Monday, May 30, 2011

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

This nifty best seller called Influence was penned by Arizona State psychologist Robert Cialdini. When I purchased the book from Amazon my intention was to learn more about rhetoric and why people are persuaded by some arguments but not others (my interest in rhetoric started last year when reading this). In reading the book this question was somewhat answered ---indeed, language is important---yet, there were large amounts written about how people are persuaded by actions or social cues rather than words. Overall the book was fascinating and I learned a lot.

The book begins by pointing out that thinking is tough work. Because we don't like to strain our brain we often use "rules of thumb" or make decisions in an almost automatic fashion. There are several tactics that can be employed to take advantage of our mental shortcuts. And, while these tactics do not twist our arms into compliance the author's research points out that they are extremely persuasive. These tactics form the basis of the chapters in the book and Cialdini provides numerous examples of these tactics in several contexts. Note, he does not investigate how economic incentives persuade people to action, but, that's mainly because that fruit hangs too low on the tree.

Cialdini first presents the reciprocity principle. This principle is extremely powerful and pervasive. Upon reading the chapter I began to see many examples of this principle at work. Essentially, Person A would like Person B to do some action. In order to induce Person B to do that action Person A provides a gift to Person B. Then, person B will feel obligated to do that action. Real world examples exist in politics (think log rolling and campaign finance), business (free samples or week trials), and with charitable giving (St. Judes Hospital for example provided my wife and I with address labels). Specifically, with charitable giving Cialdini spoke of his observation of the Hare Krishna society and their approach of handing out flowers to a passerby and then asking for money. My own personal observations included an environmental sustainability group on campus that provided free cookies but also sought signatures for a petition. Also, I recalled in both Atlanta and Chicago that homeless people would offer directions to different destinations. Upon finishing directions they would ask for money. There are some subtleties to this reciprocity principle but Cialdini notes it is very powerful because we can sense the asymmetry and want to act to make the interaction more symmetric.

The second persuasive technique presented is called commitment. When people are on the fence they do not feel a strong affinity for one product/person/idea, etc. more than another. However, once people take sides there is a strong connection to the choice which shapes our perception of the choice as "good" or "bad". In other words, we become more certain of something immediately after we choose it. To be uncertain means we chose wrongly. This chapter is chalk full of examples of commitment from POW camps and communist indoctrination to romantic relationships, charitable donations, and promises of toys to our children. In a myriad of contexts the simple statement of "Yes," is meaningful and seems to commit us to a particular course of action. For example, I utilized the commitment technique a couple weeks ago at the laundry mat. Cialdini cites a study showing that people are far more vigilant in guarding other people's possessions when someone asks, "Will you watch my stuff?" whereas when this simple question is not asked people are highly unlikely to intervene if somebody tried to steal another person's possessions. The simple response, "Yes,", even to a small commitment opens up the door to larger commitments. This chapter was very interesting and I couldn't possibly discuss it all here in this summary.

The third persuasive technique is "social proof". Initially I thought, "What is social proof?"; however, it is pretty straightforward. Social proof simply says that we are likely to "see an action as more appropriate when others are doing it". This principle is especially true in uncertain or ambiguous situations. Should we laugh at that joke? What kind of clothing should we wear to that event? Basically, what is appropriate? This technique can be more severe. Cialdini utilizes social proof to explain the Jonestown deaths and the well publicized death of Katherine Genovese. When Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple Cult, was certain to be under investigation for the murders of four people he called all of the believers to a mission of self-destruction: drink the strawberry poison. Cialdini reports, "The survivors claim that the great majority of the 910 people who died did so in an orderly, willful fashion." Why? Cialdini believes "social proof" helps clear up this mystery. Living in the strange country of Guyana (the cult had recently moved there from San Francisco) there was high uncertainty. Combine that uncertainty with some ultra compliant cult members and others followed suit. The Katherine Genovese story is one example in which many people witnessed a murder taking place but did not help. The common explanation was apathy amongst the citizenry (which I think could be quite valid). On the other hand, Cialdini notes that because nobody did anything everyone was uncertain about what to do. In uncertain situations we act based on the actions of those around us. I think more probable is that each person thought, "Someone else will call the police."

The fourth technique is immediately obvious: liking. We are persuaded to compliance by people we like. Moreover, we tend to like people who are attractive, people who flatter us, and people we view as being similar to ourselves. Cialdini discusses ways in which "liking" can be produced which include positive association. We have all heard the aphorism, "We are known by the company we keep" which was usually from our parents telling us about negative association. Cialdini writes, "As for positive associations, it is the compliance professionals that teach that lesson." Advertisers frequently use pretty girls or certain words that have nothing to do with their product but create a positive association. Anything to induce "liking".

Authority is the fifth technique which states that we are influenced by authority. The famous Milgram experiments are up close and personal in this regard (you can see a video about the Milgram experiments here). The Milgram experiments are one huge reason we have a Human Subjects Committee to protect people from research that can be psychologically harmful. But, they reveal something important: People respond to authority. We learn obedience to authority at an early age with parents, teachers, pastors, doctors, etc. guiding us or providing advice. Since they have been correct in the past we confer authority to the position.  We should respect these types of people and Cialdini claims that we often carry out their requests in an unthinking fashion. Besides providing a plethora of examples Cialdini also notes that: Titles, Clothes, and Trappings all act as signals to people about how to value someone else even in situations where they would seem to have no special expertise. For example, Cialdini reported a psychological study that showed people were 3.5 times more likely to jay walk when a man with a suit crossed than when the same man crossed in ordinary dress. Another example, researchers in San Francisco found that people are far less likely to honk at luxury cars than economy cars when they are slow to pull away from a green light.

The final so-called "weapon of influence" is scarcity. Cialdini begins this chapter with a quote from G.K. Chesterton, "The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost." When we are told we cannot have something (parental restriction, legal ban, etc.), or told "limited time only", or told to disregard certain information (jurors in a trial for example) our freedoms are being restricted. For example, star crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet may have had such heightened love because of the forbidden-ness of their courtship. Or, we want those things which seem scarce because we feel they must be of higher quality. If people generate a feeling of scarcity or restrict our choice set we are inclined to believe the thing we cannot have is a better choice. This has all kinds of implications for how we parent or what kinds of laws we make. To be honest, this is a difficult chapter that I am still digesting.  

Now, I will close this review and reveal my nerdiness. These weapons of influence remind me of an exchange from Star Wars. Before Obi Wan and Luke leave Tatooine and team up with Han Solo they must bypass Storm Troopers searching for the lost droids.

Stormtrooper: Let me see your identification. 
Obi-Wan: [with a small wave of his hand] You don't need to see his identification. 
Stormtrooper: We don't need to see his identification. 
Obi-Wan: These aren't the droids you're looking for. 
Stormtrooper: These aren't the droids we're looking for. 
Obi-Wan: He can go about his business. 
Stormtrooper: You can go about your business. 
Obi-Wan: Move along. 
Stormtrooper: Move along... move along. 

The weapons of influence are designed to elicit a "yes" response and work best when we are not paying attention. Cialdini closes each chapter with a section entitled "How to Say No". The key to saying "no" in most of these contexts is to understand why you feel compelled to say "yes". For example, the reciprocity principle illustrates that when we are given a gift we feel compelled to reciprocate. Yet, we must think about the purpose of the gift. Then, we may realize that it wasn't a "gift" at all. Or, in the case of authority we must ask whether they are a relevant authority or not. Also, we must ask whether they are acting out of their personal benefit. But, mainly the advice of these sections is simple: pay attention. Because people often function on a "click-whir" level we can be bypassed or conned like Storm Troopers. Our awareness is important.

There is no problem in studying compliance. However, this information can obviously be abused and utilized to manipulate people. In fact, because much of the discourse were studies motivated by real world examples these weapons of influence are already being used. When is it ethical to use such influencers (for example I think my use of the commitment principle was fine at the laundry mat)?

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