Influence:  The Psychology of Persuasion

(For a fascinating view of the application of these and other social psychology principles to human-machine interaction, see The Media Equation.)

by Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D.

This book focuses on the persuasion tactics of marketing and sales organizations, but the principles it describes apply to all persuasion situations.  Is persuasion part of education?  Do teachers face a persuasion challenge in getting students to engage more deeply and persistently with challenging but rewarding work?  Should principals and administrators work to persuade teachers to work collaboratively to improve the quality of work undertaken and completed by students in the school?  Can Board members see their tasks, at the Board table, with other community leaders, and with parents and other community members in terms of persuasion?  And, what are the ethics of viewing these roles and relationships in terms of persuasion?  If these are worthwhile questions, then reading this book is a worthwhile effort.

    From research in the field of social psychology, Dr. Cialdini identifies six powerful approaches to persuasion tasks:

1. Reciprocation:  repay gifts.

2. Commitment and Consistency: follow through.

3.  Social Proof:  when in doubt, follow the crowd.

4.  Liking: believe those you like.

5.  Authority:  be part of the team, listen to experts.

6.  Scarcity:  value what is rare.

    Each of these approaches is based on "shortcuts" we use to make decisions in the absence of complete information and full analysis.  And, each also generally supports the functioning of culture to provide mutual support and increased well-being for each of us.  The dishonest use of these approaches is manipulative in the extreme, and undercuts our ability to help and care for one another.  Used honestly and consistently with their cultural importance, they can be powerful tools for collaborative achievement, success, and satisfaction.

    Like many principles of social psychology, stories make them easier to remember, and the stories from the actual research are often fascinating

Recpirocation: repay gifts.

Dennis Regan of Cornell University did an experiment reported in 1971 where the subjects were told they were to rate the quality of some paintings as part of an experiment on "art appreciation."  Dr. Regan's assistant, call him "Joe" posed as another rater in the subject.  Joe behaved the same with each subject, including leaving the room briefly during a short rest period.  However, in some cases, he would return with two bottles of Coca-Cola, one for the subject and one for himself, saying, "I asked him [the experimenter] if I could get myself a Coke, and he said it was okay, so I bought one for you, too."  In other cases, he simply returned empty handed.  After the "ratings" were finished, Joe would ask the subject to buy some raffle tickets on a new car to help Joe win a prize.  The tickets were a quarter each.  The subjects for whom Joe had bought a Coke bought twice as many tickets as the subjects who had not received the prior favor, far more than the value of the Coke!

This rule says that when someone does something for us, we are obligated to return a similar favor in the future.  Dr. Cialdini cites anthropologists, sociologists, and archaeologists for the proposition that subscribing to this rule, becoming part of the “web of indebtedness”, is a unique adaptive mechanism allowing for the exchange of goods and services and the development of supportive communities.

    Other examples of this persuasion approach include 

·        Public solicitation schemes based on a “gift”, then a request for a contribution. 

·        Office holders doing little services for constituents – ever wonder why Congresspersons don’t spend as much time getting government programs to operate more efficiently as they do “helping” constituents get their benefits from those programs?  Is it possible somewhat unresponsive (to constituents) programs are actually good for Congresspersons?

·        Free samples

·        From the lone survivor of the Jonestown mass suicide who refused special food offered by Jim Jones when she was ill, and then later also was able to refuse the command to drink the poison kool aid, “I knew once he gave me those privileges, he’d have me.  I didn’t want to owe him nothing”

·        Rejection-then-retreat: asking for something you know will be turned down, then “giving” the concession of making a reduced request that requires the reciprocal “gift” of compliance.  Much of the posturing in labor negotiations would seem to be based on efforts by both sides to use this technique on the other without having it turned against them.  The power of this version was evidenced by an experiment the author conducted.  The percentage of college students who agreed to chaperon a group of juvenile delinquents on a trip to the zoo tripled when preceded by a request to spend two hours a week for two years mentoring a juvenile delinquent!  However, the first request cannot be so extreme as to be viewed as “bad faith”, to use a term with much history in labor negotiations.

    But, note that not all uses of this rule are inherently bad, or even manipulative.  For example, in Shackleton’s Way, Sir Earnest Shackleton would take sick sailors into his cabin and nurse them back to health.  Also he would routinely order extra or special rations after a particularly difficult experience.  Yet he used the influence thus gained to hold the entire crew together and get every man home alive!  Moreover, other stories in that book suggest that Shackleton’s giving was such a part of his nature, or had become so over the years, that he did it routinely in circumstances where any influence he thereby gained was unlikely to ever be used.

Commitment and Consistency: follow through.

    Bettors at a race track become more confident of their chances of winning just after they place a bet.  Attendees at a transcendental meditation program rushed to sign up after the presentation was "demolished" by an audience member during questioning.  The participants admitted that they understood the arguments against TM and found them persuasive, but they signed up and paid a deposit quickly so they wouldn't have to think about those arguments!  They wanted what TM promised and they used commitment to lock themselves into it.

    A small action apparently changes a person's view of self; thereafter, the person tends to act in concert with that view.  Thus, persons who signed a petition to "Keep America Beautiful" were far more likely to agree to having a large "Drive Safely" sign placed in their front yard.

    We tend to do what we have committed to and what is consistent (and makes us appear to others to be consistent) with prior behavior and statements.  Dr. Cialdini cites numerous experiments for this: 

·        When a researcher pretending to be a sunbather at a beach got up and left his radio and another researcher came by, grabbed the radio and hurried off, only four out of 20 subjects objected.  But, when the “sunbather” asked the subject to “watch my things” and they agreed, 19 out of 20 took strenuous and possibly personally perilous action to confront the “thief.”

·        Bettors feel better about the horse they bet on 30 seconds after the bet than just before placing it.

·        Researchers asked some residents of an area to accept and display a small 3-inch sign that said “BE A SAFE DRIVER”.  Almost all did.  Two weeks later, the researchers sent another representative around to ask both this group and another group of residents that had not received the first contact to allow a large billboard saying “DRIVE CAREFULLY” on their front lawns.  As part of the request, they were shown a picture of a nice house almost completely obscured by a very large, poorly lettered sign with that message.  Eighty-three percent of the residents who had not received the first request refused, but 76% of those who had accepted the small sign agreed to placement of the large one!  Moreover, in a further variant, the residents were first asked to sign a “Keep California Beautiful” petition.  Two weeks later, they are asked about placement of the large billboard, and 50% agreed, even though the first request differed in subject (beauty) and action (signing)!  The researchers theorized that the first action actually changed way the participants viewed themselves, e.g., “public-spirited citizens” in a way that influenced them to act in accordance with that view in the future.

·        This same foot-in-the-door technique was used for brainwashing of American captives in the Korean war.  A small agreement, e.g., that America isn’t perfect, could lead to public reading of a list of criticisms of America .

To be fully effective in changing self-image, a commitment must

  1. Active – actions, especially those that leave a record like writing something down, are harder for the actor to deny or forget, plus they can be used to change way others view the actor, and the actor then often continues to shape his or her self-image (and future actions) to support those views.  For example, New Haven housewives who heard that they were considered charitable people gave more money to a canvasser from the Multiple Sclerosis Association.
  2. Public – obviously, our desire to be seen as consistent plus our tendency to conform our self-view to the perceptions of others create a powerful combination punch in the direction of future consistent actions.
  3.  Effortful – as two social psychologists put it in 1959, “persons who go through a great deal of trouble or pain o attain something tend to value it more highly than persons who attain the same thing with a minimum of effort.”  Think primitive tribal initiations or fraternity hazing during “Hell Week.”  In the researchers’ experiment, coeds who went through either embarrassment or pain (electric shock) to be admitted to a discussion group rated the group and its activities more interesting, intelligent, and desirable than their peers who were admitted through no such experience, and the more the embarrassment or pain, the higher the perceived value.
  4. Owned – It must be “owned” by the individual.  He or she must perceive that they acted, in public, and at some cost to themselves, because of his or her own choice and not due to coercion or bribes.  Thus, fraternities resist substituting public service activities in a “Help Week” for the hazing of “Hell Week” and Chinese brainwashers refused to offer more than token prizes in contests for pro-communist essays among prisoners of war in Korea .

    Note the acronym “APE” for the first three components and its appropriateness for a powerful principle that seems to access mechanisms hardwired in our minds that can short-circuit our judgment, logic, and even our commitment to civilized, caring behavior. “APE-O”?  Click and judge for yourself. It sounds appropriate to me.

    We can use the power of commitment can too build our best behaviors into consistent patterns also.  In fact, Dr. Cialdini recites an example of this.  A researcher had families in Iowa contacted prior to winter.  The “interviewers” shared tips for energy conservation and asked the families to try and save fuel that winter.  All agreed to try.  But, some of the families were also told that they would have their names publicized in the paper as public-spirited, fuel-conserving citizens.  After a month, the group that had received the promise had saved an average  of 422 cubic feet of natural gas.  The group that had just received the tips and the request to conserve had not altered their fuel usage. 

    At this point in the experiment, one group, apparently motivated by the promise of positive publicity, had changed their behavior, they had acted.  The other group had not.  Then, the researchers sent the families that had received the promise a letter saying that it would not be possible to publicize their names after all.  Now, you have a group that has acted, and in a way that changed their view of themselves.  If they quit now, they have to change that view to one of “hypocritical publicity hound.”  You can probably guess what happened:  rather than slacking off, these families increased their energy-saving behavior through the remainder of the winter!  Meanwhile, the unmotivated group that had not acted continued in their old behaviors.  

Social Proof:  when in doubt, follow the crowd.

    This principle could be stated, “When in doubt, follow the crowd (especially if it’s your crowd).  If you want a picture, you’ve probably seen a comic with one person stopping on a busy street and looking up, then another, and another, and soon there is a crowd.  Or, think of the old practical joke where the two jokesters get down in a busy public place, and start acting like they are looking for a contact.  Then, when others are into the effort, they ease out, stand up and leave.  We use the actions of others as another short cut to decision-making, and that tendency can be used to persuade us to act in ways we otherwise might not.  Then, of course, the action causes us to fabricate additional reasons justifying our decision, as described in the preceding section.

    From 1820’s opera goers who sold their “applause” (a practice known as “claquing”) to the canned laugh tracks of current sitcoms, sellers—of products, services, and ideas – have abused this principle to persuade us.  But the principle can also operate perversely without anyone’s conscious intent to manipulate.

    One such case is the “pluralistic ignorance phenomenon.”  This occurs when multiple witnesses fail to react to an unusual, but somewhat ambiguous situation, e.g., “Was that a gunshot, or a car backfiring?”  “Is that woman screaming in fear, or is she angry at her neighbor?”  An individual might well analyze and react to the situation appropriately while a group will covertly observe each other and, seeing no reaction (because the others are likewise looking for clues), assume the situation is not as far out of the norm as it appears and react accordingly.  In one experiment, a student faking an epileptic “seizure” received help 85% of the time when there was only one bystander, but only 31% of the time when there were with five bystanders present.

    Social proof is more persuasive to us when the observed behavior comes from someone whom we see as similar to ourselves.  In an experiment, researchers placed a large, addressed, stamped envelope on the street with a letter and a wallet inside.  The letter was from someone who had found the wallet earlier, and was returning it to the owner.  The wallet contained a small amount of money and items identifying the owner.  However, in some cases the letter was written in “standard” English.  In others, it was written in “broken” English by someone who identified himself as a recently arrived foreigner.  Otherwise, both letters expressed the person’s pleasure at being able to help by returning the wallet.  The researchers watched to see what would happen.  Seventy percent of the envelopes with the “standard” letter were dropped in a mailbox.  Only 33% of those with “broken” English were returned.

    Here’s a more chilling example of this principle.  Newspaper stories of suicide victims who die alone result in an increase in single-fatality automobile crashes in areas where the story is reported, and the increase is greater when the amount of coverage is greater.  When the stories are of suicide-murder, the increase is in multi-fatality wrecks!

    Sociologist David Phillips of UC-San Diego (at least at the time this book was written) has suggested this is an example of the “Werther effect”, named after the character in a Goethe novel of the 18th century who committed suicide.  The novel was very popular and caused such a wave of emulative suicides wherever it was published that authorities in several countries banned it.  

    Not only are there more fatal wrecks in the period immediately after a published suicide, but the victims die much more quickly (evidencing an intent to commit suicide) and they tend to be similar to the suicide victim in age to the suicide victim!  Professor Cialdini sees this as clear evidence of the principle of social proof at work.  He notes that the greatest risk is 3-4 days after the story, with another, smaller spike at seven days.

    Even non-fatal aggression can affect homicide statistics.  Dr. Phillips found that in the period after a heavyweight championship bout, homicides of young black men went up if a black fighter lost, and of young white men if a white fighter lost.

   In a positive example of the use of social proof, small children who were terrified of dogs watched film clips of children playing  happily with a dog for twenty minutes a day.  After four days, 67 percent were willing to climb into a playpen with a dog and remain confined there, petting and scratching it while everyone else left the room.  When extremely shy, solitary preschoolers watched film clips in which a solitary child watching some social activity ultimately joined in to every ones enjoyment, they quickly began to interact with their peers at a level equal to that of normal children.  Six weeks later, the withdrawn children who had not watched the films were still withdrawn; those who had were leading their schools in social activity.

Liking:  believe those you like.

    And we like those who are:

  • physically attractive
  • similar to us
  • who give compliments
  • with whom we have contact in a cooperative environment (not competitive)
  • whom we are conditioned to associate with positive things.

    Let's look at these in a little more detail.

Physical attractiveness: In a “halo effect”, we assign favorable traits such as talent, kindness, honest, and intelligence  to attractive individuals, without being aware that we are unconsciously equating good looks with being good.  We vote for good-looking politicians and hire good-looking job applicants, all the while denying that their looks had anything to do with it.  Even scarier, we acquit good-looking defendants or give them lighter verdicts.  Even in children, we view aggressive actions as less naughty when performed by a good-looking child, and teachers presume good-looking children to be more intelligent than their less-attractive peers.

Similarity:  When looks are not a significant issue, we like folks that are similar to us.  Whether it’s similar opinions, personality traits, background, or life-style.  So, smart persuaders dress like their targets, claim to have (or actually develop) similar backgrounds, lifestyles, attitudes, and beliefs.  The attraction of private schools, especially expensive ones, isn’t all academics.

Compliments:  Flattery works.  Period.  Even if we know it’s not sincere.

Contact and Cooperation:  In general, we like folks better when we have had more exposure to them, unless that exposure was in a frustrating, conflict-riddled, or competitive situation.  Thus, school desegregation, rather than decreasing prejudice was found to increase it.  Schools aren’t friendly places.  Classrooms are frustrating, anxious, competitive places for students, especially as they get older.  Out of this research came the focus on “cooperative learning”. 

    The “camp” research of Muzafer Sherif (conducted in a boys camp), showed that just separating campers into cabins produced “we” vs. “they” feelings.  When competitive interactions between the groups were introduced  (tug-of-war, etc.), the hostilities escalated rapidly.  Then, even when the groups were put together in neutral setting (movies, cookouts), they quickly turned them into hostile events.  Only when situations requiring cooperative efforts (the only truck available to go get food on a day hike was found to be “stuck”), did the hatreds subside. 

    Educational psychologists such as Elliot Aronson applied this research to the classroom and created the “jigsaw” classroom.  Students are formed into teams and each one is given only part of the information necessary to pass an upcoming exam.  While Cialdini cites this research as showing that the minority students improved their learning, the majority students learned at least as much as their peers in “traditional” classrooms, and both groups feeling of self-esteem, liking for school and for members of the other group increased, he also warns against becoming overly enthusiastic about a single, simple solution.  And he notes that competition, too, has its place.

    Note that Jaime Escalante apparently used the “team” approach with students (we’re working together for you to get a 3 or higher on the AP exam) as a way of increasing his ability to persuade them to put in the hard work that was necessary to reach that goal.  

    Conditioning and Association:  Tang’s association with the space program.  Any questions?  Need more?  “The official _____ of the U.S. Olympic ______ team.”  See the association?  Any doubts that savvy corporate marketing department, armed with reams of data and sophisticated statistical analyses have any doubts about the power of this approach as they are spending billions of dollars on it?  Celebrity advertising.  Etc., etc., etc.  

    Fans of sports teams exhibit another form of conditioned association.  We identify with sports teams, and are uplifted by their successes and dejected by their defeats.  And, in the eyes of others, those associated with successful teams are persuasive.

Authority:  be part of the team, listen to experts.

    This chapter begins with a description of a series of experiments at Yale in the 1960’s in which the subjects were brought in to supposedly participate in a study of the effects of punishment on learning.  Each subject was placed in the role of “Teacher” and thought that the person in the role of “Learner” was another volunteer.  In actuality, both the “Learner” and the “Researcher” in the experiments were part of the project.

    The “Teacher” would help the “Researcher” strap the subject into a chair and attach devices to his arms to develop an electric shock.  Then, the researcher would read a question, and if the “Learner” answered incorrectly, flip a switch that would supposedly administer a shock.  There were a series of switches that the Teacher was told would administer progressively greater shocks.  As the experiment progressed, the “Learner” would first wince, then say “that hurt!”, then demand that the experiment stop, then yell, then plead, then scream and kick, and finally go virtually catatonic.  The “Researcher” however, would keep instructing the subject to deliver the next shock, and 65% of them complied.  They might plead with the “Researcher” to stop the experiment, they might sweat, they might put their head in their hands and say, “This can’t go on.”  But they complied.

    The overwhelming percentage that continued to the bitter end stunned the psychologist who had designed the experiment.  Prior to the experiment, he had asked colleagues, graduate students and Psychology majors what percentage of the subjects would throw all the switches, and the answers had invariably been in the 1% to 2% range.  Subsequent experiments changed various factors and ruled out the possibilities that the subjects were sadists, that the sex of the subject had any bearing on the results, and that the subjects might not have realized the danger to the “Learner” had the voltages posted actually been delivered.  The results never changed, and post experiment tests showed the subjects to be very normal, average individuals without a hint of psychosis.

    The researchers reached the only possible conclusion:  we all carry in us a deep-seated sense of duty to authority.  “It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study.” 

    Professor Cialdini suggests this makes sense from a societal perspective.   As a species, having individuals act in accordance with authority allows for more elaborate and effective social organization, thus maximizing survival chances.  And, like all psychological components of influence, obedience to authority is not normally bad for us.  In fact, it lets us, as groups, accomplish far more than would otherwise be possible.

    Of course, this type of influence can also be used against us by the unscrupulous (con men, advertisers, etc.).  Even waiters can become authority figures and, especially when combined with the reciprocity component, substantially increase the size of a groups bill and the percentage of the tip.  (Read the book!)

    Even more scary, however, are the ways it can work against us even when everyone is operating from good motives.  For example, Dr. Cialdini suggests that medication errors may frequently go uncorrected because, once the “authority figure”, the doctor, writes the order, others in the work group such as nurses, etc., think only of complying, and never even really engage in careful thought about whether the order is right.

    Symbols of authority are, therefore, very powerful.  Titles can influence our willingness to be persuaded:  doctor, M.D.,Ph.D., Ed.D., lawyer, attorney, Esq., J.D., L.C.S.W., etc., etc., etc.  We create, pursue and defend them because of their power.  Clothing can also communicate authority, including uniforms and business suits.  In one experiment, a researcher would cross a street against the light, sometimes wearing a business suit and tie, sometimes just slacks and a shirt.  Three and a half times as many other pedestrians would step off into the street with the man when dressed in a business suit.

Dr. Cialdini suggests that two questions can help determine when to defer to authority:

  1. Is this person a true authority in this situation?
  2. If so, how truthful can I expect this authority to be in this situation?

Scarcity:  value what is rare.

    When we are convinced that an opportunity or thing is limited in its availability, we are more easily persuaded to want it, and to take the actions necessary to get it.  Just the statement of the principle can cause examples from the world of commerce to come to mind:  “today only!”, “going out of business sale!”, “only X lakeshore lots left!” and so forth, and so on. 

    As a corollary, we are more easily persuaded to act by the threat of losing something than by promises of gain. For example, more individuals women will perform self-examinations for breast lumps when a brochure threatens loss of health benefits than when it promises gains in such benefits. 

    Further, we are especially motivated if the loss is of freedom:  the “terrible twos” and the teenage years being prime times for especially strong reactions in this regard.  Ban a book – kids will read it!  Moreover, they are more persuaded by the information.  In a dated example, Dr. Cialdini cites an instance where students at the University of North Carolina became more opposed to the idea of coed dorms on learning that a speech supporting the banning of coed dorms had been banned!

    The scarcity principle can affect judgment in other ways, also.  For example, when consumers were offered a “taste test” of two brands of cookies (though actually the cookies were identical), with one offered from a jar with 10 cookies, and the other from a jar with only two, the tasters registered a distinct preference for the “scarce” cookie.  Moreover, a sudden increase in scarcity is more persuasive that constant scarcity, and, if the sudden increase is due to demand for the item from others, it is more persuasive still.  Can you say, “Beanie Babies?”

    But, it is instructive to note the way in which participants in the cookie experiment preferred the “scarce” cookie.  The raters said they wanted to have more of the scarce cookie and would pay a higher price for them.  But, they did not rate the cookies as better tasting!  In other words, the pressure seems to be to possess the scarce item, not necessarily to experience it.

    In politics, James C. Davies has proposed the theory, based on substantial research, that violent political actions occur when a period of increasing freedom and well-being is followed by a sharp downturn in either or both.  In the American Revolution, a period of growth, increasing wealth, and increasing political and commercial independence from England was followed by the “crack-down” of King George III.  In a more recent example, the riots in U.S. cities in the 1960’s came after a period of steadily improving conditions for African Americans and then a backward slide in incomes and social opposition to the legal gains of the 1950’s.

Application to Schools and School Systems

    The obvious application to all persuasion situations was highlighted at the beginning of this note, as was the need for ethical application and integrity.  However, I would suggest that, when we confront systemic, cultural behaviors that are not what we desire, Dr. Cialdini's work can help us see ways in which we may be unintentionally persuading students, teachers, parents or community members to act in those ways.  Then, it can provide tools for effecting change.