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The Subtle Art of Persuasion

Understanding the psychology of influence.

Key points

  • Winning friends and influencing people is a learned skill.
  • Influencing others involves creating a sense of scarcity, urgency, reciprocity, authority, unity, consistency, consensus, or affiliation.
  • Being able to persuade others is empowering, but it's also important to maintain ethical and moral standards.

Persuasion is the process by which our attitudes, beliefs, and actions are, without duress, influenced. Robert Cialdini, the godfather of persuasion psychology, is an award-winning behavioral psychologist and author, the Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Arizona State University and most importantly, my old professor from undergraduate studies over four decades ago.

For years, I was active in several committees at a children’s hospital, often approaching my department chief with proposals and requests. He was not known for being an easy-to-approach person, yet he would typically agree and say, “You should have been in used car sales; you can sell anything to anyone.” I don’t know if I have an innate talent for persuasion. I do know that studying and incorporating Cialdini’s persuasion principles into my daily life has been a hugely valuable and life-enhancing tool, far beyond the value of work-related marketing.

Cialdini’s first bestselling book, Influence, delineates techniques used in businesses, by salespeople, politicians, marketers, and many others to influence us into making purchasing and consumption decisions. By understanding his simple persuasion principles, not only will you be able to more easily persuade others, but you will also be less likely to be unwittingly influenced by others.

7 Essential Persuasion Principles

  1. Reciprocity. We value equity and balance. Someone gives you something, and you feel like you should give them something in return. You get a birthday gift or a holiday card from someone, you will most likely send them something similar. The value of the gift is less important than the act itself. Using this: One of my daughters is a waitress who discovered that when she brought dessert mints to the table after a meal, tips improved. Use this to improve your feedback surveys; hand out cookies in the seminar before the surveys. Build up a small reserve of social obligations “owed” to you by helping people, publicly praising others, and doing small favors. Collect these mini-debts for when the need arises.
  2. Scarcity. The less there is of something, the more valuable it is and the more we need to have it. Using this: Create a sense of scarcity for your product, service, or experience. This will translate into a sense of urgency and increase interest. Hotels.com tells you how many rooms are “left," or the airline websites list how many “seats are left at this price." Create this sense of scarcity to drive sales as individuals don’t want to miss out on a time-limited or price-limited opportunity. Market “limited editions” and “holiday specials.” Use this technique to create a sense of scarcity about yourself as well. Giving talks, seminars, or workshops? Don’t tell people that you are readily accessible. Let potential customers/clients know that your calendar is filling up fast and there is limited availability. Cialdini gives an example in his book about a store in Scottsdale, Arizona that had some jewelry that was not selling. The manager was supposed to cut the price in half, and by mistake, doubled the price. They sold right away. Increase your perceived value.
  3. Authority. The greatest influencers in our society are people with credibility, authority, and knowledge in their respective fields. Arguably, the most important facet of any relationship is trust. We most often trust those with some kind of credentials, advanced degrees, purported knowledge, higher education, and those with authority. When we trust others, we are more likely to follow them. Using this: When we walk into an office, we expect to see certificates on the wall and we are immediately impressed—no matter where the certificates came from. We also see examples of this in TV commercials when the authority figure wears a lab coat or hospital scrubs to sell us shampoo. Military, law enforcement, airline personnel, and even cosmetic salespeople in stores wear uniforms to show us that they are authority figures and know what’s best for us. Become an authority figure. Incorporate your credentials into your email signatures. Try to attain certificates for “Instructor of the Year," “Certified Mediator,” or “Dentist of the Decade” to be promoted as an authority and thus an influencer. This is better achieved when promoted by someone other than the “authority” themselves—no matter who that is.
  4. Consistency (and Commitment). People want to be seen in a way that is consistent with their sense of self-image and when we commit to something, we feel the need to follow this through because of this self-identity. Using this: Create a sense of identity by getting people to act in a minor way relative to some product or action. For example, I give you a free coffee from Joe’s Coffee and you start to think of yourself as a Joe’s Coffee person; now, more likely to buy my products in the future. If I get you to do one little thing, then I can get you to do a slightly bigger similar thing. This is the basis of “introductory offers” which are cheap and simple. They are gateway tchotchkes (small miscellaneous items). Use this technique as a “foot in the door.” Getting you to say “yes” to “I like to travel," to buying a small vacation package to buying several weeks of timeshares. Find small things to persuade people to do, then slowly introduce more things that are similar. Convince your boss that you can work from home for a few hours one day and eventually persuade them to allow you to set up a home office. Get someone to do you a small favor, like lend you a pen. They will start to identify as a person who does you favors and will be more likely to do you favors again in the future.
  5. Liking. We are much more likely to be influenced by people with whom we have a bond and that we like. Often, this means people who are similar to us. We feel we can relate to them, and they understand us. Using this: Don’t make your advertising generic; design ads to appeal to a specific target audience that will feel a bond, leading to more engagement. Get a lot of people to like you. Cooperate with others, pay it forward, give (genuine) compliments, and build relationships. Do this as a foundation before you want to persuade anyone (not at the same time or immediately before).
  6. Social Proof. When we’re unsure of what to do, we tend to be influenced by what others do to conform to the norms of a social group: what they buy and how they act. Using this: A simple ad saying, “This is our most popular item” can be more effective than a description of its benefits. Try to invoke social norms or a consensus to persuade others to follow along. For example: “The majority of Fortune 500 companies use this software” is a great way to influence your boss (or a customer) to make a purchase.
  7. Unity. We share with other people a social identity. If we communicate that shared identity, they consider us one of them. A young woman standing outside of a university asking for money for the United Way increased donations by 250% when she included that she was also a student at that particular university. Using this: Become part of the “we” group where you become “one of us." This includes religious groups, political parties, team sports, etc. This form of tribalism enveloping a sense of trust, bonding, and togetherness is incredibly powerful and even present in infants! When you need “buy-in” for a new idea, don’t ask for an opinion, ask for advice. This creates unity and affiliation.

The skills and ability to persuade are empowering. They also come with the responsibility to do so in an ethical and moral fashion. Hopefully, these principles will not be used to enhance successful sales of snake oil. Understanding these concepts will also help reduce the likelihood that you will be influenced (i.e., swindled and hoodwinked) by those attempting to persuade you to do or buy something that you don’t truly need or want.

References

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. 1st edition, 1984. Most recent expanded edition (adding the 7th principle of unity), 2021 HarperAudio by Dr. Robert Cialdini.

Pre-suasion: A revolutionary way to influence and persuade. 2016 Simon and Schuster, by Dr. Robert Cialdini.

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