This week, I read Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert B. Cialdini. If you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend reading this book.

Cialdini presents six universal principles of influence: reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, scarcity.

In this book, based on decades of evidence-based and rigorous research, Cialdini shows us numerous fascinating stories and experiments, illustrating how the influence principles could be used effectively and in some cases how we might be exploited by these tactics.

The footnotes and the bibliography (more than a dozen pages long) are also great extra resources for the very eager mind. 

On commitment and consistency: 

…Obviously, horse-race bettors are not alone in their willingness to believe in the correctness of a difficult choice, once made. Indeed, 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….The drive to be and look consistent constitutes a highly potent weapon of social influence, often causing us to act in ways that are clearly contrary to our own best interests. 

…Automatic consistency…offers us a way to evade the rigors of continuing thought. And as Sir Joshua Reynolds noted, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.” With our consistency tapes operating, then, we can go about our happiness happily excused from the toil of having to think too much. 

An example of getting out of the commitment and consistency trap: 

You see, I recognize what you has gone on here. I know that your story about doing a survey was just a pretext for getting people to tell you how often they go out and that, under those circumstances, there is a natural tendency to exaggerate. I also realize that  your bosses selected you for this job because of your physical attractiveness and told you to wear clothes showing a lot of your resilient body tissue because a pretty, scantily clad woman is likely to get men to brag about what swingers they are in order to impress her. So I’m not interested in your entertainment club because of what Emerson said about foolish consistency and hobgoblins of the mind…Look. What I told you during your fake survey doesn’t matter. I refuse to allow myself to be locked into a mechanical sequence of commitment and consistency when I know it’s wrongheaded.

If desired, we can also choose to recognise the consistency trap and then silently walk away from it. To name it by its name and expose the tactics might appear to be confrontational, but could help to address it once and for all with the person laying the trap. 

On Social Proof 

When all think alike, no one thinks very much. – Walter Lippmann

Once again we can see that social proof is most powerful for those who feel unfamiliar or unsure in a specific situation and who, consequently, must look outside of themselves for evidence of how best to behave there. 

…The way we respond to social proof. First, we seem to assume that if a lot of people are doing the same thing, they must know something we don’t. Especially when we are uncertain, we are willing to place an enormous amount of trust in the collective knowledge of the crowd. Second, quite frequently the crowd is mistaken because they are not acting on the basis of any superior information but are reacting, themselves, to the principle of social proof. 

On Scarcity

The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost. – G. K. Chesterton

…A valuable lesson for would-be rulers: When it comes to freedoms, it is more dangerous to have given for a while than never to have given at all. The problem for a government that seeks to improve the political and economic status of a traditionally oppressed group is that, in so doing, it establishes freedoms for the  group where none existed before. And should these now established freedoms become less available, there will be an especially hot variety of hell to pay. 

Freedom once granted will not be relinquished without a fight. The lesson applies as well to the politics of family as country. The parent who grants privileges or enforces rules erratically invites rebelliousness by unwittingly establishing freedom for the child.

Extreme caution is advised whenever we encounter the devilish construction of scarcity plus rivalry. 

Knowing the causes and workings of scarcity pressure may not be sufficient to protect us from them because of knowing is a cognitive thing, and cognitive processes are suppressed by our emotional reaction to scarcity. In  fact, this may be the reason for the great effectiveness of scarcity tactics. When they are employed properly, our first line of defense against foolish behavior – a thoughtful analysis of the situation – becomes less likely….The joy is not in experiencing a scarce commodity but in possessing it. It is important that we not confuse the two. Whenever we confront the scarcity pressures surrounding some item, we must also confront the question of what it is we want from the item. If the answer is that we want the thing for the social, economic, or psychological benefits of possessing something rare, then fine; scarcity pressures will give us a good indication of how much we would want to pay  for it – the less available it is, the more valuable to us it will be. But very often we don’t want a thing purely for the sake of owning it. We want it, instead, for its utility value; we want to eat it or drink it or touch it or hear it or drive it or otherwise use it. In such cases it is vital to remember that scarce things do not taste or feel or sound or ride or work any better because of their limited availability. 

On shortcuts that assist us navigate the complex modern world flooded with information:

Still, we have our capacity limitations, too; and for the sake of efficiency, we must sometimes retreat from the time consuming, sophisicated, fully informed brand of decision making to a more automatic, primitive, single-feature type of responding. For instance, in deciding whether to say yes or no to a requester, it is clear that we frequently pay attention to but one piece of the relevant information in the situation. We have been exploring several of the most popular of the single pieces of information that we use to prompt our compliance decisions. THey are the most popular prompts precisely  because they are the most reliable ones, those that normally point us toward the correct choice. This is why we employ the factors of reciprocation, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity so often and so automatically in making our compliance decisions. Each, by itself, provides a highly reliable cue as to when we will be better off saying yes than no. 

With the sophisticated mental apparatus we have used to build world eminence  as a species, we have created an environment so complex, fast-paced, and information-laden that we must increasingly deal with it in the fashion of the animals we long ago transcended…Unlikely the animals, whose cognitive powers have always been relatively deficient, we have created our own deficiency by constructing a radically more complex world. But the consequence of our new deficiency is  the same as that of the animals’ long-standing one. When making a decision, we will less frequently enjoy the luxury of a fully considered analysis of the total situation but will revert increasingly to a focus on a single, usually reliable feature of it. 

At the end of the book, the author writes about defending our cognitive shortcuts and a call-for-action: 

…I actively advocate such belligerent actions because in a way I am at war with the exploiters – we all are. It is important to recognize, however, that their motive for profit is not the cause for hostilities; that motive, after all, is something we each share to an extent. The real treachery, and the thing we cannot tolerate, is any attempt  to make their profit in a way that threatens the reliability of our shortcuts. The blitz of modern daily life demands that we have faithful shortcuts, sound rules of thumb to handle it all. These are not luxuries any longer; they are out-and-out necessities that figure to become increasingly vital as the pulse of daily life quickens. This is why we should want to retaliate whenever we see someone betraying one of our rules of thumb for profit. We want that rule to be as effective as possible. But  to the degree that its fitness for duty is regularly undercut by the tricks of a profiteer, we naturally will use it less and will be less able to cope efficiently with the decisional burdens of our day. We cannot allow that without a fight. The stakes have gotten too high.