Arguing Persuasion

Cialdini on unconscious modes of persuasion.
I mentioned Cialdini in an earlier post, a social psychologist, whose books you can find in the business section. (A recent New York Times article “Who’s Minding the Mind?” covered the surprising range and variety of powerful ways we can be manipulated — without any conscious knowledge of what is going on. In the Yale study, people’s judgment was strongly affected simply by handing them a cup of coffee.) Cialdini writes about the ways in which human beings respond automatically, without thought. Here are the ways he outlines that we can be easily manipulated:

The need to appear consistent:
Once we commit to an idea, particularly in public or in writing, we feel a strong pull to do what we say we will do. Cialdini asserts that this is why grass roots organizations and political parties often want you to sign petitions. (He even states that often they don’t do anything with those signature, throw them away in some cases.) It is the act of commitment and its effects that their after, moreso even than a particular financial commitment or signature for petition. Once the initial commitment is there, people are much more likely to commit further and more substantially.

The power of public commitment:
As mentioned above, consistency can be further leveraged by getting people to publically commit. Once someone has committed to something, he or she will tend to produce further justifications, reasons, rationales to back up the commitment.

The compelling nature of authority directives:
Plain and simple, people like to follow leaders. There are many disturbing examples of this. Cults are one class of example. But also political parties and leaders. In the infamous Milgram Study, people were asked to apply increasingly dangerous electrical shocks to other study participants. Roughly two-third of the participants continued to apply the shocks even when it appeared the person receiving the shocks was moaning in agony. Even if they expressed their dismay to the expert in the labcoat, invariably they would continue to shock the subject if the “expert” pressed them to do so. Cialdini notes that we react to symbols of authority, particularly clothes, cars, and titles, whether they are substantive or not. Hence the labcoat in the Milgram study.

The tendency to use social referencing to guide our own behavior:
Wikipedia has a good example, well known to psychology students:

People will do things that they see other people are doing. For example, in one experiment, one or more accomplices would look up into the sky; bystanders would then look up into the sky to see what they were seeing. At one point this experiment aborted, as so many people were looking up that they stopped traffic

The need to reciprocate:
Reciprocation is integral to our social nature. It is why free samples are effective in marketing. There are a number of techniques that exploit this basic human need. A small gift is followed by a request. A small concession is offered, which instills a need for the other party to offer her own concession. We are not comfortable with feelings of indebtedness.

The response to scarcity:
The sense of scarcity tends to create demand. Cialdini cites a number of toy shortages, the cabbage patch doll, for instance. A common tactic is to promote something during Christmas, have a “shortage”, and then promote it again after Christmas. This also puts parents in the position of needing to appear consistent, as often with level of pre-Christmas promotion they had promised their child the item, only to find it was not available.

The lulling effects of feelings of liking or friendship:
Ever heard of a tupperware party? If the people who are selling are people you like you are more likely to buy. It’s kind of worn out, but sales people will still latch on to your first name and be your buddy — even credit card collectors.

Charged issues, forceful persuasion.
Each of these persuasive techniques is at play, intended or not, in any charged debate where a lot is at stake. Take a look at the arguments, here and here, for prescriptive authority for psychologists (RxP) and see where they apply. I’ll be following up, at the end of August, with my own applications to those arguments.

Kalea Chapman, Psy.D.


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Clinical Psychologist practicing in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

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