In my profession, I spend a good portion of my time around marketers and sales people. I always see and hear about never ending lists and ideas on tests being carried out all the time. "If we change the price from £400 to £399.99, would that increase conversion. What will be the impact on sales if we change the perceived value of our Free Gift from £150 down to £100? It sometimes can be a dark art - persuading and influencing people to buy your product.

In Robert Cialdini's Influence - The Psychology of Persuasion he explain the most effective techniques that create compliance. He describes what the factors are that makes a person say yes to another person and explains what stands behind the persuasion mechanism, which he calls triggers.

With over 30 years of research into the science of influence, Dr. Robert Cialdini has earned an international reputation as an expert in the fields of persuasion, compliance, and negotiation.

Influence has been the go-to book for marketers since its release in 1984, which delivers six key principles behind human influence and explains them with countless practical examples.

These six universal principles that determine if people will change their behaviour are; reciprocity, commitment, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. Cialdini calls them shortcuts, which, if triggered, make us jump to conclusions faster.

Automatic behaviour patterns make us terribly vulnerable to anyone who knows how they work. There are several groups of people who know very well where the weapons of automatic influence lie. So all they have to do is to employ them regularly to get what they want.

The three most powerful points I took from the book were;

  1. The rule of reciprocity is so overpowering that even if we don’t like someone, we can end up complying with their request

  2. Agreeing to small requests may appear inconsequential in the beginning. But altering someone’s self-image makes them even more exploitable

  3. Attractive people have easier time persuading others

Rule 1. - Reciprocation

This is when we should try to repay in kind, what another person has provided us. There is a general distaste for those who make no effort to reciprocate. We will often go to great lengths to avoid being seen as one of them. This rule is so overpowering that even if we don’t like someone, we can end up complying with their request. Thus, we end up reciprocating their earlier favour, solicited or otherwise, to us.

Some examples,

  1. Hare Krishna society members would forcefully give a flower to a passerby before asking for donations.

  2. Lyndon Johnson was able to get a lot of bills passed by calling in on favours which he had provided earlier to other elected representatives. Jimmy Carter failed because he had no such favours to call on.

  3. Even a free sample can engage a person in a reciprocity rule. Most people find it difficult to leave, without buying anything, after trying a free sample.

  4. In World War I, a German soldier crossed the no-man’s land to capture an enemy soldier. He came across an unsuspecting enemy soldier eating, who offered his bread to him. This act forced the German soldier to return without capturing him.

The rule, however, forces uninvited debt. We are expected to reciprocate for actions provided to us by others irrespective of whether we have asked for them or not. American Veterans society, for example, increased its response rate from 18% to 35% by adding an unsolicited gift.

Rule 2 - Commitment and consistency

After making a choice or taking a stand, personal and interpersonal pressures forces us to behave consistently with it. Our culture values good personal consistency. Stubborn consistency also allows us to avoid thinking. Once we have made up our mind, we don’t have to think about it again.

For example; people soliciting for charity over phone first ask “How are you doing?”. Once someone has publicly asserted that they are doing fine, it’s inconsistent and awkward to appear stingy later when asked for donation.

Another example is that of during the Korean war, Chinese communists would ask US PoWs for writing relatively innocent statements such as “The US is not perfect” or “unemployment is not an issue in a communist country”. Once they had made remarks along those lines, they got asked for more. To stay consistent, many went to the extent of becoming a collaborator.

Agreeing to small requests may appear inconsequential in the beginning. But altering someone’s self-image makes them even more exploitable. Even when people are told that someone was required to write an article in favour of an issue, people assume that the writer is pro-issue.

Fraternity houses exploit another extreme form of commitment. A person has to go through a lot of pain before attaining their membership. They end up valuing it more often than someone who attains it with a small effort. We are more consistent in our commitment if we believe that we did it for our own purpose rather than an external pressure. Even an external reward counts as an external pressure.

Rule 3 - Social proof

We view a behaviour as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it. We use behaviour of people (like us), to determine proper behaviour for ourselves. The more the number of people doing it, the more the rule works into making us believe that the behaviour is correct.

Some examples of social proofing are;

  1. Bartenders seed their tip jars with a few dollars to give the impression that tipping is the norm.

  2. In the Massacre of Jonestown people followed each other to drink poison and committed mass suicide. Most of them were in a new place and they just followed what fellow members (like them) did.

  3. Kids learn more about their capabilities from other children than from adults.

  4. Werther effect – a front page suicide story leads to 58 more unusual suicides in the following month.

The devastating version of this is “pluralistic ignorance effect”. This is a situation in a group of strangers, no one reacts to an emergency situation. If you ever find yourself helping in a situation like that, pick out a person from the group and assign a task to that individual, rather than shouting, for example, someone call an ambulance.

Rule 4 - Liking

What causes liking?

Physical attractiveness – a halo effect occurs when a certain positive characteristic of a person dominates how others view that person. Physical attractiveness is often such a characteristic. Further, we don’t even recognise that we are biasing our decision by someone’s looks. Studies have shown that handsome men have received lighter prison sentences.

Attractive people have easier time persuading others. The only time it works against them is when others see them as a direct competitor. That usually happens in a romantic context. Adults view aggressive acts as naughty but cute by attractive kids; but unacceptable by unattractive kids. Teachers think attractive kids are more intelligent than unattractive ones.

Similarity – We like people who are like us. Car salesman look for cues of things (like golf) to relate and show themselves similar to the customer.

Compliments – We are phenomenal suckers of flattery. Positive comments produce just as much liking for flatterer when they are untrue as when they are true.

Contact and cooperation – Familiarity with someone (based on last name, appearance etc.) plays a role in our decision making. Familiarity produced by being in contact with someone produces greater liking.

Conditioning and association – Someone who regularly provides negative news gets a negative connotation and vice-versa. People do assume that we have the same personality traits as our friends.

Men who saw a car with a young attractive model rated it as better. They, even, later refused that the model had any effect on their judgement. Thus, it is important for an advertiser to establish a positive connection.

The connection does not have to be logical. Luncheon technique works because while eating, people become fonder of the people and things that they experience. We purposefully, manipulate 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. These traits are more visible in people with poor self-concept. Some people strive to inflate their connection to people who succeeded. While some try to inflate the success of others they are visibly connected to.

The strength of a social bond is twice as likely to produce a product sale then the preference for the product itself. That’s what works for Tupperware.

Rule 5 - Authority

We obey authorities mindlessly in a lot of cases. We usually see an order from an authority in isolation instead of seeing the situation as a whole. We are as vulnerable to symbols of an authority as to its substance. For example;

  1. Titles – someone being introduced as a professor is seen taller by students than someone being introduced as a graduate student.

  2. Clothes and other outward appearances – Motorists wait much longer before honking on a new luxury car than an old car. And people when asked about it underestimate that effect.

Rule 6 - Scarcity

The thought of losing something motivates us more than the thought of gaining something of similar value. We believe that things that are difficult to own are usually better than things that are easy to own. Thus, scarcity of an item indicates that the item should be better. As opportunities become less available, we lose freedom. And we hate to lose the freedom we already have. Freedom once granted will not be relinquished without a fight. When the KGB tried to take back freedoms granted to Soviet citizens by Gorbachev, people retaliated.

Some more examples:

  1. We value banned information as more valuable. To popularise certain views, its better to get them censored and then publicise the censorship.

  2. Revolutions happen more often when there are periods of improvement in economic and social conditions followed by sharp reversal of the same (“contrasting principle”)

  3. Parents who enforce discipline inconsistently produce rebellious children. They allow leeway on occasions and then take it back.

  4. Scarcity and rivalry together are way more stronger than scarcity. ABC lost $2 million by bidding $3.3 million for a single showing of The Poseidon Adventure. It happened because of scarcity created by bidding between rivals ABC, CBS and NBC.


What I took from it.

Whether or not you would choose to use techniques of subtle manipulation on others or not, it certainly is essential to know how to recognise how they are being used on you.

I love the way how Cialdini support his hypothesis with valid examples that I could easily relate with. Reading this book will open your understanding to why you probably always say yes even when you mean to say no, or why you buy what you don't need with the money your don't really have!

My Rating