Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion



I have just finished a book named “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert B. Cialdini in which the author discusses the psychological tendencies which we humans have evolved over millennia to give us short cut decision making capabilities so that we don’t sit mulling whether to fight or fly while a tiger bites our head off.

The obvious example is “Social Proof” and by this is meant to look to the behaviour of others as a guide to our own behaviour. In the wild, if all the humans around us suddenly drop what they are doing and run like hell you can bet it would be a bloody good idea for us to do the same. If our decision to run proves wrong we have lost nothing, if the decision was right we may have just saved our lives.

Mr. Cialdini explains how many of these tendencies have been identified by boffins and he outlines some of the extraordinary experiments which have taken place to prove the power of these tendencies. He goes on to explain how our sub-concious automatic responses are now being exploited by sales and marketing people to get us to do what they want without thinking. Often this is to part with our dosh but these days it might also be to give them personal information.

The tendencies he identifies are: Social Proof, Reciprocity, Commitment/consistency, Liking and Scarcity.

Many of us may think that Mr. Cialdini is Talking Bollocks and consider ourselves much too clever to fall for this sort of thing but cleverness has nothing to do with it. If we didn’t have these tendencies we would not be able to function and would spend most of our lives standing on street corners wondering what to do next………..You do spend your life standing on street corners wondering what to do next? Oh………..well then this book is not for you.

We are all human and so we can all be caught out by the techniques developed by those who would manipulate us. A lot of what Mr. Cialdini discusses may seem obvious once brought to our attention but it is the honing of these ideas into techniques and the relentless exploitation of these techniques when we are off guard that means we too often are taken in. Mr. Cialdini points out that these techniques can be used honestly to steer us toward a decision which may be in our best interests. For example a company may hire a legitimate expert to explain that their brand is identical to the best selling brand except much cheaper. This is useful. If we believe the expert then the company earn sales and we save ourselves some money.

However Mr. Cialdini is more interested in when these techniques are misused, for example, by employing fake experts who make misleading claims. In this world of ubiquitous advertising and one click purchases forewarned is forearmed (as Ganesh would say) and this is the theme behind Mr. Cialdini’s book. He advises us to educate ourselves about these techniques, recognise when they are being misused and then make a conscious decision to reject the automatic subliminal impulse to comply.

An example given is “reciprocation”. We all have a tendency to look favourably on anyone who gives us a gift and we tend to reciprocate. This plays out in the street when a charity worker giving us a flower and then talk about their charity. When the times comes for her to ask for a donation we are already well disposed toward her. Mr. Cialdini’s suggestion is that we consciously recognise that the gift giving was a ploy. We may want to donate but we should realise that we have just been tricked and so we should feel no obligation.

We have these tendencies all the time and our behaviour is, to a large extent, governed by them. Stand at a pedestrian crossing when the sign says Don’t Walk. When there is no traffic one brave soul will start to cross against the light and like lemmings everyone else follows.

Mr. Cialdini does have a tendency to labour his points and sometimes strays off into questionable examples but these sections can easily be skipped without diminishing one’s understanding of the ideas.

Here then are the techniques used to manipulate us according to Robert B. Cialdini.

Social Proof

A psychological phenomenon which all of us fall back on when we’re unsure of what to do. We look around and check the behaviour of others. Walk into a restaurant, want to get served? Do you walk straight up to the bar o wait for a waiter? If a few people are loitering around by the door you will probably wait with them.

Examples of misuse: TV commercials with unknown actors pretending to be members of the public answering questions about a toothpaste or detergent.


If someone has done you a favour you’re more likely to do something for them.

Examples of misuse: We’re given a flower in the street by a charity worker and then have difficulty telling them: NO! I will not donate.

Mr. Cialdini points out a fascinating variant on this technique in which a seller opens a discussion over a possible transaction by over asking and then falls back to a lesser request. Psychologically we feel as if he has given way. He has given us something by pulling back from his first demand and are therefore more likely to give in to a lesser demand which may have been his intention all along. The example is when a charity worker asks us if we’d like to sign up to pay a fixed amount every month. Most people do not sign up for this as it is too big an ask from a cold sale but when the guy asks for a one off donation we give them some money and hurry off feeling like we’ve had a lucky escape.


If we’re already publicly stated our opinion about something then we’re less likely to act against that opinion even privately. It’s thought that this is because consistency is a respected quality in people. We don’t like people who flip flop so we don’t want to be seen as ditherers, we’re strong, decisive leaders aren’t we?

Examples of misuse:  Surveys given by pretty young women that lead us into bragging that we earn lots of money, are unstoppable socialites, adore Italian cuisine and would grab the first chance to dine at the new Italian restaurant in town and then, lo and behold, the pretty young woman is selling tickets to the opening of a new Italian restaurant. How can we say no?


If the expert says it’s true then it probably is. We depend on authority every day. We depend on taking instructions from the earnest copper at a road accident when he guides us out of harm’s way or when our doctor tells us that lump needs to be X-rayed.

Examples of misuse:  Men in white coats in toothpaste commercials. Men in sharp suits trying to sell us anything.


If we like someone personally we build up a rapoor and are more inclined to do what they want.

Examples of misuse:  Salesmen asking about our families and using our first name too many times. Loveable rogue beggars in the street. Popular actors in TV commercials. Our tendency to buy when our friends run some kind of sales event such as a Tupperware party.


If something is scarce then we’re more likely to desire it. It’s reasonable. If we don’t get it now we may not get another chance.

Examples of misuse:  Closing Down sales in shops that last for years. Attending a house sale along with other punters. Auctions. Those shopping channel shows where they tell you they only have 100 in stock and then you see the counter ticking down as people buy.

Influence is accessible in style yet goes much deeper than my brief overview and covers various other aspects of marketing such as “perceptual contrast” and “because”. A must read for anyone suspicious of the hyper-comericalisastion of the 21st century.

The web site Take Back Your Brain has information on all sorts of marketing techniques and sections on each chapter of Mr. Cialdini’s book. To quote from the web site “Take Back Your Brain teaches you how to wrest your attention away from commercial marketing and other distractions and focus instead on achieving whatever is most important to you. How will you do this? By advertising to yourself!”

Worth a look.

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2 thoughts on “Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion

  1. Great post. You’ve given me a lot of excellent ideas to use in my upcoming marketing schemes for selling shampoo. Thanks!

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