From Plato’s Dialogues to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, we have a long history of people offering advice on how to best get our way. Often people object that such tactics are manipulative and believe that there is something immoral about their use.
But we’ve got to remember that the brain making these moral judgments evolved to be able to get others to do what we want them to. Since the brain is wired to help us in that endeavor, the judgment of what is moral or immoral should probably be restricted to the ends and not the means.
The psychologist Robert Cialdini took a scientific approach to the subject in his book Influence: Science and Practice, and he has come up with six different tactics. Whether or not we can bring ourselves to use them on others, it’s important to be aware of them because others will undoubtedly use them on us. Some of them are so fundamental to how humans interact; odds are we’ve used them without even being aware of it.
It relies solely on the principle that when people do something for us, we feel obligated to do something for them in return. When we’re the first to do the favor, we accrue social capital that we can then call on later.
2. Commitment and Consistency
We strive to keep our version of reality consistent and will either suppress or rationalize any information that goes against the story we are currently telling ourselves.
There’s an old sales technique that perfectly demonstrates this tactic. It goes something like this: “You love your family, don’t you? You wouldn’t ever want them to be unprotected, would you? If something happened to you, wouldn’t you want them to be taken care of? You’ll want to buy this life insurance policy, won’t you?”
This technique works because of the hierarchical organization of ideas in the brain. High-level ideas evoke thoughts and actions in harmony with them. To make use of this we don’t have to be as smarmy as the life insurance salesman. We can just establish agreement on a set of principles that will lead naturally to the action we desire someone else to take.
3. Social Proof
We can think of social proof as a form of peer pressure because it plays off our need to be accepted by others. The knowledge that those we want approval or acceptance from are doing something is a strong reason for us to do it as well.
This is perhaps the most intuitively obvious tactic, but also the one that seems most ignored in practice. When we like certain people, we are more willing to do what they want us to do. Because of this, it’s worthwhile for us to spend the time to build friendly relationships before we need to call on someone for a favor.
In more than two decades of giving management seminars, I have used the phrase, “the research shows”, thousand of times yet nobody has every specifically asked me what research. We seem to have an inherent sense of respect for authority.
This tactic might have its roots in the Darwinian struggle for survival in an environment of limited resources. Hearing that something is the last one available, or that the offer is only good for one day, seems to drive us into action. This is the tactic that I have the most difficulty with. I see its use as primarily limited to customer relationships, and decisions made under its influence produce more than their share of buyer’s remorse. As a favorite of car salesmen, it has a well-earned bad reputation.
Although these tactics do test as being effective, perhaps their use should be restricted to those times when we’re trapped in a Prisoner’s Dilemma dynamic or when we encounter disciples of Machiavelli.
If we’re really out to do the right thing not just for ourselves but also for others, then we need only to embed a neural network of principle at a high level, and the right behavior will follow.