More than 30 years ago, a young assistant professor of psychology at the Arizona State University came to the notice of the business world with his book Influence: The Psychology Of Persuasion. Robert B. Cialdini had done extensive academic research, and had also worked undercover in several professions that persuade, like car sales and insurance, to observe first-hand what works and what doesn’t in matters of persuasion. The six principles of persuasion set out in the book have since become classic tools. Cialdini is now back with his second book, Pre-suasion: A Revolutionary Way To Influence And Persuade, which examines the context of persuasion.
In a phone interview, the 71-year-old professor at the University of Arizona, US, talks about the inspiration behind both his books. Edited excerpts:
Why such a big gap?
I waited 30 years because I never had an idea big enough to compete with Influence. And I didn’t want to write something that would be merely planting a set of bushes around the tree that Influence had become.
What was the inspiration for ‘Pre-suasion’?
Something happened with me personally. One day there was a knock at my door. Outside stood a man who asked me to contribute for a school programme for children. He didn’t show any credentials and I had never heard of his programme but I gave him more money than I normally would have. When I shut the door, I thought to myself, what just happened? I realized that the reason I gave him so much money was because he had brought his seven-year-old daughter with him. Just with that he focused my attention on children and children’s issues. I felt this was worth studying in a systematic way. This was different to what we as behavioural scientists had been always trained to look at—the ability to persuade inside the boundaries of the message.
In what way is it possible to move others in our direction ?
It’s possible to move others in our direction by saying or doing just the right thing immediately before we want them to respond. If we want them to buy a box of expensive chocolates, we can first arrange for them to write down a number that’s much larger than the price of the chocolates. If we want them to choose a bottle of French wine, we can expose them to French background music before they decide.
If we want them to agree to try an untested product, we can inquire whether they consider themselves adventurous.
As the guru of persuasion, what question are you asked most often?
People always ask me which one of the six principles of persuasion—reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking and scarcity—from Influence is the most important one. The answer is no single principle works by itself.
You have been conducting workshops that teach how to influence people. Any trends you have observed in these workshops?
When we first started, we had people in sales, marketing and advertising. More recently, we have found senior managers and executives attending who tell us that persuasion inside the organization is just as important to the bottom line.