How can you change someone’s mind? And how are you swayed by others? Persuasion refers to the influence people have on one another—changing someone’s beliefs, decisions, or actions through reasoning or request.
The cornerstone of the psychology of persuasion is a set of six principles delineated by pioneering researcher Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus at Arizona State University. People are often faced with an overwhelming amount of information when making a decision, so they end up relying on intuitive concepts. Studies by Cialdini and others have revealed how six principles—reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking, and consensus—are surprisingly universal.
The psychologist Robert Cialdini developed six principles of persuasion which have been used in business schools as well as in boardrooms. They are:
• Reciprocity: People feel the need to give back to someone who provided a product, service, or information.
• Scarcity: People want items that they believe are in short supply.
• Authority: People are swayed by a credible expert on a particular topic.
• Consistency: People strive to be consistent in their beliefs and behaviors.
• Likability: People are influenced by those who are similar, complimentary, and cooperative.
• Consensus: People tend to make choices that seem popular among others.
Choosing the right principle for persuasion depends on the context. In a corporate context, a brand hoping to boost sales may leverage the authority principle by securing an expert’s endorsement. In a social context, an individual may deepen a relationship by inviting an acquaintance to a birthday party; due to the reciprocity principle, the acquaintance may then return the favor another time.
Think about the tactics that a company or person is using and try to identify any of the principles of persuasion. For example, an advertisement might state that a company has the “fastest-growing” service, or an individual might say "everyone's doing it." Both of these statements draw on the consensus principle. Think about the reasons for your decision, and make sure the choice is driven by your personal desires and values rather than the instinct to conform.
While persuasion is a science, it’s also an art. It’s a balance between pushing your perspective without being aggressive, being assertive but not dismissive. But with the right combination, a thoughtful and persuasive message can help you personally or professionally.
People can experiment with various strategies to become more convincing. One important concept is that people are more likely to be swayed by those they like. Spending time with a colleague to get to know each other or simply offering a friendly smile and nod can help you become more persuasive. Another tactic is to have someone else vouch for you, lending credibility to your belief or decision without seeming too pushy yourself.
Assertiveness is about standing up for yourself, rather than putting anyone else down. You can become more assertive by being clear and concise about what you’d like, and repeat yourself if necessary. You can also offer solutions to potential barriers and explain that you understand the other person’s point of view.
Telling someone not to do something is often the best way to get them to do it—what’s colloquially referred to as “reverse psychology.” Research finds that when people are told they must do something, they are quickly and strongly motivated to do the opposite. Another strategy is to mention people’s freedom: Attempting to persuade someone involves “threatening their freedom” to some degree. Reminding people of their freedom in choosing how to act or what to believe can help overcome this reaction.
Most discussions are informative and productive—but it’s also important to recognize when people’s arguments may be weak or ill-informed. There are many logical fallacies and inaccurate techniques people use to persuade others, including using anecdotal evidence rather than real data, an ad hominem attack, which targets the person rather than the argument, or a bandwagon argument, claiming that “everyone believes this” or “everyone does this.”
Careers today often rely on building a strong and persuasive personal brand, yet self-promotion can be uncomfortable for some people. A few tips can help you brand yourself the right way. In addition to promoting your achievements, share how hard you work, express gratitude for those who supported you, or mention an area in which you still need to improve. This can prevent you from coming across as too self-centered or arrogant.
Using your platform to boost other people is another good strategy—and they’ll likely reciprocate by showcasing your work as well. Recalling the larger purpose of your work can help you navigate others’ difficult opinions and propel you forward.
It can be painful to watch a loved one who is suffering but refusing to get help. To encourage someone to seek therapy, help them become aware that they need support, because they may not connect the dots between physical or psychological symptoms and a condition such as depression.
Be consistent, because the person may need to hear it more than once. If the person insists that they wish to make lifestyle changes first, support those changes, especially if they include addressing matters such as diet, exercise or stress reduction. If you are still concerned, you can point out that combining other changes with therapy could lead to a faster recovery.
Be sure to help with the concrete steps of finding a therapist, calling to make an appointment, and following through over time.
Compelling persuasive messages tend to be those that connect an idea to something about the person themselves. Emotional self-reflection seems to truly change opinions rather than an analysis of the evidence. Research has found that the more a person’s response is connected to themselves, the more successfully the message changed their opinion. Greater activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (a brain region involved in self-reflection) also predicted greater change in the person’s behavior afterward.
Yes, it’s possible to influence your beliefs to some extent through techniques such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and positive self-talk. You can also shift your perspective with straightforward reasoning. One trick is to pretend that you’re convincing someone else, because you may work to generate stronger arguments and thereby change your own mind in the process.
Psychology has provided insight into why consumers choose the products they do and how companies try to encourage their purchases. From catchy advertisements and limited-time offers to examining customers’ habits online, marketers leverage a litany of tactics to persuade potential customers.
Companies often leverage the principles of persuasion—reciprocity, scarcity, authority, consistency, liking, and consensus—when communicating with customers. They also focus on the moment before delivering a message, what researcher Robert Cialdini calls pre-suasion. What the person sees, hears, or feels before getting a message about a product or service can influence how they receive it, and companies can aim to make sure their audience is primed correctly.
Companies can now identify precise target audiences with whom to test their ideas. They can test for biases, heuristics, and cultural relevance to gain insights. This can occur early in the process too, before launching an official campaign. Digital products can help turn products or services into habits, such as through a recurring purchase or smart device. Messages that evoke emotion, whether awe, humor, or anger, also make the user experience more salient and persuasive, as is also the case offline.
Marketers need to find a balance between advertising a product’s strengths and overpromising what it can deliver. Some research has found that the optimal number of claims to make about a product is three. For example, an advertisement could claim that a shampoo makes hair cleaner, stronger and fuller—but the advertisement shouldn’t lengthen that list to include softer, shinier, and other attributes as well. Attaching more than three promises to a product may make consumers more skeptical.
Politics is inherently a process of persuasion. From a candidate’s journey to secure votes from their constituents, to passing new legislation, to public demonstrations for federal action, politics illustrates exactly how influence can lead to change.
Research on how voters respond to political messaging has revealed three basic principles. The first is for politicians to know what brain network they’re activating—the words used should evoke associations to a voter’s values or loved ones (e.g. “People who’ve lost their jobs” instead of “the unemployed”). The second is to speak directly to voters’ emotions. Messages that tap into hope, satisfaction, pride, and enthusiasm, on the one hand, and fear, anxiety, anger, and disgust on the other, move people to vote. The third is to tell a coherent memorable story rather than state a policy platform; the brain is wired to understand, remember, and pass along information presented as narrative.
Whether a foreign operative, marketer, or troll, anyone today can manipulate others into believing and latching onto what they want by disseminating misinformation. But the human mind, scientists contend, is built for belief. When you picture or hear of something, you assume it's true. Our ancestors evolved in an environment too dangerous to question themselves every time they thought they saw a lion or second-guess every story from a tribe member. Credence and impressionability, and the folding of hearsay and conviction into memory networks, are not flaws—they're efficiencies in building a cohesive cosmology. But they leave us vulnerable to predatory rumormongers.
Communities need their members to act in a civic-minded fashion—to obey traffic laws, to donate blood, to recycle or conserve water and energy—but when too few individuals are willing to take such actions on their own, policy makers may try to craft incentives to raise participation. Yet research suggests that economic incentives often fail to achieve community goals.
Successful policies may combine economic and psychological interventions. For example, in 2002 the Irish government imposed a small tax on the use of plastic shopping bags at grocery stores, with all proceeds going to the environmental ministry. The result was a near-complete elimination of plastic grocery bag use in a matter of weeks, as consumers began to carry reusable cloth bags. The success is likely due to the unavoidable tax and the fact that using plastic bags became a social-norm violation; people wanted to maintain a good reputation.
Cultural change has been driven by different forms of protest over the years. Should activists today seek to be as peaceful and moderate as possible in order to win greater support? Or are outbursts of aggression sometimes necessary in order to generate pressure for change? Research suggests that a combination of these approaches may garner the most support. Protests that are both nonviolent and nonnormative (outside the bounds of normal behavior)—such as boycotting, striking, sit-ins, or refusing to pay fines or taxes—create pressure for change while maintaining broad public support.