By David M. France
Influence is everything. At a basic level biological and environmental drives influence us to behavior in certain ways. In our complex world every person and organization is trying to influence another person or people in some way.
Influence, on a human level, is simply persuading someone to comply with your request. It’s inherently neutral. Neither good nor bad.
Unfortunately, immoral people can use influential tools on unsuspecting victims. Most if not all of these tools are used by the best conmen. This is why it’s important to know about these tools of influence, even if you don’t think you’ll use them. Being able to identify when they are being deployed against you can save you time, money, or trouble.
Dr. Robert Cialdini lays out 6 broad tools of influence in his amazing book, Influence. Here are his 6 and a concise description of each by yours truly.
When someone gives you something or does something nice for you, you want to return the favor. The urge is overpowering. It’s deeply engrained, dating back to when humans first began living in tribes.
This is often why there is tension around giving and receiving gifts. It’s why companies offer free samples, why gyms offer free fitness assessments.
If reciprocity is triggered, it can lead to uninvited debts and unequal exchanges. Doing small nice things, making the mark feel indebted on a subconscious level, is a confidence man’s bread and butter.
Reciprocation doesn’t have to come with ill intent. In essence it’s how all business works.
But it’s important to be aware of when this tactic is being deployed against you. Awareness will help you decline unwanted debts and make sure other exchanges are fair.
- Commitment and Consistency
Once we state a belief or make a choice about something, we will face personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that statement or choice.
Commitments that require active participation, that are public, and that require a lot of effort are extremely effective. It’s even more effective when the person owns their actions and statements; we accept inner responsibility for behaviors we think we have chosen to perform in the absence of strong outside pressure.
This tactic was used—with significant success—to break down American POWs in Korea. Cults are built around people making fantastic commitments.
The flip side, a way this tool of influence can be used for good, is wedding vows. 2 people get up together in front of their families and friends (and, in most cases, call God into it as well) and declare their love and loyalty to one another. Both people actively say, I do; the ceremony must have witnesses (be public); and most weddings take a lot of effort to put together.
These tools are amoral. Like a hammer. What they make, how they’re used is completely up to the user.
A final note on commitment and consistency: Clinical studies have shown that older people and people with a strong sense of individuality are especially vulnerable to this tactic.
- Social Proof
We view a behavior as correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it.
This has been well documented. The murder of Kitty Genovese is probably the most dramatic case. Genovese was stabbed to death over the course of several hours in front of her New York City apartment building. Her killer left and came back multiple times. 37 or 38 people heard or saw the murder—but not 1 of them called the police or tried to help Genovese. The social norm was to mind your own business, so every single witness did just that.
There’s a couple factors that can enhance this tool’s effectiveness.
First, if someone is dealing with a high level of uncertainty. We look to others for guidance when we don’t know what to do.
Second, similarity to one’s self. If you think someone is like you, it makes sense that they’ll act and think similar to you—and vice versa. This tool explains the explosion of real people (as opposed to famous celebrities) being featured in advertisements. People see someone like them get results and think, Hey, I can do that too.
Humans are social creatures. Social proof is a great way to develop influence.
People viewed as physically attractive have a distinct advantage in influencing others. Taller individuals are viewed as more competent. Our psyches imbue people we see as attractive with positive attributes, even when they’re non-existent. The square-jawed man must be heroic. The beautiful woman must be an angel.
Companies have known about this for ages. Countless ads have used attractive models to help promote a product. In fact, data show that heterosexual men are more likely to like and buy from a good-looking man than an average Joe, provided that the men do not feel like they’re in direct competition with the attractive guy. Same conclusion with heterosexual women.
The other type of liking was touched upon in social proof—similarity. The more we see something or someone as like us, the more potential influence it will have over us.
Physical attractiveness and similarity lead to liking. Liking leads to increased influence.
One of the main goals of formal education—especially the early years—is to instill an obedience to authority. Following directions is reinforced with praise and awards. Rebellion and disobedience are discouraged with reproaches and punishments.
Authority, we’re taught, is something to be respected—not questioned.
This reverence for authority isn’t just child’s play. It follows us through life. Titles like PhD, CEO, JD, and other impressive acronyms give a person an instant level of credibility to some people. (I didn’t put “Dr. Robert Cialdini” in the intro by accident.) Clothing like a police officer’s uniform screams authority and demands respect. Expensive cars, clothes, and homes project authority.
We’re susceptible to sources we view as authoritative. That’s why conmen often pretend to be doctors, big-shot stock brokers, and even police officers. New-age grifters will pose in front of expensive luxury items, say they have a system you can learn so you can afford all these things, and then charge suckers 1,000s for a worthless ebook.
Self-education is about curiosity. Question everything, even authority.
Opportunities seem more valuable to us when they are less available.
A limited supply can spike demand. Think Beanie Babies, Tickle Me Elmo, Pokemon cards, and any other 90’s fad that comes to mind.
Also, newly experienced scarcity is more powerful than fixed, long-term scarcity. This principle is the underlying reason Black Friday and going out of business sales are so effective. The low prices are new—but there for only a short amount of time, maybe only one night.
Diamonds are expensive because they’re scarce. The rarer an opportunity seems, the higher its perceived value.
Reciprocity is an ancient instinct for humans. Misused, it can lead to uninvited debts and unequal exchanges. Awareness of when reciprocation is being deployed can help prevent misuse.
Commitments, especially ones that are public, require active participation, a lot of effort, and the individual takes ownership for, are immensely powerful. Our brains and egos crave consistency. Older and highly individualistic people are especially vulnerable to be influenced by commitment and consistency.
Humans are social. Social proof, then, is highly effective in influencing behavior. We act according to how we see other people acting in a certain situation. This tendency is amplified when there is a high level of uncertainty, or when we view the other people as similar to us.
People we like have greater influence over us. In general, attractive people are viewed as more likable. We also like and identify with people we think are like us.
Authority is a powerful, deep-seated tool of influence. Titles, clothes, and expensive trappings can create influential credibility. Authority should be questioned because it’s so often and easily abused or faked.
Scarcity can inflate demand. Opportunities seem more valuable to us when they are less available.
I hope you’ve found this article useful. If you deploy these tactics, I hope you use them for ethically-sound purposes. If you’re an entrepreneur or marketer, I highly recommend you read Influence. Though technically a psychology book, it’s the best book on marketing I’ve ever read.