Notebook, 3 March, 2012: Persuasion . . .

Hello there.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the magazine so far. Now I’d like to let you in on something of great importance to you personally. Have you ever been tricked into saying yes? Ever felt trapped into buying something you didn’t really want or contributing to some suspicious- sounding cause? And have you ever wished you understood why you acted in this way so that you could withstand these clever ploys in the future?

Yes? Then clearly this article is just right for you. It contains valuable information on the most powerful psychological pressures that get you to say yes to requests. And it’s chock-full of new, improved research showing exactly how and why these techniques work. So don’t delay, just settle in and get the information that, after all, you’ve already agreed you want.

Robert B. Cialdini, The Science of Persuasion

No, this isn’t about Jane Austen’s last novel, but about the Cialdini’s work on the psychology used to sway people, extracting the decision and/or action you want out of an individual.

It seems that we are our own worst enemy. We often make decisions, not on the merits of an argument or product, but on the dynamics of the sales pitch itself, and Cialdini identifies six situations and conditions making it more likely to get to “yes”

  1. Reciprocity – people will be much more likely to buy what you sell if you can give them a little something up front, or by making a concession during the exchange.
  2. Commitment and Consistency – more people will perform the act you ask of them rather than appear inconsistent, or renege on an explicit commitment (like agreeing to call before failing to failing to show up for the table you reserved). If the pitch involves getting agreement on a cost-free argument, they will more often agree and act upon a following argument which costs them.
  3. Social Validation – Going with the flow. Keeping up with the Jonses. A product or idea which others have “tested” before you has demonstrated benefits (they like it) and (doesn’t kill them, make them ill, cost lots to repair) then many of the target individual’s counter-arguments are invalidated. This is how I get through airports, I follow the herd.
  4. Authority – The Milgram Experiment. Authoritarian figures are, by definition, empowered to compel a decision or act. This does not necessarily proceed from reality. Second amendment advocates didn’t see Charleton Heston brandishing a weapon without also seeing Moses, El Cid and Ben Hur. People didn’t see actor Robert Young selling them coffee without seeing Marcus Welby, M.D.
  5. Liking – Because nothing goes without saying, people tend to agree with and act on behalf of those they like. This is important to mention because of the reverse: if they don’t like you, people will make it a point to refuse.
  6. Scarcity – “Supplies are limited!” “Get yours while supplies last!” “This special price is only available for a limited time, so act now!” These are claims which, if we rationally consider them through our own experience, are often false. Yet a rational person, taking these at face value, will feel more rational having acted in his own best interest by deciding to buy what you are selling at the time you are selling him or her. This is why coupons have expiration dates. Be it noted that information itself is a commodity whose scarcity enhances its value. Hence, we see paywalls.

The article I link to above illustrates how these dynamics work, how widespread the use of these techniques are and how successful they can be. The mechanisms of persuasion listed here are important to note because they are decoupled from fact or value, truth or merit. The dangers of this separation of persuasion from substance, merit or value, is well illustrated by the character of our “national debate,” which, because we have unlinked reality from discussion, has given free reign to all kinds of delusion.

The trick for me, and for the Occupy movement, is to recouple reality with presentation.

Surely, someone with your splendid intellect can see the unique benefits of this article. And because you look like a helpful person who would want to share such useful information, let me make a request. Would you buy this issue of the magazine for 10 of your friends? Well, if you can’t do that, would you show it to just one friend? Wait, don’t answer yet. Because I genuinely like you, I’m going to throw in—at absolutely no extra cost—a set of references that you can consult to learn more about this little-known topic.

Now, will you voice your commitment to help? … Please recognize that I am pausing politely here. But while I’m waiting, I want you to feel totally assured that many others just like you will certainly consent.

And I love that shirt you’re wearing.


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