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The Six Principles of Influence

In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini lays out six key principles of influence. Each of these principles describe key factors in how people are influenced. This post will list the six principles and give a brief description of each. I recommend the book highly. I’ve added it to our Recognizing Christ Recommends page. It’s a tough read but there’s a ton of good stuff in it.

The six principles are:

  1. Reciprocation
  2. Commitment and Consistency
  3. Social Proof
  4. Liking
  5. Authority
  6. Scarcity

1. Reciprocation is the basic principle of quid pro quo (the voice of Hannibal Lecter shows up in my mind as I type those words): “I did something for you, now you do something for me.” People will use this on you all the time. I’m sure you’ve met people who you don’t want to take a favor from because you know they’ll expect something in return. The key to countering the principle of reciprocation (the way to say “no” after someone’s evoked something they did for you in the past) is to remember that if someone is using reciprocation as a “trick” in order to put you in their debt, then you have no obligation to go along with the trick. Cialdini calls this a simple act of “redefinition.” That person didn’t do you a favor. They tried to play a trick on you. Don’t be afraid to tell them so.

2. Commitment and Consistency is the principle that people will normally try to be consistent with previous commitments they’ve made. That is, let’s say, if you have previously committed to be a strong environmentalists, you’ll likely listen to the person who tries to get you to donate to some environmental organization. You’ll tend to be consistent with commitments you’ve previously made in your mind or with your words. But if that’s not a commitment of yours, then it’s not as big a deal. You will just tune them out.

Cialdini summarizes the principle: “Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision” (p. 57).

He uses a fascinating illustration involving American prisoners of war in WWII. The Chinese government knew that most of these soldiers wouldn’t betray their country. So instead of asking them to simply trash the U.S. in writing, they started with small requests and worked their way up. They started by saying, “Is America perfect?” The soldier would inevitably answer, “No.” Once the soldier made that commitment, they would force him to be consistent with it: “You admit America is not perfect, so could you give us some examples of how it’s not perfect.” And then the onslaught begins. Well, we’re materialistic. We have a lot of lying politicians. Our prison system is broken, etc. So by the end of the conversation, their words are construed to present America as nothing but a bunch of greedy, lying, no good scoundrels. And propaganda is born. That’s how commitment and consistency can be used in a negative way.

3. Social Proof is the principle that we will look to the society or setting or context around us to validate whether or not we should do something. It’s the old “everybody’s doing it” idea. Cialdini uses the example of laugh tracks played during sitcoms. They’re cheesy. And I doubt anybody likes them. But all the research shows that they work. When we hear other people laughing, we’re more likely to laugh ourselves. Cialdini also uses Billy Graham as an example. He documents that Graham’s altar calls often involved “ringers” These people who were predetermined to go forward would serve to make other people feel more comfortable in going forward.

4. Liking is the principle that we are more likely to say “yes” to someone we actually like. Not much to say about this one. The way to counter this is that if you realize you’re only doing something because you like the person who wants that thing from you, you need to actually state that as your reason for saying no.

5. Authority is the principle that we will obey authority. If someone holds authority over you, you’re more likely to comply with what they want from you. The principle of defense here is to make sure someone is actually an authority before you accept their authority. If you’re inclined to listen to someone because they pose as an authority (let’s say they have a lot of degrees or have a big following or call themselves experts in their fields), do some digging to make sure they’re all that they claim to be. Fake degrees from garbage schools exist for a reason.

6. Scarcity is the principle that the possibility of losing, or not being able to acquire, something makes it more valuable. Cialdini actually starts this chapter with a quote by G.K. Chesterton: “The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.” The principle can be summarized with this quote: “The idea of potential loss plays a large role in human decision making. In fact, people seem to be more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value” (p. 238).

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Knowing these principles of influence is helpful for the purpose of influencing people. But it’s equally as important for resisting unwanted influence. Salesmen want to use the scarcity principle on us to get us to buy something at a higher price than it’s worth. Or to get us to buy it now instead of waiting. They’ll get us to make verbal commitments and then implicitly calls us to be consistent with those commitments. You get the idea. Knowing is half the battle.