This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
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Do you frequently find yourself subscribing to all manner of products? Or do you keep buying stuff that you don’t need? You have probably been influenced into doing so by expert salespeople and slick advertisements. We all fall victim to the power of influence, which makes use of the way our brains work to get us to comply with requests. How, you wonder? And could you use these powers yourself? Get ready to learn all about the powerful impact of influence.
The behavior of mother turkeys can seem odd to us sometimes. They are loving and caring mothers in tending to their young, but the way in which they make sure they are looking after their own chicks is by listening to the “cheep-cheep” sound their babies make. Scientists tried to see if a turkey hen would nurse a stuffed polecat (one of the natural enemies of the turkey) if it emitted the same “cheep-cheep” sound – and she did!
While this kind of automated behavior may seem odd and even ridiculous to you, you shouldn’t be too quick to judge. We humans also rely on these automatic short-cut thinking patterns to simplify our engagement with the world around us.
Having an automated reaction is useful in many ways: it allows us to quickly react to danger, for example. And especially in the complex world of today, where we are bombarded on all sides with incredible amounts of information, having certain reliable short-cut thinking processes allows us to navigate the world successfully.
Our position these days is much like that of the lower animals – we have managed to create an environment that enhances our own deficiencies. And the automated thought processes we have can be used by others to influence our behavior - especially by compliance professionals such as salespeople who can use them to their advantage.
There are six basic principles in which our thinking can be influenced: consistency, reciprocation, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. Especially in today’s world, it is essential to know of the ways in which our decisions can be influenced, as the rapid growth of information is likely to continue in the coming years. Since our automated brain short-cuts are necessary for us to be able to navigate this new challenging world confidently, we should start thinking critically about these now.
A few years ago, a university professor tried an experiment in sending Christmas cards to a few perfect strangers. The response was overwhelming! He received a great many cards in return, and few people even bothered to ask who he was. This is the principle of reciprocation – it means that we naturally try to repay in kind what another person has done for us.
Receiving a favor gives us a feeling of future obligation. Consider giving someone a birthday present who gave you one, or inviting someone to your party because they invited you to theirs. This kind of behavior evolved because it allowed primitive societies to share resources such as food and shelter.
Of course, if you are aware of the rule of reciprocation, you can easily use the principle to manipulate others. The religious organization Krishna uses the principle of reciprocation to get donations, for example. Before asking for a donation, passers-by are given a book or a flower as a gift, making them more likely to repay the favor with money.
Small favors often stimulate larger return favors and will even lead us to act contrary to our better judgement. A woman in a nightclub may feel a certain obligation to a man who has bought her a drink, for example. How then, can we protect ourselves from falling prey to the reciprocity rule? If gifts are used to try and get you to buy something, see them for what they are: sales devices, which will absolve you from the guilt of not returning “the favor.”
We all have a deep-seated desire to be consistent in our thoughts and actions. And consistency, generally, is seen as proof of a sound mind and a healthy intellect. When we make a choice or take a stand we feel pressure to behave according to our commitment. Our need for consistency also makes us willing to believe in the correctness of a difficult choice, once it’s been made. Again, this might even lead to us acting contrary to our best interests.
Researchers conducted an experiment on a New York City beach with a staged theft. When people were asked to look after a fellow bather’s personal items, they became a lot more vigilant than they would have been without the request. When they hadn’t been asked, they would often look away from the theft without intervening, not wishing to put themselves into harm’s way. When they had been asked to look after the things, however, they would actively challenge the thief and even chase him down. This was because they wanted to remain consistent with the promise they had made.
Automatic consistency can, of course, be exploited. Once someone gets us to commit to something, we want to follow up on that commitment because of our need for consistency. Salespeople employ this technique in getting you to comply with what they want: the foot-in-the-door technique aims to get a small compliance from you, to enable them to make larger requests in the future.
In the mid-1960s, Freedman and Scott tried this out in a California neighborhood. They got a researcher dressed up as a volunteer to go to homes and ask if he could install a giant, ugly billboard in their front garden, reading “Drive Carefully.” Despite the obvious unpleasantness of the sign, most people complied with the request.
Why? A short while earlier, people had signed a statement committing to “Keep California Beautiful.” They then saw themselves as public-spirited citizens and viewed the advertisement of safer driving in line with their newly discovered principles.
So, be wary when salespeople come to your house – don’t comply with their requests, no matter how tiny they may seem.
Another way that our brains are easily tricked is through the principle of social proof. Have you ever wondered why TV series often include laugh tracks? That’s because research has shown that canned laughter will cause an audience to laugh longer and more often, making us find the material funnier.
To find out what the correct way of behaving is, we often turn to what other people are doing. When we are uncertain about how to act, we will simply copy what others around us are doing.
This is also why many advertisers choose to say their products are the “fastest-growing” or “best-selling,” whether it is true or not. Many advertisements use false “users” of their product to convince us of its value – they often have actors giving testimonials about how the product changed their lives.
The Werther Effect demonstrates how the need for social proof can have devastating effects. Professor Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California, observed that within the following two months of a newspaper’s front-page coverage of suicide stories, an average of 58 more people would commit suicide as well.
This is also why a lot of people become bystanders when a crime or emergency happens in front of them. Seeing that no one else is acting, they will assume they do not need to do anything either. To overcome this, if you ever find yourself in an emergency situation as a bystander, take action and delegate tasks, such as telling someone else to call an ambulance.
We are more likely to say yes to someone we know and like. This is a principle that Tupperware parties have been using for decades to great success. You get invited to these parties by a friend, who will then get a commission from every item that is sold at the party. Knowing your friend will benefit from you buying something makes you more likely to purchase some of the Tupperware.
And even if we don’t know the person, we are more likely to go along with whatever they want us to do when we are inclined to like them. This is especially true when we find someone attractive - we will be biased in their favor. This is called the halo effect. In addition to the principle of liking, we are also more likely to follow someone who exudes authority.
This was demonstrated in an experiment by Milgram. Participants were given the task to test someone’s knowledge, and for each wrong answer they received, were told to give the other person an electric shock. What they didn’t know was that the other person was not actually receiving shocks, but only feigned pain and eventually begged the participants to stop. They went on, and for each wrong answer gave increasingly powerful electric shocks - up to 450V in some cases. They did so simply because they had been told to do so by a person of authority.
We all have a deep-seated sense of duty to obey authority. This can be misused by compliance professionals by dressing up as authority figures such as doctors or professors, for example. Something as simple as adding a title to their name can have the effect of us being compelled to follow their requests.
One way of evading manipulation in this way is by simply asking whether the authority figure you’re encountering is truly an expert.
The final way in which our brains are easily influenced is through the principle of scarcity. The idea of potential loss is a strong motivator in our decision-making processes.
This is the guiding principle behind many sales tactics, and the reason why businesses will often emphasize things such as, “Sale Ends in Two Days!” Another way in which sales are boosted is through the “limited-number tactic.” The customer is informed that a certain product is in short supply. This is sometimes true, but it is often made up to push sales.
If an item is scarce, that means we’re losing the freedom to buy it. It also leads us to think it’s more valuable. Connected to this is the Romeo and Juliet effect: couples who are receiving parental interference in their relationship will often commit more strongly to the partnership and will even get married, which they might otherwise not do. With less parental interference, the romantic interest usually cools.
How then, can we protect ourselves from falling prey to the lures of scarcity? “Our typical reaction to scarcity hinders our ability to think,” says Cialdini. This means we’re less likely to examine and analyze the situation thoughtfully and objectively. You can choose to see this rising tide of arousal as a warning. Ask yourself what you want from the item - do you simply want to possess it because there are only a few available, or do you actually need it?
Our automated thought processes make us vulnerable to manipulation. Compliance professionals such as salespeople know this and use our automated thinking to manipulate us into committing to things we do not need. By becoming aware of the ways in which our thinking can be influenced, we are able to protect ourselves from unwanted decisions and manipulation.
Cialdini makes a strong point for how we are influenced in our everyday lives. Whether you want to use these principles to influence others or to protect yourself, you are sure to find a fountain of knowledge and practical examples in “Influence.”
Next time an item is on sale, stop and ask yourself why you are buying it.
Robert Beno Cialdini is Professor Emeritus of Regent Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University and was a Visiting Professor of Marketing, Business, and Psychology at Stanford University as well as the University of California at Santa Cruz. He is best known for his 1984 book on Persuasion and Marketing, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. The book sold more than three million copies and was translated into thirty languages. The author was listed on the New York Times Best Seller list, and Fortune lists him in his "75 Smarter Corporate Books." Cialdi... (Read more)
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