Influence

“Influence: the psychology of persuasion”
By Robert Cialdini (A summary) Cialdini outlines how human beings usually respond, without thought, to an array of triggers -and provides many examples of how these triggers are used by marketers, con men and political advocates. He calls the triggers "weapons of influence." Cialdini, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, took up the study of weapons of influence because he is a natural patsy.
“For as long as I can recall, I've been an easy mark for the pitches of peddlers, fund-raisers, and operators of one sort or another. True, only some of these people had dishonorable motives. The others -- representatives of certain charitable agencies, for instance -- have had the best of intentions. ...[T]his long-standing status as sucker accounts for my interest in compliance: just what are the factors that cause one person to say yes to another person?”

And so, like the good academic that he is, he did some research and created a matrix of categories to explain why we can be gulled into doing things we might not choose if we thought about it. He first explains both animals and humans do have automatic responses to triggering events or sounds that can seem pretty irrational. For example, a male robin defending its territory will attack an inanimate clump of robin-redbreast feathers. However, he will ignore a full-size, lifelike, stuffed robin, if the breast feathers are replaced by ones that are not red. A very precise trigger is required to set off the behavior; and, if the trigger is present, the behavior follows, even though there is not even a facsimile of a bird. We humans follow similar patterns. Cialdini describes an experiment in which students were asked to try to cut into a line at a photocopy machine. If they simply asked to cut ahead with no reason given, they were accommodated 60 percent of the time. If they asked to cut in "because I am in a rush," they got a "yes" 94 percent of the time. But, incredibly, if they asked to cut in "because I have to make some copies," they got agreement 93 percent of the time. That is, the magic word was "because" -- the reason given did not have to be even semi-rational. Clearly some kind of conditioned response had been triggered. (Cialidini calls these occasions of compliance click, whirr! moments, referring to the sounds of a tape deck. Since tape decks are increasingly rare, I'm going to simply refer to them as compliance triggers.) When we encounter a compliance trigger, we will probably do what we are conditioned to do without thinking about it. This is not a bad thing. We developed these triggers because they serve useful social functions. Mostly, they actually help us move through the day more smoothly than if we had to think about all our actions. You and I exist in an extraordinarily complicated stimulus environment, easily the most rapidly moving and complex that has ever existed on this planet. To deal with it, we need shortcuts. ... Without [shortcuts] we would stand frozen -- cataloging, appraising, and calibrating -- as the time for action sped by and away. Obviously people who want to influence our behavior study and use compliance triggers constantly. Those who use them well get an additional benefit:

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Even the victims themselves tend to see their compliance as determined by the action of natural forces rather than by the designs of the person who profits from that compliance. So what are these triggers? Here is Cialdini's list: 1. Reciprocation. People are more willing to comply with requests (for favors, services, information, concessions, etc.) from those who have provided such things first. 2. Commitment/Consistency. People are more willing to be moved in a particular direction if they see it as consistent with an existing commitment. 3. Authority. People are more willing to follow the directions or recommendations of a communicator to whom they attribute relevant authority or expertise. 4. Social Validation. People are more willing to take a recommended action if they see evidence that many others, especially similar others, are taking it. 5. Scarcity. People find objects and opportunities more attractive to the degree that they are scarce, rare, or dwindling in availability. 6. Liking/Friendship. People prefer to say yes to those they know and like.

Reciprocation If someone does a favor for you, you'll probably try to return it. You'll feel obliged. As an experiment, a behavioral researcher sent Christmas cards to a group of complete strangers. Back came a flood of reciprocating cards, though none of the people sending the cards knew the researcher. The rule of reciprocity is a very strong compliance trigger. Professor Cialdini insists:
“[H]uman societies derive a truly significant competitive advantage from the reciprocity rule, and consequently they make sure their members are trained to comply with and believe in it. Each of us has been taught to live up to the rule and each of us knows about the social sanctions. . . applied to anyone who violates it. ... Because there is general distaste for those who take and make no effort to give in return, we will often go to great lengths to avoid being considered one of their number.”

When we feel indebted, we'll act against our own interests to escape our disapproval of ourselves for breaking the reciprocity rule. We feel obligated to give back even if we never ask for the favor. That is, someone else can initiate a relationship of obligation without our asking for it. Charities that send us free labels printed with our names and addresses count on this. So do homeless people who wash our car windows while we fill our gas tanks. We will sometimes try to stop the disquieting tickle caused by indebtedness by doing foolish or dangerous things, such as lending our cars to people we know are bad drivers. (I know; I lost a car that way.) Skilled negotiators use the reciprocity trigger to get their way. Their opening move may be to try to sell you a very expensive product or ask for an oversize sum as a donation; when they back down from their initial gambit, you feel you have been given a favor and become willing to spend more than you ever planned. When the reciprocity trigger sends you down this compliance path a couple of remarkable things follow, both counterintuitive: 1) although you've been manipulated, you feel you had a responsible part in making the agreement and want to fulfill it; and 2) you are likely to get satisfaction from whatever you agreed to.

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Though Ciardini goes to considerable length to show that we are all sometimes patsies for the reciprocation trigger, he says we don't have to let automatic response rule our actions. The answer is not only to follow our contrarian instincts, to throw away the unwanted address labels or to push away the homeless window washer. It is also to recognize the offerings, address labels, cleaner windows, or approval of our status as what they are: efforts to create obligation.
“To engage in this sort of arrangement with another is not to be exploited by that person through the rule for reciprocation. Quite the contrary, it is to participate fairly in the 'honored network of obligation' that has served us so well, both individually and societally, since the dawn of humanity. However, if the initial favor turns out to be a device, a trick, an artifice designed specifically to stimulate our compliance with a larger return favor, that is a different story. Our partner is not a benefactor but a profiteer.”

That is, insincere favors create no obligation. Sadly, surrounded by so many con games, we all must become more and more practiced at making that crucial distinction. This is not good for us, but neither is being taken for suckers by our better instincts. Commitment and Consistency Professor Cialdini calls these compliance triggers "the hobgoblins of the mind." They are powerful motivators.
“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. ... In most circumstances, consistency is valued and adaptive. ...The person whose beliefs, words, and deeds don't match may be seen as indecisive, confused, two-faced, or even mentally ill. On the other side, a high degree of consistency is normally associated with personal and intellectual strength.”

It's pretty easy to figure out which side of that dichotomy we want to put ourselves on. But automatic consistency can be a trap. Once we've adopted an opinion, we'll come up with reasons to stay with it rather than risk painful re-evaluation. To take the obvious example, liberals marvel at the loyalty of Bush supporters as their guy blunders from failure to criminality. But how many of us, when John Kerry's nomination became a fact, struggled to believe that he was not just some boring establishment stiff? As anyone who has ever mobilized people for action knows, the consistency trigger begins to work after people make an initial commitment. Cialdini reports some ingenious experiments that support this. I particularly enjoyed the story of the folks living in an affluent neighborhood who were set up by an enterprising researcher. He sent students door to door, asking that they put up a 3"x3" sticker that read "Be a safe driver." Most did. Three weeks later he sent back another student with a different task -- would they place a large public service billboard on their lawns? "To get an idea of just how the sign would look, they were shown a photograph depicting an attractive house, the view of which was almost completely obscured by a very large, poorly lettered sign reading DRIVE CAREFULLY." Fully 76 percent of those who had put up the sticker agreed to have the thing on their lawns! Putting up the sticker had implanted the idea of themselves as people who were active campaigners for public good and they now eagerly complied to preserve that self image. Cialdini is frightened by the power that the weapons of consistency and commitment can exercise.

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“It scares me enough that I am rarely willing to sign a petition anymore, even for a position I support. Such an action has the potential to influence not only my future behavior, but also my self-image in ways I may not want. And once a person's self-image is altered, all sorts of subtle advantages become available to someone who wants to exploit that new image.”

I think this insight somewhat dates this book; since the 1960s when this behavioral research was done, many of us have become much more reluctant to make the small commitment that can trap us into a larger one. One obvious example is that many less of us will respond to pollsters at all. We fear, with some reason, that we are just being pushed. (Interestingly, Cialdini reports research that showed that just getting a statement from interviewees that they would cast a ballot measurably raised the likelihood they would subsequently vote.) Authority Cialdini summarizes what he is his talking about like this:

Authority. People are more willing to follow the directions or recommendations of a communicator to whom they attribute relevant authority or expertise.

This author is clearly distressed by the consequences when people follow authority by rote. He describes at length the notorious Milgram experiment which revealed that most randomly selected subjects would "harm" another person if urged on by an authority. He also looks at the case of the train crew that followed an order to mow down protester Brian Willson, cutting off his legs -- and then sued Willson for causing them mental anguish by failing to get out of the way. But as with all the compliance triggers, this one exists because it serves useful social purposes:
“Conforming to the dictates of authority figures has always had genuine practical advantages....Early on, these people (for example, parents, teachers) knew more than we did, and we found their advice beneficial....As adults, the same benefits persist for the same reasons, though the authority figures now appear as employers, judges, and government leaders. Because their positions speak of superior access to information and power, it makes great sense to comply with the wishes of properly constituted authorities. It makes so much sense, in fact, that we often do so when it makes no sense at all.”

Cialdini's proposed counterweight to the authority compliance trigger is simple: we need to learn to ask ourselves: "is this authority truly an expert?" The professor then suggests a second question, "how truthful can we expect the expert to be here?" Is a compliance professional/salesman/expert/authority aiming to trick us? Social Validation We're all suckers some of the time. And many of those times it happens because we feel uncertain, look around, see what others are doing, and do the same. Cialdini reminds us that looking for what he calls "social validation" or "social proof" may lead us astray, but as with all the compliance triggers he discusses, this instinct can be helpful to us in times of uncertainty.
“Usually, when a lot of people are doing something, it is the right thing to do. ...the problem comes when we begin responding to social proof in such a mindless and reflexive fashion that we can be fooled by partial or fake evidence.”

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His examples of minor occasions when we are manipulated by social validation includes joining in with sitcom laugh tracks, being moved to tip by the bartender who displays a jar full of dollars, and emulating the lists of donors thanked during pledge drives. Following our instinct to base our behavior on social proof can however lead to genuinely bad consequences. Cialdini discusses the notorious case of the 1964 murder of Catherine Genovese: "for more than half an hour, thirty eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks." Why didn't anyone intervene or at least call the police? Newspapers agonized over the question for weeks, accusing urban society of becoming newly "cold" or apathetic. Social psychologists propose a different explanation: Genovese got no help because, in a confusing situation, all thirty eight witness thought first, someone else is doing something, and second, since I don't see or hear others intervening, I must be misconstruing that woman's screams, she must not need help. The search for social validation in an unfamiliar and threatening situation froze the observers. Cialdini describes finding himself at risk in such a situation: after an auto accident in a busy intersection in which both he and the other driver were injured, cars began to simply pull around their stopped vehicles. He roused himself, although bloody and disoriented, to point to particular drivers saying "You! Call the police;" "You! Call an ambulance." etc. He reports that "not only was [their] help rapid and solicitous, it was infectious. After drivers entering the intersection from the other direction saw cars stopping for me, they stopped and began tending the other driver." Understanding how to use the instinct most of us have to do what we see others doing got the professor and the other driver to the hospital promptly. Following the prompting of social proof can also get people killed. Cialdini ascribes the willingness of 910 members of the Reverend Jim Jones' Peoples Temple to commit mass suicide in its Guyana colony in 1978 to their isolation in an environment where their only mooring was the behavior of other members. Scarcity When Cialdini names "scarcity" a weapon of influence, a compliance trigger, he is not talking about starvation. He is referring to the fact for most of us, most of the time, "opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited." What is going on? As with the other weapons of influence, we're applying shortcut reasoning to avoid having to expend energy making choices:
“...Because we know that the things that are difficult to possess are typically better than those that are easy to possess, we can often use an item's availability to help us quickly and correctly decide on its quality. ... [Additionally,] as opportunities become less available, we lose freedoms; and we hate to lose the freedoms we already have....So, when increasing scarcity...interferes with our prior access to some item, we will react against the interference by wanting and trying to possess the item more than before.”

The notion embedded in this that "freedom" equals the "opportunity to possess" certainly describes our capitalist culture of greed and maximized consumption of material goods. Cialdini insists he is describing a behavior pattern that governs our actions well beyond getting and

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spending. He gives two interesting examples of how laws regulating people's behavior inspire scarcitytriggered responses. The city of Kennesaw, Georgia, passed an ordinance requiring residents to own a gun; local gun sales soared. But the buyers were not residents! They were out-of-towners attracted by the publicity about the law. Kennesaw citizens who had opposed the gun law remained quietly, but Cialdini says "massively," noncompliant. They weren't going to let some City Council make them own a gun. Likewise, when Miami banned sale and possession of phosphate-based detergents, residents took to smuggling in supplies and hoarding. When their attitudes were surveyed and compared with those of people in Tampa where phosphate products were both readily available and legal, Miami residents also thought that phosphate containing products were gentler, more effective in cold water, better whiteners, more powerful on stains, and poured better.

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