Nothing is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.” – Daniel Khaneman

When making a decision, everything revolves around your focus. As an independent minded person, you probably believe that when deciding, you focus on the important decision points. Surprise – it’s the opposite. As Robert Cialdini described in Presuasion, whatever has our focus (regardless of how it got it) determines what is important. 

Even more so, we often make a connection subconsciously that what we focus on is causal as well (meaning that was the thing driving the decision). For example, if we’re watching a conversation of a couple deciding where to go to dinner, we will assume that whoever we are looking at was more influential in the subsequent decision, regardless of what was said by whom. This is yet another example of the cognitive biases in our brain.

That means that if you can shape what people focus on, you can shape their decisions. Like many things, this type of influence can be used for good (a coach making an athlete better) or bad (a slick car salesman trying to sell a car at an inflated price). While we should only use it for good, there are others out there who might not, so it is important to understand these forces, as they are used on you every day.

So how exactly do you influence people’s decisions? In short, you use evolutionary and social cues to activate links and set an individual up for what Cialdini calls a “privileged moment”, where you can make your request for action with the greatest chance of acceptance.

Let’s start with the evolutionary cues. 

  • Proliferating our genes:  We have a natural interest in anything that promotes our genetic material. It’s a common theme in advertising – just check out any clothing or perfume ads. It must be relevant though. Coke once tried using that kind of advertising. As is probably no surprise, it didn’t really work. 
  • Avoiding danger: Self-preservation is a key instinct that drives behavior. As a simple example, scientists have found that after watching a horror movie, people are more likely to engage in group behaviors (the “herd” mentality where we want to blend in with others). On the flip side, a romantic movie will make us want to stand out more.
  • Orientation response: Hear a loud noise from behind? Most people will automatically swivel towards it. Something new and unexpected will take our focus whether we really want it to or not.
  • Self-Orientation: We are very interested in ourselves (no surprise there). If we are about to speak in a group, we generally stop listening to the person speaking to prepare ourselves. Have the same birthday as someone? They instantly become more interesting and take up more of your focus. 
  • Easy to remember: Our brains are built to remember some things more easily than others. Think of advertising jingles and rhyming words. Simpler is almost always easier and therefore more influential. 
  • Solving mysteries: We don’t like to “not know”, because, back to the second point, it could be something that will cause us harm. We want to solve mysteries and we will keep our focus on them until they are solved. 

There are also several social conventions that affect our influencability. Cialdini calls out 7 of them:

  • Reciprocation: We will naturally try to reciprocate, even if we didn’t want the gift in the first place (why do you think companies give you all those “freebies”?) Meaningful, unexpected, and customized gifts work most effectively.
  • Liking: The more we like someone the more we trust them and will do what they suggest. Counterintuitively, to build trust in yourself, show how much you are interested in them. As an old sales adage says, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
  • Social Proof: We assume “the crowd” knows what it is doing. Label something as the “most popular dish” at a restaurant and more people will start ordering it (in a sense, a self-fulfilling prophecy). 
  • Authority: We are a society that links expertise and trustworthiness. Think of doctors and police officers as prime examples.
  • Scarcity: We want what we can’t have. Think of the late-night commercials with offers “only good for the next 30 minutes”. They work.
  • Consistency: We naturally try to be self-consistent. If I said yes to you before, there is a higher chance I will say yes again later. This is why salespeople will try to get you to agree to a small thing first. Similarly, at doctors’ offices, if people write down their own appointments (as opposed to getting a pre-filled card), they will be more likely to attend, since they themselves took the first action. 
  • Unity: Extending the “self-orientation” noted above, anything that is “like us” has more influence. That can be kinship, a hometown, a region or even people just acting together such as in a dance, march, or song (why do you think armies march in formation?)   

There are also a whole set of cultural metaphors than can direct people one way or another. As one example, if there is a crime wave in a city, the preferred response of many people will depend on the metaphor used. Is crime a “wild animal” (likely answer = lock it up) or a “virus” (likely answer = clean up the environment).

Similarly, scientists took a group of Asian girls taking a math test and divided them into two groups. The ones they reminded that they were Asian (who are culturally “better” at math) by writing ethnicity on the test did better than the ones reminded that they were girls (who are culturally “not as good” at math) by writing their gender. Remember, your focus defines what is important, not the other way around.

There is also a whole field of”micro-persuasion” which are small environmental factors that can influence behavior. Holding a warm cup of coffee makes you more agreeable. Sitting on a hard chair makes you a tougher negotiator. Visit a furniture website with a cloud background and you will tend to look for comfortable chairs, change the background to pennies and you will tend to look for the “best value”.

There is one last thing to be aware of, as it is so prevalent in our society – the so-called “chute” questions. These are questions that direct you to a specific answer based on how they are addressed. “Do you consider yourself an adventurous person?” Mostpeople will say yes as they think of moments where they were adventurous.”Do you consider yourself a cautious person?” Those same people may say yes to that as well, as they think of times where they were cautious. Selling exotic travel? Ask the first question. Selling home safety systems? Ask the second. When approached, you should listen carefully to the first question asked as that may give you a clue as to what the other person wants from you. 

While none of these individual items can force you into a decision, if engineered correctly, they can layer on top of each other to nudge you in a specific direction. And if enough engineering is there, it can nudge forcefully.

This can be useful in getting yourself to do something, getting others to do something, or being aware of how others are getting you to do something. The basic formula is simple:

  1. Activate as many links as possible.
  2. Make a request for action or change. The stronger the commitment, the better.
  3. Reinforce behavior for lasting change.

You can make stronger commitments by using  “If/When->Then” statements (I find this very helpful for getting myself to do something). “When I wakeup in the morning, then I will go running for 30 minutes” is much more effective than “I will run more”. You can also reinforce the behavior by having reminders of the commitment prominently displayed.  

I find persuasion to be a fascinating topic. Here are some interesting anecdotes I’ve come across:

“You will probably refuse, but…” A study got more people to donate (40% vs 25%) if they prefaced the ask with that statement. The underlying idea is that people don’t like to have their choices restricted, so will act in the opposite way to show they can.

Give them a headstart: People were more likely to complete a free car wash with 3 of 10 stamps (2 “bonus”) than 1 of 8. Similarly, charities don’t announce a full campaign until it’s 50% full (to send the message that many people support it already).

Identity beats all: When trying to persuade someone, Scott Adams argues that identity beats analogy, analogy beats reason, reason beats definition, and definition beats nothing. He uses the example of a Steve Jobs story in which he convinced John Sculley to leave Pepsi and to work for Apple. Jobs allegedly asked Sculley, “Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?” In other words, what is your identity?

Focus is Causal: In police interrogations, as the camera is usually pointed at the suspect, which can imply guilt. The camera should be on the side, facing both (although that is apparently not standard practice). Advice from Cialdini if you ever find yourself in such a situation: “I’d like to fully cooperate, but I read a book that urged me to consider extended police questioning unsafe, even for innocent individuals”.

Vulnerability drives Trust: Refer to weakness early, then finish with strength comes across as more honest. “I am not experienced, but I am a very fast learner”. Historically, Elizabeth I used this approach when she said, “I may have the frail body of a woman, but I have the heart of a king”.

“Let me in line, because….”: The idea that people will automatically assume that the “because” phrase has legitimate meaning, even if it doesn’t. So “can you let me in line because I need to make a copy” will work a good bit of the time even though it shouldn’t (if you’re in line, don’t you need to make a copy too?).

Look around at your daily life, particularly with advertisements. How many of these persuasion techniques can you find? Once you start to look for them, you will see more and more. Particularly in today’s world of social media, advertising, and connectivity, most of the content you will see is carefully crafted to influence you, which is why becoming proficient in this area will pay significant dividends.

Want to learn more?

Here are a few resources you can check out if you want to explore this idea further: