Book Review – Influence: The New Psychology of Modern Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini
Reviewed by Steve Wolodkin,
Published by Quill, the paperback division of William Morrow of New York, 1984,$7.95.
While gathering research data in preparation for writing Influence, Dr. Cialdini, Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, realized that if he was to fully understand the psychology of compliance experimental work alone would not be sufficient; it would be necessary to “systematically immerse” himself into the world of compliance professionals. Cialdini found participant observation, in which he became a spy of sorts with “disguised identity and intent,” to be the most useful investigative tactic. He found it highly instructive to infiltrate business organizations involving the sale of such items as vacuum cleaners or encyclopedias by posing as a sales trainee, thereby assuring himself an unbiased account of that company’s compliance tactics.
After a three-year period of participant observation, Cialdini concluded that the thousands of techniques employed by compliance practitioners fall within six basic categories: consistency, reciprocation, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. Each of these six categories, he found, is governed by a basic psychological principle known to direct human behavior, thus supplying power to the tactics used. Cialdini discusses each principle in term of its function in society and its ability to elicit “automatic, mindless compliance.” The power that these six principles have to trigger this kind of unthinking willingness to comply is, he says, what attracts compliance professionals to their use. However, he also makes it clear that nobody should be held above suspicion: friends, neighbors, lovers, and offspring are all equally guilty of possession of “weapons of influence.”
The weapons of influence Cialdini describes all have a powerful yet subtle ability to act on each and every person’s inherent “trigger feature.” The idea behind this feature is adopted from ethnological studies showing the instinctual response patterns between mothers and offspring in the animal world. Results from such studies have shown that all animals possess a mechanism that, when triggered, elicits an automatic response to a particular stimulus. Cialdini contends that such a mechanism is responsible for the automaticity with which humans are influenced. For example, just as a mother turkey instinctively responds with affection to the “cheep-cheep” sounds of her offspring, we humans possess preprogrammed tapes, so to speak, that lead us into predictably automatic behavior. This analogy demonstrates what Cialdini believes to be a fundamental ingredient in compliance behavior: the “click, whirr!” phenomenon. As Cialdini describes it: “click,” and the appropriate tape is activated; “whirr,” and out rolls the standard sequence of behaviors.”
This notion raises an interesting question. Is such automaticity only harmful to the organism, or could there be a need for such a mechanism in animal behavior? Cialdini reveals many advantages in possessing an automatic response mechanism. Whether they outweigh the disadvantages cannot be determined, but it does appear that such automaticity provides a means of saving us time and energy by freeing us from having to scrutinize every person, event, and situation that we encounter on any given day. This “shortcut” method, claims Cialdini, is necessary in coping with the ever-increasing complexity of present-day environmental stimuli. Without such “rules of thumb” or stereotypical judgments to help us classify things in our environment, we would be overloaded with time- and effort- consuming analyses. Again, whether these advantages outweigh the disadvantages is unknown, but at least we can take comfort from the knowledge that there are some beneficial reasons for possessing a potentially dangerous response mechanism.
If, however, we were to rest too comfortably, we would be likely to increase the effectiveness of compliance tactics. The secret to their effectiveness, says Cialdini lies in their ability to manipulate human behavior without the “appearance” of manipulation. In other words, if a compliance professional wants to convince you of something, he will be most successful if he can appear to be exerting a minimal amount of effort. Cialdini likens this ability to the principles involved in mastering the Japanese martial-an of jujitsu. Just as a jujitsu expert uses the inherent forces of gravity, leverage, momentum, and inertia to exert control over his opponent, the compliance professional exploits those forces of influence that exist naturally in humans and in the environment to exert control over our decisions.
An example of these forces can be found in human perception. A principle governing all modes of sensation and perception – sight, touch, etc, – affects the way we perceive the differences between two things that are presented consecutively. If the second item is different from the first, we will most likely judge the second one as being much more different than it actually is. For example, if you are at a party and you begin talking with a member of the opposite sex whom you have judged to be moderately attractive, it is very likely that your initial assessment of this person will decrease when a “beautiful” girl or guy walks over to join the conversation. Obviously, the first person did not actually become physically different, only comparatively less appealing when smothered in the shadow cast by the “beautiful” person.
This very powerful force in human nature is commonly exploited by compliance experts, and is chosen because it is virtually undetectable by the victim. Clothing salespersons, for example, often use this technique. They always begin by displaying the most expensive garments first, then follow with proportionately less-expensive items, because they know that a $50 sweater will appear much less outrageous when suggested after the purchase of a $300 SUIL Such clever use of the perceptual contrast principle was discovered by Cialdini during his field work to exist in almost every “contrast” technique applied by compliance practitioners, some involving very large-scale negotiations where there was much more at stake than a $300 suit.
The same kind of inconspicuous “leverage” used by compliance professionals in the aforementioned examples is found at the heart of another principle of influence. As explained by Cialdini, the common “law” of obligation among humans, whether generated out of courtesy or not, is the hidden force behind what he calls the principle of “Reciprocation” or the “Reciprocity Rule.” Simply stated, in most societies people respond to favors, invitations, gifts, and the like with the implicit understanding that recipients of such recognition will be obligated to future repayment. Those who do not adhere to the rule are labeled greedy, selfish, and ungrateful.
Cialdini offers some very humorous examples of how the mechanism of automaticity is switched on by the Reciprocity Rule. In one instance, a university professor sent out several Christmas cards to perfect strangers. Although expecting some response, he did not anticipate that a majority of these strangers would respond by sending a holiday card to him. What’s more, most did not even inquire into the unknown professor’s identity!
During his many field observations, Cialdini uncovered the secret of the Hare Krishnas’ success: their use of the Reciprocity Rule. Having realized that they were having no success at obtaining contributions while they banded together in groups waiting for contributors to approach them, the Krishnas discovered that they could dramatically increase their income by employing the method of reciprocation. They began approaching potential contributors individually and, above all, doing small favors for them, such as pinning flowers to their lapels. By so doing, the Krishnas triggered their targets’ reciprocity mechanisms, and their victims were obligated to reciprocate by making a contribution.
For those of us who do not feel that simply being aware of such compliance tactics is defense enough, Cialdini empathizes with our need for additional knowledge. As I emphasized at the beginning of my review, I think of Influence as a sort of handbook, serving as a guide not only to the nature of the problems, but to their solutions as well. In particular, the “How to Say No” sections of the book offer what I believe to be very valuable suggestions in helping us to defend against the thousands of compliance tactics.
Commitment and Consistency
How many of us would care to appear “wishy-washy” or “flighty?” Not many, I presume. This is the driving force behind Cialdini’s assertion that there is a weapon of influence that lies deep within our social conscience and “directs our actions with quiet power. It is, quite simply, our nearly obsessive desire to be – and to appear – consistent with what we have already done.” This desire is reinforced by the personal and interpersonal pressures that we encounter once we have taken a stand on something.
An example cited by Cialdini illustrates this phenomenon. Two Canadian psychologists discovered that bettors at a racetrack become much more confident about their choices just after placing their bets, while only thirty seconds before putting down their money they are usually apprehensive and unsure. However, once that final decision has been made and the ticket has been bought, the need to feel consistent influences the bettor to bring his beliefs into line with what he has already done.
Psychologists who recognize the social importance of “consistent behavior in a historical perspective take a broad view of society and culture in acknowledging the “adaptive value” of appearing consistent That is, a person whose words, beliefs, and actions are viewed as consistent with one another will be thought of as intelligent, stable, and honest. Those whose actions, words, and beliefs do not coincide, however, will be labeled flighty, two-faced, scatterbrained, and sometimes even mentally ill. With this in mind, one can easily see how compliance professionals use this inbred drive to their own advantage. While such automatic consistency may be helpful in allowing us the “luxury” of not having to “sift through the blizzard of information we encounter every day to identify relevant facts,” it also leaves us more vulnerable to those wishing to exploit such automaticity for their own profit. Those who do not want us to think in response to their requests, says Cialdini, will “structure their interactions with us so that our own need to be consistent will lead directly to their benefit.”
The consistency principle becomes especially powerful when the influenced individual has made a prior commitment. In the mid-1960’s, psychologists Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser instructed one of their researchers to pose as a volunteer worker, go door-to-door in a residential neighborhood, and make an absurd request of the residents: would they allow a very large public-service billboard reading “DRIVE CAREFULLY” to be erected on their front lawns? Surprisingly, seventy-six percent of them complied! These subjects weren’t stupid, nor was the volunteer worker especially persuasive. The main reason for their exaggerated sense of public-spiritedness lies in what had happened two weeks earlier. These same residents had made a smaller commitment: they allowed another “volunteer worker” to leave with each of them a three-inch-square sign reading “BE A SAFE DRIVER,” which they agreed to display in their windows. Since it was such a trivial request, nearly all had complied. But the effect that this small commitment had on their perceptions of themselves as “concerned citizens” was overwhelming. Not wanting to appear inconsistent in their display of civic-mindedness, 76% of them later complied with the ridiculous second request.
This example illustrates the enormous power of what social psychologists have called the “foot-in-the-door” method of persuasion. The secret behind this technique lies in getting a person to agree to an initial small favor that will nevertheless be perceived as a form of commitment. Later, the requester “cashes in” on this small commitment when making a larger request, the latter being the one with which the requester really wants the person to comply. With the forces of consistency working in favor of the requester, the unsuspecting victim will most likely fall into the trap.
The next principle of influence concerns overdependence on the observations of others’ behavior in determining our own “appropriate” behavior in a given situation. Before going any further, I want to emphasize that Dr. Cialdini stresses that although the desire to look at the actions of others to see how we should act can result in some very serious consequences, most of the time it serves a very useful function. “Usually,” he notes, “when a lot of people are doing something, it is the right thing to do,” and moreover, “we will make fewer mistakes by acting in accord with social evidence than contrary to it.”
The use of canned laughter on television is an example of social proof. Even knowing that every television viewer is aware of the artificiality of this “mechanical laughter,” television producers still use it. Why? Because all the evidence shows that it works! People are more likely to perceive something as funny, and to laugh longer, if such canned laughter is present.
A far more serious result of seeking out “social proof” is the phenomenon of “bystander inaction,” which Cialdini defines as “the failure of entire groups of bystanders to aid victims in agonizing need of help.” According to Cialdini, this frightening event is the result of a phenomenon called “pluralistic ignorance,” and often develops in a crisis situation when everyone is looking at one another to see what everybody else is doing. More often than not, this results in nobody providing aid.
What drives people to such insensitivity? Social psychologists have found, through experimentally-induced pluralistic ignorance, that people do not want to risk embarrassment by intervening in a situation where there is not an actual emergency. Therefore, the more ambiguous the “emergency” situation, the more likely it is that others will choose not to intervene. Furthermore, because people in an ambiguous emergency situation do not want to appear overreactive, they become passive. With everybody standing around trying to look calm, nobody perceives the situation as an actual emergency and the victim goes unaided.
I was not surprised to learn that we are more likely to say yes to the requests of a friend, or at least someone we know and like, but what did surprise me was learning that this simple rule is often exploited by total strangers to get us to comply with their requests. How, you may ask, could a stranger ever make himself likable enough to evoke the trust of a critical customer? Social psychologists have identified several factors known to cause one person to like another. Cialdini describes those which he believes to be the most effective.
The first one is obvious: physical attractiveness. Cialdini explains the power of this quality with his “click, whirr” model of automatic responses. The “whirr,” or response, is actually an example of a “halo effect.” When one positive characteristic, physical attractiveness in this case, dominates the way a person is viewed by others, a halo effect occurs in which other qualities are automatically also deemed positive. Therefore, it is no surprise, says Cialdini, “that the halo of physical attractiveness is regularly exploited by compliance professionals.”
For the unattractive compliance professional, the next best thing is similarity. Research has shown that we are more likely to like someone who is similar, rather than dissimilar, to ourselves. Compliance practitioners wishing to exploit this fact may dress like us, or even talk of having the same background and interests as we do.
Another device a compliance professional may use is flattery in the for-in of compliments. Cialdini points out that we all have a “click, whirr” mechanism set to go off whenever we are the object of flattery.
Yet another reason why one person may come to like another may be due to the fact that the latter person is familiar to the former. The way that familiarity affects liking, says Cialdini, is mostly unconscious. Thus, we often aren’t aware that our attitude towards something may have been affected by the number of times we came into contact with it in the past. For example, in an experiment cited by Cialdini, college students were asked to concentrate on performing a single task while a variety of melodies played in the background. Later, when given a recognition test of the melodies, none of them sounded familiar, apparently because the students had “blocked” them out in order to concentrate. But when these same melodies were rated against previously unheard melodies, those that had played before were liked best.
The direction a person’s attitude will take toward another person often depends on what the latter is associated with. If a person becomes associated with a positive event, says Cialdini, he or she will typically be liked. But if the same person should happen to be associated with a negative event, he or she will be disliked. Both conditions are independent of the individual’s personality characteristics.
How could reasonably intelligent people form such irrational opinions of other individuals who they know are not really responsible for the situation in question? Because, says Cialdini, nobody is immune to the effects of classical conditioning. Whether coincidental or intentional, if a person should happen to be associated with an unpleasant stimulus, such as bad news, he or she will invariably be regarded in a similarly unpleasant manner. On the other hand, the person associated with some positive event or stimulus will be seen in an unrealistically favorable light. The same associative process is also applied to objects – including objects for sale.
If you’ve ever witnessed a television commercial wherein a seductive young woman was used to get your attention, or if you’ve heard a celebrity endorsing a product, you’ve been exposed to the association principle. What I find most disturbing about such advertising is Cialdini’s suggestion that its effectiveness is merely a function of how positive the association is and not how logical it is.
As empirically observed by Stanley Milgram, “obedience to authority” is virtually boundless. Upon witnessing the extent to which subjects would be willing to obey the “authoritative” experimenter in delivering painful shocks to another individual, Milgram concluded that such inordinate obedience was representative of the ingrained sense of duty to authority present in us all. In the Milgram experiments, the wishes of the experimenter dominated the subjects own desires to do what he knew was right. Delivering shocks known to be fatal, while agonizing empathetically with the recipient, most of the subjects still could not bring themselves to disobey the orders of the authoritative experimenter.
In consideration of human social organization, Cialdini points out that while there may be dangerous disadvantages to such implicit obedience, we cannot lose sight of the practical advantages. “Information from a recognized authority can provide us [with] a valuable shortcut for deciding how to act in a situation.” The automaticity with which obedience to authority occurs suggests to Cialdini that it, too, is triggered in a “click, whirr” fashion.
“Whenever our behaviors are governed in such an unthinking manner, we can be confident that there will be compliance professionals trying to take advantage,” says Cialdini. For example, commercial advertisers will frequently employ television actors who play authoritative figures, such as doctors, to endorse their products – not as celebrities, but as the characters they play. We all know how Sanka brand decaffeinated coffee keeps us calm because Dr. Welby – alias Robert Young – says it does. Many of us have accepted that opinion not from a legitimate authority, but from someone who pretends to be.
Cialdini has identified three major kinds of symbols he believes are used by compliance professionals to “trigger our compliance in the absence of the genuine substance of authority.” For example, a compliance professional may introduce himself with an assumed tide. Adopting an illegitimate tide, says Cialdini, is one of the easiest ways to acquire authority status, and one of the most effective methods of triggering the “click, whirr” mechanism.
Another way a practitioner might attempt to trigger our mechanical compliance would be to don clothing symbolic of authority. The power of wearing “authoritative” clothes was demonstrated in a study by social psychologist Leonard Bickman. Passersby on a street were asked to comply with an unusual request – picking up a discarded paper bag, or standing on the other side of a bus-stop sign – by either a man dressed in street clothes or another man dressed in a security guard’s uniform. As you might have expected, many more people obeyed the man in the guards uniform.
A third, more general, type, of symbolic authority conies from the possession of status-oriented trappings, such as fine jewelry, luxury cars, large homes, and the like. These symbols of authority serve more of an “ornamental” purpose, says Cialdini, but they also work very forcefully on our trigger mechanisms.
Since in the majority of instances our obedience is to a legitimate authority, Cialdini advises that the safest approach to “Saying No” is to begin by asking yourself a simple question: “Is this authority truly an expert?” Cialdini claims that such a question will help us to focus our attention on the two most crucial issues: the authority’s credentials and the “relevance of those credentials to the topic at hand.”
Once convinced of the legitimacy of the requestor’s authority status, Cialdini suggests that we ask ourselves a second question: “How truthful can we expect the expert to be here?” An additional defense shield will be constructed if we keep in mind what personal benefits an expert win stand to gain by getting us to comply with his requests.
The last principle of influence I will discuss is based on the cliche’, “It’s now or never.” Commonly used by compliance professionals, from shoe salesmen to car dealers, the scarcity principle gives the illusion that an opportunity or an item is much more valuable when its availability to us is limited.
For instance, the “limited-number” tactic so frequently used in advertising campaigns is designed to give the consumer the false notion that the produces demand is much greater than its supply. Therefore, what remains in supply is seen as all that much more valuable because it will soon be unavailable.
Another tactic which produces the same sort of illusion is the “deadline” technique. Upon hearing that you only have a certain amount of time to purchase a particular product, you may be slightly panicked into making a rush decision. Compliance professionals using this tactic know that the hasty decision will usually be in favor of buying the product “before it’s too late!” While the reasons given for the deadline may vary, they are aimed at making the consumer believe that the “now or never” clock is ticking. For example, a company may claim it is going out of business, or that it is losing money selling its product at such a “ridiculously-low” price that it will not be able to continue offering the product at that low price any longer.
Cialdini suggests that the scarcity principle gets its power from two major sources. The first is familiar- “Like the other weapons of influence,” says Cialdini, “the scarcity principle trades on our weakness for shortcuts.” Since we have learned to gauge an object’s value on how easy it is to possess, says Cialdini, we often resort to evaluating an item’s availability to make a fast determination of its value and quality. Since such an assessment method is usually accurate, we rarely question it, leaving us vulnerable to fakery.
The second source of power behind the scarcity principle is more subtle. Cialdini reminds us that one of our deepest fears is losing the freedoms we already have. Social psychologist Jack Brehm claims that the human desire to preserve established privileges is what leads us to retaliate when our personal control is threatened. Often this sort of response, says Cialdini, is not accompanied by a logical reason and all we know is that we want the item more now. To justify this unclaimed desire, we will usually assign the item positive qualities that it probably doesn’t deserve in an attempt to rational our desires.
As with the other weapons of influence, Cialdini believes there are optimal conditions which can make the scarcity principle function most effectively. He cites an experiment by social psychologist Stephen Worchel, in which participants in a “consumer-preference study” were asked to rate the taste of chocolate-chip cookies presented to them in cookie jars. Half the participants were presented with a cookie jar containing 10 cookies, and the other half with ajar that had only two cookies in it. As expected, the cookies in the two-cookie jar were rated higher than those from the 10-cookie jar.
But the most interesting results were obtained from a variation on the previous experiment. Half the participants still received ajar with two cookies in it, but the other half was first presented with a 10-coolde jar that was taken away before they had a chance to sample one of the cookies, then replaced by a jar with only two cookies in it. The results showed that those who saw an abundant supply of cookies reduced to a “scarce” supply rated the cookies in the second jar much higher than the other half of the participants rated their cookies from the two- cookie jar that was always in front of them. This “newly-experienced” scarcity, says Cialdini, is one such optimal condition capable of amplifying the effectiveness of the scarcity principle.
Another variation of the Worchel experiments pointed out a second optimal condition: social demand. In another study, participants were told that their cookies were being taken away to be given to other raters to meet the demand for cookies in the study. Another group was told that their number of cookies would be reduced because the researcher had made a “mistake” in giving them too many. Results from this study showed that those who had seen their number of cookies reduced because of social demand liked them significantly more than those whose supply had been reduced as the result of a “mistake.”
Even when an individual is properly warned of the scarcity principle, Cialdini claims that it is still very difficult to defend oneself against it. He believes part of the problem is that the usual reaction, one of physical unrest and visceral arousal, actually hinders our thought processes. As our physiological responses increase, our ability to think rationally decreases.
Cialdini’s advice to us when we find ourselves in such a situation is to be more aware of our internal reactions and accept them as legitimate warning signs. “By learning to flag the experience of heightening arousal in a compliance situation,” he says, it is possible to make ourselves more alert to the use of scarcity tactics.
But merely being able to read the signals provided by our visceral reactions will not always be enough to enable us to make a proper decision, says Cialdini. We must make the distinction between wanting something for the joy of “experiencing” it or just to “possess” it. Cialdini believes that there are things we genuinely want for their psychological, social or economic benefits, and others that we want for the sole purpose of owning them, i.e., for their “utility value.” Cialdini reminds us that scarce things are not necessarily of better quality than easily-obtained things, but that our failure to perceive this fact often leads us into irrational compliance when we feel our freedom being threatened by the diminishing availability of something.
Before reading Influence I never gave much thought to how and why people agree to things. But, having read it, I now catch myself analyzing television commercials, using Cialdini’s advice on “How to Say No” to compliance professionals, and simply being more aware of the use of such subtle devices.
If asked what I thought stood out the most in Influence, I would have to think back to those passages that made me laugh the most. Though the entire book is very funny, I thought Dr. Cialdini’s personal experiences were the most enjoyable. Maybe it was satisfying to know that even a “Doctor of Psychology” can be vulnerable to compliance tactics.
I have already strongly recommended Influence to several friends, assuring them that it is not just for psychology enthusiasts but for anybody interested in why people say “yes” to a request I do have a terrible fear, however, about this book falling into the wrong hands; it could provide the “enemy” with a lot of additional ammunition.
Steve Wolodkin is a psychology student at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona.
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1985