember?
Let’s examine what happened on that day:
1. You held a powerful, intense, unwavering belief for a long time.
2. You knew that you would never behave in a different fashion than
what you believed.
3. With only minutes of consideration, you violated a belief you had
had for years and perhaps for your entire life.
4. Afterward you wondered if you really knew who you were, or
worse, you experienced tons of guilt because you so easily and in-
stantly wavered on something that was a belief that defined who
You had never oscillated or vacillated about this remarkable subject in
the past.You were always absolutely certain about what you believed and
how you felt.You knew you could never behave in any other way than
what you valued and believed. It was as impossible as a man reaching the
moon in the 1960s.
And then you did “it.”
How is that possible?
I use this extreme example to begin our discussion of oscillation be-
cause in this example there is essentially no oscillation until the minutes
before the moment.Then all of a sudden the wavering begins and it is of-
ten experienced as scary because conflicting beliefs now begin to enter the
mind. Back and forth, pro and con. Strong feelings/emotions overcome
what we might call “rational thought,” and a lifetime of certainty is trans-
formed after minutes of oscillation to a completely different behavior.
In this case, first there is no oscillation, then there is a burst of oscil-
lation and indecision (often accompanied by confusion), and then a spe-
cific behavior occurs. After the behavior, something must happen to
make the individual whole or congruent again.The person must recon-
cile the behavior with the previous beliefs by either establishing new be-
liefs, condemning themselves, or returning to their old beliefs with a
renewed vigor realizing they have “not been themselves.”The oscillations
after the behavior are often as dramatic as or more dramatic than those
prior to the behavior.
What follows is a completely different example that illustrates this
(If you don’t understand football, you may want to forgive me in ad-
vance and dig in for the next four paragraphs.)
When I first looked at the January 2003 Super Bowl to handicap it, I
determined the number should be Oakland –3 at a neutral site.San Diego
isn’t really quite neutral, as the proximity to the Bay Area versus Florida
certainly favors Oakland. I thought the number should be bumped a
point or two, perhaps to as much as 5. In Vegas the number opened at 5
and got bet by the pros (smart-money betters) down to 4 where it stayed
I have a model I use to handicap football games. One of the key ele-
ments that had led me to pick New England the year before was the likely
number of turnovers in the game. (The other most important factors are
yards per pass for/against.) In 2003, I concluded,Tampa Bay should be the
recipient of about one more interception than Oakland.That means if the
two teams played millions of times,Tampa would win about 55 to 60 per-
cent of the time. So, my money goes on Tampa Bay. (There are other fac-
tors that are analyzed in this tough-to-call game, but that isn’t the point of
As soon as I laid a significant number of dollars on Tampa Bay, my
mind started to find additional data to support the decision to bet Tampa
Bay. Now as I thought about it, 9 out of 10 of my thoughts supported my
decision to bet Tampa. This large volume of unconscious justification
about a decision that is almost a flip of a coin in true probability is un-
called-for based on real world evidence.My emotions started to selectively
filter out reasons to bet on Oakland and support my expensive choice of
betting on Tampa Bay.
It took me six hours to finally bet the amount of money I did. I vacil-
lated between taking the offensive Oakland scoring machine versus the
solid as a rock (Tampa) defense. Back and forth.Then when my gut said
Tampa more often than not, I ran the numbers and they also pointed to
Tampa Bay.Then as time went on in the week, I became more certain—
which of course was only an illusion because it wasn’t based on real-world
evidence, only on feelings and justifications. (In this case Tampa was kind
enough to actually win and allow me another problem, which is believing
I am better/smarter than I really am! But, that’s okay—I got paid.
Here’s what happens:There is typically an arbitrary decision point that is
set in almost every negotiation/communication/decision. (“I have to
know today.”“If we don’t have a deal by the 31st, I let someone else have
it.”“If you buy today you get 10 percent off.”) A decision needs to be or
probably will be made. In some cases, if an obvious decision isn’t instantly
made (yes, I will pull over for the police officer because I don’t want this
ticket to be higher than it is now) things could get worse.Almost all deci-
sions that require conscious thought (most decisions require no thought or
conscious attention at all) find people oscillating back and forth as to what
to do, especially before the decision point.
Realize that people would make a very different decision at 5:00
than at 5:05
. on something that goes back and forth a lot in the mind!
People literally change their mind as each moment passes in many deci-
sions. Unless people have firm beliefs as discussed earlier in the decision
about having sex, people are constantly oscillating on decisions. Back and
forth. Back and forth. Sometimes with varying degrees of intensity.“No,
absolutely not.”That was today.Then tomorrow,“Well, maybe.”Then the
next day:“I don’t think so, but it’s possible.”
You can see the pendulum swing back and forth, or the child on the
swing go higher or lower. More important for our discussion is that oscil-
lation is not a day-to-day experience. It is a moment-to-moment experi-
ence.“Yes”and “no”in varying degrees flip-flop from moment to moment
and minute to minute.
The oscillation will continue indefinitely unless a new stimulus enters
the equation—and then any change is subject to further change.
Once persuaded to do anything, there is definitely short-term change
in behavior. Instead of doing one thing, a person does another. Instead of
believing one thing, a person believes another. Nevertheless, people can
and do regularly change even strong beliefs.The more public a person is
with their belief/behavior, the more likely they are to maintain that belief.
(The minister of the church is more likely to maintain his belief than the
parishioner sitting in row 30 because of the weekly public exposition of
his beliefs through sermons and prayers.)
Beliefs and behaviors that are not made public are more likely to
change due to future attempts at persuasion.
Someone who begins a diet plan and attends classes or meetings is
likely to continue to succeed while attending the classes. As soon as the
person stops attending the classes or going to the meetings,the chances are
greatly increased that they will stop their weight control program and re-
vert to old beliefs and behaviors.
The more people there are who have opinions and the more important those
people’s opinions about a person are, the more powerful the desire one has to keep
the new belief or behavior consistent with the new belief.
Key Question: Is there anything we can predict will happen after a per-
son has been persuaded?
Yes. Once someone has been persuaded there is a very good chance
they will go through oscillations of regret, sometimes so great that they
will actually immediately change their mind again and cancel a purchase
or not take a job they thought they should, for example.
You can virtually eliminate this specific reaction through the uti-
lization of principles that allow someone to anticipate their regret prior
to the decision point so that when they experience the change of be-
lief/behavior they will be expecting it and will react in a less intense
Did the firefighters need to be persuaded on 9/11? Did they experi-
You hire an account to do your books and reduce your taxes.
Your personal trainer’s job is to get rid of your gut.
The chef? To cook.
A police officer? To protect public safety.
But what happens when an airplane flies into a building? What hap-
pens inside of the mind of the firefighter who is racing upstairs while
everyone else is going down?
Specifically there is no way to know. Even the firefighters who lived
could only report what they think they remembered and thought at the
time of the most incredible crisis imaginable, reminiscent of D-Day in
some ways. Firefighters train for disasters but they usually have a sense of
control about their own safety. Going into the World Trade Center was
quite another thing.
We know that many office workers trapped in the buildings who were
about to lose their lives called loved ones.The same was true for the pas-
sengers on the flight that was heroically downed in Pennsylvania that fate-
ful day. We do know that oscillation probably takes place in these
extraordinary circumstances.The desire to be with loved ones.The desire
to live. Being able to live your life in the way you choose and ultimately
die doing that which you love. I imagine there was oscillation and it was
fairly rapidly dismissed by the objective, the task at hand.
Veterans of war no doubt experienced similar feelings, thoughts, and
oscillations. But what about the more mundane? Buying a car? Saying
“yes” or “no” to the request for a date? Saying “yes” or “no” to the mar-
There is ample evidence that reveals that the closer one comes to a goal or
an objective (the wedding day, for example) the more likely one is to experience
As humans we experience fear and anxiety responses when we lose
the “freedom options.”That’s one reason ordering fish or fowl can be such
a difficult problem! As soon as a decision is near, anxiety can incapacitate a
person, even on little decisions about what to eat in a restaurant.
In fact,reams of research indicate this repulsion to the goal is great as it
is approached in many contexts.This often leads to self-sabotage and other
This is why people say they would like to invest in their 401(k) plan
next year but if they were asked to make a deposit today they would not
Oscillation is not indecisiveness per se. It is a normal and often useful
reaction to situations that have unknown variables.
Oscillation is wavering between two or more possibilities.
The wavering can become more intense as the deadline looms.
The anxiety and fear level increases as the deadline comes closer.
The desire to move away from any choice that limits future free-
dom of choice in any way increases as a decision point nears.
A woman who is in love with two men chooses man A. (Men do not
choose women, regardless of what religion or theory of evolution you
subscribe to that tells you otherwise.) She decides,“I will spend my life
with Andrew.” But as she comes closer and closer to actually spending
the rest of her life with Andrew, she begins to wonder if she has made a
big mistake and starts to seriously reconsider Bill! Sure, she dumped Bill
a month ago, but really, when she thinks about it, Bill is probably the bet-
This oscillation doesn’t just happen with women. My mom regularly
told me that it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind. I always
thought that was a lousy excuse. It turns out to be true, though, except
that everyone changes their minds! Most people change their minds as the
goal approaches or the other options have been rejected.
Sometimes these oscillations are manifested in behavior. Sometimes
they are not. Either way, they are happening in the mind of the individual.
According to Fink, Kaplowitz, and Hubbard (2002), oscillation (wa-
vering) increases when the person or message doing the persuading is per-
ceived as credible.When someone is believable and states an opinion that
isn’t consistent with what the individual currently believes, credibility be-
comes a critical issue.
The power of the argument/message is also critical.A well-framed argu-
ment will cause people’s minds to waver between options.Consider the State
of the Union speech by President George W. Bush at the end of January
2003. Bush faced great opposition on his objective of attacking Iraq. In the
State of the Union, Bush could not provide the “smoking gun” that many
wanted,so he provided a logical line of thinking that was difficult to refute.I
paraphrase: There were 30,000 missiles that could be used to carry weapons of mass
destruction. Sixteen have been found.Where are the other 29,984?
Indeed.Where were they? Bush clearly and concisely stated the facts
of what weapons Iraq had at the end of 1998 and then claimed to reveal
what Iraq had not declared.The strategy essentially worked, as 84 percent
of the nation had a positive view of the speech. Doubts remained (that is
part of what oscillation will always yield!),and perhaps we will never know
all the facts. But one thing is certain:The strength of a well-stated argu-
ment can cause oscillation. The stronger the argument, the greater and
more frequent the oscillation.This means:The more powerful the argu-
ment,the more often the person will vacillate between beliefs/choices and
the more real both choices become.
What about the 16 percent who weren’t convinced and who didn’t
seem to waver at all? Perhaps they did.Perhaps not.Certainly if their opin-
ion was written in stone they simply didn’t oscillate at all. However, re-
member the option of having sex or not and how most did so? That was
written in stone.
Wavering between two or more options occurs when something is
important. Someone hates their job but they want to keep their income,
which is high when compared with jobs the person would qualify for
should they leave their current job.
Hate job, well paid. Less money, more enjoyable work.
This is an important issue and oscillation could occur dozens of times
per hour,day,week,month,and year.Oscillation will generally not happen
to any significant degree in issues that are not important to the person.
Why would a millionaire care if a cup of coffee is $2 or $1? She probably
wouldn’t and thus wouldn’t waver. Generally speaking, an issue has to be
important to engender vacillation.You can tell when you are oscillating
when you feel torn or you feel like you are being pulled in two directions.
Generally risk is involved.Staying with the job entails the risk of never
enjoying other aspects of life. Going entails the risk of never having the
money you have now. People oscillate when something is important and
entails tangible risks both in the change and in the status quo.