Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion: Book Summary

Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini.

“You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.” Zig Ziglar also said “the most important persuasion tool you have in your entire arsenal is integrity.” I hope what follows will help you help other people get what they want.

The human brain does not consider all relevant and available information when making decisions. Instead, humans and animals have built-in automatic responses to stimuli called “fixed-action patterns”, or mental shortcuts. These shortcuts simplify our lives and reduce mental strain by allowing us to act without thinking in each-and-every situation.  But because our brains rely on these shortcuts, anyone who correctly structures their requests to take advantage of them can wield powerful influence over us.

Many compliance practitioners (from real estate to automotive sales) have designed training courses that utilize these weapons of influence to increase their profits. In most cases, the secret to their effectiveness is in the way the requests are structured.

For example, a well-known shortcut is when we ask someone for a favor we will be far more successful if we provide a reason (a because). People simply like to have reasons for what they do, and the word because triggers an automatic compliance response. If I ask to cut in front of you in line at the supermarket, my request will be more likely to succeed if I provide a reason, even if that reason is not relevant or particularly sympathetic (e.g. “may I cut in line, because I’m in a rush”).

The contrast principle is another shortcut that affects our perception in powerful ways. If two things are presented one after the other, the difference between them will be magnified and appear more different than they actually are. For example, if you pick up a light object first, then pick up a heavy object, the heavy object will feel heavier than if you picked it up without picking up the light one first. It’s why a salesperson will likely try to sell you a suit first, because all the accessories (belts, ties, shirts, etc.) will appear cheaper after you agree to buy the suit. If you’re sold the suit first, you’ll likely pay more for the accessories. Similarly, some real estate agents are trained to show you over-priced, run-down houses first to lower your expectations before they show you the houses they actually want you to buy.

Another great example of the contrast principle referenced in the book is the letter below from a college student to her parents:

Dear Mother and Dad, Since I left for college I have been remiss in writing and I am sorry for my thoughtlessness in not having written before. I will bring you up to date now, but before you read on, please sit down. You are not to read any further unless you are sitting down, okay? Well, then, I am getting along pretty well now. The skull fracture and the concussion I got when I jumped out the window of my dormitory when it caught on fire shortly after my arrival here is pretty well healed now. I only spent two weeks in the hospital and now I can see almost normally and only get those sick headaches once a day. Fortunately, the fire in the dormitory, and my jump, was witnessed by an attendant at the gas station near the dorm, and he was the one who called the Fire Department and the ambulance. He also visited me in the hospital and since I had nowhere to live because of the burnt out dormitory, he was kind enough to invite me to share his apartment with him. It’s really a basement room, but it’s kind of cute. He is a very fine boy and we have fallen deeply in love and are planning to get married. We haven’t got the exact date yet, but it will be before my pregnancy begins to show. Yes, Mother and Dad, I am pregnant. I know how much you are looking forward to being grandparents and I know you will welcome the baby and give it the same love and devotion and tender care you gave me when I was a child. The reason for the delay in our marriage is that my boyfriend has a minor infection which prevents us from passing our pre-marital blood tests and I carelessly caught it from him. Now that I have brought you up to date, I want to tell you that there was no dormitory fire, I did not have a concussion or skull fracture, I was not in the hospital, I am not pregnant, I am not engaged, I am not infected, and there is no boyfriend. However, I am getting a “D” in American History, and an “F” in Chemistry and I want you to see those marks in their proper perspective. Your loving daughter, Sharon

According to Dr. Cialdini, the six most powerful mental shortcuts are reciprocity, consistency, consensus, liking, scarcity and authority.

The reciprocity shortcut states that we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us. Because society teaches us to distrust those who make no effort to reciprocate, we often go to great lengths to avoid being seen as one of them (aka “freeloader”). For example, we typically avoid asking someone for a favor if we’re not in a position to reciprocate that favor. Even when someone else’s favor is uninvited, we feel compelled to return it. For example, the American Veterans society was able to nearly double its donation rate from 18% to 35% by adding an unsolicited gift (individualized address labels) to each mailing. This shortcut is so powerful that even if we don’t like someone, we can end up complying with their request.

A powerful business example of the reciprocity shortcut is the reciprocal concession. Suppose you want something from me in a negotiation; one way to increase your chances is to make a larger request first (that I’ll most likely turn down). After I refuse, you then make a second request as a concession. Provided you skillfully structure your two requests, I should view your second request as a concession to me and feel inclined to respond with a concession of my own – to comply with your second request. Your initial concession is a highly effective compliance gambit called the rejection-then-retreat technique. However, a gifted negotiator will not make the initial request so extreme as to be seen as illegitimate from the start.

The commitment & consistency shortcut states that after making a choice or taking a stand, personal and interpersonal pressures (cognitive dissonance) forces us to behave consistently with it. Like other mental shortcuts, consistency allows us to avoid thinking – once we have made up our mind, we don’t have to think about it again. However, because it’s typically in our best interests to be consistent, we easily fall into the habit of being automatically so, even in situations where it is not the sensible or profitable way to be.

Toy companies ingeniously use the commitment shortcut to increase their January and February sales. They start prior to Christmas with compelling TV ads for special toys, which causes kids to extract promises for these toys from their parents. Then, they undersupply the special toys prior to Christmas so most parents are forced to substitute “well-supplied” toys of equal value. After Christmas the companies start running ads again for the special toys and the kids go running to their parents whining, “you promised, you promised”. The parents then run off to the store to live up to their prior commitments, doubling the revenue from each parent.

Whenever someone takes a stand that is visible to others (the more public the better), there arises a drive to maintain that stand in order to look like a consistent person. It’s why people soliciting for charity over phone might first ask “how are you doing?”. Once someone has publicly asserted that “they’re doing fine”, it’s inconsistent and awkward to appear stingy later when asked for donation. It’s also why pledges at college fraternities who endure intense, often humiliating, inductions value their new membership far more than those who pledge fraternities without such commitment rituals. Once you’ve got a man’s self-image where you want it, he should comply naturally with a whole range of your requests that are consistent with this new view of himself.

Moreover, people are more likely to comply with a larger request after they have already complied with a small request, even when the two requests are only remotely connected. So if you want someone to do something and you feel that there will be resistance, it’s best to start with a small request that’s unlikely to be declined.

The consensus shortcut (or social proof) states that when we are uncertain about a course of action, we tend to use the behavior of other people (like us), to determine proper behavior for ourselves. We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it. It’s like saying to yourself, if everyone else is doing it, I’ll do it too.

It’s why a sitcom’s laugh track causes viewers to laugh longer and more often. It’s also why a front page suicide news story leads to more unusual suicides in the following month. And it’s why infomercials now use the call to action “If operators are busy, please call again”, and why McDonald’s uses a sign stating “billions and billions served”.

Social proof can be most powerful in ambiguous situations. When you know what’s going on and what to do, you don’t need clues from other people. But when you don’t know what’s going on or what is socially acceptable, you instinctively look to others.

When companies use testimonials to sell products, they are taking advantage of social proof. However, the more similar the person giving the testimonial is to your target audience (in age, in dress, use of language, etc.), the more persuasive the message becomes.

The liking shortcut states that we are more likely to comply with a request from someone we know and like. This should not surprise us, it’s the reason Tupperware parties work, or why charity organizations ask volunteers to recruit from friends or neighbors, or why an introduction from a friend (e.g. Linkedin) is more powerful than from a stranger. But what causes us to like someone? This happens for several reasons (physical attractiveness, similarity, compliments, familiarity and association).

Attractive people generally have an easier time persuading others. Studies have shown that handsome men receive lighter prison sentences, and teachers think attractive kids are more intelligent and talented. Good-looking politicians often end up getting more votes and good-looking job applicants often get hired. Those who have their opinions influenced by appearances may even deny that looks had anything to do with their decision making. Even in children, we view aggressive actions as less naughty when performed by a good-looking child.

We also like people who are similar to us, whether it’s their personality traits, ethnicity, background or lifestyle. It’s why automotive salesmen scan the cars of their customers’ trade-ins for items they can use to establish similar interests (like golf clubs, out of state license plates, camping equipment, etc.). In one study, when college researchers asked people on campus for a dime to make a phone call, two thirds said yes if the requestor was dressed similarly to the way they were, verses less than half if they were dressed differently. Some salespeople are even trained to mimic the body language, gestures and word choices of their clients because of the persuasive power of perceived similarity.

Like it or not, we’re all phenomenal suckers for flattery. Compliments produce just as much liking for the flatterer when they are untrue as when they are true, even if the flatterer is known to want something from us. It’s why Joe Girard, the world’s greatest car salesman (according to Guinness World Records), sent every one of his customers a monthly card with the simple message “I like you” to draw people back to his auto dealership.

Familiarity with someone plays a role in our decision making because being in contact with someone leads to greater liking, assuming the contact is not competitive or distasteful. It’s why doing business with a familiar former client is easier than building trust with a new one.

An association with someone or something can also influence our liking for them (both positively or negatively). People assume that we have the same personality as our friends, and men who saw a car with a young attractive model sitting in it rated it as faster and more expensive. We also manipulate the visibility of our connections with winners and losers. If our team wins then,”we won”, if our team loses then, “they lost”. When our public image is damaged, we try to repair it by showing our ties to successful others and avoiding unsuccessful others.

The authority shortcut states that we mindlessly obey authorities in a lot of cases. We usually see an order from an authority in isolation instead of seeing the situation as a whole. We’re also as vulnerable to the “symbols” of authority as to its substance. For example, job titles influence us – someone being introduced as a professor is seen taller by students than someone being introduced as a graduate student. Appearances (e.g. police officers in uniform) also influence us, and motorists wait much longer before honking on a new luxury car than an old car.

The scarcity shortcut states that fear of losing something motivates us more than the thought of gaining something of similar value. Scarcity triggers an evolutionary compliance response because your brain is primed to treat scarce opportunities and resources as more valuable. For example, homeowners told how much money they could lose from inadequate insulation were more likely to insulate their homes than those told how much money they could save.

We believe that things that are difficult to own are usually better than things that are easy to own. Whole industries are build upon this premise (e.g. rare coin and stamp collecting).

Scarcity’s urgency can be convincing, but another powerful fear often accompanies it – the fear of loss (aka “FOMO” the fear of missing out). If someone appears to give you something and then takes it back, or blocks you from obtaining something, you’ll want it even more. It’s why more revolutions happen when a period of improving economic conditions is followed by a short, sharp reversal in those conditions. Revolutionaries are likely to be those people who have been given a taste of a better life, and then had it taken away. When the economic and social improvements suddenly become less available, they desire them more than ever and often rise up violently to secure them. Similarly, a parent who grants privileges or enforces rules erratically fosters rebelliousness by unwittingly establishing freedoms for the child.

Scarcity can become supercharged when it meets rivalry. Salespeople often schedule  several prospective buyers show up at the same time. When only one apartment is available and there are many people interested in it, someone is surely going to rent it immediately.