Whether you are a fundraising professional hoping to get a large donation from a skeptical prospect, a manager needing employee buy-in for a large project, or a parent trying to get his two year old off to bed, the ability to get a “yes” may seem to require a bit of luck.
However, according to Robert B. Cialdini, Ph. D., president of Influence At Work, an international training and consulting company based on the ethical business applications of the science of influence, the difference between getting a “yes” or a “no” response may lie in the science of psychology and the way that you use it. By understanding the science behind the power of influence, and learning how to utilize that science, you can easily apply its power to achieving both your personal and professional goals.
With his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion Cialdini uses research, human studies, and science to pinpoint the six psychological principles — Reciprocation, Commitment and Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, Authority, and Scarcity — that direct human behavior and compliance. He then delves further into these principles and shows you how the ethical application of each one can help you increase the likelihood of receiving a “yes” response to almost any request.
The science, and power, behind these six principles of ethical persuasion lies in their ability to produce an automatic response from people. The principles, when applied correctly, influence the individual to respond affirmatively without first giving the situation any in-depth thought.
According to Cialdini, this automatic response is part social conditioning, part learned behavior, and part a timesaving defense. When faced with a decision we often rely on shortcuts — or cues — that clue us in on whether it would be more prudent to say yes or no. We rely on these cues in order to avoid the time, effort, and complex thought processing that are needed to accurately analyze the situation and make a truly informed decision. It is by understanding these shortcuts and the science of persuasion that you can use these cues to influence people to act according to your wishes.
The first principle – Reciprocation – revolves around the basic social rule: if someone does us a favor, we are obligated to do one for him in return.
The second principle – Commitment and Consistency – gets its power from our desire to stand behind any previous decisions we have made: if we tell a salesman that we like horror films, then we must purchase a ticket when asked to do so in order to stand behind our previous statement.
Principle three – Social Proof – preys on our belief that if others are doing it, “it” must be the correct thing to do: if we see others buying, we subconsciously feel the need to buy also.
In principle four – Liking – the power to receive a favorable answer lies in the relationship with the target. According to Cialdini’s research people are more likely to purchase something from someone they know and like.
Principle five – Authority – uses our automatic belief that people in authority know better and are actively looking out for our best interests.
Finally, principle six – Scarcity – preys on our fear of missing out or on losing our chance at something. A regular box of writing pens becomes very coveted if the purchaser is lead to believe that these pens are the last ones of their kind. The same is true if there are plenty of pens but they will only be this inexpensive for a very short period of time.
If you are ready to learn how to harness the power of influence, read on and discover how each of the principles of ethical persuasion can make your professional and personal life easier and more successful.
Principle One: Reciprocation
The principle of reciprocation relies on automatic behavior brought on by social conditioning. Humans long to be accepted by others and deemed as good people. Good people, those with morals and values, always return a favor. So if you give something to a person he will feel obligated to repay the debt.
For example, if a salesperson approaches a customer and begins his pitch by pointing out all of the benefits of buying a one-year car wash package, he may eventually receive a positive response to purchase. However, if he approaches the customer and first offers a free car wash, using the time that the car is being cleaned to explain the benefits of the package, his chances of making a sale greatly increase. After all, this salesman just did us a favor; he washed our car for free. We can cancel out our feelings of obligation by doing him a favor in return: purchasing the one-year car wash package.
The same is true for a manager wanting to “sell’ his staff on the idea of overtime. If he first approaches the idea as an ultimatum: “Everyone is going to have to put in ten hours of overtime each week until this project is finished” he is likely to meet resistance. However, if he begins the request with a favor: “This new project is going to take extra commitment. Because of this I am offering each of you two extra paid days off if you work ten hours of overtime each week until the project is completed. Now, if everyone will please sign up for their two days of vacation we can complete the project in no time,” most of the employees will sign up and agree to the terms without protest.
This principle can also work without having to exchange any actual gifts or favors.
In this scenario, the power lies in a perceived favor. For example, if the car wash salesman is trying to sell one-year car wash packages he could improve his success rate by offering a three-year package first. When the customer balks at the expense and time commitment of a three-year deal the salesman could then offer up the one-year deal. In this instance the customer may feel as though the salesperson has made a concession, or done a favor for them, by reducing the scope of the commitment. He or she will then feel more obligated to give a concession, like buying the one-year deal.
Principle Two: Commitment and Consistency
The power behind this principle lies in an individual’s strong desire to appear to be consistent. According to Cialdini, people whose actions match their beliefs are viewed by others as honest, stable, rational, and intelligent. On the other hand, those who show inconsistency are seen as indecisive, confused, and dishonest.
Since humans have a strong desire to be seen as good and valued, they are usually willing to go to great lengths to protect their decision-making consistency. This desire can be used by others when attempting to illicit a favorable response.
For example, a salesman trying to sell movie tickets may pose instead as a man taking a survey in order to make you commit to liking what he has to offer. In this example the salesman would ask you if you like movies and how often you go to the theater. If you responded that you enjoyed the movies and that you go at least once a week, he could then offer to save you money by selling you a ticket package. Since, as he would point out, this package includes enough tickets to go to the theater each week and will definitely reduce the cost of the tickets bought individually, you would be wrong not to buy the package since you love movies and you were going to buy the tickets anyway. In order to say no in this scenario you would have to go back on your earlier statement of attending the movies once a week or admit that you would rather pay full price for something.
This principle is only successful if it is used to first coax the prospective client into a commitment. Once a commitment is made the individual will more than likely stick to his previous statements, even if it means buying something or agreeing to a request they otherwise would have said no to, in order to be perceived as honest and strong in their convictions. And, while the statement of commitment works very well when delivered orally, research shows that the need to stand by a decision is even greater when that commitment is written down.
Salespeople, managers, or just about anyone wanting to apply the principle of commitment and consistency should find ways to get the potential customer’s beliefs down on paper. For example, if the individual is asked to speak his commitment to movie going he could find a way to back out of or change the scope of that commitment. However, if the salesperson/surveyor first asks him to write down a description of his movie seeing habits then the information can be pointed out and referred to during attempts to make the sale. Upon seeing their statements in writing the potential customer will typically stick with what was written to avoid looking like a liar.
In the case of the manager needing overtime buy-in, a great sales approach would be to poll the employees about their willingness to put in extra hours if a bonus (extra paid days off) was offered at the end of the project before mentioning the overtime. Once the survey is complete the manager can use the results to influence a positive response. For example, the manager could say: “Bob, I see here that you would be willing to work overtime if it meant getting an extra day off. I suppose it would fine with you if you began working ten extra hours a week next week until the end of the project.” The employee would then be influenced to agree with those terms because he has previously stated in writing that he is agreeable to this idea and to back out now would look unprofessional and dishonest.
Principle Three: Social Proof
The principle of social proof holds that individuals try to determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct. In other words, if we see a lot of people partaking in one type of behavior then we automatically assume that the behavior must be correct.
As a rule, this assumption usually guides our actions pretty well. When we notice the majority of the people being quiet during a movie, we know we must be quiet too. Or, if we see people throwing away their popcorn boxes after the show we will be less inclined to simply toss ours under the seat.
This notion that we can usually rely on what we see a majority of others doing as being positive, or the right thing to do — is what makes this principle so effective. If a commercial shows a large group of people happily using a product, and with much success, at some level we automatically assume that we will be just as happy and successful with the product. Or, if a spokesperson promises that a product is selling fast, is the fastest growing, or is used by everyone, then we will be inclined to believe that everyone must like it and so will we.
This automatic, no thinking required approach to deciding what is and what is not acceptable is what makes the principle perfect for enlisting a positive answer to a request. For example, a company looking to cut costs can decide not to offer free coffee to its employees any longer. However, just announcing this decision can cause feelings of resentment. Instead, the manager could get five or ten people at a senior level in the company to agree to the cost-cutting plan and ask them to purchase a bag of coffee. Then, he could go to other employees with names and “show” them that many people agree with and like the cost cutting idea and have already purchased coffee for the employee kitchen. Now, it is their turn to buy just one bag like everyone else. The response to this approach is almost guaranteed to be more successful than if the manager had just asked the employees to start bringing in their own coffee.
Principle Four: Liking
Think back on the requests that you have agreed to. Chances are that you were more likely to say yes to a request from a friend than from a stranger. The automatic assumption that saying yes to your friend is the right thing to do is what forms the bases for this principle.
But why is it the right thing to do?
We are more inclined to say yes to a request from a friend, or someone that we like, because we in turn want that person to like us back. We also want to be seen as good or generous people in the eyes of our friends or people we admire and care for. By agreeing to their requests we show them that we value, like, or respect them, and we increase the chances that they in turn will like, respect, or admire us.
The perfect example of this principle is the age-old Tupperware party. By deciding to sell the product in a customer’s home to the customer’s friends and family, the company has instantly increased their odds for profit and success. Every one of the invited guests will automatically feel obligated to purchase at least one item because they like the party host and want to please her.
Another example of the power of this principle can be seen with a very successful used car salesman named Joe Girard. Every month he sends out personally signed greeting cards to all of his previous customers. The cards simply say, “I like you” inside. The customers receiving these cards begin to feel a relationship with the salesman and when they need a new car, or know someone else who does, they automatically think of this particular salesman because he is a friend, someone they like, and more importantly, someone that likes them.
Managers can use this principle to increase employee loyalty and compliance, as can fundraisers, business-to-business salespeople, human resources managers, and others. The key is to lay down the basis of friendship. One way to do this is to get involved, as in the example of the car salesman. Know the names of the family members of your employees, clients, and customers. Ask about their day. Remember important events they are preparing for. Ask questions. Once a relationship is formed the individual is more likely to automatically agree to more of your requests.
Another way to apply the principle of liking is to be perceived as someone the customer (or person you are requesting the favor from) would like. According to Cialdini, if the requester dresses like, mimics the body language of, or has something in common with the customer, he or she is more likely to produce an instant bond that will help speed up the agreement process.
Principle Five: Authority
From early childhood we are taught that obedience to authority is good. Respectful, successful, well-liked people look to authority figures for clues on how to act and react. In our early years, these authority figures really are looking out for our best interests. Our parents, teachers, and other adults are telling us and teaching us what to do so that we will know wrong from right.
However, as we age we continue to rely on this example set by authority and unconsciously assume that what the person of authority is telling us must be right. In our adult years we rely on this mostly correct principle in order to cut through the complexity of a new situation. For example, if our doctor, who has gone through many years of school and accumulated vast amounts of information, thinks that we need blood pressure medication, who are we to question him?
The power of this principle is often seen in television commercials. Many advertisers use people of assumed authority — doctors, lawyers, and professors — to testify to the usefulness or greatness of a product. In turn, the vast majority of television viewers will see the highly knowledgeable spokesperson advocating the product and automatically think: “Well, if a person of such intelligence and authority believes that this product works, why shouldn’t I?” The ability to believe in the words of authority and assume that they are truthful and aimed at helping us allows us to make speedy decisions that we feel good about without having to give them much thought.
So, the key to using this principle whether you are trying to convince someone to buy a product or agree to a new idea for business is to get the backing of someone in a perceived role of authority. For example, financial managers who want to cut costs can have the CEO of the company speak or write a few words about the benefits of the cost-cutting plan. Production managers can have plant managers give statements of approval before implementing new production technology. Fundraising professionals can secure donations from company presidents or officers before approaching other employees, or from larger, well-known companies before approaching smaller ones. Business-to-business salespeople can use written statements from current customers — especially if this statement is from a company president or officer — to convince prospective customers that people of authority use and are happy with their product.
Another, very effective way to use this principle is by alluding to the image of authority. How we dress, the title we use, and the car we drive can elevate our status in the eyes of others. Salespeople who wear expensive clothing, drive prestigious cars, and sport fancy titles have a better chance of convincing us to buy a product because we see their success as a symbol of knowledge and intelligence. They knew the right things to do to get where they are so if we take their advice we can be successful too.
Principle Six: Scarcity
This last principle gets its power from two automatic thinking shortcuts. First, we are trained to assume that if something is hard to find it is usually better than something that is easy to find. Rare coins are a good example of this. Anyone can possess a quarter, but finding and owning one with a printing mistake increases the value of the coin and the prestige brought on by owning it.
The second shortcut relies on the human fear of losing freedom. If we will no longer be able to make the choice to own something — a product that is only available for a limited time, or a product that is about to sell out and the date of next shipment is as of now unknown — our need to own that product increases. Once our need to own increases we stop thinking about the real reasons we want to buy the product and start relying only on our sense of lost freedom.
To further explain this principle, Cialdini offers the example of a realtor who was trying to persuade a prospective buyer to purchase a certain house. This buyer had been “on the fence” about the purchase and was torn between this house and another one similar to it. In this scenario the realtor persuaded the buyer to put an offer down on the house by phoning him with news of another interested buyer. The customer immediately responded by putting in an offer of his own. His quick response is explained by the principle of scarcity. Once his freedom to choose which house he wanted was in danger — since this second buyer could buy the house out from under him — he suddenly wanted that particular house even more. Plus, the need to own took on an even greater power when he thought that the other buyer really wanted the house — if he wants the house it must be great and I should really want it too.
Salespeople can use this principle by advertising products as: “limited time only” or “at this price until the stock is gone” in order to increase the automatic need response in prospective customers. Business-to-business salesman can apply this principle by only offering their product to a select few companies during the item’s introductory phase. Managers can use the principle by explaining that only ten people are needed to work overtime and that the first ten employees to sign will get the overtime and the paid time off.
According to Cialdini, automatic thinking — the single most important aspect to every one of these principles — is almost a necessity to everyday life. In a world where people are bombarded by new information, improved products and solutions, changing business demands and the need to constantly be up-to-date, they rely more than ever on the ability to pick up on one or two cues in order to make a quick and hopefully correct decision. With an understanding of the science of persuasion and the correct tools of influence — Cialdini’s six principles — you can effectively transform your power to persuade.