Book review of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Dr Robert B. Cialdini

Book review of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Dr Robert B. Cialdini

The field of Psychology has always been of great interest to me for it helps one understand the root cause of one’s behaviour under certain condition. And many of us, including me, have fallen victims by saying ‘Yes’ on the spur of the moment to someone’s request and regret later about our response. 

So, the natural question is, why does our mind behave in a way that is not in our best interests, at times. Robert pinpoints to the six weapons of influence- Reciprocation, Commitment and Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, Authority, Scarcity- which propels us in making such automated decisions without application of mind.

A simple illustration as to how we easily fall prey to such auto-pilot response mode of our's is explained through the Contrast principle, where if a salesman shows you a cloth of cheaper value immediately after the one which is highly expensive, which he has no intention of selling, greater are the chances for you to buy the seemingly cheaper cloth, which is what the salesman actually wanted to sell.

According to the author, the events human encounter in his/her day-to-day life largely falls under similar patterns and hence once a method has been arrived at to tackle each of those events, we happily rely on those and take decisions quickly without resorting to analysing all over again. So, it is this affinity to our shortcuts and shirking away from the arduous task of thinking, aids the people who knows how best to wield the weapons of influence for their own best interests- selling of items, collecting donations etc.

To ward yourself off from falling prey to these tactics, you need to marshal strategies to combat the forces of the weapons of influence and for you to do this effectively, you must know how these forces operate on you:

1. Reciprocation – This rule says we should repay in kind what another person has provided us. We, infact, feel indebted as soon as we receive any gift from another person and urge to repay it. As Marcel Mauss, a French anthropologist, aptly describes the social pressure surrounding the gift-giving process, “There is an obligation to give, an obligation to receive and an obligation to repay”. This, at times, will be enforced by conmen to get something more precious from us by initiating a transaction by giving us a small gift of lesser value.

To counter this force, we should first identify the intention behind the initiator and once you suspect that there is an ulterior motive to extract something precious from us, we should stay alert and either return the gift or accept the gift but avoid committing on any obligation at your end.

2. Commitment and Consistency- We all want to appear consistent with our thoughts and deeds. This is a universal mentality. But as Emerson puts it in his essay ‘Self-reliance’, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”, if staying consistent jeopardizes our own self-interest, we should suitably change our stand. This nature of humans is well-exploited by many. In the Korean war, many Americans who were caught were imprisoned and they were forced to write down things in favour of Chinese. This was a well thought-out plan by Chinese as they made American war-men to assert their commitment to appeasement by writing it down, which was also publicized. It is a common perception that the person who stays consistent is held with high regards and most of us strive to be one.

To safeguard yourself from people who try to exploit using this principle, first and foremost step is to listen to your gut feeling. Though your mind pushes you to be consistent with your words and deeds, you stomach will flag it off the first instance your mind does something contrary to your gut instinct. It will never fail you!

3. Social Proof: According to this principle, one method to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. Say, you are planning to buy a commodity for the first time, and you find an advertiser of the commodity claiming it to be the ‘largest-selling product’, chances are higher that you trust his/her claim and then make your purchase. It is because, in the face of uncertainty, we are likely to act in a way in which other people do. There is a very grave side to this principle which is known as ‘Pluralistic Ignorance’, greatly evident in the event of an accident, where the onlookers generally look for cues from other bystanders. Every person thinks that another would help and this chain will result in none lending a helping hand.

Though social proof is a very good aid to tackle uncertainties, it is essential that we look up and around to figure out if acting like everyone does is really sensible or not.

4. Liking: This rule says we prefer to say ‘Yes’ to requests of someone we know and like. It is interesting to know what those factors are that make us like someone. Physical attractiveness (‘the halo effect’, where we extrapolate that if someone looks good, he/she must be good, too!), similarity (in background, caste, race etc), association with someone or something we like are some of the factors that triggers this principle. Also, we tend to like someone if he/she compliments us. As Dr Robert says, we are phenomenal suckers for flattery.

It is, therefore, critical to analyse what is in the deal or interaction for you, whenever you feel that you have become closer to someone or began liking someone in a very short span of time.

5. Authority: Obedience to proper authority is right and disobedience is wrong is a principle that is seeded into our minds as a child. Whatever your parent says or your manager says you are expected to oblige. If your doctor says swallow a pill, you have little choice but to push it down your throat. Many times this certainly works to our advantage as the person with authority have adequate experience or better access to substantial information which aids us in navigating many situations in life easily. We also have high regards for person with earned titles such as Dr, Police etc., Not just the titles, but attire of a person also garners respect from us, especially Police and Business suits. We should, however, note that fake practitioners could exploit using this authority symbol.

Whenever we encounter such authority (or seemingly authority) figures, we should first evaluate, whether the person  whom we have encountered is really an expert or a person of authority and then decide whether to cut short the interaction or continue but do so only by taking in the information with  a pinch of salt.

6. Scarcity:  As per this principle, the idea of a potential loss plays a major role in decision making. If something is rare or becoming rare, it is more valuable. This is why when we come across some product to be of limited stock, it will easily convince us of its scarcity and increase its value in our eyes. At times, salesmen corners the customer and force them to take the decision ‘Right Now’ by instilling the thought if not now then never. But you might wonder, why do we get this sudden arousal to immediate say ‘yes’ or click that darned ‘Buy Now’ button. The answer is simple but profound. It is our innate desire to exercise our full freedom and overcome any situation that tries to suppresses it. In fact, this urge to unshackle the suppressed freedoms is one of the main reasons behind the behaviour of lovers- the more their parents suppress their feelings, the more stronger the bond grows between the lovers. Limit the contact or stock, stronger the desire grows to attain it.

To outgrow this urge to impulsively acting upon the scarce commodities, ask yourself a simple question: Do I need this to get the joy of experiencing it or possess the commodity for the sake of it being scarce and satisfy my ego. If its former, you could go ahead and if its latter, its high time to abort the thought process and move on.

Even after mastering the ways and means through which these principles operate, very often in making a decision about someone or something, we don’t use all the relevant available information but rather use a subset of data points to take a call.

With ever increasing information overload in the form of ads by famous personalities, social media posts, etc it is important to judiciously use your discretionary powers to exercise a decision by consciously applying the above principles, whenever you suspect that your opponent is trying to exploit your weakness for urge to take shortcuts for decision making. 

Dr Robert has lucidly explained all these and much more with ample illustrations and results of real-time experiments to highlight the force of the weapons of influence on our brains. If you liked the review and desire to know more on the weapons of influence, you could pick your copy by clicking on this link: 


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