Give a hoot – read this post

While sorting through some old issues of Scientific American, I found a great article from February 2001 on The Science of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini (the linked article is subscription-only, but Cialdini’s Wikipedia entry summarises the main headings of his argument in the SciAm article).

Cialdini argues that “six basic tendencies of human behaviour” influence our willingness to comply with a request from another – in other words, to be persuaded into doing (or refraining from doing) something. These tendencies are:

  • reciprocation
  • consistency
  • social validation
  • liking
  • authority
  • scarcity

Cialdini gives examples of how each of these can be used to influence our choices, of which some of the highlights follow.

1. Reciprocation

“All societies subscribe to a norm that obligates individuals to repay in kind what they have received,” writes Cialdini. This is one reason why companies offer free samples of their products, or free trial memberships – because those who receive these “free” gifts will tend to feel that they are under an obligation to reciprocate by buying the full-price product.

This can also apply to concessions we make to one another. Cialdini writes:

[A]ssume you reject my large request, and I then make a concession to you by retreating to a smaller request. You may very well then reciprocate with a concession of your own: agreement with my lesser request

In one experiment, 17 percent of passersby agreed to chaperone juvenile detention centre inmates on a day trip to the zoo. However, when people were first asked if they would like to serve as an unpaid counsellor working at the centre two hours a week for a year – a request that was universally declined – the rate of those agreeing to the “lesser” request of helping out with a day trip rose to 50 percent.

2. Consistency

People tend to want to be consistent with their public commitments. In 1998, the Chicago restauranteur, Gordon Sinclair, reduced the no-show rate at his restaurant from 30 percent to 10 percent by changing two words in the question his receptionist asked those making bookings.

The original request was:

“Please call if you have to change your plans.”

Sinclair changed this to:

“Will you please call if you have to change your plans?”

At this point, the receptionist politely paused, inducing customers to fill the conversational void by agreeing to call if they needed to cancel – thus making a public commitment that they were far more likely to fulfil than a merely unspoken understanding.

3. Social validation

In its positive form, this is pretty familiar: people will tend to do what people around them are doing, as this will make the behaviour involved seem “normal”. One example is the old trick of getting a large crowd people to stare up into the air by getting a small group to do so first – the larger the starting group, the larger the eventual crowd of sky-starers.

More interesting though are the times when this can backfire. This often happens in public education campaigns, such as campaigns to encourage healthier lifestyles or more environmentally-aware behaviour (such as the 1970s “Give a hoot – don’t pollute” campaign which inspired the title to this post).

The campaigners say, “Look how many people are doing this undesirable thing!”. But what the public hears is, “Look how many people are doing this undesirable thing!” – and if everybody else is doing it, what difference is it going to make if I stop?

This can have some serious consequences – a campaign in New Jersey alerted teenagers to the high number of teenage suicides. The result was a significant increase in the number of teenagers seeing suicide as a potential solution to their problems.

4. Liking

While “like” can seem quite a limp word in everyday usage – “Do you love him?” “Well, I quite like him…” – apparently it has become “the standard designation in the social science literature” for the range of ways in which we can feel a connection (such as “affinity”, “rapport”, “affection”) with other people.

“People prefer to say yes to those they like,” observes Cialdini. This explains the success for many years of the Tupperware party, where the in-home demonstration means people feel they are buying from a “liked friend” rather than from a salesperson. (The death of the actual Tupperware party in the UK does not negate this point, as the format is still used for a wide range of products ranging from beauty products to products of, ahem, a more intimate nature.)

This also explains the salesperson’s ploy of exploiting a connection (real or imagined) with their customer (“Well, no kidding, your from Minneapolis? I went to school in Minnesota!”).

5. Authority

Remember the getting-people-to-stare-into-the-sky game? It works even better if you dress the starting participants in a suit and tie. Makes them look like authority figures, you see – and if you don’t want to believe me, then believe the 9 out 10 qualified psychologists who’ll back up that statement.

The SciAm article includes a picture of Charlton Heston holding a rifle aloft at an NRA rally (they have presumably cropped out of the picture the ACLU activist busily trying to prise said firearm out of Heston’s cold, dead hands), with a caption suggesting that Heston’s association with authority figures such as Moses is used by the NRA to its advantage.

6. Scarcity

Perceived scarcity of an item will tend to make it more valuable in our eyes. This is one reason why marketers engage in “limited time only!” promotions, or why there are never quite enough of this year’s Hot Toy in the shops during December.

This also applies to information. Information that is “exclusive” is seen as more persuasive. In one test, one of Cialdini’s former students, who owns a beef importing company in the US, instructed his salespeople to phone a random sample of customers to tell them (truthfully) that a shortage of Australian beef was anticipated. This information doubled purchases compared with a control group of customers who were not given that information.

However, when customers were told not only that there was about to be a shortage of Australian beef, but that this information came from “his company’s exclusive sources in the Australian National Weather Service”, sales went up 600 per cent.

The scarcity of the beef itself had increased sales, but not as much as the scarcity of the information about that scarcity.

Cultural variations

One further observation by Cialdini in the article is the way these six influences vary according to different cultures. All six tendencies are found in different cultures, but the weight given to each varies. One test looked at different responses from Citibank employees to a co-worker’s request for assistance in a task:

Employees in the US took a reciprocation-based approach … [they] felt obligated to volunteer if they owed the requester a favour. Chinese employees responded primarily to authority, in the form of loyalties to those of high status within their small group … Spanish Citibank personnel based the decision mostly on liking/friendship … German employees were most compelled by consistency … they decided to comply by asking, “According to official regulations and categories, am I supposed to assist this requester?”

Finally, and importantly, Cialdini argues that we are not “doomed to be helplessly manipulated by these techniques”. An understanding of them can help us to recognise strategies of persuasion that are used on us, helping us to analyse requests more effectively. It may also, of course, help us to persuade other people – and there is no shortage of times when it is perfectly legitimate to want to persuade somebody in the most effective way possible.

And finally, it can help us identify times when we might otherwise behave (consciously or unconsciously) in a manner that is improperly manipulative rather than properly persuasive. For example, we might consider the JoePix “viral evangelism” initiative that is doing the rounds in the blogosphere at the moment to be making inappropriate use of “reciprocation” – making people feel subtly obligated to read your gospel presentation just because you took their photo for them.

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