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Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

As a social psychologist, Robert Cialdini is interested in the psychology of compliance: What are the factors that cause one person to say yes to another person? What "psychological principles influence the tendency to comply with a request"? Cialdini terms these principles "weapons of influence." As a basis for his conclusions, Cialdini relies on two main sources: laboratory experiments and advice for "compliance professionals"--those whose business it is to persuade us. As a researcher, Cialdini used the "participant observer" approach--a staple of social science research--in which he participated in the activity he wished to observe, often using a disguise: for example, he often posed as a potential employee of an ad agency or sales organization to qualify for their training programs. What did he learn in this three-year period?

Although there are thousands of different tactics that compliance practitioners employ to produce an affirmative response, the majority fall within six basic categories according to Cialdini. Each of these categories is governed by a fundamental psychological principle that directs human behaviour and, in so doing, gives the tactics their power. These tactics include consistency, reciprocation, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. (xiii)

In this list, he does not include "material self-interest"--"that people want to get the most and pay the least for their choices"-- because he assumes that it is a "motivational given," an underlying factor that informs most persuasive encounters.

He is especially interested in automatic (or mindless) compliance and claims that the "evidence suggests that the ever-accelerating pace and informational crush of modern life will make this form of unthinking compliance more and more prevalent in the future." In this view, Ciladini joins such media theorists as Harold Adams Innis, Paul Virilio and Tony Schwartz in their concern that information-overload is major hazard of contemporary living. In effect, we do not have the time and cognitive capacity to process all the messages we are subjected to, so many of these messages reside unattended in our psyches until they are played upon by subsequent messages. Cialdini uses the tag phrase "click-whirr" to signify our unthinking responses to stimuli.

It is our intention in studying Cialdini's findings to bring these techniques up into consciousness, not to learn how to trick other people into compliance, but primarily to defend ourselves against unthinking compliance in our own lives.

Chapter 1: Weapons of Influence

In this chapter, Cialdini describes how both animals and humans have a built-in automatic response to stimuli called "fixed-action patterns" activated by a "trigger feature." He characterizes these automatic responses with the phrase "click-whirr": "Click and the appropriate tape is activated; whirr and out rolls the standard sequence of behaviors" (3). While these behaviors can look foolish when they are tricked during experiments, they usually perform a useful function most of the time: they save us time when making snap decisions; they are usually necessary shortcuts. He quotes Alfred North Whitehead's assertion that "civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them" (7). He cites the experiments of Ellen Langer which demonstrated that humans are more likely to comply with a request if a reason is also given, even if that reason makes no sense. The word "because" triggers the automatic compliance response.

Cialdini notes that both animals and humans can mimic trigger features to stimulate an automatic response. In effect, this mimicry opens up the incredible range of persuasive techniques for purposes of exploitation. These weapons of automatic influence gain their force in a manner similar to jujitsu: once the trigger has been activated, the force of the automatic response gives the impression that the exploiters of these weapons have exerted very little force, just as the defender in jujitsu allows the momentum of an attacker to defeat the attack by not offering any resistance.

To illustrate, he uses the example of the contrast principle "that affects the way we see the difference between two things that are presented one after the other." If the difference between the compared items is fairly great, we will tend to see a greater difference than actually exists. Our partners are less attractive to us when compared to very beautiful people; an expensive sweater is seen to be less costly when it is contrasted to the price of an expensive suit; a more expensive house contrasts favorably to a shabby "setup" property. (Thus, sales personnel are instructed to show customers the more expensive items first. Accessories always seem less costly after an agreement has been made to purchase a more expensive item, such as a car.)

In many respects, Cialdini confirms the findings of the media theorist Tony Schwartz who claimed that messages meant to persuade should "resonate" with their audiences--should stimulate stored up impressions, hopes, fears, and desires by suggestion--rather than make outright requests for compliance.

Chapter 2: Reciprocation

Possibly one of the most potent compliance techniques is the rule of reciprocation, which prompts us to repay what someone has given us. When we are given a gift, we feel indebted to the giver, often feel uncomfortable with this indebtedness, and feel compelled to cancel the debt...often against our better judgment. The rule of reciprocation is widespread across human cultures, suggesting that it is fundamental to creating interdependencies on which societies, cultures, and civilizations are built. In effect, the rule of reciprocation assures that someone can give something away first, with the relative assurance that this initial gift will eventually be repaid--nothing is lost.

So important is this principle for building trusting relations, that it has been internalized as part of the socialization process for millennia, and is now second nature. The anthropologist Richard Leakey considers the rule of reciprocity a defining element of what it means to be human: "We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honoured network of obligation" (18). Tiger and Fox (cultural anthropologists) argue that this "web of indebtedness" is the foundation for such diverse human practices as the division of labour, exchange of goods and services, evolution of experts, and other interdependencies that connect humans into more efficient cooperative units (18). As a result, we are trained from an early age to comply with the rule of reciprocity.

Although the obligation to repay constitutes the essence of the reciprocity rule, it is the obligation to receive that makes the rule so easy to exploit (31).

The rule is so powerful it can overcome our feelings of dislike or suspicion for the person who gives us a gift. (Cialdini cites the example of Hare Krishna followers using a donation-request procedure.) Other examples include political patronage ("logrolling") and contributions; and free samples. It is not required that we have requested a gift or favour for the rule to be engaged; it can be given uninvited. As Marcel Mauss notes in his study of gift-giving, "There is an obligation to give, an obligation to receive, and an obligation to repay." It is this network of indebtedness that may be exploited by compliance practitioners: "Although the obligation to repay constitutes the essence of the reciprocity rule, it is the obligation to receive that makes the rule so easy to exploit" (31).

The rule can trigger unequal exchanges when the combination of internal discomfort over the indebtedness and the fear of external shame and judgment threaten to exact their costs. We will often give back more than we receive to ensure that we are not subject to these combined psychological costs. Cialdini cites the example of women who allow men to buy drinks for them in bars, and then feel obligated to have sex in return.

Reciprocal concessions form the basis for negotiations--labour and otherwise--in which one party makes an excessive request, then "concedes" to a lesser claim. Experiments reveal that people are more likely to concede to a request if they are first asked to do something they are unlikely to agree to, followed by a request that is less demanding or onerous: the rejection-then-retreat technique common to labour negotiations. (Besides relying on principles of trust and obligation common to all such transactions, this aspect of reciprocity also trades on the contrast principle.) If the original request is far in excess of expectations, or seen to be unreasonable, however, trust is broken and the concession will probably lose its force. This is often called bargaining in bad faith. In sales, "talking the top of the line" introduces the deluxe product first, then retreats to a less-expensive product if the first offer is rejected.

Experiments also reveal that the rejection-then-retreat strategy of concessions creates a sense of responsibility and satisfaction in the person accepting the more favorable subsequent offer. A feeling of responsibility results because the person accepting the offer has helped craft the agreement through the negotiation process, and is thus more likely to follow through with the agreement, and even make future concessions. The person accepting the lesser offer feels satisfied because the process has worked favourably (even though victims of this strategy often end up conceding more than they would if the tactic had not been employed) (51).

How to Say No: "It is essential to recognize that the requester who invokes the reciprocation rule (or any other weapon of influence) to gain our compliance is not the real opponent. Such a requester has chosen to become a jujitsu warrior who aligns himself with the sweeping power of reciprocation and then merely releases that power by providing a first favour or concession. The real opponent is the rule" (51). If we accept a gift as a favour, we engage in an "honored network of obligation" and will probably want to return that favour in the future; however, if we accept a favour and it turns out to be a trick of compliance, we need feel no obligation to respond with our own favour. We can intervene in the moment we begin to recognize that the favour is really a trick. "The rule says that favours are to be met with favours; it does not require that tricks be met with favours." This ability to say no to a disguised sales pitch requires that one redefines the reciprocity not as a favour but as a device, thus freeing oneself from its obligation.

Further research and questions: What cultural factors and differences come into play with the rule of reciprocity? While the mechanics of the rule may be universal, the details and style of the original offer may vary widely from culture to culture. Are there any examples which illustrate cultural differences in the application of the rule of reciprocity and its corollary principles?