What’s the trick that makes your chances of persuading someone 3 times more likely?
We all like to think we make our decisions based on logic and a sound analysis of the evidence but more and more science is showing that we are much less rational than we think and many other factors impact how we make our decisions.
For example, in an experiment that took place in a Canadian shopping mall, researchers asked members of the general public to help with a market survey. People were nearly three times more likely to comply if there was one simple change in the request.
The implication here, of course, is that if you know the mechanics of these factors you will be able to use them to be more effective in your own communication and get better results in your dealings with other people.
But what exactly are they? What was the critical variation that achieved such a dramatically greater success rate in our shopping mall survey?
In 1984, Professor Robert Cialdini published his book, ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’ which, over the years, has come to be recognised as the classic in the field, the ‘go to’ manual for all people working in the world of influence. His ground-breaking research brought scientific rigour to the topic and he was able to identify six core principles that, if followed, would increase your chances of persuasion, above and beyond the core content of the message.
But in the 33 years since that book came out, Cialdini hasn’t been sitting still. He has carried on his research and discovered even more factors to help us influence more successfully. So when his new book Pre-Suasion came out recently, it caused quite a lot of interest, especially as it identified a new approach that went even further than the six principles identified in ‘Influence’.
And it was this approach that helped the survey conductors increase their success so impressively in our experiment above.
Cialdini’s Six Weapons of Influence
In his first book, Cialdini identified six principles that formed the basis of effective influencing. They were:
• Reciprocation: If you do them a favour, they will typically return it, often to a greater value than the original favour made
• Commitment: People are likely to do those actions that fit with their self-image; working with the self-image therefore is a way to influence behaviours
• Social Proof: Life is complex and in complex situations people tend to follow the herd; people tend to believe and do what others believe and do
• Liking: We are more likely to be persuaded if we like the persuader
• Authority: We are more likely to be persuaded if the persuader wears the trappings of authority
• Scarcity: We value things perceived to be scarce higher than those perceived to be abundant.
Each of these principles can be very powerfully employed to increase your chance of persuading someone or getting them to do what you want them to do. Like clickbait titles, we find ourselves clicking on the title even when we know what is happening.
(Of course, I would never use cheesy clickbait structures for my articles!)
But it turned out that these principles could not explain how the researchers were able to triple their success rate in the shopping mall market survey.
A 7th principle of influence
His recent book, Pre-Suasion, is classic Cialdini. It has lots of great insights into human behaviour based on rigorous scientific experimentation with clear applications and all written in an extremely interesting and readable way.
It even introduces a 7th fundamental principle of influence: the principle of unity. In social psychology, they call it ‘in-group’ or ‘out-group’, more popularly known as ‘one of us’ or ‘one of them’. If you can show you are ‘one of us’, it is far easier to influence. And human identity has so many facets, there is always a way of demonstrating you are ‘one of us’.
This can work at an obvious level; for example, you work in the same field, live in the same town, have the same hobby, vote for the same party and so on. But it has been shown that it works in a less rational way too: people are more likely to listen to, like, believe and buy from someone who has the same name (first or last), the same initials, the same birthplace or birthday as them – none of which should logically have any material effect on the persuasion.
But even this brand new discovered principle could not explain the shopping mall survey results. So what could it be?
A new process to influence
Well, instead of looking for the answer in a principle, it turns out to be a process. Specifically, the process described in the title of the new book, ‘Pre-Suasion’.
In the shopping mall survey described above, when people were asked for assistance with the survey, there was a 29% compliance rate. But if the same request was prefaced with the question, ‘Do you consider yourself a helpful person?’, 77.3% helped out.
Similar results were found when the request to try a new consumer product was prefaced with the question, ‘Do you consider yourself an adventurous person?’. And in another study people were asked if they were happy or unhappy with their lives; those who were asked if they were unhappy were nearly 4 times more likely to answer unhappy than those who were asked if they were happy.
Label someone as something and you are more likely to get the behaviour associated with that label.
The fundamental mechanism of pre-suasion is neural priming. Once something has been triggered in the brain, all neurons linked to it will also be more heightened and other concepts will be dampened. So when asked if they are helpful, most people would like to answer ‘Yes’, so now the neurons for ‘I am a helpful person’ are primed, leading to a greater chance of helpful behaviour.
Even if they don’t answer it verbally, in order to come to a judgement their brain has to scan the memory for helpful episodes and they are likely to find examples, similarly priming any neurons associated with being helpful and thereby increasing the chances of actually behaving helpfully.
Success by association
In fact, the effect is much wider than just labelling. Anything that raises a particular concept in their mind will get more of the behaviour linked to that concept.
And if the core mechanism of the brain is association (neural connections), we would then expect the strength of this effect to be proportional to the closeness of the association. This turns out to be true.
In a study to test this, leaflets were put on people’s cars and the number of times the leaflets were dropped on the floor was measured. The leaflets carried five different messages:
– When the message was ‘don’t litter’, only 10% were thrown away
– When it was about recycling (close association), 15% were thrown away
– When it was about saving energy (moderate association), 18% were thrown away
– When it was about voting (distant association), 22% were thrown away
– When it was about an art gallery (no association), 25% were thrown away.
What can we do with this?
Simply put: whatever behaviour you want to see, indirectly focus their mind on related concepts.
Throughout the book, Cialdini gives lots of examples of how you can use this new approach of pre-suasion. To take just a few:
• If you want them to buy an expensive product, get them to mention or write down a figure that’s higher than the product’s cost; subconsciously, it will now seem cheap
• If you want them to buy the French product, play French music quietly in the background
• If you want them to go for the popular item, talk about a scary topic beforehand
• If you want them to feel warmly towards you, give them a warm drink to hold
• If you want them to consider your proposal weighty, bind it in a heavy material
• If you want them to be collaborative, show them a photo of people standing close together.
Some of these might sound bizarre but they are all verified by repeated experimentation; some might seem cheesy, but it is all in the how you do it.
The 6 steps to keep unwavering attention to the end
I’ll finish off with one last method he identified as being successful for getting attention (and therefore belief and retention), namely to generate mystery. In fact, each chapter typically follows the same structure:
1. Pose the mystery: we have a strange effect here, do you know what is causing it?
2. Deepen it: the answer turns out to be an extraordinary one, or, the most likely cause is x but when you look deeper you find that this cannot be the case
3. Explore and discount alternative explorations first
4. Provide a clue to the proper explanation
5. Resolve it
6. Draw implications
It’s a powerful method for gaining attention and buy-in in presentations, pitches and articles. Of course, you would never find me using such a cheap approach myself.