Thursday, September 15, 2011

Influence - The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini: Notes to Self

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I first came across a mention of this book Influence by Robert Cialdini while reading Taleb's Black Swan. In Taleb's book, i read that Human beings don't consider all the factors available to them in making a decision, but use a single, highly representative piece of the total. We don't every time consider all the factors due to lack of time and also all the decisions that we need to take aren't very important. I was surprised and enthused to explore this further and hence i ended up reading Prof Cialdini's  book.


The learnings from the book are very enlightening, to say the least. It wont be an understatement if i say that the book helps me to look at human interactions and how we take decisions in a different light. What follows below is a condensed version of the notes that i took from the book. This book mentions Reciprocation, Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, Authority, &  Scarcity, and tells us that these single highly representative pieces of information (prompts as the book calls it),normally helps us correctly and we can take decisions without thinking.

But the absence of thinking can be exploited to lead people into making wrong decisions.But we are in a dilemma because we can't afford not to use these prompts as the pace of modern life demands that we frequently use them.Hence it is very important to know when we are using these prompts and where and how we are misled into taking wrong decisions ( for us) and how to avoid being led into such decisions. This book calls people who use the prompts to get decisions they want, as compliance professionals.

Reciprocation rule says that we should repay in kind what other person has provided us. Human beings enjoy a significant advantage because of this rule and we are trained to comply and believe in this rule. Added to this is the fact that people can can trigger a feeling of indebtedness in others by doing an uninvited favors. And we are also trained to repay the person who provided us. One of the other things that we are trained is not to refuse things which are offered as gifts (as otherwise we would end up offending the gift giver).

All the above put together means that we can be manipulated: Since this rule allows one person to choose the nature of the indebting first favor and the nature of the debt canceling return favor, we could easily be manipulated into an unfair exchange by those who might wish to exploit us. And since the society frowns upon some one who doesn't pay back a favor in kind, we are conditioned to be uncomfortable when beholden and want to return the favor as soon as possible. and when we want to return the favor, we don't look to repay exactly in kind and flexible enough within similar action boundaries.


Ever wondered why free samples are provided by merchants?. The free samples come as a gift and engage the reciprocity rule and we many a times end up buying the product

Another variation of this is Reciprocal concession, a technique where two requests are made and when the first request is refused and when the second request which is relatively smaller is made, it is invariably accepted. This is also called the rejection and retreat technique. Imagine the number of times we have given names of our friends to telephone callers or door to door salesman after refusing to buy their service/product.

How not to be influenced: The real opponent is the rule and not the person who invokes the rule. Since we can't reject point blank all favors as we will always come across generous and genuine people as well as people who try to play fairly by the reciprocity rule. Once we understand that the initial offer was not a favor (as per reciprocity rule) but a compliance tactic, we have the option of not returning the favor and saying no.

Commitment and Consistency: We have a powerful urge to (appear to) be consistent with what we have already done/said. Once we have taken a decision or stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.

This is because we have been brought up to think that inconsistency is an undesirable personality trait. Society doesnt respect much the person whose beliefs, words and deeds don't match and sees them as indecisive, confused, two faced or even mentally ill. Because it is so typically in our best interests to be consistent, we easily fall into the habit of being automatically so (without thinking), even in situations where it is not sensible to be so.

Like other prompts, consistency is also used to take decision without thinking. But the second more important point regarding consistency is that this automatic consistency functions as a shield against thought. Hence when we are mentally slacking, we can be exploited by those who would prefer that we don't think too much in response to their requests for compliance.

Compliance professionals make their victims agree to seemingly small and trivial requests, because once compliance for a small act is got, this can be used to get compliance on the bigger act - the bigger acts are usually remotely connected to the smaller tasks.

Written statements are also used to get compliance as they are more powerful than oral statements. This is the idea behind the purpose of 'I like this product because....' contest. This contest creates a favorable opinion in people's mind about the product and people need to follow up on the commitment by buying it.

Another instance is getting people to publicly commit to something. More public a stand, more reluctant they will be to change it and hence people need to be watchful about the public commitments that they make.

How not to be influenced:"A foolish consistency is hobglobin of little minds" - Emerson. There are two kinds of signs to tip us off. The first sort of signal occurs in the pit of our stomachs when we realize we are trapped in complying with a request we know we dont want to perform.
The second is by asking this question ' knowing what i now know, if i could go back in time, would i still make the same choice?'. the important part of the question is 'Knowwing what i now know'.

Social Proof: Canned laughter makes audience laugh longer and more often when humorous material is presented and helps to rate the material as funnier that what it actually is. This is an example of social proof at work :)

The principle of social proof states that one means to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. This principle applies especially to the way we decide what consitutes correct behavior. This tendency to see an action as more appropriate when others are doing it, normally works quite well. Like other weapons of influence, this provides a convenient short cut to determine how to behave ( without thinking), but, at the same time, makes one who uses the short cut vulnerable to the attacks of profiteers. This is exploited in variety of settings

Have you ever wondered why and how #1. Professional beggars always have some coins in their begging bowl? #2. Bartenders' tip jars always have a few dollar bills even at the beginning of the evening?  #3. Advertisers use terms like 'fastest growing' or 'largest selling' to advertise their products?  All these are examples of using social proof in advertising.

How not to be influenced: The key to say no lies in looking at what is being sold/ pushed across for what it is really worth for us, rather than going by what it means to others. Asking a question like ' is this idea really good/correct or is this product what i need?' and removing the influence (many a times made up) of what the society or a group of people think/say about the product/idea.

Liking: Sales happening at tupperware party is one example of 'Liking' prompt at work. Here the liking bond between the friends is used by compliance practitioners to produce assent and hence sell.

As a rule, we most prefer to say yes to the requests of some one we know and like. This simple behavior is used by total strangers to get us to comply with their request. People's responsiveness to physical attractiveness falls into a category that is called Halo Effect. This is because we automatically tend to assign favorable traits, to good looking people, as talent, kindness, honesty and intelligence. Hence the Halo effect of physical attractiveness is regularly exploited by compliance professionals.

Similarity is another area where compliance professionals make use and influence our decisions/opinions. this similarity can be in areas of opinions, personality traits, backgrounds and interests similar to ours.Because even small similarities can be good enough in producing a positive response to another and because a veneer of similarity can be so easily manufactured, special caution in the presence of people who claim to be 'just like you' is very much needed.

Compliment is another area that compliance professionals can use to trick us to take decisions that they want. information that someone likes us can be bewitchingly effective device for producing return liking and willing compliance. When we like some one, we don't think much before we cooperate with them. Hence compliance professionals can make use of cooperation to get answers they want or even manufacture cooperation when it is absent.

Advertisers use good looking models to sell cars and professional athletes are paid to connect themselves to things that are directly relevant to their roles ( rackets, shoes...) or wholly irrelevant ( soft drinks, watches). The important thing for the advertiser is to establish the connection ( positive). it doesnt have to be a logical one, just a positive one.

Food is another area which can be used to increase compliance. That is the reason why politicians and business have taken on to lunch and dinner meetings. Food creates a pleasant feeling and this positive feel can be linked to anything under discussion and can be used to bring about compliance. that is why certain cultures, civilizations insist on not having food till the key decisions are taken.

How not to be influenced: The time to act protectively is when we feel ourselves liking the practitioner more than we should under the circumstance. In such a scenario, undue liking has been produced and then we should caution ourselves to separate the person from the decision and focus on the decision. That is why it is important to be alert to a sense of undue liking for a compliance practitioner.

Authority: We are all trained from birth that obedience to proper authority is right and disobedience is wrong. This is because we (society) gain immense advantage from an widely accepted authority system. confirming to the dictates of authority figures has always had genuine practical advantages for us. but the problem here is that this results in automatic obedience to authority figures (without thinking). This can be exploited by compliance people.

Advertisements using people in white coats with stethoscope is one example of using authority to sell products. Title is another kind of authority that people have to be careful about. Clothes is another kind of authority symbol that can trigger our mechanical compliance.

How not to be influenced: Asking ourselves the following queries can help us to say a No. The first is to ask, when confronted with what appears to be an authority figure's influence attempt 'is the authority truly an expert? The above question is very important as it allows us to focus on a pair of crucial information: the authority's credentials and the relevance of those credentials to the topic at hand.

If the person is really an expert, then the second question that has to be asked is "How truly can we expect the expert to be here?" This is a question of their trustworthiness in the situation. (Think a dentist advertising for a paste)

Scarcity:Have you ever wondered why we have this urge to interrupt an important conversation to pick up a call from an unknown caller? This can be explained by the scarcity principle which says that opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited. This is because the idea of potential loss plays a large role in our decision making and many people are motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value.

Scarcity principle's power comes from two sources. #1 We have been taught from childhood that things that are difficult to possess are typically better, we use an item's availability as a shortcut to decide it's quality. #2. When something becomes less available, our desire to possess it becomes more than before ( when it was available in plenty).

Examples of straight forward use of scarcity principle is the 'limited number tactic', where the customer is informed that certain product is in short supply and can't be guaranteed to last long. Related to the limited number tactic is the deadline tactic, in which some official time limit is placed on the customers opportunity to get what the sales person (compliance professional) is offering. Right now is a variant of the deadline tactic much favored by face to face sellers

How not to be influenced: We should ask ourselves what we want from an item, when confronted with scarcity pressures. if we need the thing for the social, economic or psychological benefits of possessing something rare then fine; scarcity pressures will give us a good indication of how much we would want to pay for it - the less available it is, the more valuable to us it will be.

If we want it for it's utility value - it is vital to remember that scarce things do not taste or feel or ride or sound or work any better because of limited availability and decide the value and accordingly a call can be taken.

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