Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has examined hundreds of research studies about compliance and conformity to identify key items about human nature that will “move someone in your direction," and he has delineated six core principles of how to persuade others.
He claims that good persuaders “strum strings that are inside all of us.” He says their goal to create attunement, a state of mind that is prepared for the moves that follow. For example, first ask people if they’re helpful, and then ask for their help. They will help because they want to be consistent with their self-assessment.
Although Cialdini urges us to use these principles ethically, i.e., to educate and improve, it’s not difficult to see how someone with less lofty goals might exploit them. In fact, these points of attunement echo psychologist Robert Hare’s warnings in Without Conscience about predatory psychopaths. (I just spent five years writing with BTK Killer Dennis Rader, which yielded quite a lot of scary insights about predatory vigilance.)
To protect yourself, you must understand how predators can use common human tendencies against you. The things that work to get us to agree or conform are the same things that make us targets.
Let’s look at the six principles and consider how a predator views them:
We tend to view someone in a position of authority as having expertise or power, so we obey. Predators know what we expect, and they offer false credentials spiked with a strong dose of confidence. If they’re verbally adept, so much the better, because we view people who speak slightly faster than normal as being confident; we’re more likely to accept what they say without seeking proof.
We feel obligated when someone gives us a gift or does us a favor: We want to give back. Hare states that psychopaths will give gifts or do favors to get a foot in the door. Gifts and favors not only obligate but also deflect your attention from the predator's true intent.
When we feel comfortable with, or positive about, someone, we tend to say yes to their requests. Perceived similarity makes us feel safer and more willing to give special treatment. Predators use compliments, common interests, and common identity to increase rapport. (Rader did this when he was stopped by a police officer just after a murder, by playing to their shared awareness of a Boy Scout camp, which also gave him the appearance of being a nice guy.)
We place value on items that we believe are in short supply, or available for only a limited time. Predators offer desirable items or services within this context, as a hook.
5. Social proof.
When we don’t know quite what to do in a situation, we look to others to help us decide. Clear instructions can elicit our cooperation, especially if it is presented as a majority preference. Predators watch for this sense of uncertainty in us and step in to offer direction.
6. Commitment and consistency.
When we commit to doing something, we tend to abide by it, especially if we make it publicly known. We want to show that our values define and direct us. Predators will elicit an initial small commitment to leverage us into a larger one. Once we're in, the higher the stakes—and the more we’ll behave as they direct. According to Hare, predators hide their dark side until they get us past the point where it’s difficult to disengage.
Psychopathic predators look for our triggers, so the better we understand our points of vulnerability, the easier it is for us to block malignant manipulation. Anyone can be duped—even during a brief interaction—so take the time to ensure that the persuader is genuine and offers authentic benefit. Do your research and get proof. Don’t just let someone strum your strings.