CIALDINIThe Best Secret Device
WHAT’S THE BEST SECRET DEVICE FOR
ENGAGING STUDENT INTEREST? THE ANSWER
IS IN THE TITLE
ROBERT B. CIALDINI
Arizona State University
The most frequent form of classroom lecture presentation involves the description of
course–relevant phenomena. A better, but still suboptimal, approach involves asking
students questions about these phenomena. An even better approach involves the
generation of mystery stories that can only be solved through an understanding of the
phenomena under consideration. Although descriptions demand attention and
questions demand answers, one reason for the superiority of mystery stories is that
they demand something more pedagogically valuable—explanation. By spurring
students to engage in the process of providing explanation (rather than mere attention
or answers), teachers offer students the best opportunity to understand psychological
phenomena in a conceptual, meaningful, and enduring fashion.
I want to advocate that, as teachers, we commission the power of a
grossly underused pedagogical device in our classroom lectures: the
mystery, the puzzle, the enigma that, on its face, seems bewildering in its
defiance of logic or common sense.
It might be best to begin by explaining how I came to be so enamored of
this particular device as a teaching tool. Several years ago, I was writing a
book on persuasion and social influence—not for students initially—but
for a popular audience. Before writing my first word, I decided to go to the
library and get all of the books I could find that had been written by aca-
demics for nonacademics. My strategy was to read thebooks, identify what
I thought were the most and least successful sections, photocopy those sec-
tions, and put them into separate piles. When I was done, I reread the sec-
tions looking for particular features that characterized each type, thereby
engaging in a kind of eyeball version of principal components analysis.
Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2005, pp. 22-29
Address correspondence to Robert B. Cialdini, Department of Psychology, Arizona
State University, Tempe, AZ 85287–1104; E-mail to Robert.Cialdini@asu.edu.
In the unsuccessful pieces, I found the usual suspects, such as lack of
clarity, turgid prose, and overuse of jargon. In the successful group, I
found pretty much what I expected: logical structure, vivid examples,
humor, and so on. But I also found something there that I had not ex-
pected— the most successful of these pieces each began with a mystery
story. The authors described a state of affairs that seemed to make no
sense and then invited the reader into the subsequent material as a way
of solving the mystery. Two things struck me as curious about my dis-
covery. In keeping with the character of this article, I’ll pose them as
Why hadn’t I noticed the use of this technique before, much less its effective
use? After all, I was at the time an avid reader of such material. In fact, I
had been reading this kind of work for years. How could the effective
use of this device have eluded me the whole while? The answer, I think,
has to do with one reason that the device is so effective. It grabs readers
by the collar and pulls them into the material. When structured prop-
erly, mysteries are so compelling that the reader cannot remain an aloof
and neutral outside observer of the story’s form and structure. In the
throes of this particular pedagogical device, one is simply not thinking
of pedagogy; one is focused on the mystery. I think it is telling that I came
to see the presence of this technique as a technique only after I applied a
conscious, structural analysis to the material.
Why were natural scientists better and more frequent commissioners of the
technique than social or behavioral scientists? My best guess is that they
never deluded themselves into believing that the device was unneces-
sary. They don’t hold the misperception that we behavior scientists do
that their material is so inherently interesting that it needs no presenta-
tional boost to engage an audience’s focused attention. We psycholo-
gists, on the other hand, make this error all the time, assuming in the
classroom that because we find the lecture material intriguing and rele-
vant, our students will, too. How often unenthusiastic students prove us
wrong in this particular conceit. The natural scientists, with the task of
communicating about cell membranes or chemical properties or rock
compositions, know better; and the best of them use every communica-
tion advantage at their command—hence, their recognition and use of
the power of mystery.
WHY ARE MYSTERIES SO EFFECTIVE IN ENGAGING AND
HOLDING STUDENT INTEREST?
I can provide an example of how the natural scientists use mystery sto-
ries. The same example also gives us an idea of why such stories are so
effective. One of the most successful book sections I registered was writ-
THE BEST SECRET DEVICE 23
ten by an astronomer. He began a 20–page section with a puzzle: How
can we account for what is perhaps the most spectacular planetary fea-
ture in our solar system, the Rings of Saturn? There’s nothing else like
them. What are the Rings of Saturn made of. anyway?
Then, he deepened the mystery by asking how three internationally
acclaimed groups of scientists could come to wholly different conclu-
sions on the answer. One, at Cambridge University, proclaimed they
were gas. Another group, at MIT, was convinced they were made up of
dust particles. The third, at Cal Tech, insisted they were composed of ice
crystals. How could this be? After all, each group was looking at the
same thing, right? So, what was the answer?
I will not take you through the whole process of discovery and tell you
how the differing backgrounds of the teams—astrophysicists here, as-
tronomers there—led them to look at different aspects of the phenome-
non and how a crucial measurement error led one team down the wrong
path. Suffice it to say that the process of unraveling the mystery was not
unlike the process of scientific investigation, wherein hypotheses are
generated, implications are tested, nonproductive approaches are taken,
errors of interpretation are made, and evidence is marshaled until a sat-
isfactory resolution occurs. By the way, this is no small benefit of the use
of mysteries in our lectures. The process of resolving mysteries is re-
markably similar to the process of science. So, in the use of the mystery
approach, we not only give students information about content, we also
send them a sub–rosa message about process.
Let us get back to the main point. Which answer was revealed at the
end of 20 pages? The beautiful, mysterious Rings of Saturn are mostly
dust! Actually, they are ice–covered dust, which accounts for some of
the confusion, but they are mostly dust nonetheless.
Now, I do not care about dust, and the composition of the Rings of Sat-
urn is entirely irrelevant to my life. But, that scientist had me turning
pages like a speed–reader. Here’s the telling thing: I am sure that I will
never forget the answer to the mystery he constructed. Moreover, I am
sure that I will never forget how three groups of scientists could have
been so confident in their opposing answers to the question. This strikes
me as an enormous advantage of mystery stories. They can get our stu-
dents to become engrossed in and to remember important material that
they otherwise would not care about because it does not seem relevant to
their daily lives. Mystery stories do not need personal relevance—they
bring their own.
Mystery stories bring their own relevance in the form of a need for clo-
sure that most everyone shares to some degree (Kruglanski & Webster,
1996). Mysteries create a need for closure in two ways. First, they initiate
wonder, or the “Huh?” experience. All of us have heard of the famous
“Aha!” experience. Well, the “Aha!” experience becomes much more
satisfying when it is preceded by the “Huh?” experience. This is why the
same student who will fall asleep reading vital course material will stay
up until 4 a.m. turning the pages of a mystery novel. And, is why the
same student who hates processing the details of the material in the text
will vigorously “shush” anyone who interferes with the processing of
the details of a detective mystery on TV—because, in mysteries, one
needs to know the details to achieve the solution. Think of it. This is
something that not only keeps students awake but also makes them
want to pay attention to the details—the necessary and previously
dreaded details—of text material.
A second reason that mysteries engage a need for closure is that they
are stories, and stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is this
narrative sequence that helps to make mystery stories so absorbing. The
beginning propels us toward the middle, which impels us toward the
end, which compels us home (See Green, Strange, & Brock, 2002, for a
thorough analysis of narrative impact).
I first saw evidence of the force of the need for closure aspect of mys-
teries shortly after I began using them in my lectures. I still was inexperi-
enced enough that, on one particular day, I got the timing wrong and the
bell ending the class session rang before I revealed the solution to a puz-
zle I had posed earlier. Normally, 5–10 minbefore the scheduled end
time, some students start preparing to leave. We all know the signals:
pencils are put away, notebooks folded, and backpacks zipped. In this
instance, not only were there no such preparations, no one moved when
the bell rang. In fact, when I tried to end the lecture, I was pelted with
protests. The students would not let me stop until I had given them clo-
sure on the mystery. I remember thinking, “Cialdini, you’ve stumbled
onto dynamite here!”
WHY ARE MYSTERY STORIES SUPERIOR TO OTHER FORMS
OF CLASSROOM PRESENTATION?
Besides mystery stories being excellent devices for engaging and hold-
ing student interest, there is another reason to recommend their in-
creased use. Mystery stories are pedagogically superior to other, more
common forms of classroom presentation, such as providing descrip-
tions of course–relevant phenomena or asking questions about the phe-
nomena. Whereas descriptions demand attention and questions
demand answers, mysteries demand explanations. When we spur our
students to engage in the process of providing explanation (rather than
mere attention or answers), we offer them the best opportunity to under-
THE BEST SECRET DEVICE 25
stand psychological phenomena in a conceptual, meaningful, and
Of course, there are various ways to set up and execute the mystery
story sequence. Let me illustrate one that has worked especially well for
me. Suppose we want to teach about the power of counterarguments in
resisting a persuasive appeal. Before describing the research evidence
(Brock, 1967; Hass & Grady, 1975; Romero, Agnew, & Insko, 1996), we
might engage student attention by taking the following steps.
Pose the Mystery. We are all familiar with cigarette advertising cam-
paign successes featuring Joe Camel, the Marlboro Man, and “You’ve
come a long way, Baby.” But perhaps the most effective marketing deci-
sion ever made by the tobacco companies lies buried and almost un-
known in the industry’s history. After a three–year slide of 10% in to-
bacco consumption in the U.S. during the late 1960s, Big Tobacco did
something that had the extraordinary effect of ending the decline, boost-
ing consumption dramatically, and slashing advertising expenditures
by a third. What was it?
Deepen the Mystery. The answer seems equally extraordinary. On July
22, 1969, during U.S. Congressional hearings, representatives of the ma-
jor American tobacco companies strongly advocated a proposal to ban
all of their own ads from television and radio, even though industry
studies showed that the broadcast media provided the most effective
routes to new sales. As a consequence of that unprecedented move, to-
bacco advertising has been absent from U.S. airwaves since 1971.
Home in on the Proper Explanation by Considering (and Offering Evidence
Against) Alternative Explanations. CoulditbethatAmericanbusinessin-
terests, sobered by the Surgeon General’s report that detailed the deadly
denouement of tobacco use, decided to forego some of their profits to im-
prove the well-being of fellow citizens? That appears unlikely, because
representatives of the other major U.S. business affected by the ban—the
broadcast industry—filed suit in Supreme Court to overturn the law one
month after it was enacted. Thus, it was only the tobacco industry that
supported the restriction on its ads. Could it have been the tobacco com-
pany officials, then, who suddenly became concerned with the health of
the nation? Hardly. They did not reduce their concentrated efforts to in-
crease tobacco sales one whit. They merely shifted their routes for market-
ing their products—away from the broadcast media to print ads, sports
sponsorships, promotional giveaways, and even movie product place-
ments. For example, secret documents of one tobacco firm included a let-
ter from movie actor and director Sylvester Stallone agreeing to use its cig-
arettes in several films in exchange for $500,000 (Massing, 1996).
Provide a Clue to the Proper Explanation. So, by tobacco executives’
logic, magazines, newspapers, billboards, and films were fair game;
only the airwaves should be off limits to their marketing efforts. Why?
What was special about the broadcast media? Two years earlier, the U.S.
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had ruled that its “fairness
doctrine” applied to the issue of tobacco advertising. The fairness doc-
trine required that equal advertising space must be granted (solely) on
radio and television to all sides of important and controversial topics. If
one side purchased broadcast time on these media, the opposing side
must be given free time to counterargue.
Resolve the Mystery. The FCC’s decision had an immediate effect on
the landscape of broadcast advertising. For the first time, anti–tobacco
forces such as the American Cancer Society could afford to air counter-
arguments to tobacco company messages. They did so via counter–ads
that disputed the images created in tobacco company commercials. If a
tobacco ad featured healthy, attractive, and independent characters, the
opposing ads would counterargue that, in truth, tobacco use led to dis-
eased health, damaged attractiveness, and slavish dependence.
During the three years that they ran, these anti–tobacco spots eviscer-
ated tobacco consumption in the U.S.—by nearly 10% (Simonich, 1991).
At first, the tobacco companies responded predictably, increasing their
advertising budgets to try to meet the challenge. By the rules of the fair-
ness doctrine, however, for each tobacco ad, equal time had to be pro-
vided for a counter–ad that would take another bite out of industry prof-
its. When the logic of the situation finally hit them, the tobacco
companies maneuvered masterfully. They worked politically to ban
their own ads, solely in the media where the fairness doctrine applied,
thereby ensuring that anti–tobacco forces would no longer get free air-
time to make their case. As a consequence, in the year following the elim-
ination of tobacco commercials on the most effective advertising me-
dium for producing new sales, the tobacco companies witnessed a
significant jump in sales coupled with a significant reduction in
advertising expenditures (Fritschler, 1975)—a nearly unheard of
Draw the Implications for the Phenomenon under Study. Tobacco oppo-
nents found that they could use counterarguments to undercut tobacco
ad effectiveness. But tobacco executives learned (and profited from) a re-
lated lesson: one of the best ways to reduce resistance to a message is to
reduce the availability of counterarguments to it.
Note that, at this stage in the mystery story sequence, our teaching
point about the impact and availability of counterarguments is neither a
description nor an answer—it is an explanation.
I trust it goes without saying that this sequence is best approached by
not providing it to students as a set of pronouncements. Instead, at ap-
propriate intervals, students should be invited into the process. They
THE BEST SECRET DEVICE 27
should be given the opportunity to offer their own speculations and ex-
planations. They should be asked to consider how these explanations
could account for all of the evidence revealed up to that point, and for
new pieces of evidence that you reveal. At the end of the sequence, the
students should be asked if they could develop an alternative explana-
tion that fits all of the evidence. This is not something that deserves spe-
cial emphasis in the present article, it is just good teaching. And good
teaching—drawing student participation and spurring critical
thinking—applies to mystery stories, too.
ONE MORE REASON TO FAVOR MYSTERY STORIES IN THE
There is a final reason for the instructional superiority of mystery stories.
To best describe what it is, I first need to describe a little trick I learned to
play on myself long ago to improve my teaching. After a few years in the
classroom, I noticed that there were some lectures I dreaded giving be-
cause the students were bored by the material. There were other lectures
that I loved to deliver because the students enjoyed the material. I am
sure that the self–fulfilling prophecy phenomenon played a role. On cer-
tain days, I expected to be uninteresting and, dispirited by the prospect, I
was. On other days, I expected to be interesting and, enlivened by the
prospect, I was.
Anyway, the trick was to reconfigure my lectures so that I inserted into
each one something that I genuinely looked forward to presenting be-
cause students loved it, such as a humorous anecdote, a riveting exam-
ple, or an especially clever experiment. The key was to have at least one
such high point per session. Sometimes this meant rearranging the mate-
rial so that I removed a highlight from a lecture that had two and placed
it in a lecture that had none.
The intention was to motivate students to look forward to class by mo-
tivating myself to do the same. I found I was a much better teacher when I
had a special reason to want to be in each class session. The consequent
boost in my performance was not restricted to the day’s home run. It ex-
tended to the other material I presented that day.
This is how mystery stories offer that final instructional advantage:
they are ready–made high points. Students love them, which energizes
both students and teachers to want to be in class. A lot can be said for
thinking about ways to generate teacher excitement for the classroom,
and not just student excitement. After all, each kind of excitement feeds
the other. If we find something (like mystery stories) that works both
sides of the street simultaneously, we would do everyone a disservice by
not using it.
Brock, T. C. (1967). Communication discrepancy and intent to persuade as determinants of
counterarguments. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3, 296–309.
Fritschler, A. L. (1975). Smoking and politics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice–Hall.
Green, M. C., Strange, J.J., & Brock, T. C. (2002). Narrative impact: Social and cognitive founda-
tions. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Hass, RG., & Grady, K. (1975). Temporal delay, type of forewarning, and resistance to in-
fluence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 11, 459–469.
Kruglanski, A. W., & Webster, D. M. (1996). Motivated closing of the mind: “Seizing” and
“freezing.” Psychological Review, 103, 263–283.
Massing, M. (1996, July 11). How to win the tobacco war. New York Review of Books, pp.
Romero, A. A., Agnew, C. R., & Insko, C. A. (1996). The cognitive mediation hypothesis re-
visited. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 651–665.
Simonich, W. L. (1991). Government antismoking policies. New York: Peter Lang.
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