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Pressing Buttons


Techniques General persuasion > More methods > Pressing Buttons

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



Find the simple things that reliably arouse people you want to activate, then deliberately do or say those things to get them going.

Pressing a person's buttons quickly triggers emotions, including jealousy, anger, fear and so on. Watch for when they suddenly become aroused and notice the topic, words and actions that are their activation 'buttons'. When working for particular effect, it can be used to trigger specific emotions as desired.

Buttons that arouse people include:

  • Insulting or degrading them, for example by criticizing their work or ignoring them.
  • Talking about things where they hold strong views, from ethics to politics to religion, especially taking a contrary position to them.
  • Performing irritating repetitive actions such as tapping a pen or making sucking noises.

Pressing buttons is a very useful distraction method that you can use when they are saying or doing things you do not like. Just press their buttons that get them going on a side topic and then encourage them to keep talking about it. If they slow down, try pressing another button.

Buttons can also be positive, for example where you trigger laughing by telling a joke (and maybe by this send the person into a joke-exchange sequence).

You can even condition new buttons by 'pressing the button' just as they enter the state. If you repeat this, eventually the new button will work by itself.


A boy pushes his sister's anger button by deliberately and slyly blaming her for his misdeeds. Her anger alone gets her into trouble as he smirks behind her back.

A sales person pushes a customer's excitement button by indicating she could give them a special discount as it is the end of the month. In their enthusiastic state the customer quickly and greedily signs the contract before she changes her mind.

A person hugs a distressed friend in order to trigger feelings of comfort and love. The friend reciprocates and soon feels not only better but also grateful.


'Pushing buttons' uses the metaphor of a machine that can be turned on and off at will. And this is very much what it can be like. The underlying principle is of conditioning, where a stimulus is paired with a response that happens at the subconscious level, outside the control of the conscious, thinking mind. This programming may have happened years ago and it may even be genetically instinctive, such as the fear created by a lion or a snake.

Pressing buttons is hence very much about conditioning which leads to predictable action. This may or may not include an emotional accompaniment. In practice pushing buttons often refers specifically to conditioning that triggers strong emotion.

Pushing buttons may seem (and be) immoral, yet we all use this surprisingly often, perhaps because it is quick and easy. As with all persuasion, the morality more is in the intent and the harm that the actual words used. In fact much conditioning is either harmless or even helpful in the way it greases the wheels of society. When you hold out your hand to greet someone, this triggers the response pattern, including a feeling of warmth and trust. Even triggering strong emotions can be helpful, for example where a parent invokes shock in order to keep their child out of danger.

See also

The Need for Arousal, Conditioning, Emotions

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