“Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” – Walter Lippmann

Lessons learnt: Everyday we are influenced through techniques that exploit reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. Influence can be misused. Knowing the techniques can help you fend against the negative effects of influence.

Have you ever been influenced to do something you did not fully support? Or have you looked back at a buying decision you have made and seen that this may not have been the best bang for your buck? If yes, then you are among the great majority (may I say 99.999%) of people who have been influenced by others. In many cases, we do not really know why we have made decisions and what has influenced us in making it. Robert Cialdini was determined to find out, and did, in Influence: The Power of Persuasion.

In his seminal book, he defines six techniques of persuasion.

  1. Reciprocity – exchanging goods/services for the (mutual) benefit
  2. Commitment and consistency – saying yes after you have said yes once (to a smaller request)
  3. Social proof – following your friends (the herd)
  4. Authority – obedience to people in authority positions
  5. Liking – being more easily influenced by someone you like
  6. Scarcity – something is more attractive if it is limited

Cialdini discovered the techniques by working with (or secretly infiltrating) organizations that specialize in persuasion (also called compliance experts). From his research he has come up with two conclusions: 1) the power of influence is very strong and 2) it is very easily abused. But before we go into depth on the dark side of influence, let’s consider how one of the techniques works.

Authority, the fourth technique, I think is the fascinating example of influence. It was made famous by the Milgram experiments in the 1906’s. Here, people were asked to give shocks to another participant in the study. They had to give a shock when the other participant (secretly a research assistant) wrongly answered a question. Psychologist and other experts expected the participants to only give mild shocks and for only psychopaths to complete the experiment (up to 450volts). The results, however, show that about 65% completed the experiment.

You may ask why? Where these people all psychopaths (nope, just normal students or business people)? Or maybe they did not know what the shocks did (they could see the research assistant acting as if he was in great pain)? No, it was the power of obedience to authority. Once the researchers changed the experiment leader from a lab coat to wearing normal clothes, the whole effect subsided and people quit the experiment much earlier.

On a lighter touch, authority still has power, even when it does not mean anything. Advertisers are willing to pay a lot for celebrities to promote their brand. But what does Britney Spears know about the qualities of Pepsi, or a TV doctor about [insert brand name] aspirin? Even I self have experienced the power of authority. When walking around in my suit (I did a board year for a study association), I could feel that people would be more open to my suggestions and bend to the power of authority.

“A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do.” – Robert Cialdini

In each chapter, Cialdini takes one of the techniques and explains the science behind it. At the same time, he uses real-life examples that are (too) familiar to us. What I love is that he ends each chapter with some tips and tricks to avoid being influenced by salespeople and the like. In the end, influence is a short-cut (a very useful one) that we humans use to prevent our brains from overloading (see also Thinking, Fast and Slow). In most cases we can use it to our advantage, now we have a way to prevent other people from abusing it.