Influence

By Robert Cialdini

Rating: 10/10

Best Line #1: We all fool ourselves from time to time in order to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided.

Best Line #2: Very often in making a decision about someone or something, we don’t use all the relevant available information; we use, instead, only a single, highly representative piece of the total. And an isolated piece of information, even though it normally counsels us correctly, can lead us to clearly stupid mistakes—mistakes that, when exploited by clever others, leave us looking silly or worse.

Daily Persuasion

To some degree, every decision we make is the result of persuasion. Even the decisions that seem to be purely internal, with no outside factors. Those carry a degree of inherent persuasion, too. For example, no one asked me to write this review today but I feel the need because of the powerful factors of influence highlighted in Cialdini’s book. Specifically, factors such as consistency and social proof.

Why consistency? Because I’ve been doing this every Friday for nearly a year now.

Why social proof? Because the people I admire do this and recommended that I do it, too.

Neither the decision nor the behavior emerged from a vacuum. There was no hermetically-sealed environment where I operated purely on my own internal intuitions. So for those who have claimed that I’m an original, one-of-a-kind person for doing this, I appreciate the sentiment just as surely as reality rejects it.

So external influence is a regular occurrence—so common that it’s hard to recognize. Much of that influence can be deliberately engineered thanks to the work of Cialdini and others who have explored this realm. As a result, I once felt compelled to to write the headline We Are Being Manipulated. Which sounds a bit paranoid on the surface (the article isn’t, itself, paranoid). But the headline “We Are Being Influenced” should feel just as discomforting.  

Because there are many ways that persuasion and influence can truly be engineered. For good or for bad. Cialdini’s book showcases phenomenal ways in which these principles work to help people conserve energy, stop bad behaviors, and achieve some clear level of social progress. Just like Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge (review here), these positive examples carry a whiff of what the Nudge authors call libertarian paternalism that feels healthy.

But it’s still manipulative. It still pulls at the powerful levers that Cialdini highlights. Many say the ends justify the means. Largely because we’re nudged, manipulated, influenced, and persuaded regardless. Such is the core thesis of Thaler and Sunstein’s work. I think I agree with them.

Cialdini doesn’t go that far in this book. His intent is to make you aware of these levers, these tactics, so that you can decide the good and bad for yourself. I like that. This week’s work has been an effort to introduce these briefly, speak warmly of Cialdini’s ideas, and encourage you to read the book yourself. Here are four articles to help:

Monday: How Scarcity Persuades

Tuesday: Better Ways To Spark Reciprocation

Wednesday: How Consistency Shapes Our Identity

Thursday: Let’s Give Each Other Halos

I’ll highlight a few more concepts from the book. As I do, please note that anyone hesitating to buy this book should at least visit Cialdini’s outstanding website for more information. Also, his later book is just as worthwhile: Pre-suasion. It’s an impressive body of work. Professor Cialdini has really helped us all.

Self-Persuasion

Forgive me for repeating myself but everyone should teach. Good, ethical teachers provide us with a positive source of social proof. When they teach us something worthwhile, not only does it ingrain the ideas in our minds, it further strengthens the ideas in theirs. The benefit leads to secondary effects that help everyone.

The teaching can happen anywhere. In classrooms, through services like this, with kids, colleagues, on and on. The point, I think, is that it is a healthy activity for all parties. And most important, it is an activity that we’ll engage in regardless.

Gossip is just another form of information that we share with others. To educate them on how so-and-so is a such-and-such. It might not feel like it, but we’re teaching people something in those moments.  

And that watercooler talk around the football game? Same thing. We sports fans convey the information (what happened), inform others of our views (why it happened), and attempt to persuade others we’re right.

Because teaching is an act of persuasion itself, these conversations are our way of already being teachers in a certain manner. So if we broadened those conversations, talked to one another about topics like the ones covered here, we can still keep the same pattern of discourse. Only, we’ll see it lead to more edifying results.

It reminds me of a line from Cialdini about self-persuasion:

Convince and ye shall be convinced!

The question then becomes: what do you want to convince others? The choice has deep ramifications that inform your entire information diet. Because whatever you try to convey, as a teacher of some kind, is what will influence your own thinking and your own information diet. That flow of information modifies your entire way of thinking.

Social Proof, Local Maximum

I mentioned before that social proof has a big impact on me. I do things similar to the way that people I admire do them. I’m not alone. It harkens back to an important truth that Jim Rohn first shared almost 50 years ago now:

You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

This is a great way to explain social proof. But I want to clarify some of the nuance in Rohn’s idea. Notice that he articulates this idea as the people you “spend the most time with.” These days, physical proximity is no longer required. Consider all the “influencers” found on social media. Those digital projections of a live human being have a far greater impact on their audience than any teenager’s parents would care to admit. Why? Because said teenagers spends most of their time with that influencer, watching the videos or reading the content.

New media has expanded the range, increased the granularity, and boosted the power of social proof to a global scale. For many of us, it might be the most powerful force of influence we experience. Particularly when we weigh major decisions.

As Cialdini writes,  

Without question, when people are uncertain, they are more likely to use others’ actions to decide how they themselves should act.

This is perfectly healthy when those “others” provide examples that are healthy.

This is perfectly unhealthy when those “others” provide examples that are unhealthy.

What matters here is that we are often bound by a limited set of options when we face a big decision. There is a local maximum that we must understand. It is built on the examples and options that we collect from the people we spend the most time with.

So when you are a child, and you live in a household where the mother and father are both computer programmers, you will probably think that most people are computer programmers. Social proof invariably points you to that conclusion.

Later in life, when your circle expands, your understanding expands. There are many other people participating in many other walks of life. Then you take your first trip to some foreign locale and find that there are even more walks of life, more kinds of people, more kinds of careers and trades and skills, than you ever imagined. Which is great!

But ultimately, the local maximum still holds sway. Because while you’ll have more awareness of the rich variety that life offers, you’ll still fixate day-in and day-out on what your five major “influencers” propagate. I don’t think this is avoidable. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, either. So long as we’re aware and deliberately choose where we will “source” our social proof.  

But Everybody’s Doing It

There’s one more thing about social proof that I want to highlight. It has to do with the virality of ideas and, more importantly, the nudge tactics we see from companies. So let me again restate Cialdini’s great line about social proof and indecision:

Without question, when people are uncertain, they are more likely to use others’ actions to decide how they themselves should act.

Now consider what I stumbled upon with Alaska Airlines. I recently booked a flight and, towards the end, they offered their flight protection plan for a “low-low rate of X dollars.” The offer required me to check a box before proceeding—either yes or no—and I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t even know what flight protection really was.

I faced uncertainty.

And to help me make a decision, Alaska Airlines had a nice little counter below the offer details that read something like this:

Over 4,619 people purchased the flight protection plan in the past 24 hours.

In other words, “We at Alaska Airlines want you to know that everyone is doing it and you should, too.”

I later saw this tactic when looking at hotel rooms on Travelocity. They mentioned the following about a particular room:

740 people booked a room at this hotel in the past week.

Well then! I should do the same!

Also, Travelocity invoked the scarcity principle by offering more information about that particular room:

12 other people are looking at this room.

So I better hurry!

These companies are turning the booking experience into an auction. Social proof and scarcity are the primary levers they pull in the user experience. I imagine it’s working quite well for them. I just hope it’s working well for us, too.

Framing Effects

I’ve written about framing effects before but Cialdini really helps me reframe it in a positive light. I usually fixate on all the problems with framing, how it should be avoided, but there are supremely effective ways that framing helps. For example, one of the first blog posts I ever wrote involved the powerful reframing around feedback.

Most people don’t want to give you feedback on how you’re doing.

But these same people usually like giving you advice.

What’s the difference? Not much. So Cialdini counsels us to simple reframe things. Ask for advice rather than feedback.

Here’s another example, derived from his work in the book Pre-Suasion:  

A company was introducing a new soft drink and had representatives stationed in a mall. Their job was to stop shoppers, explain the features of the new soft drink and attempt to gain the shoppers email address in exchange for the promise of a sample. The success rate was less than 33%.

But when a Pre-Suasion question, “Are you adventurous?” was asked prior to launching into the discussion about the new soft drink, the results were astounding. First 97% of the people responded that there were in fact adventurous. They all had a better than average sense of humour as well . But what was really amazing was that once people had affirmed they were adventurous, the success rate shot up to 75%.

Consider the fact that, in this sample, 97% of people consider themselves adventurous. That is patently false but, of course, we want it to be true when someone asks us the question. That desire to appear adventurous is the frame that triggers our open-minded attitudes, making us receptive to the rest of what the company surveyors wanted to do.

The example illustrates the power of deliberate framing. Remind people of their aspirations, their desired qualities, and you can actually reframe their thinking and override their skepticism. This isn’t so much a specific principle of influence as it is a tactic that engages those principles— everything from social proof to consistency to commitment to … well … all six principles. It’s another way of helping people return to the better angels of their nature.

Of course, that same question about your adventurous attitude can also lead a salesperson to persuade you on that new red convertible. So use this technique with caution. And be aware when others don’t.

Conclusion

There’s a lot more to consider in the realm of persuasion. Other works that I’ve covered, from Kahneman to Godin, view these principles in different ways. Many have built larger conceptual frameworks from this base foundation. Many more will do the same.

But regardless of your chosen style or framework or view of this topic, I think Cialdini really did lay the groundwork for us. His is the ground truth and these six principles are to communication as algebra is to math—a slightly more advanced set of necessary fundamentals.
So if you ever want to persuade or influence or sell or market or convince, this is the first and best book to read. Here’s the link to Amazon.