The Psychology of Persuasion


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  • ISBN: 978-0061241895
  • My Rating: 8/10

Influence is a book about how we get influenced by others to act in certain ways.

I found Influence a fascinating book with a good mix of anecdotes and research, though it is a bit repetitive. In some of the examples I recognized myself and thanks to the book I got explanations on why I acted in a certain way in those situations. And hopefully, I will be better prepared for similar situations in the future.

My notes

Weapons of Influence

Automatic, stereotyped behavior is prevalent in much of human action, because in many cases it is the most efficient form of behavior, and in other cases it is simply necessary. 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. We can't be expected to recognize and analyze all the aspects in each person, event, and situation we encounter in even one day. We haven't the time, energy, or capacity for it. Instead, we must very often use our stereotypes, our rules of thumb to classify things according to a few key features and then to respond mindlessly when one or another of these trigger features is present.

There is a principle in human perception, the contrast principle, that affects the way we see the difference between two things that are presented one after another. Simply put, if the second item is fairly different from the first, we will tend to see it as more different than it actually is. So if we lift a light object first and then lift a heavy object, we will estimate the second object to be heavier than if we had lifted it without first trying the light one.

The great advantage of this principle [the contrast principle] is not only that it works but also that it is virtually undetectable. Those who employ it can cash in on its influence without any appearance of having structured the situation in their favor.

It is much more profitable for salespeople to present the expensive item first, not only because to fail to do so will lose the influence of the contrast principle; to fail to do so will also cause the principle to work actively against them. Presenting an inexpensive product first and following it with an expensive one will cause the expensive item to seem even more costly as a result – hardly a desirable consequence for most sales organizations.

Reciprocation: The Old Give and Take ... and Take

The rule for reciprocation says that we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us.

Each of us has been taught to live up to the rule, and each of us knows about the social sanctions and derision applied to anyone who violates it. The labels we assign to such a person are loaded with negativity – moocher, ingrate, welsher. 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.

People we might ordinarily dislike – unsavory or unwelcome sales operators, disagreeable acquaintances, representatives of strange or unpopular organizations – can greatly increase the chance that we will do what they wish merely by providing us with a small favor prior to their request.

Although the obligation to repay constitutes the essence of the reciprocity rule, it is the obligation to receive that makes the rule so easy to exploit. The obligation to receive reduces our ability to choose whom we wish to be indebted to and puts that power in the hands of others.

We are trained from childhood to chafe, emotionally, under the saddle of obligation. For this reason alone, then, we may be willing to agree to perform a larger favor than we received, merely to relieve ourselves of the psychological burden of debt.

Another consequence of the rule is an obligation to make a concession to someone who has made a concession to us.

Because the rule for reciprocation governs the compromise process, it is possible to use an initial concession as part of a highly effective compliance technique. The technique is a simple one that we can call the rejection-then-retreat technique. Suppose you want me to agree to a certain request. One way to increase your chances would be first to make a larger request of me, one that I will most likely turn down. Then, after I have refused, you would make the smaller request that you were really interested in all along. Provided that you have structured your requests skillfully, I should view your second request as a concession to me and should feel inclined to respond with a concession of my own, the only one I would have immediately open to me – compliance with your second request.

[...] if the first set of demands is so extreme as to be seen as unreasonable, the tactic backfires. In such cases, the party who has made the extreme first request is not seen to be bargaining in good faith. Any subsequent retreat from that wholly unrealistic initial position is not viewed as a genuine concession and thus is not reciprocated. The truly gifted negotiator, then, is one whose initial position is exaggerated enough to allow for a series of reciprocal concessions that will yield a desirable final offer from the opponent, yet is not so outlandish as to be seen as illegitimate from the start.

Invariably declining the requester's initial offer of a favor or sacrifice works better in theory than in practice. The major problem is that when it is first presented, it is difficult to know whether such an offer is honest or whether it is the initial step in an exploitation attempt. If we always assume the worst, it would not be possible to receive the benefits of any legitimate favors or concessions offered by individuals who had no intention of exploiting the reciprocity rule.

Once we have determined that his initial offer was not a favor but a compliance tactic, we need only react to it accordingly to be free of its influence. As long as we perceive and define his action as a compliance device instead of a favor, he no longer has the reciprocation rule as an ally: The rule says that favors are to be met with favors; it does not require that tricks be met with favors.

Commitment and Consistency

Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.

[...] it is important to recognize that in most circumstances consistency is valued and adaptive. Inconsistency is commonly thought to be an undesirable personality trait. 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 is at the heart of logic, rationality, stability, and honesty.

Once we have made up our minds about an issue, stubborn consistency allows us a very appealing luxury: We really don't have to think hard about the issue anymore. We don't have to sift through the blizzard of information we encounter every day to identify relevant facts; we don't have to expend the mental energy to weigh the pros and cons; we don't have to make any further tough decisions. Instead, we only need to believe, say, or do whatever is consistent with our earlier decision.

Sometimes it is not the effort of hard, cognitive work that makes us shirk thoughtful activity, but the harsh consequences of that activity. Sometimes it is the cursedly clear and unwelcome set of answers provided by straight thinking that makes us mental slackers. There are certain disturbing things we simply would rather not realize. Because it is a preprogrammed and mindless method of responding, automatic consistency can supply a safe hiding place from those troubling realizations.

If I can get you to make a commitment (that is, to take a stand, to go on record), I will have set the stage for your automatic and ill-considered consistency with that earlier commitment. Once a stand is taken, there is a natural tendency to behave in ways that are stubbornly consistent with the stand.

[...] be very careful about agreeing to trivial requests. Such an agreement can not only increase our compliance with very similar, much larger requests, it can also make us more willing to perform a variety of larger favors that are only remotely connected to the little one we did earlier.

Public commitments tend to be lasting commitments. [...] Whenever one takes a stand that is visible to others, there arises a drive to maintain that stand in order to look like a consistent person.

[...] the more effort that goes into a commitment, the greater is its ability to influence the attitudes of the person who made it.

Social scientists have determined that we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressures. A large reward is one such external pressure. It may get us to perform a certain action, but it won't get us to accept inner responsibility for the act. Consequently, we won't feel committed to it. The same is true of a strong threat; it may motivate immediate compliance, but it is unlikely to produce long-term commitment.

Social Proof: Truths Are Us

Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.

Walter Lippmann

The principle of social proof states that one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. The principle applies especially to the way we decide what constitutes correct behavior. We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it.

The tendency to see an action as more appropriate when others are doing it normally works quite well. As a rule, we will make fewer mistakes by acting in accord with social evidence than contrary to it. Usually, when a lot of people are doing something, it is the right thing to do.

The greater the number of people who find any idea correct, the more the idea will be correct.

In general, when we are unsure of ourselves, when the situation is unclear or ambiguous, when uncertainty reigns, we are most likely to look to and accept the actions of others as correct.

[...] groups of bystanders fail to help because the bystanders are unsure rather than unkind. They don't help because they are unsure of whether an emergency actually exists and whether they are responsible for taking action. When they are sure of their responsibilities for intervening in a clear emergency, people are exceedingly responsive.

In general, your best strategy when in need of emergency help is to reduce the uncertainties of those around you concerning your condition and their responsibilities. Be as precise as possible about your need for aid. Do not allow bystanders to come to their own conclusions because, especially in a crowd, the principle of social proof and the consequent pluralistic ignorance effect might well cause them to view your situation as a nonemergency. And request assistance of a single individual from the group of onlookers. Fight the natural tendency to make a general request for help. Pick out one person and assign the task to that individual. Otherwise, it is too easy for everyone in the crowd to assume that someone else should help, will help, or has helped.

The principle of social proof operates most powerfully when we are observing the behavior of people just like us. It is the conduct of such people that gives us the greatest insight into what constitutes correct behavior for ourselves. Therefore we are more inclined to follow the lead of a similar individual than a dissimilar one.

Liking: The Friendly Thief

A halo effect occurs when one positive characteristic of a person dominates the way that person is viewed by others. [...] physical attractiveness is often such a characteristic.

[...] good-looking people enjoy an enormous social advantage in our culture. They are better liked, more persuasive, more frequently helped, and seen as possessing better personality traits and intellectual capacities.

We like people who are similar to us. This fact seems to hold true whether the similarity is in the area of opinions, personality traits, background, or life-style. Consequently, those who wish to be liked in order to increase our compliance can accomplish that purpose by appearing similar to us in any of a wide variety of ways.

We are phenomenal suckers for flattery. Although there are limits to our gullibility – especially when we can be sure that the flatterer is trying to manipulate us – we tend, as a rule, to believe praise and to like those who provide it, oftentimes when it is clearly false.

Although the familiarity produced by contact usually leads to greater liking, the opposite occurs if the contact carries distasteful experiences with it.

There is a natural human tendency to dislike a person who brings us unpleasant information, even when that person did not cause the bad news. The simple association with it is enough to stimulate our dislike.

People do assume that we have the same personality traits as our friends.

All things being equal, you root for your own sex, your own culture, your own locality... and what you want to prove is that you are better than the other person. Whomever you root for represents you; and when he wins, you win.

Isaac Asimov

[...] it is not when we have a strong feeling of recognized personal accomplishment that we will seek to bask in reflected glory. Instead, it will be when prestige (both public and private) is low that we will be intent upon using the successes of associated others to help restore image.

By concentrating our attention on the effect rather than the causes, we can avoid the laborious, nearly impossible task of trying to detect and deflect the many psychological influences on liking. Instead, we have to be sensitive to only one thing related to liking in our contacts with compliance practitioners: the feeling that we have come to like the practitioner more quickly or more deeply than we would have expected. Once we notice this feeling, we will have been tipped off that there is probably some tactic being used, and we can start taking the necessary countermeasures.

Authority: Directed Deference

We are often as vulnerable to the symbols of authority as to the substance.

Titles are simultaneously the most difficult and the easiest symbols of authority to acquire. To earn one normally takes years of work and achievement. Yet it is possible for somebody who has put in none of this effort to adopt the mere label and receive a kind of automatic deference.

A second kind of authority symbol that can trigger our mechanical compliance is clothing. Though more tangible than a title, the cloak of authority is every bit as fakable.

Less blatant in its connotation than a uniform, but nonetheless effective, is another kind of attire that has traditionally bespoken authority status in our culture: the well-tailored business suit. It, too, can evoke a telling form of deference from total strangers.

Scarcity: The Rule of the Few

The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.

G. K. Chesterton

People seem to be more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value.

[...] people frequently find themselves doing what they wouldn't particularly care to do simply because the time to do so is shrinking.

A variant of the deadline tactic is much favored by some face-to-face, high-pressure sellers because it carries the purest form of decision deadline: right now. Customers are often told that unless they make an immediate decision to buy, they will have to purchase the item at a higher price or they will be unable to purchase it at all.

As opportunities become less available, we lose freedoms; and we hate to lose the freedoms we already have. This desire to preserve our established prerogatives is the centerpiece of psychological reactance theory [...]. According to the theory, whenever free choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us desire them (as well as the goods and services associated with them) significantly more than previously. So when increasing scarcity – or anything else – 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.

When our freedom to have something is limited, the item becomes less available, and we experience an increased desire for it. However, we rarely recognize that psychological reactance has caused us to want the item more; all we know is that we want it. Still, we need to make sense of our desire for the item, so we begin to assign it positive qualities to justify the desire. After all, it is natural to suppose that if one feels drawn to something, it is because of the merit of the thing.

The intriguing thing about the effects of censoring information is not that audience members want to have the information more than they did before; that seems natural. Rather, it is that they come to believe in the information more, even though they haven't received it.

Freedoms once granted will not be relinquished without a fight.

Not only do we want the same item more when it is scarce, we want it most when we are in competition for it.

The joy is not in experiencing a scarce commodity but in possessing it.


Very often in making a decision about someone or something, we don't use all the relevant available information; we use, instead, only a single, highly representative piece of the total. And an isolated piece of information, even though it normally counsels us correctly, can lead us to clearly stupid mistakes – mistakes that, when exploited by clever others, leave us looking silly or worse.