A We have a lot of choices in life, and our brains often take shortcuts as a way to manage making so many decisions. And people who know about these shortcuts and how our thinking works can use their knowledge to influence the decisions we make.
B Much of the initial work on understanding influence was done by Robert Cialdini. Cialdini is a professor of marketing and psychology who spent two and a half years researching what he calls the ‘influence professions’ – salespeople, marketers, and politicians, for example – to find out what they were doing to get us to say ‘yes’. He discovered that there were six principles of influence (later seven) that were commonly used: reciprocity, scarcity, commitment and consistency, liking, consensus, and authority.
C Reciprocity is an instinct we have to reciprocate – to give back to people when they give something to us. For example, when people give you free samples in shops, as well as hoping you will like their product, they’re also hoping that your reciprocity instinct will make you buy something, Cialdini explains. He refers to a study in a candy store in the USA which showed how effective this is: when customers were given a piece of chocolate as they came into the store, they were 42% more likely to buy something.
D The second principle, scarcity, means that when there is less of something, we tend to want it more or believe that it has more value. Companies use this to get you to say ‘yes’ by saying that there is a limited number of something, or that an offer is time-limited. Marketing executive Samuel Hum lists 19 examples of how this principle is used in marketing, including hotel websites stating ‘only x number of rooms left’, Amazon’s ‘today’s deals’, and Starbucks selling special Christmas drinks.
E Consistency refers to a desire we have to be consistent – to act in the same way or to be the same as before. Cialdini explains that one way that companies use this is to get you to agree to do something in the future. This works because if you have already said that you will do something, you will be more likely to do it because of your desire to avoid seeming inconsistent.
F We are also more likely to say ‘yes’ to people that we like, so Cialdini named the fourth principle liking. And one thing that makes us like people more is if they are similar to us, says persuasion trainer Steve Martin. He describes how business students got better deals in negotiations by using this principle: 90% of these students came to satisfying agreements when they chatted a little and found something in common with the other person before starting the negotiations. In contrast, only 55% of students who began negotiations straightaway came to successful agreements.
G Consensus means we tend to follow what other people do, especially when they are similar to us, and especially in situations in which we feel uncertain. Cialdini explains that if other people are doing something, we tend to think it’s probably a good thing for us to do, too. Putting a Best Seller label on items is one way that shops use this principle, and Cialdini gives an example of how a restaurant in Beijing wrote, ‘this is one of our most popular items’ on the menu, as a way to increase sales.
H The final principle is authority: we tend to trust and follow people who we think are experts and who have authority. Martin explains that for this principle to have an effect, people need to show their expertise in some way, and gives an example of how physiotherapists are more able to get patients to follow their exercise program if they display their medical diplomas on the wall.
I Now that you know these principles, you might be able to notice when a salesperson is trying to influence you. And perhaps next time you’re in the supermarket, you can accept that free sample, eat it, and walk away without feeling bad.