Cialdini’s “Influence: the psychology of persuasion”

This is another of my old LinkedIn articles, writing about one of my favourite books – Robert Cialdini Influence: the psychology of persuasion.

“There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labour of thinking” – Sir Joshua Reynolds

I like this quote of Sir Joshua for three reasons – it encapsulates the core idea behind this post (that our brains are lazy); it demonstrates that these ideas are by no means new (Sir Joshua was an 18th century artist); and finally, I like it because Sir Joshua was an early fellow of what became the RSA.  As a fellow Fellow I enjoy coming across snippets from the Society’s history.

Cialdini’s book is about psychology but is, as you would expect, grounded in physiology.  The human body is a remarkably frugal machine and each part of it does what it can to conserve energy.  The brain is no exception and, to “avoid the real labour of thinking”, it relies on the autopilot of a wide range of heuristics.  More recently, Daniel Kahneman, in his 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow, brought this to wider attention, contrasting “System 1” thinking (fast, instinctual and prone to being governed by heuristics) and “System 2” thinking (slow, deliberative and logical).

These heuristics are ubiquitous.  I am, in fact, using one right now.  As I type this I am not consciously aware of where the keys are – my fingers “know it”.  Try this experiment – get someone to ask you where a random letter is on a keyboard.  Chances are, you will either mime the action of typing or mentally visualise the action (even in this latter case, if someone watches closely they will probably notice your fingers twitching in time with your “mental typing”).  This is because the heuristic called “touch typing” is a step-by-step process, not a mental map of a keyboard.

That people are prone to these cognitive biases has been understood at an intuitive and empirical level for centuries and come through in the writings of thinkers throughout history, from Aristotle to Machiavelli and beyond.

Cialdini’s own research method was somewhat unorthodox, approaching something like gonzo journalism (gonzo academia?).  He took sales jobs to learn the techniques they were using and then worked with his research team to consider the psychological basis behind it.

Cialdini introduces us to six cognitive biases in his book – reciprocity, consistency/commitment, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity.  These cognitive biases have one thing in common – they all developed as part of human society.  Cialdini highlights the way in which “compliance professionals” (mostly, but not exclusively, salespeople) exploit these tendencies to get people closer to “yes”.

I think it is vital to understand these biases, both to ensure that you are not cutting across one in your own work (thus making your argument less convincing) and to help innoculate you against their siren call, making you less likely to fall for the tricks of one of Cialdini’s “compliance professionals”.

Cialdini offers lots of examples to help illustrate the effect of each of these biases and I am not going to list them all here (go read the book!).  What I will do is highlight a couple of the effects, illustrated by examples drawn from elsewhere.

First up, Social Proof which, stated simply, is the effect that we tend to look to others to determine the right course of action.  Advertisers use it by featuring “ordinary people” in their copy, or better yet “people like you”.  People can be inspired to bravery by the action of people around them – this TED talk on How to start a movement is pertinent here.  In a darker mood, how many times have you heard that a young person who has gone off the rails “fell in with a bad crowd”?

A great example to illustrate this (and another bias covered in the book – that of scarcity) is a story told by Michael Barber in his book Instruction to Deliver.  While at the Department of Education he was dissatisfied with the two thirds sign up rate for a conference for Local Authority education directors – he wanted 100%.  He took the list of non-attendees and phoned them one after the other and asked “are you aware you are the only one not coming?”.  He got his 100% attendance.

Authority, and appeals to it, are an important force in persuasion and there is a cognitive bias in that we tend to respond positively to symbols of authority, which includes intangible symbols like reputation (they act as shortcuts to determining if someone, or something, is worth believing).

For me, one of the most telling examples from history of how people attempted to constrain the influence of the trappings of authority comes from the Roman Republic (this will come as no surprise to the people who know me…….).  The Dictator was a 6-month nominated post in times of crisis and, as such, was endowed with vast power.  The Roman constitution constrained the symbols of this authority through, for example, forbidding the Dictator from riding a horse within the city limits.  They recognised that, while the vast power was necessary to deal with whatever crisis they were nominated to face, it could, if not constrained, lead to the Dictator making himself a king.

So, finally, how do you protect yourself from unscrupulous people making use of these psychological weapons?  Cialdini offers protection tips at the end of each section, which all seem to have a common thread of trying to short-circuit the mental autopilot of your “System 1” brain.

For me, the best way to protect yourself from these biases is to consciously acknowledge what the other person is trying to do, even to the point of telling them what they are doing (this is remarkably similar to Dr Paul Furey’s advice about “calling out the emotion” to stop the amygdala’s automatic reaction).  By doing so, you bring your “System 2” brain into action and allows you to think through exceptions to the heuristic.


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