Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Dr. Robert Cialdini is a social psychologist and marketing research at Arizona State University. He presents a theory of persuasion based on fixed action patterns. These fixed action patterns are intricate sequences of behavior that when triggered, occur in almost the same way every time. He calls the tools used to trigger these fixed action patterns weapons of influence. These weapons include commitment and consistency, reciprocation, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. I will discuss each of these in detail below.

Commitment and Consistency
It is a basic psychological axiom that humans have a strong motivation to behave and appear to behave in a way consistent with how we have behaved in the past. Like all the weapons of influence that will be discussed, this tendency to be consistent is adaptive and in our self-interest most of the time. People who are seen as inconsistent in their behaviors, beliefs or actions are generally seen as untrustworthy while people who are seen as highly consistent are seen as principled and honest. It is when this tendency to be consistent gets us to do something that we wouldn’t normally do that it becomes a weapon of influence. Cialdini illustrates this with the example of American POWs in the Korean War. Many POWs were held in prison camps run by the communist Chinese. The Chinese had some rather unorthodox methods of getting information from prisoners. To get POWs to become informants on other prisoners, the Chinese employed a strategy of start small and build, otherwise known as the foot-in-the-door technique. Prisoners were asked to write statements so mildly anti-American or pro-communist that they almost seemed innocuous. Prisoners would write statements like “The United States is not perfect” or “In a communist country, unemployment is not a problem”. From simple statements like these, the Chinese would escalate the level of compliance sought from the prisoners. They would then be asked to write down a list of reasons why they thought the U.S was not perfect and then they would be asked to sign it. They then might be asked to read this list to fellow prisoners or to use his name in anti-American radio broadcasts. By getting the prisoner to comply with a small initial request, the Chinese created a pressure within the prisoner to be consistent with their previous actions by complying with the larger request. They created a consistency momentum that could turn a tight lipped POW into a collaborator for the communist cause. This strategy was so effective during the Korean War, that nearly all POWs held in Chinese camps collaborated in some form.

The other critical aspect of this weapon of influence is commitment. Commitment is key in gaining compliance. Once we have committed to a certain course of action, we feel a strong internal pressure to uphold that commitment and are made vulnerable to complying with similar sets of actions. One researcher demonstrated this by performing by conducting an experiment on a New York city beach. A research assistant would place a blanket down near another beach goer and pretend to be listening to music. After a few minutes, one of two things would happen. The confederate would get up and walk away from his thing or he would ask the neighboring beach goer to watch his thing for a few minutes. After another few minutes, a third confederate would approach the blanket in a staged theft and runoff with the fake beach goers things. In the first condition, the neighboring beach goer would only try to stop the thief 20% of the time. However, when the beach goer was asked to watch the confederate’s things and committed to that act, the beach goer would try to stop the thief 95% of the time.

The rule of reciprocation says that we should try to repay, in kind, what someone has provided us. This rule is overpowering, pervasive, and found in all human societies on the planet. If someone does us a favor, we are obligated to return it. A powerful example had to do with the governments of Ethiopia and Mexico. In 1985, five thousand dollars in relief aid was exchanged between the two countries. With Ethiopia being one of the poorest and most impoverished countries at the time, one would expect the aid to be going from Mexico to Ethiopia. However, this was not the case. In 1935, Ethiopia was invaded by Italy. In response, Mexico had sent a sum of money for assistance. Ethiopia never forgot this gift and 50 years later, returned the favor by offering aid for the 1985 earthquake that hit Mexico. Even after decades had past and against the self-interest of Ethiopia, the force of reciprocation had compelled the country to return the favor. The rule has as much influence over small favors as it does large ones. This is demonstrated by an experiment conducted by a Cornell researcher on “art appreciation”. Subjects would be told to judge different pieces of art while a confederate monitored. In one condition, the confederate would do nothing and remain in the room. In the second condition, the confederate would leave the room and return with two bottles of coke, one for himself and one for the subject. When the experiment concluded, the confederate would ask the subject if he would by some raffle tickets, the person selling the most winning a fifty dollar prize. The subjects would by twice as many tickets if a prior favor was given than if it was not. This experiment also shows two other powerful aspects of the rule of reciprocation, that the rule overpowers liking and that it can lead to unfair exchanges. In some cases, the subject would be asked to rate their liking of the confederate at the beginning of the experiment. In the condition where no coke was offered, subjects did indeed more raffle tickets, the more they liked the confederate. However, when they coke was offered, liking had no effect whatsoever. Subjects who disliked the confederate bought just as many as those who liked him very much. The second thing that this experiment reveals is that reciprocation can trigger unfair exchanges. At the time of the experiment, a bottle of coke cost ten cents and the raffle tickets were twenty five cents each. On average, subjects who were offered a coke bought two raffle tickets each. This amounts to a 500% return on investment and show how small initial favors can lead to much larger acts of reciprocation.

Social Proof
The principle of social proof is that we use the behavior of others to guide our own. A pervasive example of this is the canned laughter present in many TV sitcoms. Many in the TV industry detest laugh tracks and many viewers will say they hate it as well, seeing it as phony and stupid. However, much research shows that viewers will laugh longer and harder when canned laughter is present than when it is not. It will even make us laugh at jokes that we would not otherwise find funny. Even though viewers know the laughter is fake, it still triggers our fixed action pattern of looking to others for cues on how to behave. While the case of canned laughter if somewhat trivial to anyone not trying to produce a TV show, another example shows the danger this principle can sometimes put us in.

When we are unsure of how to act in a certain situation we immediately look to those around us. While this principle is extremely in guiding our behavior most of the time, it can lead to grave consequence. Take the case of Catherine Genovese. Genovese was walking home one night when she was brutally attacked. With Genovese screaming for help, the attack last for thirty five minutes and was witnessed by thirty eight people in nearby apartment buildings. Not one person ever called the police or tried to help her in anyway. This case demonstrates what’s known as the bystander effect. In uncertain situations and possible emergencies we look to others around us to determine whether it is a real emergency. However, those other people are also looking to us to determine if it is a real emergency. The results is a pluralistic ignorance where no one is certain of how to act, thus no one does.

Simply put, we are more likely to say yes to someone we know and like. A person is more likely to do a favor for a good friend then for a complete stranger. This information is used profitably by the Tupperware corporation who organize Tupperware parties where women are have the “opportunity” to buy Tupperware from their close friends and by Joe Girad, a car salesman who used liking so successfully, that he is listed as the “greatest care salesman” in the Guiness Book of World Records. However, what is not shown by these two examples is what causes liking in the first place. Research has shown five factors that lead to liking; attractiveness, similarity, compliments, contact and cooperation, and conditioning and association.

The idea that more physically attractive people are more liked is known as the Halo effect. The Halo Effect occurs when we generalize one positive feature of a person to the whole person. The power of this effect lies in the unconscious assumption that many of us make that “good looking equals good”. Research on the Pennsylvania court system found that handsome male defendants tended to receive much lighter sentences and that good looking people tended to receive much larger settlements in civil cases. Most people are unconscious of this bias but it has a powerful influence on everything from deciding whether to buy a product to deciding who to vote for president.

Equally as powerful is the effect of similarity. We tend to like those who are similar to us in beliefs, attitudes, and personality. One cue we use to gauge similarity is how we dress. A series of experiments in the 1970’s had experimenters dress as either “hippie” or “straight” on a college campus and ask passing college students for a dime. When the experimenter was dressed the same as the passing student, the student gave them a dime over 70% of the time and when dressed different, less than 50% of the time. Similarity does not have to be broad to increase liking. It can be something as simple as being the same age or sharing the habit of smoking cigarettes. Even on shared common trait can lead to more liking and more likely compliance.

We like praise and we like those who give it. Compliments and flattery work best when they appear personal and genuine but very well even when they are not. We want to believe the praise of others even when we know it to be false or that the other person has something to gain. As a result, we tend to act favorably to those who give it.
Another important aspect of liking is contact and cooperation. We like what is a familiar to us and our attitudes towards things are influence by how much we have been exposed to them. In one experiment, a subject was exposed to a picture of a stranger that was flashed across the screen so fast that it was below conscious awareness. The more times the person’s face was flashed across the screen, they more liking the subject reported for the person when they were shown the face later in the experiment. Mere exposure was enough to affect liking. Cooperation has a similar effect. Working with others towards a mutual goal tends to makes us like those others more. One summer, a social scientist conducted an experiment on a local boys summer camp. He divided the camp into two tribes, the Eagles and the Rattlers, and put them in two separate bunk houses. Relations deteriated quickly between the two tribes. Each tribe started to refer to the other as “sneaks” and “stinkers”. Fights began to break out in the lunchroom and raids were being conducted on the opposing tribe. To reverse the situation, the scientist organized a series of tasks in which the two tribes had to work together. On a field trip, the truck carrying all the campers mysteriously got stuck on the side of the road. All of the boys were required to pull and push in unison to get it unstuck. In another circumstance, the boys were told that they could watch a movie but that the camp could not afford to rent one. In the interest of mutual reward, the boys pooled together all of their money and were able to rent the movie. Before long and after this continued cooperation, the name calling, the lunch room fights, and the midnight raids had all disappeared. Through they’re cooperation, each tribe began to see the members of the others as not so bad and eventually they began to see each other as a unified group.

In 1963, Stanley Millgram posted an asking for volunteers for an experiment on “the study of memory”. In this experiment on punishment and memory, the subject would say a pair of words to an out of sight second subject who would have to memorize the pair. If the second subject recalled the pair incorrectly, the first subject would have administer and electric shock. Each time the pair was recalled incorrectly, the level of shock would be raised fifteen volts from 75 volts to 90 volts and so on. If the first subject became resistant to administer the shocks as the y grew stronger, a researcher standing over his shoulder would simply order the subject to continue. Regardless of the shock being increased to a dangerously high level, regardless of the screams that could be heard from the other room, and regardless of the silent that followed the final shock of 300 volts, the vast majority of subjects continued to comply all the way to the end of the experiment. However, the second subject was a confederate, and this was not an experiment on memory but on the power of authority. Most subjects showed noticeable discomfort in continuing the experiment and some even screamed and pleaded with the researcher to stop. Yet, two thirds of subjects carried on to the end of the experiment. The authority of the scientist standing over the subject in their white lab coat was enough to overpower the subject’s sense of reason and morality. This experiment uncovers the unsettling fact that people who see themselves as upstanding moral citizens can be directed quite easily to commit horrendous acts when directed by an authority figure. In fact, actual authority is not even necessary, only the connotation of authority will suffice. Whether it be a title or a uniform, a mere symbol of authority is enough to produce the effect. Leonard Bickman, a social psychologist tested this by standing on the street and asking passerbys an odd request like picking up a piece of trash or moving to the other side of the street. In one condition, he would be dressed up in casual street clothes. In the other, he was dressed as a security guard. The results were definitive. Pedestrians complied 42% of the time when Bickman was dressed in street clothes. They complied 92% of the time when he was dressed as a security guard. The appearance alone of authority was enough to gain near universal compliance. This is why celebrities and 4 out of 5 doctors in agreement are used in TV ads to advertise products. The power of authority is so great that it can make us mindlessly comply with simple tasks or comply to commit acts that we may otherwise find horrendous.

The last weapon of influence is scarcity. This weapon achieves its effect through increasing the value of something by limiting its availability. The principle of scarcity is used very effectively by sales professionals in two interesting ways. First, in The Limited Number Tactic a consumer might be eyeing a product on display that they have some interest in. They are then approached by a salesperson who notices they’re interest. The salesperson informs the consumer that he is unsure if there are any units of the product left in stock and he has to check the back room. He returns to inform the consumer that there is only one unit remaining. In almost all cases, the consumer is compelled to buy the product on the spot. A similar tactic is The Deadline Tactic. In this tactic, a product is made available or sold at a discount price for a limited amount of time. A previously mediocre product is suddenly made more valuable by the fact that it will soon disappear. Stores all around the country utilize this tactic by offering certain products at extremely low prices on only one day a year, Black Friday. Nothing is more motivating to people than competition for a scarce resource. If we want something that others want and we both cannot have it, we will do whatever we can to get it. A clear illustration of this is the bidding war that occurred between TV networks over a movie in the 1970’s. In 1973, Barry Diller, a vice president at ABC agreed to pay $3.3 million for the right to air the Posiedon Adventure on the network. The price was the highest ever paid for a single showing of a movie at the time and ABC ended up losing $1 million on the deal. His decision might seem baffling if for not one fact. The Posieden Adventure was the first movie offered in an open auction bid. High powered executive from all three of the major networks were gathered in a room together and forced to bid on the right face to face. What started out as a calculated negotiation to purchase a product at the best price, quickly turned into a personal competition between those involved. More important than getting a good deal was not losing to the other bidders. At the end of bidding, the bidders themselves were astonished at what had happened. They could not believer how caught up they got in the frenzy of competition. Scarcity is a driving force in many of the decisions we make. When we correctly asses the value of a product, it’s useful in guiding our decisions. But the danger in scarcity is that it can easily skew the value we place on things. To avoid the dubious use of this tactic, one must become resistant to the pull that competition can have on our behavior.

Each of these weapons of influence, by themselves, has a powerful aspect on every aspect of our lives. But together, they can be and are used to devastating effect. The power in these weapons lies in the fact that most of the time they are extremely useful to us. They’re danger lies in the small amount of cases where they are not and those who exploit those opportunities. From used car salesman to con men to the Chinese government, compliance professionals have mastered these techniques to great effect. The lesson to be taken is not to resist these weapons in all cases but to understand them and when they are being used against our interest.

The Logic of Scientific Discovery
We begin with the problem of induction. Induction is the process of making universal claims from single or particular statements. Induction is generally considered to be the method by which the empirical sciences construct theories. However, Popper disputes that scientific knowledge can be generated in this way. He objects that no matter how many singular verifications of something one has, one cannot use induction to make a universal claim as there is always the possibility that it can be shown to be false. In this objection, he makes the distinction between verifiability and falsification. We can verify that white swans exist in each instance that we observe one but no matter how many white swans we observe, we cannot swans are only white. It would take only one instance of observing a black swan to falsify the claim that swans are only white. Popper asserts that falsifiability and not verification should be the basis of justifying scientific claims.

Rather than a principle of induction, Popper offers that empirical science should operate from a deductive method of testing. Under this method, conclusions regarding a theoretical system are drawn by means of logical deduction. When testing theories this way, four different lines of inquiry can be used. First conclusions can be logically compared between themselves to determine their relation to each other. Second, the logical structure of theory should be examined to determine if it has the form of a proper scientific theory. Third, the theory should be compared with other theories to determine whether it would constitute an advance of scientific knowledge if it holds up. Fourth and lastly, the theory should be tested empirically to determine if its conclusions should be upheld.

Without falsifiability as its method of verification, science does not have a suitable criterion of demarcation that distinguishes it from metaphysical speculation. This is known as the problem of demarcation. There are an infinite number of logical systems that can describe and infinite number of possible worlds. It is the job of empirical science to describe only one world, the real world, and the world of our experience. There are three requirements for science to be demarcated in this way. First, the system must be synthetic; it must be a non-contradictory system that can represent a possible world. Second, it must not be metaphysical; the possible world to be represented must be the world of our experience. Third, it must be distinguished from other systems as the system the represents our experience. Science meets these requirements by being submitted to tests and satisfying those tests. A theoretical system that meets the requirements if one that has falsifiability as it’s criterion of demarcation. Statements under this system must be conclusively decidable, they must be in a form where they can be verified or falsified in order to have meaning.

Once empirical science has been demarcated as a distinct system of inquiry, a method must be established for dealing with its statements and theories. The methodological rules to be established should be regarded as conventions. If the game of science were to be viewed like the game of Chess, two examples of its conventions could be given. First, the game of science is without end. Its statements are never established as certain. One who claims its statement as no longer subject to verifiability exits the game. Second, once a proposed hypothesis has been tested, it may not be eliminated without good reason. Good reason can be a statement that is better testable or a means of falsifying the original statement.

The purpose of scientific statements is to give causal explanation of experience. There are two kinds of statements in this regard, universal and singular. A singular statement states a particular case. “A weight of 2lb was put on this string which has a tensile strength of 1lb, causing it to break.” A universal statement would take the form of a law encompassing all strings. “Whenever a 2lb weight is put on a string with a tensile strength of 1lb, it will break.” Both of these statements entail initial conditions from which an outcome is caused. The universal statement in conjunction with the initial conditions allow us to make a singular prediction. “This string with a tensile strength of 1lb will break if a 2lb weight is placed on it.” These statements are premised on a principle of causality, that for any event, a causal explanation can be derived. Thus, a methodological rule of science should be that we must always seek a causal explanation for any event that we can describe and we must never give up the search for universal laws. These universal laws come in the form of two kinds of statements, strict universal statements and numerical universal statements. The strict kind claim to be true in all places at all times. “A human being can never exceed the height of 8ft.” The numerical kind makes claims about a finite class of specific elements and in a certain space at specific time. “Of all humans now living on earth it is true that their height never exceeds a certain amount.” Natural laws derived by science take the form of strict universal statements. In a related way, concepts also come in two forms, universal and individual. Dictator, planet, and weapon are all universal concepts, describing a class of thing. However, Napoleon, Earth, and Colt 45 are individual concepts in that they name a specific object within that class. Universal statements can be further divided into pure universal statements and existential ones. A statement like “All ravens are black” is clearly universal and pure in that it encompasses the whole class. However, “There are black ravens” is and existential statement in that it only speaks to the existence of the class. In addition, the negation of the previous statement, “There are not black ravens.” Is also and existential statement as it is making a claim about the state of existence of the class. Science relies on strictly universal statements because strictly universal statements cannot be falsified and are thus non empirical.

Science as theoretical system relies on series of assumptions called axioms. These axioms are from what all scientific statements are derived. For a system to properly axiomized, it must satisfy several requirements. First, no axiom must contradict another. Second the system must be independent, no axiom should capable of being derived from another, all axioms must serve as starting points. Third, axioms should be both sufficient and necessary to the statements derived, they should be enough but no more. This is known as parsimony.

Once a system meets the axiomatic requirements above and the criterion of falsifiability, it can be properly called scientific. A scientific system is one of testable and falsifiable statements. Its hypotheses are empirical and are inter-subjective in that they don’t rely on individual experience in order to be tested. A scientific method that meets these conditions is according to Popper, they only one that can contribute empirical knowledge about the world.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory
I argue that cognitive dissonance theory best explains and predicts peoples’ beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. This theory states that people experience mental discomfort when holding two or more conflicting ideas and have a motivational drive to eliminate this discomfort or dissonance. Cognitive dissonance theory was first proposed by Leon Festinger in 1956. He developed this theory while studying members of a UFO cult when reality contradicted their beliefs. The group “received” a message that the world would be destroyed in a flood on December 21, 1954 and that they would be rescued by an alien spaceship at midnight. When midnight passed, members of the group sat in silence for several hours. Eventually, a second message was “transmitted” through the leader of the group. The alien visitor said that the group had spread so much light that the group had been spared. After words, the group contacted local media to spread the good news when they previously had shunned all contact with the outside world. Festinger concluded that the group did this to eliminate the dissonance caused by the prophecy being wrong. He claims that by the group reaffirmed their beliefs by going to the public and spreading their message. In fact, by doing this, the members of the cult were even more committed to their beliefs afterward. Festinger says that there are five conditions in which an individual can become even more committed to their belief after it is disconfirmed. First, the belief must be deeply held and relevant to action. Second, the person must have committed to that belief by taking action that is difficult or impossible to undo. Third, the belief must be unambiguously disconfirmed. Fourth, the disconfirmation must be recognized by the holder of the belief. Fifth, the believer must have social support from other believers. When these conditions are met, the believer has strong pressure in the form of cognitive dissonance to become more committed to the belief because of the negative consequence of recognizing the belief is untrue. The effect of cognitive dissonance has immense implications in attempting to understand human behavior. It implies that we do not rationally calculate what is the most realistic worldview or most reasonable course of action, but rather make those decisions in a manner that is most consistent with what we already believe.

Cognitive dissonance is used to great effect in the area or persuasion. A persuader can guide someone to a new belief by showing how not accepting that belief would be inconsistent with what they already believe, causing cognitive dissonance. For example, if a person is asked if they are pro-life and they say yes, they are much more likely to donate money to a pro-life organization if subsequently asked. To not do so would be inconsistent with what they said that they support.

Related to cognitive dissonance is the Ben Franklin effect. This phenomenon occurs when we do a favor for someone we dislike. Doing a favor has the effect of increasing liking for that individual. Under dissonance theory, once we have done that favor, we have to reconcile the action with the attitude we hold towards that person. To eliminate the dissonance, we revise our attitude, thinking that the person isn’t so bad after all. The converse to the Ben Franklin effect is when we harm someone that we have positive feeling for. Sometimes, incurring harm on a person we like will cause us to like that person less, thinking that they deserved what happen to them.

Effort is another area where cognitive dissonance comes into play. The more effort we put into something, the more we value that action under the effort-justification paradigm. An example would be hazing. Hazing is a practice that despite its controversy is an institution present on every college campus in the country. Hazing rituals can be so brutal that as to cause death all too frequently. Under the effort-justification paradigm, this brutality is exactly why hazing continues to exist. Students who go through hazing suffer so much and put so much effort into the process that they must justify the practice by perpetuating it and hazing following students. Many young people simply cannot justify what they had gone through if it were not something valuable, so many in support of hazing will speak of how it builds community bonds or make one a stronger person. Similar effects are seen in military boot camps and tribal initiation rites around the world.

The underlying premise of cognitive dissonance is that people have a need to maintain a kind of mental homeostasis. An imbalance is created when our ideas and/or actions come into conflict with each other. This imbalance must be corrected by eliminating one of the conflicting components so we reframe things in a way where we regain our internal sense of consistency. This theory best describes behavior because it can predict behavior in many instances. It is supported by the real world examples above and can be demonstrated in many others.