Sir Winston Churchill’s mythical persuasion fail

Have you ever heard the following chestnut?

Supposedly, Sir Winston Churchill was talking to a large and juicy society woman at a party.

And for the sake of argument, the bulldog Churchill asked:

“Madam, for a million pounds, would you sleep with Winston Churchill?”

“Why Mr. Churchill,” the society woman chuckled, “for a million pounds, I believe I would.”

The hook was in.

“Very well, madam,” continued Churchill. “And for five pounds?”

“Mr Churchill!” the woman gasped, “what kind of a woman do you think I am!”

To which Churchill supposedly replied, “We’ve already established that, madam. Now we are just haggling over the price.”

The fact is, Winston Churchill was probably never involved in this exchange, and the same mythical story has been attributed to several other cranks, including George Bernard Shaw and Groucho Marx.

But why is this story funny, and why is it relevant to persuasion?

To start with, we know that consistency can move persuasion mountains.

For example, Robert Cialdini reports in Influence how American POWs in Chinese-run prisoner camps were gradually turned pro-communist.

They went through a process of making small, simple, public concessions along the lines of “Every country has its problems, including the United States,” in exchange for trivial favors like a pack of cigarettes.

And after a POW would agree to something like this, he’d be rewarded for making a slightly stronger anti-American statement, like “I don’t believe capitalism is right for East Asia.”

The incredible thing is that, step by step, the POWs would internalize and adapt those statements, until they became a part of their psyche.

Why does this happen?

According to Cialdini, when people agree or commit to something, particularly in public, there’s a very strong instinct to act in a consistent way.

Your brain literally gets rearranged to line up with those public statements you made.

So now the big question.

Why doesn’t this work in the “haggling over the price” story?

Why doesn’t the society woman conclude,

“Mr. Churchill, I’d never realized how attractive I found you, until I imagined sleeping with you for one million pounds… But now that I have, I believe even five pounds will do just fine!”

Cialdini offers an answer to this as well.

When we make a commitment in exchange for a big reward (eg. a million pounds), we don’t feel we “own” that commitment. It doesn’t really represent who we are. We just did it for the money.

However, if we make a similar commitment for a much smaller reward (eg. a pack of cigarettes in the POW camp), then we have to justify to ourselves why we did it.

The inescapable conclusion is because we wanted to or thought it was right.

And that’s when the automatic persuasion of commitment begins to take hold.

So the next time Sir Winston is trying to pick up women, he might be better off asking for a kiss in exchange for an ice cream.

And then building from there.

John Bejakovic


Would you sign up for my  daily emails about persuasion for a million pounds? You would? How about for an ice cream?