Some books you read because you are obligated to—they are required reading in a class, or they are considered the “gold standard” of knowledge in a particular subject. Others you read because they’re interesting, or they bring new light to a subject that the reader has found mystifying in the past.
For those whose jobs ever require getting another person to say “yes,” Influence, by Dr. Robert Cialdini, fulfills both roles exceptionally well. Weighing in at around 250 pages, Cialdini describes six “weapons of influence” that are so adept at guiding our behavior that most of us don’t realize we’ve fallen prey to them until the smoke clears and we realize that we’ve been had. In brief, Cialdini’s primary weapons of influence are:
•Reciprocation: the idea that people give back to you what you give to them. Evidence for this rule abounds in human culture; Cialdini cites several sources that suggest it exists in cultures around the world.
- •Commitment and Consistency: our almost obsessive need to appear consistent with what we’ve already decided to do, particularly commitments made in public. Our need for consistency, while often a good and valued part of being human, also seems to get us into the most trouble; for example, the smoker who knows full well the risks of smoking, but still manages to minimize his vulnerability to those risks (Gibbons et al, 1997).
- •Social Proof: the idea that we look at what those around us are doing to guide our own behavior. This is another key area where, when we are mistaken in our search for the right action in a given situation, the impact can be dangerous. The so-called “bystander effect,” in which an increase in witnesses to an event actually decreases the likelihood that the person in distress will receive help, is well demonstrated in the chilling example of Catherine Genovese, a young woman murdered in 1964 New York City while 38 of her neighbors watched, each believing that someone else must have called for help (Influence, pp. 112–118).
- •Authority: the way that we often defer to people who are perceived to have authority or knowledge on a topic. Note here the use of the word “perceived;” the most interesting facet of this principle is that simply having the appearance of authority—for example, a uniform—can have the same effect on our behavior as a legitimate authority figure. Con artists, Cialdini notes, make use of this principle often.
- •Scarcity: the idea that the more limited the availability of a given opportunity, the more we want that opportunity. This is often seen in retail sales, where customers are warned that stock of a particular item is “going fast!”
- •Liking: this principle states, quite simply, that we tend to want to help people that we like and trust. This one seems almost a no-brainer; what’s interesting about it, however, is the many ways that influence practitioners can facilitate the liking process, or use our relationship with friends to get something from us. Cialdini opens the chapter with the example of home Tupperware parties, where the attendees are driven to buy more often on the basis of their friendship with the host than a genuine need for the product (Influence, pp. 141–142).
The thing to remember, Cialdini argues, is that in most cases these tendencies are actually good for us; they help us make sense of an increasingly complex world, and prevent us from spending each day in a state of analysis paralysis. The problem lies in the ways that these otherwise adaptive strategies can be used against us by forces who want to get something from us; those that Cialdini describes, in an interview about the book with business blogger Guy Kawasaki, as “Smugglers:”
Smugglers, on the other hand, do know—quite well—what the principles are and how they work. But they import these principles into situations where they don’t naturally exist. An example would be a salesperson who pretended to be an authority on a particular computer system in order to get a customer to buy it. Although the smuggler’s approach often works in the short run, it’s deadly in the long run. Because only one person—the smuggler—wins. The customer, who gets fooled into buying the wrong system, will be unhappy with it and will be unlikely to ever return to that salesperson or dealer for future business.
Cialdini identifies a variety of influence smugglers throughout the book. These range from advertising agencies who use actors to pose as “regular customers” of their products in order to make others think people just like them love the product (demonstrating the principle of social proof), to Hare Krishnas, whose recruitment tactic of giving a small gift to pedestrians plays into the reciprocation principle so effectively that people go out of their way to avoid coming into contact with them. Each chapter cites a wealth of examples, both anecdotal and academic, describing how these principles can impact our behavior; each chapter ends with a reader anecdote on the chapter’s subject.
Another key feature of Cialdini’s book is a section in each chapter called “How to Say No.” In this section, he not only shows readers how to recognize influence principles at work, but he also offers ways to counteract them. It is here that Influence is most useful, but it’s also where Cialdini tends to lapse into a cranky long-windedness that hurts his message more than it helps. In his chapter on the theory of social proof, Cialdini calls for a mass boycott of products advertised with actors representing customers—what he calls “phony ‘unrehearsed interview’ commercials.” But far beyond simply suggesting the reader stop buying these products, he recommends launching an aggressive counter-attack of the company’s “bad social proof:”
“Moreover, each manufacturer of the items should receive a letter explaining our response and recommending that they discontinue use of the advertising agency that produced so deceptive a representation of their product.”
In most cases, the advice given in each “How to Say No” section is useful—particularly in the context of putting these theories to practical use. However, in this case, as well as in his imagined response to the “stunning young woman” who duped him into buying an overpriced entertainment package by playing on his desire to impress her (Influence, p. 94), the advice Cialdini gives seems reactionary, and overblown for the issues that he’s describing.
Despite these flaws, Influence remains a valuable work, particularly for those who work in industries—such as sales, marketing and design—that depend on the ability to use the principles Cialdini outlines in an effective, yet ethical, manner.
Kawasaki, G. (2006, April 26). “Book Review: Influence—Science and Practice.” How to Change the World: a practical blog for impractical people. Retrieved from: http://blog.guykawasaki.com/2006/04/book_review_inf.html#axzz1aOW5Edgh.
Cialdini, R. (2009). Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, Adobe Digital Edition. New York, NY: Harper Collins E-books.
Gibbons, F., Eggleston, T. & Benthin, A. (1997). Cognitive Reactions to Smoking Relapse: The Reciprocal Relation Between Dissonance and Self-Esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 72 No. 1, 184–195.