Photo by mahdi rezaei
In November 2012 Barack Obama made history and won the presidential election. His more experienced rivals were stunned. How could a young upstart and senator become the first black president of the United States?
Was it Obama’s charismatic personality that made it possible?
Was the historic moment just right for the young senator?
Both these factors had an impact for sure. But there is another one I think was incredibly impactful. The same factor that entered the presidential election 2016 on the side of Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump and turned a failing campaign into close competition.
It was a person that Scott Adams, author, and blogger on the topic of persuasion, coined “Godzilla”. His name is Robert Cialdini.
Cialdini is a social psychologist and author who is sometimes referred to as “The Godfather of Persuasion”.
He wrote the book on the topic of persuasion. ‘Influence’ is an international bestseller and was sold millions of times.
Who is this man with such a reputation?
And why is he considered by many a decisive factor in two presidential campaigns?
From patsy to master persuader
I can admit it freely now. All my life I’ve been a patsy. For as long as I can recall, I’ve been an easy mark for the pitches of peddlers, fundraisers, and operators of one sort or another. (…) Probably this long-standing status as sucker accounts for my interest in the study of compliance: Just what are the factors that cause one person to say yes to another person?
It was this burning question that defined Robert Cialdini’s career and made him the most sought after expert in human persuasion and influence.
And we all can empathize with him. We’ve all fallen prey to cunning salesmen, were talked into donations, or said yes when we actually wanted to say no. We’re all patsies somewhere in our lives.
He started to research the topic in his role as a social psychologist, conducting laboratory experiments at his University and reading papers on the subject. Although, this provided important insights into the psychological principles that make us comply and say “yes”, he realized that an experimental approach wasn’t enough. To find out which principles were truly effective he needed to take a different approach.
Where do you go if you want to find the most effective tactics and principles in any field?
Right, to practitioners in the real world.
The evolutionary forces governing your survival as a salesman, fundraiser, or any persuasion professional make sure that only the fittest survive. Those that know and apply the most effective measures.
Cialdini did what no researcher had done before in the field of persuasion and immersed himself in practice. He applied to trainee positions for sales personnel, worked at fundraiser campaigns, and observed recruiters, advertisers, and more to gain insights into the practice of getting people to say “yes”.
This combination of experimental research and practical observation was unique. In practice he saw what worked and then sought explanations for why it worked in the research.
Cialdini saw a variety of tactics used with great success in the different fields. Further, he also realized that most of these tactics are based on the same psychological principles. While sales, fundraising, and advertising are all different their underlying principles are the same.
Over the years, he distilled his insights into an overall framework of influence.
He was no longer a patsy.
His immersive research made him the godfather of persuasion.
Persuasion starts earlier than you think
Cialdini noticed a number of curious phenomena.
- A wine store sold more French wine when French music was playing in the store.
- If people write down a large number before a buying decision, they’ll tend to spend more.
- Asking people if they consider themselves helpful increases the change of getting a donation from them afterward.
What’s up with all this? How can seemingly trivial details such as music playing, numbers, or personal questions affect our decision-making so profoundly?
The answer lies in what Cialdini calls Pre-Suasion. The concept says that a recipient of a message or request can be made more receptive by channeling his attention to favorable associations.
Huh? You probably had to read that twice. Let’s deconstruct this.
Pre-Suasion is the art of making someone receptive to your request before you ask for it. Hence, making a “yes” more likely before you even pose a question.
It does so in two ways.
First, by capturing the attention of the person. Psychology shows us that we can only focus on one thing at a time. What’s more, whatever we focus on becomes automatically and subconsciously more important in our thoughts. Where our attention goes, our mind goes. Our focus of attention is disproportionately considered important in our decision-making process.
Step two then is to channel this attention to a favorable association regarding our request. Cialdini says that “associations are the building blocks of thought”. When we’re thinking our brain is constantly revisiting past connections we made between concepts.
If you think about a beach you also think about your last vacation in Cancun and that pretty girl you saw there in a red bikini and how she had such wonderful olive skin and then you realize you haven’t been on vacation in a long time and look how pale you got and when was the last time you had sex…?
Associations are invoked by the language we use, images, and environmental elements. Attention and associations are the explaining factors for the curious phenomena Cialdini witnessed.
French music wakes all associations related to France in the person’s mind which makes her pay special attention to everything French and suddenly French wine is looking really good.
Writing down a large number connects our minds inevitably to a certain magnitude. We are anchored in a larger price range than if the number was lower. By the power of associations we’re subconsciously comfortable with a larger number when shopping.
Lastly, by asking people about their helpfulness they immediately think about situations in which they’ve been helpful. Their attention is on those occurrences so “of course I’m helpful” they say. Well, helpful people donate…
But preparing someone for a request through Pre-Suasion is only the first step of the process. There are several ways in which you can make your message more persuasive. Cialdini identified seven fundamental principles that can make a request much more likely to succeed.
The principles of persuasion
Our brain is constantly observing, analyzing, and making decisions. Because there is way too much noise out there in the world, it has developed sophisticated short-cuts to filter out the noise and focus on what is relevant.
Some of these short-cuts are automatic responses our brain has to certain cues that make it easier for us to hone in on what is important and subsequently make decisions. This increases decision-making speed and saves energy.
Sounds great. How does such an automatic response look like?
Think of the cuteness reflex you can’t escape from when seeing baby Yoda. Your brain automatically goes into cuteness mode. We want to protect and take care of this little fella.
However, there is a downside to these short-cuts. They can be exploited. Because they work in such subconscious and automatic manner, a persuader can deliberately push these buttons to invoke a more favorable response.
The seven principles of influence are based on such psychological short-cuts. Each of them exploits our brain’s automatic response to these impulses. The goal of the derived persuasion tactics is to hijack our decision-making process and influence it in the persuader’s favor.
The seven principles are liking, consistency, scarcity, social proof, reciprocity, authority, and unity. Let’s look at each of them.
We say yes to people we like.
Simple enough. But you probably think that how much you like a salesperson doesn’t affect your buying decision. Cialdini found that it clearly does. We can’t help it but be swayed by a nice face, so to speak.
But how can we make a person like us? Isn’t that individual and just needs to click?
Not exactly. There are several simple things that increase our chances.
There are the basics: smiling, being well-groomed, and expressing a great sense of humor. Your mum was right, these things matter. We simply like people that are kind, put together, and funny.
But there is another powerful aspect that makes people like you.
Compliment them. It’s an incredibly simple but impactful tactic. And it doesn’t really matter what we compliment them for, just expressing admiration and appreciation makes us more likable in another person’s eyes.
We want to stay consistent with our commitments.
Erratic. Disloyal. Lacking integrity. There are numerous names for someone that doesn’t hold up his commitments. The societal cost of changing our opinions or behavior is large. Naturally, we have a strong urge to avoid it.
Persuaders exploit this by making us commit or comply with a small request or statement. For example, by asking us if we are adventurous. As we’ve seen above, because of channeled attention and association most people would answer “yes, of course, I’m adventurous”.
When the persuader subsequently advocates this new exciting product, we almost can’t say no now. We want to live up to the projected image of an adventurous person who tries new things. So we buy, and regret afterward.
We want more of what we can have less of.
On the one hand, there is a logical explanation for this point. Something scarce is likely to be valuable. Basic economic principle — supply and demand.
Psychologically, however, the more motivating factor in this regard is our aversion to loss. We hate losing things or limiting our options. Classic FOMO at play here.
Hence, when the notification pops up informing us of the “only four items left on sale”, we’ve got a strong urge to act now. We don’t want to miss out.
We look to others for guidance.
This is especially true in moments of uncertainty. Think about it. If you enter a work event at a new company, most people will look to others for clues on how to behave. We all want to fit in, so we adjust our behavior and decisions to others.
But here too are logical factors at play. If others use this product its claims must be valid. It’s been tested and approved. This explains the powerful effect of reviews, testimonials, and phony infomercials.
The short-cut becomes a problem when persuaders use it to shut off your rational thought process. Cult leaders use the concept of social proof heavily to recruit new members and especially to keep them in check. When your whole social circle is adhering to the rules and behavior of the group, how could you even consider an alternative?
Doubt is crushed by group consensus.
People say yes to those we owe.
We’re all keeping checks in our minds. If someone benefitted us we feel an urge to repay the favor. This in-kind retribution is a strong factor in all human relationships.
The crazy thing is that this works even with unsolicited and unwanted gifts. Think of free samples in supermarkets. You think they don’t affect you but the numbers don’t lie. There have been various studies on the rule of reciprocity and people buy or spend more consistently after receiving a freebie.
By giving something small first, persuaders invoke a more favorable reply to their request immediately after — even if this request is considerably larger than the initial gift provided.
With the right gift the effect is even stronger. The reciprocity to a gift is especially strong when it is unexpected, meaningful, and customized to the receiver.
We follow the lead of experts.
Since Milgram conducted his famous experiment where people put test-subjects under deadly electric shocks, we know the power of authority. Especially in situations where we are uncertain we’re easy prey for experts and authority figures.
All someone needs to do to invoke this effect is to appear trustworthy and an expert on the topic. The problem is that this is easier done than you think.You can achieve the effect of authority by using a variety of artifacts such as uniforms, symbols, certificates, and endorsements.
Think for example of medication commercials. Almost all of them have a person in a physician coat praising the product at one point. Just the symbols of a physician — the coat and the stethoscope — invoke the automatic response to authority in the viewer.
If you think this wouldn’t work on you, consider that everyone thinks that. And still, most advertisers use the ploy…
We trust and support people that are part of our group.
We are strongly biased towards similarity. Those who look like us are likely to be of our kin and family usually comes first. This probably results from genetic considerations. From an evolutionary perspective we should favor similar genes to increase their survival.
However, Cialdini observed that not only real genetic commonality has this effect, but also just physical alikeness, regional proximity (coming from the same region) and even performing the same actions.
Working on the same task creates a sense of unity that binds us in a similar way than kinship does. They become part of our group and we always favor our own group.
Knowledge is power
Robert Cialdini is no longer a patsy. Quite the contrary, during his explorations in the world of compliance professionals, he realized that there are several ways everyone can protect themselves against persuasion attempts.
First, simply knowing about them weakens their impact. Knowledge is power. If you recognize a persuasion tactic being used it immediately looses some of its potency. Hence, simply after reading this article you’ve become better at resisting influence attempts.
Second, there are deliberative reasoning tactics you can employ to protect yourself. These include for example, recognizing high-pressure situations where you are tired, stressed, or similar and refraining from any decision-making during such times.
Another is a debiasing tactic he calls ‘consider-the-opposite’, where you ask yourself questions like “Is this person’s projected authority A) accurate and B) relevant to the matter at hand?”, or “What could make this go wrong?”. All these tactics break the automatic response and lessen their impact.
Persuasion works, but is it right?
Cialdini has become a master persuader himself. He’s written two books on the subject and co-authored a couple more with other researchers. Furthermore, he founded a company where he teaches these influence tactics to companies and individuals.
But before doing so he had to ask himself the fundamental question:
“Is the usage of these tools ethically justifiable?”
After all, he went into the field because of his own bitter experiences of being taken advantage of. Teaching those tactics to the public would inevitably lead to some using them immorally.
At the beginning he argued with a simple truth: he didn’t invent those tactics, he discovered them by observing persuaders that already used them. He simply connected the tactics with the underlying psychological mechanisms. Teaching them would, in turn, provide the non-persuaders with the knowledge and tools to overcome them.
But he came to see that the tactics themselves were not immoral per se. After all, these decision-making heuristics often save us time and energy when making decisions and steer us well. Take for example the usefulness of reviews, which is directly related to the concept of social proof. Using the tactics for worthy causes and promoting real value is necessary to create the maximum positive impact.
Lastly, he found that with incredible consistency, companies and individuals misusing these principles — the classic cheats, con-men, and Enrons of the world — ultimately pay a huge price both internally and externally.
When it comes to persuasion, Robert Cialdini realized, Karma really is a bitch.