Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Try To See It My Way" - The Psychology Of Persuasion

The title of this post, a lyric borrowed right from a Beatles song, is quite fitting as I'll be going over the topics covered in Robert Cialdini's book "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion".

How I came to find out about this book

I stumbled across this title in the library catalog when looking for books that had "Psychology" in the title.  The title caught my eye and the price was right, so I decided to grab it for a quick read.  Little did I know that I'd enjoy the book so much.

I have to admit that the subject matter of this book really grabbed my attention and had me wanting to come home and read the next chapter, each covering many "weapons of influence" that can and are used in day to day life to influence our decisions.  Many of these I hadn't given a second thought, but this book brings to light why we should be aware of these methods.

The book covers the following "weapons of influence"...

  1. Reciprocation
  2. Commitment & Consistency
  3. Social Proof
  4. Liking
  5. Authority
  6. Scarcity
I'll cover a bit of each area to give you the overall idea of how people can take advantage of you by using these methods to influence your decisions.  I highly recommend that you pick up the book and read it front to back if you're at all interested in getting a more in-depth explanation and some great examples.

The book starts out telling how these various methods are used in everyday situations to influence our decisions and that many times we may not even realize it since we've come to decide on things quickly and in an automatic fashion. An example is given of a store owner that has had problems selling off a specific line of jewelry.  The owner leaves a note for one of the clerks the next day to put everything in the cabinet that is holding that jewelry "price x 1/2" or "half price"... however the clerk misunderstands and marks the jewelry at twice the price.  To the owners surprise the entire lot of jewelry sells off at two times the price for which it was recently listed. The owner, stunned, called the author of this book asking for an explanation as they knew that the author was an expert in the area of psychology.  The author describes the action as more of an automatic response based on the purchasers lack of understanding of what they are buying and it's true worth and the fact that most people will associate expensive with good.  As we all know, this is not always the case.  In this example - it wasn't.

Cialdini touches on the study of ethology as a way to show that as animals we're similar to other species that have hard wired decision mechanisms that will react in a fixed action pattern to certain stimuli.  He talks of the Mother turkey, who's mothering instincts are triggered by a chick's "cheep cheep" sound.  The presence of this sound, even if the chick is not real - which has been tested through multiple experiment, will trigger the auto response of the Mother to perform motherly duties and treat the chick as healthy offspring.

We have similar hard-wired behavior patterns that can be triggered and this book covers compliance tactics used by others against us, and in some cases how they can be used for good. 

In the first chapter he covers the Perceptual Contrast concept, which I found quite interesting.  Basically it states that we're affected by our perception of how one item contrasts to another.  The example given is of a gentleman going into a clothing store to purchase a suit.  If the man comes in and says to the salesperson that he needs a three piece suit and a sweater, the salesperson will do best to show the man the suit first, the more expensive item.  This was the sweater, in contrast to the suit, will be perceived as less expensive.  The contrast principle is well known and well used in society today and whether we realize it or not, the way that things are presented to us can influence us in many ways.

As part of this chapter an experiment was explained and I just had to do it to see if it worked.  I took three glasses of water, one hot, one room temperature and one cold.  I put my left hand in the hot water and my right hand in the cold water.  At the same time I removed my hands from those glasses and put them both into the room temperature water.  To my surprise, my right hand felt like it was in hot water and my left felt like it was in cold water, even though they were both in the same glass of room temperature water!

On to what the author refers to as six "weapons of influence"...


The first "weapon" in the arsenal is reciprocation.  When used this invokes a feeling of indebtedness and so we feel that we have to comply to a request made of us.  An example in the book is the Hare Krishna movement and how they will approach with a gift of a flower.  They will state that the flower is a gift, and that if you wanted to make a donation it would be greatly appreciated, but not necessary.  This feeling will be enough to make most of us give something in return, even though we never wanted the "gift" in the first place.

This is used in many other areas as well.  The book notes an example where a University Professor tried an experiment and mailed Christmas Cards to a random list of people to see their reaction to receiving a card from someone that they did not know.  Surprisingly, the professor received many cards back, most not evening questioning the card.  An auto-response in full effect!

Another example of this type of influence method is reciprocal concessions.  This is where after the initial request is made and turned down a smaller follow up request is made and uses guilt to get you to comply.  We've all run into this one before on the phone.  Let's paint the picture - you're sitting down to dinner with the family, just opened a nice bottle of Jack and a call comes in... you answer it in your best Denzel impression and greet the caller.  They say that they are calling from BlahDiBlah Charity and give you a sad story about how there are people out there that need your help (there are, but usually they aren't linked with these telephone solicitors, I give to charity - I just seek out ones that matter to me instead of giving in to others that enjoy interrupting family time) and they say something to the effect of "can we count on you for a $50 donation?", to which you reply "No".  The next part is the concession where they ask for a lower amount or ask you to buy a calendar, or some small item and drop a "surely, we can count on you for ..." line.  Next thing you realize you've committed to some lesser amount.  The point being that you didn't want to commit to any amount.  The book gives another great example of an experiment where the author asked college students to volunteer to chaperon juvenile delinquents on a zoo trip, with the majority of them turning down the less than exciting offer after the request was made.  However, when they lead this request with a larger request of spending two hours a week with the juveniles for two years, a request that the experimenters expected to be refused, they found a much greater success rate in getting those asked to commit to the second request of a day at the zoo.  Crazy, right?

The key here is to analyze the requests as they come in and not feel the need to comply with the second request because of refusing the first.  We should really take the time to analyze the request to ensure that this is something we truly want to do, separate from any other request made of us.

Commitment and Consistency

It turns out that consistency is something that has a pretty high value in our society.  We feel that we "know" someone when we can predict the way they will react to something.  People don't appreciate someone that takes a stand on a certain topic and will defend their position only to find that the next time the topic is brought up the person has changed their original view.  Have you ever been in a conversation where you've take a stand on one side of the issue just to find out new information as the discussion progressed.  Did you change your original stance or defend the position that you committed to?  Even when you realized you might be wrong? Don't lie...  :)

I've been there myself, lots of times. The book mentions that inconsistency is sometimes looked at as a worst trait than being wrong.  It mentions a situation where, after a lecture, Michael Faraday was asked if he meant to imply that a hated academic rival was always wrong, Faraday looked at the questioner and replied, 'He's not that consistent.'

"Influence" touches on this principle as the second "weapon" that can be used against us.  The exploitation happens when we commit to something, it could be something fairly small, such as saying that we agree or believe or like some idea or product.  Once we do this a request can be made that will use the consistency principle to influence our decision.  There are quite a few good examples in the book, some small and some quite large such as the way that Chinese POW Concentration camps would have captured soldiers commit to a small belief such as saying or agreeing that "the United States is not perfect", which is something that is pretty easy to agree to, but then through psychological manipulation they would build on that commitment and have soldier write out what they didn't like about the US, and then agree that perhaps some of the communist beliefs "weren't so bad after all" and then they would use this information and distribute it out as propaganda to other camps, showing other soldiers that there are pro-communist people in their same position. I mentioned this example since one of the most powerful examples of commitment is written word or public commitment.  It's hard to say that you didn't agree with a certain idea, stance, product, anything if you wrote the document and signed your name to it. It's even hard to convince yourself otherwise after doing so.

One of the ways that this was used in the past was by companies who would send out "free" product in exchange for your statement on how you use their product and enjoy it.  These are similar to buying user reviews, but once they have them, they can use them any way they would like to market their product.

Speaking of "Like", I also find that this principle is used on Facebook.  We see ads that tell us that one or more of our friends have chosen to "Like" this product / service / person, which may influence us into also making our statement, or at very least might allow the company to reach out to you and ask for your support by stating that you were recommended by a friend.

Think of how this principle is used in Sales.  The book calls out a statement from within "American Salesman" magazine which talks about the importance of the first sale, because after that they are no longer a prospect, they are a customer. This first person will result in a change in mindset for the salesperson and the client and will be used to influence future purchases.

The commitment principle has strong psychological ties, so we need to be aware when someone might be using it against us.  There are times though, when this one can be used for good, such as the public commitment that someone makes at a weight loss clinic or as a promise to quit an addictive activity like smoking.  "Influence" gave a great example of a person who gave cards to people they respected, on the card it said "I promise you that I will never smoke another cigarette".  Such a public commitment is powerful and in this case was enough to support the person through the quitting process.  After all - once you've committed to something, it's important to stay consistent.

Social Proof

The third "weapon" draws on the fact that when we are put in a situation where we're not sure what we should be doing, we'll look at others to see what they are doing and follow along. I really think this is one of the most powerful weapons, and it's used so heavily through our modern society.  The book mentions many, many great examples from small, such as the laugh track, to large such as cult behavior and the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana.

The author touches on various other facts about how people react in emergency situations in a group setting as opposed to an individual setting.  There was a case in New York where a woman was attacked three times over a 30 minute period, there were almost 40 people that witnessed these attacks and yet nobody called the police.  In these large group situations it seems that we'll look around and see that nobody else is doing anything, so why should we?  Or we may assume that somebody else is going to help and then nobody helps...

Another interesting statistic from this section of the book was the increase in automobile accidents and plane crashes after high profile suicides / murders are publicized.  The book calls out to research done by David Phillips on what is called the "Werther Effect", also referred to as Copycat Suicide.  It's a very interesting topic and I won't go into depth here other than saying that external social influences can be very powerful and we may not immediately realize it when they affect us or our decisions.

Some of the defense mechanisms revolve around being aware when something is "faked" such as a laugh track and choosing on our own whether to follow along or not.  Another example was how Native Americans would hunt buffalo by herding them towards a cliff.  The herd lowers their head and just follow the leader, blindly... even if it's right over a cliff and to their death.  With that said - it's important for us to be aware of our surroundings and decisions, to make sure that they are our own and that we're not just "following the lead".

I believe this will get more difficult with the explosion of social media on the internet.  Everywhere we look we're seeing what our friends are doing, what they like, what we should like, we're constantly being influenced.

Above is a recent example from Lil' Wayne.  He recently posted a request for all "true fans" to buy his new album on Facebook, even if they already owned it.  In checking SoundScan results (see below) through the Rap Basement website it looks like his request worked as fans who felt that they were helping him out and may have even felt a personal tie since he was probably speaking to them when he said "true fans".

There were plenty of comments on this post that were negative though.  Some fans weren't falling for it.  There's nothing wrong with supporting an artist that you enjoy.  Asking your fans to buy something twice just because you want them to might be pushing it a little, but hey - almost 25,000 people clicked the "Like" button for that status post.


We all want to be liked, it's in our social make up.  The desire to be liked by others is very strong, and when exploited, others can make us like them without really knowing why, or without having really built a relationship that validates the feeling of liking them.  An example from the book is a the person listed as most successful car salesman in history, Joe Girard. A Michigan boy ("can you feel that?") who claimed that all that was needed to close the deal was "finding the salesman they like, plus the price; put them both together and you get a deal."

He's right, and I've been through a car sale recently enough to know that these are the two things I'm looking for when working a deal.  However, what makes me "like" someone that I barely know?

There are several key characteristics covered in detail in the book, so I'll just do a high level summary.

The first is physical attractiveness. We like people that are good looking, it's a fact, and the reason that modern marketing is filled to the brim with good looking people. The book even lists out that looks can affect not only your success in business, but in life in general, stating that even attractive convicted criminals may get lighter sentences based on their appearance.  Not fair, right?  Tell me about it.

The second characteristic is similarity.  We like people that are similar to us or perhaps have a similar job.  Basically if the person can relate to us, we like that.  This is why a car salesman may look to gather some social data from your clothes, or other sources like your trade in that might tell them what you like, things like golf clubs in the trunk may have the salesperson drop hints that they like golf so that you'll think that you have something in common. On my most recent visit to the dealership, the finance manager claimed to have went to school with me, I later found out that this was a lie, but at the time it made me feel like he was working the best deal he could for me because we were "friends".

The third characteristic is something that can be used pretty easily and that is compliments.  A subtle "hey - I like you" or "I can tell you're a smart person" will be enough to suck us in.

A fourth characteristic is contact / cooperation.  It's easier to like someone that has the same goal that we have since we believe that we're both working to achieve a mutual benefit. 

Conditioning and association also play into our decision to like someone.  This could be things that we've been taught as we've grown up or experienced first hand.  An example is given of the negative association that is tied with the people that give us the weather forecasts, however association can be positive or negative. The book also notes the example of sports fans association to their favorite team and how strong that can be...

Exploiting the liking "weapon of influence" is pretty easy and many people will try to use this to persuade you to do something they want you to do.  The part that makes this difficult is that we're hard wired to want to be liked and to like others.  A quote from "Death Of A Salesman" sums it up quite well, "the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead.  Be liked and you will never want.", unfortunately for those who have read this book / seen the play, we know how this ends.


I'll be honest, when I saw authority listed as one of the "weapons of influence" I wondered how effective this method could really be, as a good friend of mine says "you're not the boss of me!" and as individuals we do what we want to do, right?  Right?

Well the first part of this chapter opens up with an experiment where volunteers were brought in to take part in a study to find how punishment affects learning and memory. They were met by the Professor of Psychology for a well respected school and told that they will be part of an experiment where there will be a "student" and a "teacher". The student's goal is to remember a series of items / answer questions. The teacher's role would be to punish the student in the event of a wrong answer by delivering an electric shock.  Rather than giving you all the gory details here in type - I'll link you out to the experiment page and just say that I was shocked (no pun intended) by the results!

So it seems that authority, or the need to feel that we're doing the job that is expected of us is a powerful tool.  This can be exploited fairly easily by having us believe that the person asking a request of us is in a position of authority, whether that be true or not.

There are facts supporting the theory that we don't question the orders of people in a position of authority, whether it be a police officer, or a doctor (or other expert).  The book has another example that I thought was pretty scary, which is that over a week stay hospitals have an error rate of approximately 12% when delivering patient medication.  The main reason behind the errors being that nobody questions the doctor's orders.  The example given was a patient that was complaining of an earache and the doctor wrote out his orders to give a set amount of medicine to the patient in their right ear, but he abbreviated "right ear" to "R ear" and sure enough, the orders were followed through and the patient received ear drops rectally.  Seems pretty silly, right?

It's easy to fall into a place where we can be influenced by authority, but this book poses two questions to ask that will help us validate that this is someone that we should be following.

  1. Is this authority truly and expert?
  2. How truthful can we expect the expert to be here in this current situation?
Depending on the authority of the person involved, I can imagine this may be difficult to do in some situations.


The final "weapon of influence" may be one of the most used and I know from experience that it can be exploited in ways that are very powerful in influencing our decisions.

the way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost
- G.K. Chesterton
This method is used by many in the retail industry to draw interest around products / services.  There will be time limits imposed on offers, quantity limits, basically anything to make you think that you had better act right now otherwise you'll be missing out!  This is quite good timing as today is Thanksgiving, which means that "Black Friday" is tomorrow, a day when the shopping malls and retail stores are packed with folks trying to get the "best deals of the year" on items that they likely don't need.

As another example Direct Buy uses a form of this "weapon", as it requires people to sign up on their introductory visit, they force people into a decision quickly, imposing an unrealistic time frame to take advantage of those that will not take the time to think about it and instead just join.

Other examples of this being exploited might be social groups or associations that require membership to participate.  Of course, when I think of this "you can't have it" attitude that makes everyone one want it, I think of Cartmanland!

Another pretty funny example of how strong the desire can become for something that one can't have is the decision of Dade County, FL to prohibit laundry detergent with phosphate in it in 1972.  The result was people going to other counties to get and "smuggle" the soap back home.

The book gives many other good examples as well, but my favorite example involved a person who bought and sold used cars and knew how to use this method to his full benefit.  He would research local cars for sale and then based on his knowledge would choose the best deal that was offered at a price where he thought he could do little to it and still make money on it.  He would clean the car up and then list it for sale in the local newspaper the next weekend.  As people would call and inquire about the car, he would set times to have them come and see the car.  The time given to all people inquiring was the same time.  What this did was create a situation where scarcity existed.  The first potential buyer would arrive and may be able to haggle a bit, but when a second potential buyer showed up, it put them in a position of either buying the car or losing it to the next potential buyer... a beautiful situation for the owner of the car.  Even if the first person said no, the second buyer may have to deal with a third potential buyer.  This reminded me of the way that auctions work, which are very similar, although I have to believe they are a bit less awkward than the situation above, but trust me - I'm going to use this method the next time I sell my used car.  :)

I know that there is a ton of information in this post, but I really enjoyed this book and trust me, although some of the concepts are talked through here - the book gives much more detail, examples and explanation for why and how we can be influenced by these methods.  I highly recommend it and would like to hear what you thought of the book. 

If you have any thoughts on this post please feel free to leave me a comment.


Kelleybelle said...

Yup, I actually read the whole thing! I totally enjoyed all the info and the way you presented it. The "You're not the boss of me" line....genius!! ;)

Nadon said...

Thanks much Ms. Fabulous! The fact that you made it through the whole post means I didn't bore you too much. That makes me happy! Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for reading.