The simple act of accepting a flower from a stranger starts a chain reaction. The recipient almost immediately feels compelled to reciprocate in some way. We humans are preprogrammed with a whole set of rules that help us get through life. If we were required to consciously consider every decision we made, we would quickly become paralyzed. As humans have evolved, we have created a set of short cuts to help us deal with this onslaught of choice. Many of these mechanisms are positive and have served to help society function and flourish. However, these mental routines can be used to exploit us.
Social psychologist Robert Cialdini’s deep understanding of persuasion is evident in the wide array of examples he uses through Influence. University research is woven together with well-known, often infamous events in U.S. history. He adds personal anecdotes from field research he did for the book, ranging from busing tables at a high-end restaurant to enrolling as a sales trainee at numerous companies. His research pools together what con men and car dealers have known for a long time.
As a result, Cialdini refuses to sign petitions any more. He walks by musicians who salt their tip jar. He also purchases more flight insurance after a highly publicized suicide.
The Flavors of Persuasion
Let’s return to the acceptance of that flower. This kind of compulsion allowed tribes to divide tasks among members and cultures to trade goods across oceans. Samples at your local supermarket can create the same feeling of indebtedness. The reciprocity rule forces us to accept these acts of kindness. The Hare Krishnas maintain their sect giving flowers to travelers passing through airports; each recipient mechanically returning the favor with a small donation.
Making commitments and staying consistent with those commitments turns out to be very important to us and those around us. Once a person commits to a point of view, he has a very hard time doing a U-turn. As such, Cialdini recommends, for example, that if you are ever elected the foreman to a jury that you require secret ballots when voting. Also, telemarketers have found starting with the question “How are you doing today?” and leading a prospect to a positive response (“Just fine.”) doubles the success rate for charity requests. When creating goals, whether they be quitting smoking or starting a business, the act of writing and sharing your dreams activates that dual mechanism of commitment and constituency. Cialdini’s fear of signing petitions fails into the same category, based on research which confirmed people will agree to big things (like putting billboards in their front yard) after agreeing to little things (like displaying a small sign in their front window).
Persuasion can come in the form of taking cues from what others are doing. Cialdini labels form social proof and we are most susceptible under two conditions. The first is when there is uncertainty. Laugh tracks on sitcoms use the weakeness. The second is when we take cues from those who are similar to us. The more similar, the more likely we are to follow. Suicides are followed by more suicides as well as jumps in car accidents and plane crashes. Research has shown that most victims are of similar age to the original suicide and that the accidents were copycat suicides. The closer to location, the larger the copycat effect. People who were already considering ending their life received validation to take the final step. In this case, the actions of others, not our own, put us in danger. Cialdini’s increase in insurance coverage protects his family from the likelihood he could be affected by someone being swayed by social proof.
Liking someone can turn to be a problem as well. Sales professional are specifically trained on this technique of persuasion. When checking out your trade-in, a bag of golf clubs or baby stroller in the trunk creates a topic of conversation that buyers all too willing fall into. “Consultants” at Tupperware understand and use this a different way, organizing their parties around the host and the bond of friendship shared with the attendees. Research indicates the strength of affection between attendees is a better predictor of purchase than the affection for the product itself. Our best defense is to concentrate back on transaction and not the person presenting it.
Stanley Milgram’s research reveals another way our conscious mind can bypassed to do the inexplicable, in this case, through the use of authority. Milgram conducted a set of experiments in response to the Nazi war criminal trials, determining if individuals could be put in a situation where they would willingly following orders knowing they would cause harm to others. Test subjects or “teachers” asked questions to an actor collaborating with Milgram and a laboratory researcher supervised to make sure the test was administered properly. The teacher would press a button to send “a shock” increasing in intensity with each incorrect answer. The final voltage administered 450 volts and about two-thirds of Milgram’s subjects flipped all thirty switches needed to reach that point. Milgram concluded the researcher firmly exerting authority created the influence necessary for subjects to proceed. Not limited to the laboratory, a protester lost his legs as a train carrying weapons refused to stop, as the drivers strictly followed orders from superior. These are extreme examples, but things as simple as titles or clothing can put us under their spell.
Scarcity is probably the easiest to understand, and the method of influence we are most exposed to. Misprinted stamps or Brett Favre’s rookie card all carry higher value for their limited supply. Objects in short supply carry a higher value and as a shortcut lead us to feeling those things have a higher value. We also hate losing out on things; we think we have lost some freedom to act. We react against the interference wanting more than ever (p246). Children rebel in their two’s and teens whether they lose the toy car or car keys. Our desire for free information triggers the same response, but banning newspapers and burning books causes us to trust the information more rather than increase are desire for it.
What We Don’t Understand
We don’t appreciate these programmed mental scripts, too often accepting the media generated answer. Cialdini recounts the story of Catherine Genovese. In 1962, she was murdered in Queens as 38 bystanders watched from their apartment windows. The popular view of the case is Americans were becoming callous and indifference. Research done since then has proven a completely different set of factors were at work. Social proof was the culprit. With some uncertainty about the nature of what was going on, a large group of people will look to each other for cues. Our built-in circuitry is what cost this woman her life.
There is protection available from being a victim. At the end of each section, Cialdini offers antidotes for how we can avoid being fooled, tricked, and exploited. If a salesman is trying to employ his charms, remember to focus on merits of the deal and not the person selling it to you. To avoid being exploited by individuals feigning authority, consider this pair of questions – “Is this authority truly an expert?” and “How truthful can we expect the expert to be here?”
In the epilogue, Cialdini makes his most aggressive stance and suggests we should all walk away from those you choose to mislead us by taking advantage of our mental scripts. If an advertiser uses actors in “unrehearsed interviews”, he suggests letters be written to the company demanded their advertiser be dismissed for their misuse of social proof. If a musician salts her tip jar, he demands we walk past. Cialdini believes the reliability of these shortcuts must remain intact for us to function in a world that is growing ever more complicated.
After the fun stories and cautionary tales fade away, Cialdini leaves us with two insights. Our life would be difficult minus mental shortcuts to influence our decision-making, and those same helps leave us open to being exploited, leaving a blurry line to where we ourselves may be the ones exploiting.