What makes us do something? Why do we decide to buy (and use) toothpaste A vs. toothpaste B? These questions start us down the path of wondering how we might get others to choose the choice we would like rather than the choice they’d make naturally. Whether we have a product to sell or a mission to help humanity, we want to know how to get more people to choose the way we believe they should. It all comes down to Influence: Science and Practice. It comes down to how we can use our influence effectively.
Weapons of Mass Influence
Robert Cialdini explains the weapons of influence one by one through the book. Each chapter takes on a different aspect of our psychology, which influencers leverage to achieve their goals. The list is:
- Reciprocation – If you do something for me, I’ll do something for you.
- Commitment Consistency – Once I’ve made a small commitment, I’m likely to remain consistent.
- Social Proof – If someone else says it’s OK, I’ll likely take their word for it – even if I don’t know them.
- Liking – I’m more likely to do something if I like you.
- Authority – I’ll likely defer if I think that you have authority.
- Scarcity – I’m more apt to want something if I feel like it has limited availability.
Foundations of Influence
Before exploring the factors of influence, it’s important to recognize a truth about why they work. We’ll buy an item that’s more expensive – because it’s more expensive – and that clearly makes no sense. We’ll take the word of a stranger about which products are better even if we might walk to the other side of the street if they were walking towards us. Why would we take the word of someone we don’t know? The answer is we have to.
I don’t mean that we “have to” in the sense that someone is holding a gun to our heads and making us. I mean it in the sense that we’ve got a limited amount of coping skills to deal with the onslaught of information and decisions we each face every day, and we must find some shortcuts to deal with it. The Organized Mind explains how we’re overwhelmed by the information we’re getting today and how it is orders of magnitude more than the amount of information our grandparents needed to take in.
The problem is that we’re trying to optimize, use heuristics (shortcuts), and generally operate in a world that is beyond our evolutionary capacity. The result is a set of systemic errors. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for some of them.) We’re not operating rationally all the time, because we can’t afford to. It’s too slow, too glucose-intensive, and too taxing in general.
Occasionally, the heuristics we’ve devised for dealing with the world fail us. Sometimes, those failures are engineered by the influencers.
Choices and Changes
This isn’t my first foray into reading about influencing and changing. Change or Die, Influencer, The Paradox of Choice, Nudge, Switch, Redirect, Split-Second Persuasion,
Change Anything, and other books have addressed how we change behaviors. The fundamental premises in each of these works are the same. We’re faced with too many choices. We can make small changes that make a big difference – but those small changes need to be converted into systems and habits to be effective in the long term.
Influence is primarily concerned with the immediate change and how to get the ball rolling more than how to sustain that change. (In addition to some of the above books, The Power of Habit speaks to sustaining change.)
One of the challenges with these aspects of influence is that once you know them you’ll still be susceptible to them. There are many examples of how, though professionals believed they wouldn’t be influenced by the factors listed here, their records consistently reflected a pattern of influence they weren’t aware of. These influencing factors have a pull on all of us – whether we’re aware of them or not. Cialdini admits that he himself is still susceptible to them despite dedicating so much of his time on the study of the factors.
You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. Quid pro quo. The rule of reciprocity is so woven into culture that there are dozens of sayings that reflect the fundamental meaning. Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind that our willingness to support one another has led to our biological success. Robert Axelrod’s modeling supports The Evolution of Cooperation – with reciprocation at its base. So, conceptually, the idea may not need much support, but the degree to which it can drive people is often underestimated.
Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, and one of the key supporters after the disaster was the Netherlands, who felt they were repaying a debt they owed. In 1953, New Orleans had sent help to rebuild the Dutch water management system that was devastated during a driving storm. They couldn’t help but find a way to support the city that had come to their aid decades before the tragedy.
The power of reciprocation is held in the nature of our society and our desire to avoid being perceived as a moocher, ingrate, or freeloader. Despite the concerns of psychologists who have observed social loafing – letting others carry the load, if they don’t think that they’ll get caught – most of the time people feel indebted to their societies. (See The Blank Slate, Group Genius, and Collaborative Intelligence for more.)
One of the ways that reciprocation is used as a tool for influence has to do with the fact that our brains don’t make the distinction between the actions we’ve asked for and those that are volunteered. If someone gives us a gift, we feel obliged to respond in kind – even if we didn’t feel any desire to give them a gift. Because we don’t want to stay in a state of obligation, we’ll often quickly respond to whatever was given to us.
One of the other odd – but powerful – aspects of reciprocation is in the introduction of a concession or a retreat. If you ask someone for a big favor, you’re quite likely to be turned down. If you ask them for a second, smaller favor, you’re more likely to get a yes – after you’ve been turned down for the big ask. The smaller ask seems like a concession on your part, and the other party feels obligated to make a concession as well.
In our political history, the Watergate scandal makes little sense. Bugging the Democratic party headquarters wasn’t necessary, legal, or even sensible. However, to the president and his advisors, the author of the plan had already asked for and been denied two much larger – and more ludicrous – options. The remaining option of bugging the offices seemed reasonable by comparison.
Our self-identity is fiercely guarded by our egos. Our egos have a wide array of resources that they can deploy to protect themselves. (See Change or Die for more.) Our egos equally capable of deploying resources to ensure that we behave in ways that appear internally consistent. The mental mechanisms at work are remarkably resilient and powerful.
Make a small commitment, and you’re more likely to make a larger commitment. If you agree to put a small sign of your civic-mindedness in your window, and then someone comes weeks later and asks you to put a huge sign in your yard – you’re more likely to agree. It seems you’ve decided that you’re the kind of person who is civic-minded and once that is done larger requests to do your civic duty don’t meet with much resistance. It’s as if the brain says, we’ve already decided this so there is no need to do any deep thinking about it. (See What Got You Here Won’t Get You There for 99% is a bitch, 100% is a breeze.)
The labeling effect is well known. If you accept a label as a kind of person, your behaviors will become consistent with the way you expect those labeled that way to behave. There are good sides to this in terms of labeling people as honorable and reasonable people and negative sides in terms of labeling people as delinquents.
The behavior can become somewhat odd, however, when it feels like, in the future, we’ll see an argument against what we want to identify ourselves as. Let’s say you attend a sales session for a product that is thoroughly debunked while you’re sitting there. One might rationally expect that no one would sign up given the idea was debunked. However, sales might increase, because the people present wish to stay consistent with their previous commitment – to listen to the pitch – and the awareness that, if they didn’t make the commitment now, they might never. This scenario also involved a deep desire to solve a problem that the solution promised but for which there were no other ready answers – but the possibility that someone would sign up for something that they intellectually knew wouldn’t work is spooky. (It speaks to the power of emotions – see The Happiness Hypothesis for a model of the relationship between emotions and rationality.)
Speaking of spooky impacts is the degree to which the person has sacrificed – submitted to difficulty or pain – is the degree they’ll defend their decisions and commitments. College fraternity hazing has a long history of condemnation, but those who have gone through it – the current members – hold on to it as a rite of passage. It’s a part of why they feel so strongly that their group is THE group.
Influencers engineer small commitments to lead to slightly larger commitments to even larger commitments. They create progressively more pain and therefore more commitment with sometimes disastrous consequences. Consider The People’s Temple and Jim Jones’ instruction to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. At the outset, this seems like an impossible thing. However, through progressively more costly commitments, Jones managed to develop a degree of influence that amounted to control. Jim Jones moved the group to Guyana, which isolated the group to any influence except Jones’ and simultaneously required a higher degree of commitment.
Being your own person is exhausting. You have so many decisions to make. It’s so much easier to take other people’s lead. It’s easier to see that others are successful than imitate them. You don’t have to worry about failure – after all, if it doesn’t work, you can blame them. A very small percentage of the world are innovators. (Everett Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations pegs it at about 3.5%.) Why would you want to do the hard work of being an innovator if you can take other people’s word for it?
Our world today is filled with obvious – and obscured – social proof. When you’re deciding between products on an online store, you’ll use the reviews of people you don’t know to help you narrow down your decisions and make better choices about which book to read or which product to buy. More obscurely, the motivational speakers you believe are successful are standing next to mansions, expensive cars, fancy boats, or other indicators that they can splurge, because they have the wealth that indicates they’re successful. Few people can look beyond these tricks to see the substance of what the person is selling. It’s too easy to use the background to determine if they’re successful or not.
As a humorous aside, with the video studio we have here, I can make it appear like we’re anywhere on the planet. I can make it look like I’ve got a garage filled with exotic cars, and we’re off sailing the Caribbean or the Mediterranean every week. What we see as social proof is often an illusion. Several speakers and motivational figures have been shown to rent the cars and boats as props for their work – the work of influencing us.
Our ability to like someone either because of their purported affinity for us or because of their apparent similarity to us is a powerful draw. We’ll often do things for people we like that we wouldn’t do for others. Liking is reciprocal. We tend to like people who like us. Further, we tend to like people who we believe “belong” to a group we belong to. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more.)
Influencers will subtly indicate that they like you – and that they’re like you – to try to get you to like them and accept their influence.
Perhaps the most powerful example of the power of authority – or perceived authority – to influence us is Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments on obedience to authority, in which he asked volunteers to issue what they believed to be potentially fatal electric shocks to other volunteers. (There were no real shocks, and the person who they believed they were shocking was an accomplice/colleague of Milgram’s.) The result was that most people would issue the shocks if asked by someone of perceived authority. (See The Lucifer Effect and Moral Disengagement for more on this and obedience to authority in general.)
The interesting aspect of Milgram’s experiment that isn’t often reported is that, when it was run a second time in an office building instead of on Yale’s prestigious campus, the element of authority was weakened, and so were the results.
Influencers try to surround themselves with markers that make them seem more authoritative than they are.
Throughout most of human history, scarcity was the reality of the world. There was rarely enough to go around, so when something was available to you, you tried to grab it. Even if you didn’t need it yourself, you could use it to trade for the things you needed later. Scarcity conveys power and status. It’s the challenge of luxury brands. They sell on their exclusive nature and that not everyone can have what they’re offering. This necessarily limits their options for expanding their markets. If the market is expanded too far, it’s no longer exclusive, and the core market is no longer interested.
Since the industrial age and the continued greater prosperity of the human race, the degree to which things are truly exclusive is shrinking, but that doesn’t stop people by being impacted by scarcity in subtle ways.
Consider the winery that declared, due to a fixed production capacity, they couldn’t sell more than six bottles of wine to a single customer. Instead of selling an average of less than two bottles per customer, their sales jumped to almost four bottles of wine per customer. The perception of scarcity was enough to drive greater purchasing power without any change in the product or packaging.
Offers are “limited time.” Products are “limited edition.” Sometimes, the limited time is the time that the promotion will be effective, and limited edition is for as long as people keep buying it. At some level, everything is a limited edition – nothing lasts forever.
In an odd turn, though people will report a product more desirable if it’s scarce, they will not rate it as objectively better. They want it more – but they don’t like it more.
Influencers try to create scarcity in the mind of the consumer by these “limited” offers and through concerns about the demand being overwhelming. How many times have you seen an advertisement with “only a few seats left” – only to realize that they’ve only got 49 out of the 50 seats in the room available?
The Limits of Influence
On the one hand, the power of influence is limited. You can’t always get someone to do what you want. On the other hand, the power of influence is unlimited. Skillfully conducted, you can achieve powerful control of people. Most of the time people, don’t realize that they’re being influenced, and that’s the way that the influencers want it. Though it doesn’t completely ruin influence when you see it, the effect is much less powerful. But that’s Influence: Science and Practice… influencing people without them realizing.