Monthly Archives: October 2007

Wrapping up “Influence”

After blogging heavily about “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” by Robert Cialdini, I just want to make a few wrap-up notes.

One great summary of the book is Cialdini’s six basic tenets of how influence works on the Influence blog (which is also a good source for continued discussion of the topic).

Persuasion is about getting people to say “yes.” It can be done with integrity or with duplicity, and there’s a fair amount of gray area. But if we want to make change in the world, at a fundamental level we are in the persuasion business.

If you don’t agree with me, that’s fine. Let me buy you a cup of coffee and we’ll talk about it.

We don’t have enought scarcity

The last chapter of by “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” by Robert Cialdini talks about the role that scarcity plays in persuasion.

People want things that are in short supply.

In particular, people want things that they used to have but no longer do.

Here’s one way sales staff misuse this tool. They’ll have an item on the showroom at a sale price, so people will look at it, start to get interested, and then the salesperson will say, “we’ve just sold our last one.”

There’s the scarcity. It used to be an option for them, but they no longer have the option. Now it is even more desirable.

So here’s how the salesperson finishes the trap. He’ll say, “I can check if our other stores have any left, but before I do, I want to know that you’re interested in buying it if I find one.” Now they’ve blended scarcity with commitment. The people have gone from mildly interested to covetous and committed to buying the now-scarce item.

What does this mean for organizers?

We’re certainly not going to manipulate people like an unscrupulous dishwasher salesman, but we can still use scarcity to our advantage–and do so with integrity. Part of it is just letting people know what scarcity there is. “Just 5 tickets left.” “We’ve almost sold out of peace calendars–buy yours today.”

Truthfully, though, this principle is harder for us to use. We just don’t have enough scarcity.

Maybe we should make more.

Authority is persuasive. Get over it.

Persuasion is getting people to say “yes,” and if somebody tells you to “get out of your car with your hands up,” are you more likely to listen to a police officer or a bank teller?

As progressives, we may not like this power of authority, but it’s a reality,  as Robert Cialdini explains in “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.”

Thankfully, there are many sources of authority. The police officer has one type, but there’s also moral authority, like that exhibited by religious leaders and humanitarians. There’s knowledge authority, which is seen in scientists and researchers.

Our job is to recognize what types of authority are available to us and how we can use them with integrity.

Integrity and effectiveness.

Cialdini tells us that titles, clothes, and trappings are three cues that help people recognize and respond to authority. The title “doctor.” The priests’ robe and collar. The attourney’s Brooks Brothers suit. These are all cues that we use to identify people in positions of authority.

What does this mean? If we’re using the moral authority of a pastor, she should wear her collar or other vestments. We should call her “reverend.” We should bring out all the cues that will let our audience know “hey, here’s someone with authority. Listen to her.”

Making allies out of adversaries: contact and cooperation as tools for persuasion

I attended the United World College of the American West, which is a school based on a noble but incomplete premise. The idea is that if we bring people from different countries and cultures together, they will learn about each other, build international understanding, and be a force for peace in the world.

It’s a great idea, but it’s not quite that simple. In “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” Robert Cialdini explains why.

In his chapter on liking, he talks about the role of contact and cooperation, and specifically an experiment in creating adversity of cooperation among boys at summer camp.

The study authors found it quite easy to create hostility and competiveness between two groups of boys: separating them into houses, naming the houses, and having contests between houses all increased animosity between the boys.

It wasn’t so easy to undo this hostility, however. Simple contact wasn’t enough. After creating this sense of rivalry, if they just brought the boys together, the animosity came forward. If they tried to have shared lunches, they turned into food fights.

To create a sense of camaraderie, the researchers needed to manufacture situations when they boys needed to cooperate. For example, the camp bus got “stuck,” and all the boys needed to cooperate to push it out. Or they wanted to rent a popular movie, but they were told that neither house had enough money to rent it on their own.

By orchestrating a series of encounters like this where the boys had to cooperate across house lines to achieve a goal they all cared about, the researchers were able to overcome the hostility they had built up between the two groups.

Contact alone wasn’t enough. They needed cooperation.

What does this mean for organizing:

  • Desegregation isn’t enough. We need to look for ways to create diverse cooperative communities if we hope to see race relations improve.
  • Coalition work is an important part of building a just world. When diverse coalitions come together, the cooperation to achieve a shared goal helps bridge the gap between communities that have been in conflict.
  • Dialog is not enough. A lot of interfaith and anti-racist work focuses on dialog. It assumes we can talk our way out of oppression and to common ground. Dialog is important, but we will probably get farther with cooperation for a shared goal (which also relates to the commitment and consistency principle).

How can you be persuasive? Be likable!

I’m continuing my analysis of “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” by Robert Cialdini and what it means for community organizers.

Sometimes you don’t need a Ph.D. to tell you this stuff. In chapter 5 he makes a basic point: people are more likely to say “yes” to people they like.

So, the first organizing lesson from this chapter is simple: don’t be a jerk.

Those are the basics. Thankfully there’s more.

For example, Cialdini talks about the role that attractiveness plays in liking. Simply put, we’re more likely to say “yes” to someone who we find attractive.

I guess we didn’t need a Ph.D. to tell us that either. I saw it when I canvassed for U.S. PIRG and the women talked about how they raised more money when they wore low-cut tops.

Cialdini also identifies similarity as a factor. We tend to like people who are more like us. Again, no surprise here. That’s why “like organizes like.” If you want to organize Catholics, send a Catholic. If you wnat to organize restraunt workers, a restaurant worker will be most successful.

What else contributes to liking? There’s also compliments. As my friend Jamie Browning says, “flattery will get you everywhere.”

These are the simple parts, Cialdini also describes more subtle factors, like conditioning and association. That is, people tend to like things associated with other things they like. Hence the scantily clad models in beer comercials. At a subconscious level, there is an association of “scantily clad women are good, so the beer must be good as well.” It seems silly, but it works.

There’s one more part of liking the Cialdini references, contact and cooperation, but that one is interesting enough to be worth it’s own post.

Use “Social Proof” to make for more effective events

One more observation about social proof, as described in “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” by Robert Cialdini. It can be extremely powerful at events.

For example, a few weeks ago I was visiting a church to give a workshop for their adult Sunday School, so I attended their worship service before hand. As with most churches, they passed around the offering plate, and I had to decide “do I put some money in?”

What did I do to decide? I looked around me to see how many other people were putting their money in the plate. I relied on social proof. And when I saw a lot of people not putting money in the plate, I figured I could get by doing the same.

Now, I’m sure most of the folks who passed the plate on are giving to the church, but I didn’t see that. Social proof told me it was okay not to put money in the plate.

Lots of people make the same decisions when they attend an event. They look around to find out “should I wear a nametag? Should I sign in? Should I give my email? Should I make a donation?”

That’s why a smart event organizer makes sure that enough people know what they are doing at an event that other people copy them. They know to wear a nametag. They know to write clearly when they sign in and to give their full contact information. They know to give a donation.

That way, when the people who don’t know what to do come in, they see good examples of people who are fully participating in the event and modeling the behavior you want from everyone.

One way I use this at events is to never send around a blank clipboard. I always sign it first, and I always fill out it out completely and check the “I want to get more involved” box. That way, when the next person takes the clipboard and wonders “should I give my email,” they see that yes, they should. After all, that’s what the first person did.

Why leadership makes followers: the power of social proof

I grew up in a logging town in northern Wisconsin where there wasn’t much interest in pristine etiquette. Indeed, too much formality was scoffed at.

So in college when I attended my first formal dinner, I spent the whole meal watching what everyone else was doing. I figured they knew how to behave in a setting like this, and I knew I certainly didn’t.

As social beings, we humans decide a lot of how we should behave or what we think by looking around at people like us to see what they do. That’s why laugh tracks on sitcoms work so well. Robert Cialdini calls this “social proof” in his book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.”

Usually, this process of watching what everyone else is doing works well enough, but sometimes it fails.

For example, in 1964 there was a notorious murder in New York. The murder took a half hour to complete because the killer was scared off twice but finished the murder the third time. All this took place in front of 38 witnesses, none of whom did anything until after the murder. They didn’t call out “stop that.” They didn’t even call the police until after the woman was dead.

Cialdini does a great job exploring the research that uncovered why there was not response, and I highly recommend reading the whole book. The conclusion they found is that is was precisely because there were 38 witnesses that nobody responded. Just like looking around at the formal dinner table to see which fork to use, they were all looking at each other to see what they should do.

This breakdown of social proof is called “pluralistic ignorance,” and it is most pronounced when bystanders face uncertainty, especially when:

  •  they are uncertain of the nature of the event;
  • they are uncertain about how to respond; and
  • they are uncertain who should respond, or if anyone has.

I think this has important implications for anti-racist and nonviolence work. I know I’ve found myself in a situation where someone has made inapproriate comments and I’ve been paralyzed by the uncertainty above. I’ve wondered:

  • Is this racist?
  • How should I respond?
  • Is it my place to respond?

There’s an opportunity here, then to help people intervene in cases of racism by overcoming these uncertainties. When we teach them how to identify racist comments, how to effectively respond, and why it is their duty to respond, we help them overcome the uncertainties that would prevent them from acting.

And whats more, we begin to turn social proof to our favor. Then, while everyone else is looking around to figure out “what do I do when someone uses the N-word,” they see social proof for actively responding rather than just letting it pass.

It’s an example of grassroots, micro-level leadership. And it can help produce followers (or better yet, future leaders) for justice.

Get them to act: the power of commitment and consistancy

As progressives, we tend to spend too much time trying to get people to think what we want them to think rather than to do what we want them to do.

In fact, we’ll often be more successful if we first focus on getting people to act, then focus on the beliefs behind that action.

Robert Cialdini explains why this is in the book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.” Chapter 3 of this book focuses on “commitment and consistency.” It shows how once somebody makes a public commitment or takes a clear action, they are then much more likely to think it was the right thing to do and to take similar actions in the future.

Here’s an example. At a racetrack, betters are likely to be much more sure of a horse’s chances of winning after buying a ticket then before. The action of buying a ticket and betting on a specific horse helps convince them that the horse will win.

What does this mean for community organizing?

It means that we should focus on getting people to take a clear action or to make a public commitment to the issues we’re working on.

Let’s take the war in Iraq. We could argue all day about the stupidity of the war just like we could argue all day about which horse will win in a race.  And after all that talk, the person will still probably be more or less undecided.

Or, we could try to get someone to take an action (come to a rally, sign a petition, write a letter to Congress) saying the war is wrong. And just like betters are more sure of their horse after placing a bet, the person will be more solidly opposed to the war after taking an action. In both cases, they’ve made a commitment and their mind will try to be consistent with that action.

And here’s where I also get on my soap box about follow-up. After they take that first action, I see a window of time where you can come back to them and say, “Thank you for signing that petition. It’s important that there are people like you who are willing to speak out against this war. To keep moving on this, we need you to …” This follow-up reinforces that initial commitment and increases the person’s desire to be consistent.

Reciprocity and favors as a tool for persuasion

Why are conferences and trade shows filled with people giving away cheap plastic crap?

The answer is the power of reciprocity.

In “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” Robert Cialdini shows how receiving a “gift” makes a person want to give back and complete the cycle of reciprocity.

This desire to balance give and take is an essential part of human survival. It makes complex society possible. And it can be used, and sometimes misused, as a tool of persuasion.

First, let’s give an example of how it can be misused. Amway has this con they play where they tell their sellers to create a sample tray of products: furniture polish, shampoo, detergent, etc., and to leave it with friends and neighbors saying “I just want you to try these products for free, no obligation, to see if you like them. I’ll be back in a few days to pick them up and see if you want them.”

The response? People bought lots more product than they would otherwise. Not because the products were better or cheaper or cooler than the store products. Instead, after they got the “gift” of the free use of products, they felt the need to reciprocate by buying some.

Okay, I’m a liberal so it’s automatic that Amway (and the DeVos family that runs it) is considered unscrupulous. But the same thing has happened to me with wine tastings. If I go to a free wine tasting, it’s awfully hard for me not to buy a bottle. Reciprocity strikes again!

Here’s the take-home message for me: be generous. Freely share contacts, give support, make donations, and volunteer time and information. Help a lot of people without keeping score or evaluating how they can help you. Give freely. There will come a time when many of these gifts will come back to you.

I know, that sounds like some sort of soft-minded goodness-of-the-universe-and-karmic-love bunk, but it’s not without backing.  Reciprocity is why Lyndon Johnson was able to get so much controversial legislation like the Civil Rights Act through Congress. In his years in the House and Senate, he did lots of favors for people. As president, that favor debt helped him get his bills passed.

Malvina Reynolds sang, “Love is something when you give it away, you end up having more.”  Malvina was right, and the power of reciprocity is why.

Reason and persuasion: you need a reason, but not necessarily a good one

(a continuation of my notes on Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini.)


Just tell me that you’ll tell me why?


People are more likely to say “yes” to a request if they have been given a reason for the request.


Okay, we don’t need a Ph.D. to tell us that, but what is surprising is that often the reason itself isn’t important, what’s important is that there is a reason.


For example, in Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion, Cialdini gives an example of a study where people waiting in line at a copier were asked to let someone in ahead of them.


When the asker just said, “Excuse me, I have five pages, may I use the Xerox machine,” people said yes 60 percent of the time. But when she gave a reason and said “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush,” they said yes 94 percent of the time.


No surprise there.


But when they change things up, things start to get interesting. In a different test, rather than saying “because I’m in a rush,” the asker said, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies,” people said yes 93 percent of the time.




This shows how important it is to give a reason for our actions, even if it’s not a complete or useful explanation. Saying “because I need to make some copies” doesn’t add any information, of course she wants to make some copies. But it does trigger something in the listener that makes them more likely to say yes.


The lesson here is simple. Give people a reason to say yes. Always.


I wish this worked that well for fundraising. “Excuse me, I work for ICPJ. Can you make a $5,000 donation because I need to make some copies?”