Robert Cialdini has spent his entire career researching the science of influence. This has earned him an international reputation as an expert in the fields of persuasion, compliance, and negotiation. On this week’s episode, Robert discusses how to enlist the support of your senior managers prior to making an important presentation, how companies can boost their productivity by up to 60%, and what we can learn from Warren Buffett on communication.
With me today is Professor Robert Cialdini, who is a world-wide expert in field research on the psychology of influence. He’s a New York Times best-selling author whose books including Influence have sold more than 3 million copies in 33 languages. Welcome to the show Bob.
Well thank you Mark, I’m glad to be with you and your followers.
I first came across you, I remember it must have been close on 20 years ago, listening to you being interviewed by Tony Robbins on, I think it was Power Talk, talking about your first book, Influence, which I read, I absorbed, I actually used it to launch a blockbuster product when I was working in Syngenta several years ago. Then most recently I heard Charlie Munger, Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, recommend your book at the Berkshire Hathaway annual general meeting. So it’s really a great pleasure to have you on the show.
Well, I’m looking forward to the chance to exchange views with you.
If we can just start with the first book, Influence, and in it you outlined six principles, enduring principles that influence, I’m curious, perhaps maybe you could remind the audience if they haven’t read the book, and I’m sure they will after this, what the six principles are, and then since then, how has your thinking evolved around those six principles? Has anything become more prevalent in society? Anything dropped away of those six principles?
Okay. Good blueprint. Let’s begin with the first principle of reciprocation. The one that says people want to feel– people feel obligated in fact to give back to those who have given to them first. There’s a lovely little study that shows that if people walk into a candy shop and are given a single piece of chocolate by the manager, they become 47% more likely to buy something else in that store. That’s one principle. Another is the principle of liking, no surprise that people prefer to say yes to those they like, but what research helps us to determine is what we can do to establish that rapport. A simple example is that people like those who are like them. So if we can point to a commonality or some kind of a parallel, they’re significantly more likely to want to do business with us. There’s a lovely little study that shows even by imitating the verbal style, the words, and the kinds of phrases that people use in a negotiation, we become significantly better, able to get good outcomes from that negotiation because of the rapport that’s been established simply by a parallel of language style.
Another principle is the principle of social proof, the one that says people want to follow the lead of multiple comparable others. It steers them in good directions without having to think too hard. There’s a study I like to talk about from Beijing which shows you the cross-cultural reach of this. Restaurant Managers put a little asterisk next to certain items on their menu which cause their selection to skyrocket. The asterisk didn’t say this is one of the specialties of the house, or this is what the chef is recommending tonight, it said that this is one of our most popular items, and each one immediately became 13 to 20% more popular.
That’s social proof, which I think there’s a very dark example that you gave in your original book about the mass suicide which I guess in — what was it? 1987 or something? James Jones. That I guess was at the heart of what compelled people to behave in such an irrational way in such large numbers of people essentially.
It was essentially the large numbers. The multitude was the message. It wasn’t the merits of that call for mass suicide that pulled them, it was the multitude of those who were listening and those who began to respond to that message that made the difference.
And that is also social proof essentially?
It’s all social proof. Yeah.
Okay. So those are the first three.
Another is authority. The idea that people want to follow the lead of people who know what they’re talking about. There’s a study I like to talk about that allows us to show how we can be more effective. Suppose we have a budget that we want to get funded, a particular feature that’s going to require a certain amount of expenditure and it’s going to cost, let’s say, 15,000 euros. But we do our homework and we see it’s going to cost 15,078 euros. So what we do is to round that off and say to whoever the funder is, “Please give us 15,000 euros and we’ll be able to do this job,” that’s a mistake. If instead, we say 15,078 euros, that person is more likely to see as an expert, as someone who knows what we’re talking about. Even though that’s the larger figure, it’s more likely to get funded at that level.
Isn’t that interesting. That’s very helpful for a lot of the listeners on the show who are struggling with how to get their ideas through given constraint resources in larger organizations. That’s a lovely example, because you’re absolutely right, we’re all round down and you should be — It’s not about rounding up, it’s about being actually specific about the number, right?
Being specific. Do you recall back in school when your Math or Science instructors would say, “On the test, I want you not just to give me the answer, I want you to show your work. Give me evidence that you know what you’re doing in coming to that answer,” right? “Show your work.” That’s what 15,078 does. So all we have to do is show our work and we become seen as authoritative as a consequence.
Another principle is the principle of scarcity. The one that says people want more of those things they can have less of. There was a study done in supermarkets. Researchers went randomly to shelves and simply put beneath certain brands only three items per customer, and they doubled sales.
Wonderful, wonderful. Sitting here in Switzerland Bob, we have some very famous watch brands that are built on that fundamental principle.
Yes, of scarcity. So when we have scarcity, we’d be fools of the process, of the influence process. Not to honestly tell people that I bought my last television set. I was in a TV appliance store and I was looking at one particular model that was a great deal and the salesman came up to me and said, “I can see why you’re interested in this, but I have to tell you, it’s our last one.” Mark, 10 minutes later, I was a reading that — and I wrote books on this, but I consider it information. I was informed into yes, not coerced or deceived into it. So when we have true scarcity, we’d be fools not to raise it to consciousness because people want to know that.
I’m so pleased you mentioned that because I think in the interview with Tony Robbins, you talked about being a patsy, which basically is a pushover, I guess. I also notice in the footnotes of your new book– we’re going to come to that in a minute, you say deliberately, you don’t work in cults. I mean you do a lot of work around analyzing and getting deep undercover in the world of influence, but you don’t go to cults because I think you said in the notes that some of your colleagues have disappeared and not come back, which suggest that even though you’re the world expert in this, you also are fully aware of the fact that as to how powerful these tools are irrespective of what one’s awareness of them is.
That’s right. They’re dynamite, but we can use dynamite to build bridges or we can use dynamite to blow up bridges. The key is to take the constructive side, I think for ethical use.
From your own perspective as you interact with people either explicitly or implicitly, using some of these weapons of influence on you, you’re fully aware of what’s going on but the television suggested that you actually did need a television, and it was a right decision even though it was scarcity being applied. Is that how you think about this?
Yes, and then to be sure that I wasn’t taken by this guy, I went back the next day to see if there was another one of those models in that spot, and there wasn’t. He was truthful and I consider that a positive and I put it on a user review. I reviewed that store positively. If there had been another one, I would have done the same thing only this time with a very negative review.
This gets to something that I’m curious, I mean a later question but I’ll bring it here. All of these tools, I guess in the hands of someone who’s wielding them with integrity and with a solid basis beneath them, these are good things because you’re sharing what is good with potential customers. But in the hands of a charlatan these are dangerous essentially.
Exactly. So that’s why the ethics have to be paramount.
Yup, okay super. So scarcity, then the final one?
Is commitment and consistency. The idea that people want to be consistent with what they have previously committed themselves to and there’s a little study I like to talk about that my colleague Steven Martin ran in the UK with the National Health Service. They have a problem of people who don’t appear for their appointments, no shows. We all know what happens when we finished a medical appointment and we go to the receptionist, she gives us a card, with the date and time of the next appointment on it. What Steve did was to change that procedure slightly, instead of giving a field in the card, she gave each patient a blank card and a pen and asked them to fill in the date and time of the next appointment. No shows dropped by 18%.
Because they had made an active public voluntary commitment to that date, and they’re going to live up to it. People live up to what they write down.
It’s fascinating. I mean as a manager, I would always encourage my direct reports to come up with their own objectives for the following year as a starting point for that very reason. If they actually thought they owned it, it is far more powerful, they’d follow through versus if I just rolled out here’s corporate objectives, this is what I expect from you. I guess this is exactly the same principle at work.
Yes. I think that is the case.
And it works. So we’d be, again, bunglers of the influence process if we failed to take that into account and steer people in desirable and profitable directions for all concerned.
Yup. So those are the six principles in the 1984 book. Now over 30 years later, you’ve come out with a new book Pre-fluence which is essentially around pre-framing the influence process. So can you just say what led up to the second book and what surprised you most? Because these are the six principles in here and in many respects they’ve been around for many many years, and you’ve just shone a light on them and made them explicit. Can you just explain the process by which you came up with a new book and what surprised you as you developed your thinking around Pre-fluence?
Well, the book is called Pre-suasion actually.
I’m sorry, forgive me.
Of course. But two things happened, one professional and one personal. The professional one was I started to see results in the academic research arena that didn’t fit with the six principles. There seem to be another way to get people to move in your direction, without access to those six principles. Here’s a study that was actually done by one of my colleagues. It had to do with an online furniture store that specialized in sofas. This experiment sent half of the visitors to this site to a landing page that had as its background wallpaper so fluffy clouds. The other half was sent to a background wallpaper site that had pennies, small coins in the background. Those who were exposed to the clouds first, the idea of softness and comfort, then rated comfort as more important as a factor in deciding what kind of sofa to purchase. They then searched the site for comfort-related information, and ultimately preferred comfortable furniture for purchase. Those who were sent to the site with coins rated price as more important as a feature, searched for cost-related information and ultimately preferred for purchase inexpensive furniture. It didn’t have anything to do with the principles of influence, it was what was the idea, what was the concept that was put into consciousness immediately before they encountered the evidence for which kind of sofa they would want that steered them in a kind of biased way toward that particular concept, comfort or cost. The thing that was scariest about it was that when these individuals were asked afterward, whether they thought this pre-suasive event seeing coins or clouds had influenced their judgements, they laughed. “Of course not. I make my decision based on my internal preferences.” What they didn’t register was those internal preferences were shaped in the moment by what they were focused on first.
Extraordinary. As you said, this had nothing to do with the actual influence of the interaction. This was all setting the scene for that buying — well, for the exploratory, these buying decisions of the individual we’re making.
Exactly. Here’s the personal example that finally got me to say, “Oh, I have to think about this differently.” There’s a knock at my door. There was a man there asking for a contribution to a cause, it was for after school programs for children. I had never heard of this particular program, he didn’t show me any credentials to indicate that he was affiliated with it, and yet I gave him more money than I normally do to legitimate charity organizations. After closing the door I thought to myself, “How did that just happened?” And I realized it was something he did first. He brought along his seven year old daughter, and I was focused on children, and children’s issues, and children’s welfare.
And that made, just like clouds made comfort more important, that made children’s welfare and children prioritized, it made them privileged in my consciousness for the next thing that happened, which was his request.
How frequent is this going on in the world in which we live? Do you feel that he was doing this on purpose or do you feel that this was more random but nonetheless had the beneficial effect for his activities?
My best guess was he was doing it on purpose but not understanding exactly why it was working. But that one time, he couldn’t get childcare for his daughter and he had to bring her along and he found that his donations skyrocketed, so he kept bringing her along. But he wasn’t conscious cognitive, in a conceptual way of what happened. He knew what happened in an operational way, but the conceptual underpinnings, that was left to people like me who study the influence process.
Fascinating, because you go onto the internet and you see liking on Facebook, there’s a huge amount of reciprocity to get people to sign out for mailing list. These are all pretty explicit now, but to what extent are the strategies outlined in pre-suasion, and I still can’t believe that I got the name of the book wrong. Please forgive me because I have it right in front of me. But to what extent are those strategies well understood, well-executed, versus emerging and fairly sort of invisible in the world that matters in avenue, aware of what the marketing has done these days.
They are understood by a rarefied few. Only the “A’s” truly understand that. There’s a gardening metaphor here. It doesn’t matter how good the seed is that you have in your hand, if you haven’t pretreated the earth first, it’s not going to bear fullest fruit, and so what the best influencers do is to cultivate the moment before their message or their request with an idea or a concept that attunes people to the strength of that message or request.
Wonderful, and the metaphor, I mean that’s an area that you cover in the book around the power of metaphor and that wonderful story of the life insurance salesman. Absolutely a beautiful story, and the power of that is very compelling. Now “A’s”, let’s talk about “A’s” because I know the clock is ticking, but you are a holder of Berkshire Hathaway stock, congratulations. I guess as I said earlier on, you have a great fan in Charlie Munger. What is it that they do in term — I think you did a section in the book, maybe you can just explain the elements of that. What’s special about the annual letter which Warren writes every year, and what can executives perhaps addressing their shareholders, either public or venture capitalists, what can they learn from how Warren tells his story if you like?
What Warren does, I’ve never seen in any other annual report in a consistent way, and he does it regularly. On the first page or two, he describes of a failure of the past year, a mistake that he made, some weakness, and he establishes his credibility for the next thing he says, and that’s his strength, and that’s the strength. So what he’s done and I’ve been getting these reports for 15 years now, it’s so disarming Mark, every time I say to myself, “Oh these guys are being straight with us, what should I listen to about their position now?” And now is when they present the strengths, and I have been pre-suaded to believe them more deeply to process them more fully. The strengths, that’s exactly what we want, and the truth is Warren is being absolutely honest about this. He’s being upfront with whatever drawback there was. Sometimes the drawback is we were so successful last year, you can’t count on the same thing next year. That’s his drawback, and he brings it to the surface like no one else, and he just makes us believers, and we both benefit from it because they guy is brilliant and he’s honest.
Fantastic. He is clearly very unique in the history of American capitalism, of global capitalism, but I guess the message therefore for people in addressing investors is be upfront with a source– be honest about an area, and that pre-suades the audience for what comes next.
You know what we said about showing your work? So if you’ve got a budget that’s 15,078, show your work and present it upfront. If you’re honest, show your trustworthiness upfront.
So for the individual, sitting in a large organization, thinking of, “How do I get attention of senior managers?” Or “I’ve got a big pitch where I’m going to be asking for a pot of money,” what are the one or two things that you would say to them that would really make a difference and get them a glimpse of these fantastic — as you say on the book cover, a revolutionary way to influence and persuade, what are the one or two things you give as advice for them to get on this journey? Beyond of course, buying and completing the book.
You used to right word, and that is advice. There’s research that show that if you’ve got a blueprint, if you’ve got a plan, if you’ve got something in mind that you want to be advance within your organization, and you need the buy in from colleagues or even as a superior, what we typically do is show them a draft and ask for their opinion. That’s a mistake. When you ask for someone’s opinion, that person takes a half step back from you psychologically, and goes into him or herself, introspects separates from you. If instead you ask for that person’s advice, that individual takes a half step towards you psychologically, and goes into a partnership mindset. The research shows that individual will now be more likely to support your plan. There’s an old saying, “When we ask for advice, we’re usually looking for an accomplice.” Here’s what the new behavioral science says, “If you get that advice, you get that accomplice.”
Wonderful. So then that triggers the consistency when the — sitting behind the table, listening to your pitch, I mean they’re more likely to support as well.
They feel a part of it.
They feel a partnership in it with you.
Fantastic. I’m mindful of time. So I got three questions Bob which I sent through to you, we can talk for a long time, but this a — perhaps the first question is what have you changed your mind about recently?
On the basis of doing the research for Pre-suasion, I changed my mind about these posters that we see on the walls of certain businesses for achievement, succeed, persevere, these kinds of things. I used to think they were just silly to expect that they would have an effect, no. There’s research from Canada that shows that it increase the donation amount that callers at a call center got for a university by 60% if they saw a picture of a runner winning a race in their point of view, while they were making these calls.
60%. That’s extraordinarily a high number isn’t it?
And it’s just about achieve– you make achievement prominent in consciousness, you make it top of mind and behavior follows.
Extraordinary. Excellent. So the next question, what do you do to remain creative and innovative? I mean you have this image of you constantly answering a door to people trying to get money.
And I just wonder, what do you do to — where’s your source of creativity and innovation come from in your work and how you interact with the world if you like Bob?
Two things, one is I go to lectures from outside my field of expertise, so I can get cross-pollination from ideas that come from areas outside of the domain of persuasion science. The second thing I do is when I want to be really creative, I either go out of doors or I go to a room with high ceilings because research shows that in open expansive places, people think in open and expansive ways.
That translates into high ceiling rooms as well.
But in fact, the research was done in high ceiling rooms.
Okay, brilliant. I’ve heard the first one, but for the second one, that’s remarkable. Then the final question, to what would you attribute your success? I mean are there any specific skills or habits or mindsets that you’ve mastered you think that have really made a big impact in your professional life?
Yes. I would say empathy. Putting myself in the shoes of the person I’m trying to influence, and to think about how I would react to my message if I were in that person’s position. There’s some research that shows that it’s not so much what a recipient hears a communicator say that influences the choice. It’s what the recipient hears him or herself say to him or herself. It’s the self-talk. What I try to imagine is if I were that person, what would I say to myself after hearing this message that Cialdini has just created? And I often change that message based on that change in perspective.
It’s very interesting. Probably a terribly difficult question to ask in practice, but I guess — do you find it second nature now?
I do. I find it that I’m much more likely to do it, but I still have to remind myself sometimes like a checklist, be sure that I’ve done that before I send the message off.
Wonderful. Last question. Can we expect the third book in the trilogy called Post-suasion? I mean in terms of how to ensure that people sort of stick to their decisions and stick to their commitments, or is that a long way off if you like?
Well, it’s not a long way off because it’s the final chapter of the book Pre-suasion called Post-suasion, and I’ve scratched the surface there and introduced a couple of ideas that people can use. But there’s a whole book to be written there, it remains to be seen whether I’m the one to do it, but I know that that’s available for mining. There’s a lot of valuable ore there.
Yeah absolutely. There’s a bit in here that you touched on, but it seems to me that there is — this is once one masters the Pre-suasion and the actual influence, there a lot of work to be done I would imagine as you say a lot to mine in that final piece. So where can people get in touch with you Bob please?
Yes. The best place is — our website influenceatwork, that’s all one word, influenceatwork.com, and they can find out about my books, they can find about workshops that we do, speaking opportunities, those kinds of things.
Wonderful. I’ll put that in the show notes and as I say, a great pleasure, great honor to have you on the show. Many many thanks and again, I can’t believe I said the name the book wrong, please forgive me.
Oh no problem at all.
And very nice to meet you and hopefully one day we’ll meet in person Bob.
Yes, I’d like that Mark.
Many thanks and have a great rest of the day.
So long for now.