Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

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Six Degrees of Social Influence

What’s so influential about Robert Cialdini?

A recent headline in the Times of London declared that: "Social psychology has reached its tipping point." The article goes on to describe an intellectual revolution, in which social psychological ideas are having an increasing influence on politicians and economists. The author credits "Robert Cialdini's seminal book Influence" as one of the key movers of this revolution. Economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein refer to Cialdini as the "great guru of social influence." If you've taken a social psychology course, you've no doubt heard about some of Cialdini's fascinating research on topics like basking in reflected glory, the door-in-the-face and lowball persuasion tricks. 

Six Degrees of Social Influence contains a series of essays written in honor of Cialdini's retirement from Arizona State University (where he worked his entire career). 

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In this book, a number of prominent researchers from different disciplines explore new facets of human behavior in ways that bridge the best of scientific psychology and application. In the essays, prominent researchers from around the world discuss how they had been influenced by the new developments and ideas that Cialdini has pioneered. Their assignment was to write about those ideas and applications in ways that would be accessible not only to fellow academics, but to the broad range of students and professionals in various fields on which Cialdini has had an "influence."

To give a couple of examples, Stanford Business Professor Francis Flynn joins Waterloo's Vanessa Bohns to explore the extent to which people underestimate their influence on others. Their research shows that people can be persuaded to say "yes" if you just give them a chance, and that you don't need a fancy title or massive wealth to have power over others--you just need to know a little bit about the psychology of compliance. In another chapter, Brad Sagarin (of Northern Illinois University), an expert on resistance to unwanted persuasion, joins Kevin Mitnick, a computer security expert who was once the most-wanted computer criminal in the United States. The chapter describes how Mitnick used "social engineering" to gain access to highly secret computer codes, and goes on to extract some insights about how to defend yourself against such influence-based attacks. UBC's Mark Schaller and teamed up with me and Steve Neuberg to write a chapter on the general principles of scientific influence that can be seen operating in Cialdini's scientifically influential career and research. 

There are also thought-provoking and bridge-building contributions by:

  • Petia Petrova (Dartmouth) & Norbert Schwarz (University of Michigan)
  • Rich Petty (Ohio State) & Pablo Briñol (Universidad Autonoma de Madrid)
  • Jerry Burger, (Santa Clara University)
  • John Cacioppo & Louise Hawkley (University of Chicago)
  • Noah Goldstein (UCLA Anderson School of Mgmt) & Chad Mortensen (Metropolitan State College of Denver)
  • Vladas Griskevicius, Jeffry Simpson, Kristina Durante, John Kim, & Stephanie Cantu (University of Minnesota)
  • Bram Buunk (Royal Netherlands Academy), Shelli Dubbs (University of Queensland) and Jan Van Hoof (University of Utrecht)
  • Stephanie Brown (SUNY Stony Brook) and Jon Maner (Florida State)
  • Steve West (Arizona State) and Bill Graziano (Purdue)
  • Rick van Baaren & Ap Dijksterhuis (University of Nijmegen)
  • Darwyn Linder, John Reich and Sanford Braver (Arizona State University)

Burger's chapter is on the topic of "basking in reflected glory," which I remember Cialdini and his students beginning to study back when I was in graduate school. They found that students at schools with big football teams, like Ohio State, Michigan, and ASU, were more likely to wear school colors on the Monday after their football team won a game, and less likely than usual to wear the colors on the Monday after the team lost. When the researchers asked students to describe the outcome of the game, people used language differently depending on the outcome. If ASU wins a game, an ASU student is likely to say "we won." If ASU loses, the student is more likely to say "They lost," thereby distancing himself from the team.  

The topic of social influence is relevant to anyone in business, health, education, or psychology, and Cialdini's book on social influence has been read by several million people in many fields.  This collection spreads the influence even further, even considering influence in other species.  

References

Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and practice (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Kenrick, D.T., Goldstein, N., & Braver, S.L. (2012).  Six degrees of social influence: Science, Application, and the Psychology of Robert Cialdini. New York: Oxford University Press.  Following one of the principles in Cialdini’s Influence book, Oxford is offering a 20 percent discount to distribute to anyone who might be interested (you'd need to enter the promo code 30395)

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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