The thesis of Robert Cialdini’s Influence the Psychology of Persuasion is that all animals (including humans) use mental short cuts to make decisions. The short cuts work very well 90% of the time. They are exist to encourage action while it can still be taken. They can be used ethically to help people make a decision and they can be abused to gain compliance. Fortunately Cialdini ends each section with defense mechanisms for when people try to take advantage of you. Here we give a short overview of the principles of persuasion. For more details and better explanations, I recommend purchasing Cialdini’s book.
Chapter 1: Associations: People routinely form associations and short cuts in their minds. A common example is expensive = quality.
Contrast. When you perceive two things, the differences of the second compared to the first are magnified. For instance if you see something inexpensive (say a slice of pizza) and then something expensive (say a suit). The suit will seem very expensive because you naturally compare it to the price of the pizza even though suits and pizza are very unrelated. Another example can be if you put your hand in cold water then stick it in room temperature water, the water will feel hot. Try it at home by sticking one hand in cold water and the other and hot water then sticking both of them in room-temperature water.
Chapter 2: Reciprocity
One of the things which separates humans from other animals is that human society has been built up around reciprocity. Reciprocity is the idea that we should pay, in kind, what another person has given us. Reciprocity is perhaps the most powerful method in gaining compliance from others. A powerful example of people using this to their advantage is Nielsen surveys. Nielsen sends cash with their surveys (2 dollars with the first one) in order elicit a greater response from the participants. As the recipient of the survey, you cannot refuse or return the two dollars and therefore feel obligated (even though they phrase as not pay) to give Nielsen reciprocate.
This tactic is also used in negotiating, when a concession is made by one party, the other party feels the need to meet the concession with one of their own. This can similarly be used in sales. By asking for something more than what you originally wanted to sell, the buyer will likely refuse, but because they refused the initial offer the are more likely to buy something smaller because they rejected you initially and want to make a concession of their own.
Chapter 3: Commitment and Consistency
Dealing with people who neg on promises and are completely inconsistent is seldom worth the time and effort. Therefore, normal sociable people have an psychological desire to be consistent and to keep their commitments. The tactic of internal consistency is so powerful that you can persuade someone to change their opinion on something simply by having them write it. This was a tactic the Chinese used to convince American POWs during the Korean war to become more pro China.
Commitment works similarly. If someone commits to doing they are very likely to follow through. The example given by Cialdini involves someone stealing someone else’s things at the beach. In the experiment they had someone either ask their neighbor to keep an eye on their things or not and had someone else come by to “steal them”. In the cases where the strangers was asked to keep an eye out, they intervened 75% of the time where as when they didn’t they in only intervened 25% of the time.
Chapter 4: Social Proof
In situations where we are uncertain we frequently look to others to guide our actions. This works very well much of the time. Or rather it works very well in terms of informing us what is polite, acceptable behaviour. It also works well in times of trouble for instance if you don’t realize their is an unknown gunman on your college campus but you see a lot of your peers running in the same direction you might escape from the gunman simply by running in the same direction. However this psychology (in my opinion more than any of the others) can lead you astray. The Nazi’s used this concept to help walk Jews into their mass graves without force. Additionally many successful people advise the following: to be exceptional, do the opposite of what the masses are doing. This psychology, however, is ingrained in all of us.
Chapter 5: Liking
People are more likely to say yes to people they like. Therefore being likeable is very powerful. Cialdini goes over numerous ways to be likeable: be attractive, compliment others, similarity, cooperation, and association. People are more likely to like attractive people (male or female). People like people who are similar to themselves. People like those who compliment them. People like people who are working together for a common goal. Finally people like things that they associate with good.
Association is the only one which requires further explanation. We are not too different from Pavlov’s dog. We naturally make associations in order to better predict the future (it is how our mind creates models of the world). Therefore if we juxtapose anything with something we consider good or we like, that two objects without logic will take on the properties of each other in the mind. For instance people always tend to think of pastors as being more righteous because they are associated with church and with the bible, things which are frequently considered righteous. However I suspect pastors in general aren’t any more righteous than their congregation on average even though they will be perceived as such by association.
Chapter 6: Authority
People have a tendency to submit to authority. We are ingrained at a young age to listen to our parents, listen to our teachers. Therefore when someone who seems to have authority to us tells us to do something, we tend to listen. Additionally the world is very complicated as such we tend to differ to people on areas where they have a position of authority due to expertise. Very few people will argue against doctors on what is best for the body. In truth you will infrequently go wrong when listening to a personal trainer on exercise, a nutritionist on diet or a physicist on matters of science. Listening to experts is frequently good, but it is important to remember that they are still human.
Chapter 7: Scarcity
Things which are rare are typically more valuable than things which are common. While this isn’t always the case it tends to work very well. When you see advertisers using the phrases such as “limited time only” or “only X spaces left” they are playing with this psychological short cut. Artificially creating scarcity can help sales and drive up the selling price.
I believe Cialdini’s influence, The Psychology of Persuasion is a very interesting read and I highly recommend it. Additionally it is very well written which makes it very easy to read.