Library Corner: How to Apologise for Killing a Cat

Have you ever tried using the latest behavioural science ideas only to find it’s not had the impact you expected. In his latest book Guy Doza argues that this often comes down to the lost art of rhetoric. We’ve become so focused on the latest scientific developments that we don’t focus on language and how it can influence behaviour. Doza explores how to be a better speaker and writer by mastering the English language. For a scientist this may be daunting, but the payoff is immense, and it’s something we regularly overlook.

Next time you are at an airport and you look at the business book section you will find a vast selection of books promising to explain the science behind marketing and behavioural science - and online the selection is even more daunting. Unfortunately, after you have read a couple, many start to appear rather similar, recounting the same stories, experiments, and case studies. But every now and then you will come across a fantastic book that changes your perspective or opens your eyes to something new. Each month we will review one of these books, either a new release or something from that past, but outside of the mainstream behavioural science or marketing literature. This month: ‘How to apologise for killing a cat’ by Guy Doza’ 

Study any psychology course and one of the first essays you’ll write will be ‘Is psychology a science?’, and the answer they always expect is yes. This should be no surprise. Read any behavioural science books and they give you the impression that with a few simple changes, such as incorporating Cialdini's 7 principles of persuasion, and your sales will dramatically shoot up. I’m not suggesting that behavioural science won’t increase sales, they do, but implementing these techniques can be more complicated than they may make out. Or to put it another way, there is an art to how their implemented.   


And this is where the art of rhetoric comes. The psychological principles of persuasion give you the building blocks, but it is the linguistic flare that often determine the success of these interventions.

Take the example, from the book’s title. From a psychological perspective, a successful apology just needs to comprise of six elements. (1) An expression of remorse over the conflict (2) An acceptance of responsibility for the harmful behaviour (3) an admission of injustice or wrongdoing (4) an acknowledgement of harm and/or victim suffering (5) a promise to do better in the future (6) an offer to repair the damage done. Tick those boxes and it’s job done. But if you accidentally reversed over your neighbour’s cat and said “I am so sorry. It is my fault. I was wrong. I can see that you’re upset. It won’t happen again. I’ll get you a new cat” you’re not going to get very far.  And this is where the art of rhetoric comes. The psychological principles of persuasion give you the building blocks, but it is the linguistic flare that often determine the success of these interventions.  

And this is what differentiates Doza’s book from most other books on persuasion. Rather than reviewing the standard experiments you find in virtually every book, Doza explores the lost art of rhetoric. What are the different elements of language that can be used to make your argument appear more persuasive. At first it may sound a little daunting, especially when all the concepts have Latin or Greek based names, but master these concepts, and you’ll be a better writer. However, it is important to emphasise that this is not a behavioural science guide, and people who are used to reading these books might initially be disappointed. There is no magic formula or killer statistics such as “use this tactic and your sales will increase by 20%”.  Instead, it simply explains the classical elements of rhetoric and provides numerous examples of how they are used. And this is where life can get a little complex, with so many techniques to choose from, how do you know which one to use? There is no flow chart or dichotomous key. It’s up to you to use your intuition and experience to decide what to do.  

If you come from a scientific background, you might find this frustrating. On first reading you might feel you’re back in an English literature class. You may feel that you are equipped to analyse an advert, but don’t know how to use this new knowledge. But when you stop and think about it, it’s not hard to see how you can easily change the way you write.  Behavioural science books are often aimed at copywriters helping them to better understand psychology to improve their writing. This time the tables are turned, and it is a case of seeing what psychologists and behavioural scientists can learn from copywriters.  

Decoded, 2nd edition is published by Wiley in 2022 and is available to buy for £16.99 

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