BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

"... Messing With My Mind!"

In the reading that I do, I will frequently come across books referenced in other books, which are variously praised and recommended. I have, unfortunately, developed a fairly cynical view of “highly recommended” books, because, frankly, so many of them are “meh” at best. This one is an exception to that rule … Robert B. Cialdini's much-lauded Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is a truly exceptional book, and I'm very pleased to have made the effort (OMG – I paid retail … or at least Amazon's discounted version thereof) to get it.

I think the power of this book comes from the combination of efforts that Dr. Cialdini put into researching it, not only in the classic college laboratory setting with student volunteers, but also going out in the field, with his becoming a participant observer:
… Participant observation is a research approach in which the researcher becomes a spy of sorts. With disguised identity and intent, the investigator infiltrates the setting of interest and becomes a full-fledged participant in the group to be studied. So when I wanted to learn about the compliance tactics of encyclopedia (or vacuum-cleaner, or portrait-photography, or dance-lesson) sales organizations, I would answer a newspaper ad for sales trainees and have them teach me their methods. Using similar but not identical approaches, I was able to penetrate advertising, public-relations, and fund-raising agencies to examine their techniques. Much of the evidence presented in this book, then, comes from my experience posing as a compliance professional, or aspiring professional, in a large variety of organizations dedicated to getting us to say yes.
      One aspect of what I learned in this three-year period of participant observation was most instructive. Although there are thousands of different tactics that compliance practitioners employ to produce yes, the majority fall within six basic categories. Each of these categories is governed by a fundamental psychological principle that directs human behavior and, in so doing, gives the tactics their power. This book is organized around these six principles, one to a chapter. The principles – consistency, reciprocation, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity – are each discussed in terms of their function in society and in terms of how their enormous force can be commissioned by a compliance professional who deftly incorporates them into requests for purchases, donations, concessions, votes, assent, etc.
What he found in his research is both fascinating and scary. I have a very low tolerance to “being manipulated”, so I was being quite reactive to a lot of the stories in here … on one hand hating those applying these techniques, and on the other hand being amazed that so many people are thoughtlessly taken in by them. These range from the mild (the quote by the character "Face" from the old The A-Team TV show comes to mind: “That's not even a real smile. It's just a bunch of teeth messing with my mind!”), to the truly horrific (the classic Milgram Study, and similar).

One of the things that I really liked, structurally, in the book was the inclusion of a “How To Say No” section in each chapter – allowing the reader to walk away from each technique with a framework for not being influenced by it (or not as much as one might be), and a “Reader Report” which features a story sent in by somebody on one side or another of the influence game illustrating the principle at hand in that chapter. These both provide a pattern in the information, but also shift the frame a bit, leading to a more nuanced view of these techniques in action. Another thing I found quite endearing was the author's “catch phrase”, as it were, of Click, whirr!, indicating where “Click, and the appropriate tape is activated; whirr and out rolls the standard sequence of behaviors.” … except for when it's not the appropriate reaction – the initial instance of this was dealing with turkeys (who acted maternally to anything making the “cheep cheep” call of baby turkeys – even if the sound was coming from a stuffed predator that would have been viciously attacked otherwise), or robins (who would territorially defend against anything with red breast feathers, but ignore perfect replicas of competitors without that one triggering element), but Cialdini generalizes that out to any pre-programmed behaviors … including ones we exhibit: “there are many situations in which human behavior does not work in a mechanical, tape-activated way, what is astonishing is how often it does”.

The book is chock-full of amazing cases … things that one would think couldn't possibly be real, but there's solid research on these. An example is (in the “consistency” chapter) how agreeing to a small step will prime you for a major step later … in this study, experimenters had gone through suburban neighborhoods asking people to take a small (3”square) sign saying “be a safe driver”, and nearly everybody did. Two weeks later, other experimenters came through both the original neighborhoods and a set of “control” neighborhoods that hadn't been asked to take the small sign. These were now requesting to put a very large, unattractive “drive carefully” sign in the subjects' front lawns. As one might expect, in the control group, most – 83% – said no, but in the group that had previously taken the tiny sign, an amazing 76% agreed to let the billboard be installed in front of their homes! It appears that simply acceding to the minor request changed the view these people had of themselves into something that “consistency” forced them to also agree to the later unreasonable request. The author warns:
… be very careful about agreeing to trivial requests. Such an agreement can not only increase our compliance with very similar, much large requests, it can also make us more willing to perform a variety of larger favors that are only remotely connected to the little one we did earlier. It's this second, general kind of influence concealed within small commitments that scares me. … It scares me enough that I am rarely willing to sign a petition anymore, even for a position I support. Such an action has the potential to influence not only my future behavior but also my self-image in ways I may not want. And once a person's self-image is altered, all sorts of subtle advantages become available to someone who wants to exploit that new image.
He goes on to discuss, in detail, Chinese-run POW camps in the Korean War. There were constant pressures to make concessions (writing essays to win a piece of fruit or a few cigarettes) that would then provide the basis of further expansions on themes the Communists wanted expressed, moving in tiny increments from one self-image to a new one that could be exploited for propaganda, etc. Similarly he notes how Amway tries to have its reps get the customer to fill out the order form … leading them to be more convinced that they wanted what they were ordering.

One of the useful things in the “social proof” chapter is spun out of the studies around the notorious Kitty Genovese murder, where dozens of witnesses saw the (long drawn out) attack, but no one did anything, even calling the police … each assuming “somebody else” was helping. The author recommends, if one is in an emergency situation, singling out one person in the environment and specifically asking for help … this breaks through the “pluralistic ignorance effect” and spurs individuals into action. Cialdini describes an accident he had been in, where, just like in the research, nobody was stopping to help … he realized what was happening and directly addressed drivers cruising by to call the police, etc. Also in this chapter there is one of the hardest-to-believe studies … the pattern of suicides that follow stories of suicides in the media – which apparently trigger additional suicides: “within two months after every front-page suicide story, an average of fifty-eight more people than usual killed themselves” – a pretty shocking statistic, which is made creepier by the analysis that the follow-up suicides were predictably among people similar in age, sex, race, etc., to the initial death … and really disturbingly: “the average number of people killed in a fatal crash of a commercial airliner is more than three times greater if the crash happened one week after a front-page suicide story than if it happened one week before”! The author finds this sufficient horrific that he notes:
Evidently, the principle of social proof is so wide-ranging and powerful that its domain extends to the fundamental decision for life or death. … A glance at the graphs documenting the undeniable increase in traffic and air fatalities following publicized suicides, especially those involving murder, is enough to cause concern for one's safety.
He goes on to note that homicides have similar patterns of increase following news of killings (like those don't happen on a daily basis in places like Chicago!), and he then takes an extensive look at the mass suicides in Guyana, and how Jim Jones was able to control the People's Temple faithful to the extent that they'd kill themselves at his command.

In the “liking” chapter, there are all sorts of things in play, attractiveness, similarity, and even blatantly insincere compliments. One study of Canadian federal elections found that attractive candidates got 2.5x the votes of unattractive candidates … although, when surveyed, three quarters of the voters outright denied this happening, with only 14% even being open to the possibility. Lots of salesmen do “cold reads” for any clues of attitudes and interests of their prey … and fabricate stories that correspond to those as a way of connecting. I guess the guy in a recent commercial for a shaving system is dead on, where he's in a waiting area for a job interview with a bunch of other candidates, and notices that the portraits of the company's leadership all feature bald/shaved heads … he bolts out, gets shaving gear, and comes back as the only one among the hopefuls that now looks like the company's guy. As far as compliments, “Positive comments produced just as much liking for the flatterer when they were untrue as when they were true.”, and “this was the case even though the men fully realized that the flatterer stood to gain from their liking him” … giving support to the strategy of one featured car salesman who sent out 13,000 cards to his contact list every month with the simple message “I like you!” on seasonably-themed cards. Also in this chapter are looks at integration failures, good cop / bad cop interrogation dynamics, and how TV weather people get blamed (and sometimes attacked) for the weather.

Aside from the Milgram material in the “authority” section, there are some factors looked at that also give one pause … like how an actor who has played a doctor on TV can be effectively used to push products with his “medical” expertise (Robert Young / “Marcus Welby” for Sanka for example), or how clothes/cars/accessories can stand in for actual achievement. Another tactic familiar to everyone is the “scarcity” approach, from on-going “going out of business” sales (there was one luggage shop on Michigan Avenue here which had been “going out of business” for at least a decade before the building was eventually torn down), to the holiday toy scam of creating a demand that goes unfilled at the end of the year, only to be made widely available (“but you promised!”) a month or so later (although that latter story is actually in the “consistency” chapter).

Obviously, there is a whole lot in Influence, and I've only been able to skim through some of the highlights here. This is such an eye-opener that it's definitely one of those “all and sundry” recommendations … you need to read this!

It's currently available in both paperback and ebook editions, and I suspect that you'd be able to find this at most bigger brick-and-mortar book stores. The on-line big boys, however, have it for a whopping 44% off at this writing, making it as cheap to get that way as picking up a used copy (plus shipping). Again, this is well worth your time, and is even something that I wish they'd make required reading in the schools.

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Tags: book review
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