The Art of Subtle Suggestion

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | May 10, 2014

“Everything begins with an idea.”
Earl Nightingale

Jolina Petersheim never thought her whole life would change by a simple suggestion made by a librarian who took the book “I Capture the Castle” off a shelf and said, “Here you are.” In her Reader’s Digest (April 2014) article, “Lady in the Library,” Petersheim describes what that book did for her.

“I was hooked. Absolutely hooked. I had a henhouse. I wanted to be a writer. I loved to scribble in strange places and felt insecure about my poetry. I never told the librarian how much that book meant to me. How it spurred my writing dreams to the point that I took journals on hikes through the woods and paused to jot down notes in the crook of an old tree near a clear, cold stream. 

Petersheim ended her article with these words, “I wondered how many lives we change without realizing what we do is significant. For all that woman had really done was lend me a book. But it had captured my world. 

As I read that wonderful story I began pondering the art of subtle suggestion. It doesn’t really take much to influence us for good or ill. Just a word from a friend about what incredible service that store provides or what poor food they serve at that restaurant can cause us to say that we will probably not go there or that we must try it out. 

We have all heard of the Placebo Effect in research where fake drugs are given to some people while real ones are given to others. The health of some people improves just because they are part of the experiment and they think they are taking medication that will help them. 

The Hawthorne Effect is one of the most famous studies in psychology that also illustrates that people’s behavior changes simply by being observed. In the original studies on factory workers at the Hawthorne factory in Illinois, researchers found that changing the physical conditions (like lighting) did not have consistent results on productivity. Instead, it was the very fact that people were being studied and were receiving attention from their managers that affected how hard they worked. The simple reality that “I’m watching you” improved their production.

Educators know the power of suggestion when they wield the words, “I expect better from you.” In 2003 Rosenthal said, “When teachers hold expectations that students are high performers, they unwittingly provide those students with an enhanced learning environment that produces better performance. 

It was one simple suggestion that changed my own life forever. I was just out of high school and was trying to decide whether or not I should go to college. And, in answer to my question if it was a good idea or not, my father’s cousin said, “The time you take to sharpen your tools is never wasted.” I have no idea where I would be today had it not been for that powerful suggestion.

Scott Reed said, “To begin with, you must realize that any idea accepted by the brain is automatically transformed into an action of some sort. It may take seconds or minutes or longer but ideas always produce a reaction of some sort.” 

It doesn’t take a big idea to make a big difference, for as Lamar Cole said, “A small idea is a birthplace of great accomplishment.” Like Petersheim, my friend Dr. John Shirk knew the power of suggestion to read a good book. Even though it was over 35 years ago, I am still digesting Robert Henri’s “The Art Spirit” which he recommended I read.

People who are in sales are trained to make subtle suggestions that lead to a sale. Instead of “Do you want an egg in your milkshake?” they are trained to ask “Do you want one or two eggs in your milkshake?  

Suggestions can indeed shape reality.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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