We all use Robert Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion. What are they are and how can we use them to communicate effectively?
Millions of people have driven off the car lot in a car they had no intention of buying. All of them a victim of a savvy salesman who can get people to “yes”.
Robert Cialdini has been studying the science of persuasion for over forty years. In 1984 he wrote a book revealing six principles of persuasion: Influence. It was an instant success and sits on desk of ad execs, copywriters, and marketeers.
The six principles of persuasion are:
- Commitment and consistency;
- Liking; and
- Social proof (consensus).
Robert Cialdini’s Six Principles of Influence
The principle of reciprocity simply means you are more likely to comply with a request if it comes from someone who has previously done something for you. For example, when the Hare Krishna religion was struggling to raise money they found a solution. They would give passersby a book, a magazine, or a flower. Under no circumstances would the giver accept its return. Instead they would ask for a few dollars. It was wildly successful–they raised millions of dollars.
Ever wondered why you get a mint or a sweet when your check comes at the restaurant? Waiters know that by giving their customers a gift, they will be rewarded with a larger tip. In a study it was found a single mint increased tips by three percent. It jumped to 14% when two mints were gifted. But when the waiter said, “for you nice people, here’s an extra mint” tips increased by 23%.
The lesson: give and you can take.
The second principle of persuasion is scarcity — we are more likely to want something the less it’s available. This is even more persuasive when something is newly scarce. In his book Cialdini recalls a sign he saw in a theater, “Exclusive, limited engagement ends soon!”
When British Airways announced it was closing the London to New York Concorde service, sales went through the roof. Nothing had changed about the service or the cost–it had simply become scarce. It’s why people buy gold and original artworks.
The most infamous example of the principle of authority is a study by Stanley Milgram. Milgram designed an experiment in response to the trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, to understand how far a person could go under orders. He found that people were willing to electrically shock another person when instructed to do so, even when it caused great stress to themselves and the other person was clearly in pain.
Cialdini offers a lighter example. In a study conducted in a real estate office, a simple change to the way the receptionist answered the phone increased contracts signed by 15 percent. When a caller asked to speak to an agent they were told, “Lettings–let me connect you with Sandra who has over 15 years experience letting properties in this area,” or “Speak to Peter ahead of sales he has over 20 years experience selling properties.”
4. Commitment and consistency
Humans have an obsessive urge to be consistent. Once we make our minds up it is very difficult for us to change them. We strive to be consistent and future decisions are made to justify earlier decisions. Marketers use this technique all the time because they know that someone is more likely to agree to a large request if they have already agreed to a smaller one. This is known as the “foot in the door” technique.
The real power of a petition for charities isn’t winning a campaign through getting thousands of people to sign — it’s the thousands of people who are more likely to donate to them later because of their desire to be consistent.
In one study a clinic reduced missed appointments by asking patients to write down their appointment details on a card, rather than having staff do it for them. Missed appointments dropped 18 percent because patients made a commitment to coming back.
People are more likely to comply with a request from those that they like. It’s hardly surprising and it goes some way to explaining why Tupperware has been so successful: people buy Tupperware through friends and family.
What is surprising is how easy it is for someone to like someone else. A study in 2005 showed that simply have the same name as the other person increased liking. Salespeople use this principle all the time. They try to find something in common with the customer early in interaction. So the next time a salesperson says, “Oh, my brother lives in [your home town]. I love it there,” — beware.
6. Social proof (or consensus)
People will often look to the actions of others to make a decision. We decide what is correct by what others think is correct. It’s why sitcoms use laugh tracks. People find programs funnier when other people laugh, even when it’s canned.
One troubling aspect of social proof is a phenomenon known as the “bystander effect”. It’s been found that the more people that are present when something goes wrong, the less likely it is anyone will help. People take cues from each other.
If you find yourself in a large group of people and in need of help, Cialdini suggests, “Stare, speak, and point directly at that person and no one else: ‘You, sir, in the blue jacket, I need help. Call an ambulance.’ With that one utterance you would dispel all the uncertainties that might prevent or delay help.”
Social proof is why news organizations no longer report suicides. It was found that the suicide rate increases dramatically when a suicide is front-page news.
It’s why websites show the names of people who have joined, signed up, and donated — it normalizes the request.
What does this mean?
It means if you are creating communication where you want someone to act, you need to be persuasive. Some ideas:
- Reciprocity — Give something away for free. Follow it with an ask.
- Scarcity — Offer something to small group of people or for a limited time — and tell them about its scarcity.
- Authority — Demonstrate expertise and experience. Well-covered in Aristotle’s idea of ethos.
- Commitment and consistency — Ask for a small commitment, and follow with a bigger ask.
- Liking — find things in common with your audience.
- Social proof — quantify or demonstrate how many others have done the thing you are asking them to do.
The six principles of persuasion are nicely explained and visualized in the video below. If you learn these six ideas, you’re on your way to getting more people to agree to do something for you. And the book is a well worth reading.