The Six Principles of Persuasion

Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion deep dives into factors that affect why we say “yes” when we are asked to do something we may not otherwise.

He first introduces the idea that there are certain “weapons of influence.” Some include:

  • Fixed-action patterns — Usually, they help us make mechanical, automatic decisions. For example, adding “because” increases the chance of the request being accepted.
  • Contrast principles — Showing potential customers the most expensive item first before working downwards in price leads to an increase in the amount spent, since the less expensive ones seem cheap in contrast.

In general, we can refer to six principles of persuasion:

  • Reciprocation: Be the first to give and make it personalized and unexpected— Reciprocation is based on the idea that we do not like to feel indebted. When someone does us a favor or gives us advice, even if we didn’t originally want their help, we want to pay them back. Companies use this idea all the time. This could mean giving out free samples or trials, encouraging customers to give back by paying for the real thing. Waiters increased tips by 23% if they gave customers one mint, walked away, then turned back around and said, “but for you nice people, here’s another.” Another way the principle of reciprocation is applied is through reject-and-retreat. Ever heard of the quote, “if you want a kitten, ask for a pony?”
  • Commitment and Consistency: Build up with voluntary, public commitments — We tend to remain consistent with our commitments because we feel pressured to and we want to justify our behavior and actions. If we make a post on Facebook saying we will be embarking on an epic 4-day backpacking trip around Yosemite, then we’ll be more likely to prepare for it and actually do it (the idea of forced accountability). How else does this come into play in terms of influence from others? Well, if we make small commitments (whether initially by choice, or pressured into it), we are more likely to make bigger ones. For example, a study observed 18% reduced missed appointments at health centers because they asked the patients rather than the staff to write down appointment details on the future appointment card.
  • Social Proof: get others to back you up — The idea that we’re influenced by what other people think and do. For instance, TV producers add laugh tracks to sitcoms, knowing people will be more likely to laugh if we hear others laughing. In donations and drives, organizations often add dummy donations beforehand, so people are more likely to donate seeing others have done so too.
  • Liking: Look for similarities and give genuine compliments — We’re more likely to comply with requests from those we like. Likeability rests similarity, compliments, attractiveness, contact, and cooperation. People in ads target potential customers by acting relatable. Similarly, in one study, 90% of those in the experimental group who were trying to negotiate first exchanged personal information and found similarities with the other party. This compares with only 55% who came to an agreement in the control group. Attractive people can more easily convince others to do things since we automatically attribute positive traits like talent, kindness, intelligence with attractiveness. When a salesman approaches and says “your friend recommended this for you,” it increases the chance the new person will make a purchase.
  • Authority: Emphasize what makes you credible — The greater the perceived authority, the more likely you are to comply with their requests. This comes into play when we interact with people like doctors, lawyers, business people, police officers, etc. Other factors that contribute to “authority” include dress, titles, and credentials. Authority psychologically invokes respect and is valued in society. Professors are perceived as taller by students than graduates. Therapists are able to get new patients by displaying medical diplomas on their walls.
  • Scarcity: Make your service seem limited and valuable by talking about its benefits, its uniqueness, and what customers stand to lose— Things seem more valuable when they are limited. For example, many companies will offer limited-time or limited-quantity deals on their products (think Black Friday!). Labels like “LAST ACT” make us act! What’s the psychology behind this? Well, as opportunities become less available, we lose freedom and we hate that. When British Airways announced in 2003 that they would no longer be operating the London — New York Concorde flight because it was no longer economically sustainable, sales jumped the very next day.