Pre-suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade

Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade by Dr. Robert Cialdini

“Every battle is won before it is fought.”  Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Dr. Cialdini argues that what happens in the moment before you attempt to influence people has a profound effect on whether you will influence them or not:

  • If you want people to buy a box of expensive chocolates, you can first arrange for them to write down a number that’s much larger than the price of the chocolates.
  • If you want people to choose a bottle of French wine, you can expose them to French background music before they decide.
  • If you want people to agree to try an untested product, you can first inquire whether they consider themselves adventurous.
  • If you want people to feel warmly toward you, you can hand them a hot drink.
  • If you want people to be more helpful to you, you can have them look at photos of individuals standing close together.
  • If you want people to be more achievement oriented, you can provide them with an image of a runner winning a race.
  • If you want people to make careful assessments, you can show them a picture of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker.

Dr. Cialdini found that what separated the best salespeople, direct marketers, TV advertisers, managers, etc. from mediocre ones was not necessarily the merits of their requests, it was what they consistently did right before presenting their requests to make their audience receptive to them.

For example, a colleague of Dr. Cialdini’s always told potential clients (right before he announced his $75,000 fee) “As you can tell, I’m not going to be able to charge you a million dollars for this.” Throwing out the high number made his actual fee sound small, and most clients accepted it without bargaining.

Another colleague of Dr. Cialdini’s established trust with families he was selling smoke detectors to by asking them if he could let himself out (and back into) their homes while they took a test on fire safety. His unique way of establishing trust before his actual sales pitch worked better than any of his colleagues, because who would allow someone let themselves into your house, only someone you trust, right? He never claimed to be someone trustworthy, but he acted in a way that is characteristic of someone we trust. He created a trustworthy frame through which everything after it would be viewed.

Privileged Moments: One of the reasons horoscopes and palm readings work is because “in deciding whether a possibility is correct, people typically look for hits rather than misses; for confirmations of the idea rather than for disconfirmations. It is easier to register the presence of something than its absence.” So if a palm reader bends back your thumb and proclaims you’re a stubborn individual, your brain searches for all the positives confirmations of you being stubborn, and not the counter examples.

In one study, when clipboard-carrying researchers stopped people in a shopping mall and asked them to complete a quick survey, only 29 percent of people asked volunteered. But when the researchers first asked “Do you consider yourself to be a helpful person?” (these single chute questions are surprisingly effective at leading to an affirmative response), 77 percent of people volunteered. That simple question produced a privileged moment where people searched their brains for examples of being helpful, and once they publicly affirmed their helpful nature, they were more than twice as likely to volunteer.

A major insight in the book is that a person’s choice in a situation is more frequently influenced by what has been elevated in attention (and, thereby, in privilege) at the time of the decision, and not necessarily the wisest choice in the moment. Therefore, to get someone to make a desired choice, it’s not necessary to alter that person’s long-held beliefs or attitudes, but only what they are paying attention to at the moment of the decision. The term “pay attention” is appropriate, because when you pay attention to something, the cost is a loss of attention on anything else. Whenever we focus people on something (an idea, a person, an object) we make that thing seem more important to them than before.

Dr. Milton Erickson (the famous psychotherapist and father of modern hypnosis) employed this device when dealing with patients who had been unwilling to consider a point that he felt was crucial to their progress. Rather than inviting more resistance by raising his voice, Dr. Erickson would simply wait for something noisy to happen outside his office window. Then, while timing his crucial insight to coincide with the worst of the noise, he would lower his voice. To hear what Dr. Erickson was saying, patients had to lean forward (into the information), usually with focused attention and intense interest.

“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it” – Daniel Kahneman

The Importance of Attention… is Importance: Anything that draws focused attention to itself can lead observers to overestimate its importance. From an evolutionary standpoint, because it makes sense to pay attention to people who are important (high status members of society), we can also hold the mistaken belief that something is important merely because we have been led by some irrelevant factor to give it our focused attention. As is true for Hollywood (where there’s no such thing as bad publicity), the persuader who skillfully draws outsized attention to the most favorable feature of an offer becomes the most successful pre-suader.

What’s Focal is Causal: Because we typically pay special attention to the true causes around us, if we see ourselves giving special attention to something, we become more likely to consider it a cause. CEOs, for example, are given a much more causal credit/blame than they typically deserve in the success of the organizations they head. Likewise, a communicator who focuses attention on the positive facets of their message can make recipients more open to the message pre-suasively. Very often, the biggest challenge for a persuader is not in providing a strong case, but convincing recipients to devote their limited time and energy to considering its merits.

The Attractors:  Sex and violence capture our attention because we have a biological desire to survive and procreate. However, adding sexual or violent stimuli into advertising only works if the stimuli fit the goal people have in a given situation. For example, sex only sells items that people buy for sexually related purposes (cosmetics, hair color, perfume, bikinis, clothing). Also, in sexual situations, we want to stand out and separate ourselves from the crowd. Conversely, in threatening situations, we want to be part of a group, to fit in, and to feel protected. Therefore, if you’re watching a violent film on a date, you’ll respond more to ads that emphasize fitting in. However, if you’re watching a romantic film, you’ll respond better to ads for products that focus on standing out.

The Magnetizers: A persuader who can hold someone’s focus on the favorable elements of his argument raises the chance his argument will go unchallenged by opposing points of view, because the opposing points of view are locked out of attention. Information about the self (self-relevant information) is a powerful magnet of attention. Therefore, when you have a case to make, you should employ simple, self-relevant cues (such as the word you) to predispose your audience toward your case before they see or hear it. Unfinished and mysterious information also focuses attention. In one college study on attraction, women were asked to rate attractive men who had first rated the women’s attractiveness via their Facebook photos. Surprisingly, the women didn’t rate the men highest who had rated them highest, it was the men whose ratings remained yet unknown to the women. The men who kept popping up in the women’s minds were those whose ratings hadn’t been revealed yet. The women’s repeated refocusing on those guys made them appear the most attractive.

“If you want to change the world, change the metaphor.” — Joseph Conrad.

I link therefore I think: Mental associations are the building blocks of thought, and we can persuade others by using language that manages their mental associations towards our message. The trick is to focus people’s preliminary attention on concepts that are positively associated with a desired outcome of a message, before they experience the message. For example, multiple studies have shown that exposing individuals to words that connote achievement (win, attain, succeed, master) increases their performance on an assigned task and more than doubles their willingness to keep working at it.

After we focus on a specific concept, concepts closely linked to it enjoy a privileged moment within our minds, acquiring influence that non-linked concepts simply can’t match. This happens for two reasons. First, when a preliminary concept (German music) receives our attention, closely associated secondary concepts (German wine) become more accessible in consciousness, which greatly improves the chance that we respond to the linked concepts. This enhanced standing in our consciousness colors our perceptions, orients our thinking, affects our motivations, and thereby changes our relevant behavior. Second, concepts not linked to the opener concept are actually suppressed in consciousness, thereby decommissioning them temporarily and making them less likely to gain influence.

Reciprocation: People say yes to people they owe. So valuable is it to reciprocate that all human cultures teach reciprocation from childhood and assign socially punishing names—freeloader, user, taker, parasite—to those who don’t give back after receiving. It’s why products like beer, cheese, frozen pizza, lipstick, etc. get big sales lifts from free samples at Costco.

The most effective pre-suasive gifts are meaningful, unexpected and customized. For example, when diners in a New Jersey restaurant were offered a piece of chocolate at the end of their meals by a waitress, her tips rose by 3.3 percent vs. those who weren’t offered chocolate. However, when diners were given two chocolates, the waitress’s tips rose by 14.1 percent. The second chocolate represented a meaningful increase in the size of the gift – a doubling. Also, the receipt of two chocolates was not only twice that of one chocolate, but also more unexpected. In a third scenario, after offering guests one chocolate from her basket and turning to walk away, the waitress unexpectedly returned to the table and offered a second chocolate to each diner. As a result, her average tip improved by 21.3 percent.

However, a gift, favor, or service that incorporates all three features of meaningfulness, unexpectedness, and customization is the most potent. For example, when Abu Jandal (Osama bin Laden’s former chief bodyguard) was questioned in a Yemeni prison after 9/ 11, attempts to get him to reveal information about Al Qaeda’s leadership structure were fruitless. But when interrogators noticed that he never ate the cookies he was served because he was diabetic, they gave him a gift that was meaningful, unexpected, and customized: sugar-free cookies. In subsequent interrogations, Jandal provided extensive data on Al Qaeda operations, as well as the names of several of the 9/ 11 hijackers.

Liking: We like those who are similar to us. It’s why infants smile more at adults whose facial expressions match their own, and similarities in language style (the types of words and verbal expressions conversation partners use) increase romantic attraction, relationship stability and the likelihood that a hostage negotiation will end peacefully. For example, waitresses coached to mimic the verbal style of customers doubled their tips, and negotiators coached to do the same with their opponents got significantly better final outcomes. Likewise, salespeople who mimicked the language styles and nonverbal behaviors (gestures, postures) of customers sold more of the products they recommended.

“I can live for two months on a good compliment.”  – Mark Twain

Compliments cause us to like those who provide them, and this is true whether the praise is for our appearance, taste, personality, work habits, or intelligence. For example, when hair stylists complimented customers by saying, “Any hairstyle would look good on you.”, their tips rose by 37 percent.

Because similarities and compliments cause people to feel that you like them, they’ll typically be more willing to do business with you. People trust that those who like them will try to steer them correctly. Therefore, the number one rule for salespeople is to show customers that you genuinely like them.

Social Proof: People find it appropriate for them to believe, feel, or do something to the extent that others, especially comparable others, are believing, feeling, or doing it. For example, restaurant managers can increase the demand for particular dishes without the expense of upgrading the recipes, the kitchen staff, or the menus; they have only to label certain items as “most popular” dishes.  Another strength of social-proof persuasion is that it negates the problem of uncertain achievability. If people learn that many others like them are achieving something (like conserving energy), there is little doubt as to its feasibility, and it seems realistic and, therefore, implementable.

Authority: When an expert on a topic speaks, people are usually persuaded. This is especially true when the people are uncertain of what to do. A credible authority possesses the combination of two highly persuasive qualities: expertise and trustworthiness. In a persuasion-focused interaction, we want to trust that someone is presenting information in an honest and impartial fashion, and not attempting to serve their self-interest.

One way to increase your trustworthiness is to not describe the most favorable features of your offer or idea up front (especially while reserving mention of any drawbacks until the end – or never), because someone who references a weakness early on is immediately seen as more honest. Once trustworthiness is in place, the major strengths of the case can be advanced, and the audience will be more likely to believe them. The effectiveness of this approach has been documented in legal settings, political campaigns, and in advertising messages, where acknowledging a drawback before highlighting strengths can often cause large gains in success.

The tactic can be particularly successful when the audience is already aware of the weakness, and thus, when a persuader mentions it, little additional damage is done. And when the persuader uses a transitional word (such as however, or but, or yet) he channels the listeners’ attention away from the weakness and onto a countervailing strength. For example, a job candidate might say, “I am not experienced in this field, but I am a very fast learner.”, or a salesperson might state, “Our set-up costs are not the lowest; however, you’ll recoup them quickly due to our superior efficiencies.”

Scarcity: We want more of what we can have less of. When access to a desired item is restricted, people have been known to go crazy for it. Our aversion to losing something of value is a key factor that drives the desire. A CEO of a large brokerage firm once said: “If you wake a multimillionaire client at five in the morning and say, ‘If you act now, you will gain twenty thousand dollars,’ he’ll scream at you and slam down the phone. But if you say, ‘If you don’t act now, you will lose twenty thousand dollars,’ he’ll thank you.”

Consistency: We want to be seen as consistent with the previous statements we’ve made, stands we’ve taken, and actions we’ve performed. Therefore, persuaders who make us take a pre-suasive step, even a small one, in the direction of a particular idea will increase our willingness to take a much larger, congruent step when asked. For example, organizations can raise the probability that an individual will appear at an event by switching from saying at the end of a reminder phone call, “We’ll mark you on the list as coming then. Thank you!” to “We’ll mark you on the list as coming then, okay? [Pause for confirmation.] Thank you.” she becomes less likely to be unfaithful while doing so.

Unity: Relationships that cause people to favor another most effectively are the ones that cause people to say, “Oh, that person is one of us.” For example, you might have more in common with a colleague at work than with a sibling, but there is no question which of the two you would consider more “of you”, and consequently, you would more likely help in a time of need. Unity is not about simple similarities (although those work too via the liking principle), but it’s about shared identities. It’s about the categories that individuals use to define themselves and their groups (race, ethnicity, nationality, family, political, religious affiliations), and in which the conduct of one member influences the self-esteem of other members.

How can individuals with no special connection to us employ the power of unity to gain our favor? One way is to use language and imagery pre-suasively to bring the concept of unity to our consciousness. For example, organizations that create a sense of unity among their members are characterized by the use of familial images and labels (brothers, sisterhood, forefathers, motherland, heritage) which lead to an increased willingness to sacrifice one’s own interests for the welfare of the group. It’s also why Warren Buffet includes language in his investor notices like “I will tell you what I would say to my family today if they asked me about Berkshire’s future.”