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How to Use Power, Influence, and Persuasion for Good

Start by understanding influence and the seven principles of persuasion.

Power and influence—the words often conjure images of nefarious individuals employing Machiavellian tactics to manipulate people and events in order to selfishly get their way, often at the expense of others. Popular books like Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power—with chapter titles like “Get Others to Do the Work for You, but Always Take the Credit”—only add to this common perception.

Yes, power and influence are indeed used for selfish, manipulative, and immoral purposes, but not necessarily and certainly not always. Power and influence are neutral forces that can also be, and often are, used for good. To be able to use them for good, however—or to be able to protect oneself and others from the misuse of power and influence—one must understand what they are and how they work. In a series of blog posts beginning with this one, my goal will be to help readers do just that.

The Difference Between Power and Influence

Although the concepts certainly overlap, power and influence can be distinguished. Power is the ability of individuals to enact change or control over situations, events, and people. It is often granted by official titles or offices and is therefore visible and recognizable to others.

Influence, on the other hand, is more subtle and sometimes invisible. It is the ability to bring others around to your way of thinking, not because you control the situation as you might with power, but because you persuade others to view a situation or thing in a certain way.

Exercising power can bring compliance, even if it’s reluctant compliance. Exercising influence can bring consent, consciously or not.

Influence and the Seven Principles of Persuasion

Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, is widely considered to be the preeminent authority on influence, and he has specified seven (formerly six) principles of persuasion set forth below. Keep in mind that these are general principles, not scientific laws, so there will always be exceptions, but by and large the research validates Cialdini’s ideas.

  1. Consistency: We generally like to be consistent with our own words and actions because if we are not, it causes cognitive dissonance. For example, if we show support for a cause in a small way, we are more likely to say “yes” to showing support in a bigger way. This was demonstrated in a classic experiment where most participants didn’t want to display an unsightly Drive Safely campaign sign on their front lawn. But those who had already committed to displaying small postcards in their windows were 400% more likely to say “yes” to the lawn signs.
  2. Reciprocity: When you give or offer something to people, the natural tendency is for them to feel a measure of indebtedness to you. A widely cited example of this is a study in which servers were able to increase the amounts of tips they got just by giving customers a small gift of mints along with their bills.
  3. Social Proof/Consensus: Being social creatures, when faced with choices we humans have a natural tendency to do what most other people in our environments or situations do. In what’s also become a classic study, hotels were able to increase guests’ reuse of towels (thereby conserving water and energy) by 26% simply by including notes in all hotel bathrooms that 75% of guests reuse their towels at some point during their stay.
  4. Authority: One of the most famous social science experiments of all time was conducted by Stanley Milgram in which participants were ordered by “researchers” (played by actors dressed in lab coats to look authoritative) to administer electric shocks to a “student” (also played by an actor who was never actually shocked for real). 65% of the participants obeyed the researcher’s orders to keep shocking the student even when the voltage levels of the shocks were raised to dangerous levels. This is the power of authority.
  5. Liking: This one has five subfactors: attractiveness, similarity, compliments, contact and cooperation, and conditioning and association. Basically, we are more likely to be persuaded by people we like, and these subfactors are the various reasons we tend to like people. We like those we’re attracted to (in general, not just sexually), those we share similarities with, those who compliment us, those we work with toward shared goals (again, there are always exceptions), and we also like the things that get associated with the people we like. This is why celebrity endorsements are such big business.
  6. Scarcity: As we saw at the beginning of the pandemic, and are unfortunately seeing again, people want what is perceived to be in short supply. “Perceived” is the key word, as it doesn’t matter whether something is actually scarce or not. It only matters that people perceive it to be scarce, which is precisely what occurred with the hoarding of various household goods during the early stages of the pandemic. The “limited time” offers that you often see in ads employ the principle of scarcity.
  7. Unity: Cialdini added this seventh principle in his 2016 book, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade. The more we perceive people to be part of “us”—the same group, community, or category of people—the more likely we’ll let ourselves be influenced by them. “Us vs. them” marketing and exclusivity marketing both draw on the unity principle in different ways.

Exercising Influence and Persuasion for Good

Yes, the predatory and manipulative uses of influence are unmistakable and undeniable but understand also that Cialdini’s seven methods of persuasion can be used for good.

How much good? How about saving the life of a loved one?

In the graduate class on power and influence that I teach, one assignment involved students drafting a communication (using Cialdini’s principles) with the goal of persuading someone to change their mind. One student had a mother suffering from a medical condition that would kill her if she did not agree to the treatment the doctors prescribed for her, which she was refusing to do. So, quite understandably, that student chose to write a letter to his mom. Here is a recreated version of the letter with each use of a principle of persuasion in brackets.

Dear Mom,

I’m worried about your health and your unwillingness to undertake the treatment your doctors have prescribed for you.

You always said nothing is more important than your health [consistency], and you were right. Growing up you always took good care of me, and now it’s time for me to do the same for you [reciprocity].

I’ve talked to other family members and we all agree [social proof/consensus] you need to do what the doctors say—after all, they’re the experts [authority].

Mom, we’ve always been so much alike [liking: similarity], and that includes our both having a stubborn streak [liking: similarity]. I cannot begin to tell you how much you mean to me [liking: compliment], and how much I cherish our relationship [liking: compliment] and the way we’ve always worked together [liking: cooperation/unity] to solve problems and overcome life’s obstacles.

Our relationship is unique. You’re my one and only mom [scarcity] and I don’t want to lose you. Mom, please do what the doctors say.

–Your Loving Child

The epilogue is heartwarming: Mom read the letter, changed her mind, agreed to the treatment, and her life was saved. And the reason this student, her son, was able to be so persuasive was that he learned how persuasion worked, wonderfully illustrating how the more we understand these principles of persuasion, the better we can apply them in the service of good.

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