Social scientist Robert Cialdini on persuasion

Think:Act Magazine Trust
Social scientist Robert Cialdini on persuasion

September 18, 2018

Taking a closer look at the process of decision-making


by Bennett Voyles
illustrations by Mario Wagner

Robert Cialdini says we shouldn’t resist being "pre-suaded". He shares his thoughts on influence, decision-making and how he ended up buying a TV he did not particularly need.

Wether you're selling a product or leading a team, few skills are as useful to an executive as a talent for persuasion. But how does this process actually work? In his groundbreaking book "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion", social scientist Robert B. Cialdini presented his theory that all ethical persuasion depended on six factors, an idea he supported with reams of peer-reviewed research. When it was published in 1984, sales were slow, but over time, the influence of "Influence" began to build. Thirty-three years later, the book has sold over 3 million copies and Fortune regards it as one of the 75 smartest business books ever written.

Now there’s a sequel: In "Pre-suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade", Cialdini introduces a whole new way to persuade. He argues that even before you get to his six factors, a process he calls "pre-suasion" may nudge you a little closer to yes. He coined the term to describe factors that predispose a person to feel favorably about a proposition before it is even made. Taking time out from his busy schedule, he met Bennett Voyles on Skype from his office in Tempe, Arizona, and talked about how you can best use and perhaps most importantly, how not to find yourself being used by the power of pre-suasion.

Think:Act: You published the first edition of "Influence" in 1984. It didn’t take off right away, but grew increasingly popular over time.

Robert Cialdini: That’s right. When it was first published, it didn’t do well at all. In fact, my publisher at the time withdrew the promotion and publicity funds saying it "would be like throwing money down a pit." But about three or four years later, the book started to gain popularity and rise to bestseller status, where it’s stayed ever since.

Had anything happened that made people more receptive to the book at that point?

I think it had to do with two things that were happening simultaneously. First, the idea of evidence-based decision-making had begun to sweep the major institutions of our society: business, education, government and even sports. Influence provided a concise, collected set of evidence about the persuasion process and which factors lend themselves to success within that process. In a lot of the earlier books on persuasion, the authors would describe a successful campaign but not isolate the factors that caused it. Influence did isolate those factors.

The other thing that helped make "Influence" so popular was that, even though the book wasn’t selling very well initially in the trade market, it was doing quite well in university classrooms, especially in MBA courses. Three to four years later, those MBA students became managers and they started ordering the book in bulk for their teams.

It’s been 33 years since the first edition of "Influence". Why did "Pre-suasion" take so long?

I never really had an idea big enough to compete with "Influence", and I didn’t want to plant a set of bushes around the tree that "Influence" had become with "Influence 2", "Influence 3" and "Influence 4" type of books. I wanted to wait until I had a seed for another tree … another big idea.

"You need to think not only about what a communicator has put into the message you have received, but what he or she has put into the moment before delivering that message."

Robert Cialdini

Social scientist

Was there a particular insight that "pre-suaded" you?

Two things happened. The first was a set of studies on persuasion that didn’t really have to do with what you did or said inside your message, but what you did or said immediately before delivering it. For instance, I read one study where researchers walked up to mall shoppers and started asking them to participate in a marketing survey for no compensation. Under those circumstances, only 29% of the people agreed to participate. But when the researchers approached a second sample of mall shoppers and preceded that request with a simple pre-uasive question, "Do you consider yourself a helpful person?" then suddenly 77.3% volunteered.

I started to see a lot of studies like that: For instance, an online furniture store divided its customers into two groups. They sent half their visitors to a landing page with fluffy clouds in the background, and the visitors who saw that initial image of softness then became much more interested in comfortable furniture. The other half were sent to a landing page that had pennies in the background, and these individuals then ended up making decisions that were more based on a low price.

Before they had encountered any information on the site about the various sofas and chairs that were available, they were already thinking about comfort or cost and behaved in a way consistent with that initial image.

These studies just wouldn’t leave me alone. They didn’t fit the model I had been using so far to understand social influence.

Then a personal experience finally tripped the switch: I answered a knock on my door to find a man who was asking me to contribute to a charitable cause, to develop after-school programs for children whose parents couldn’t be with them for a time after school. This man didn’t present any credentials to show me that he was associated with this particular program and I hadn’t heard anything about this program, so it was a risky thing to give him money. But I gave him more than I normally give to a legitimate organization.

Afterwards, I felt very good about it, but wondered what had gone on there. And as I thought about it, I realized I gave him that much money because he brought his 7-year-old daughter with him. She was hiding behind him, hanging onto his pants leg, peeking out at me. He established a state of mind in which I had elevated the importance of young children in my decision-making process, the same way those furniture store operators elevated comfort or cost before providing information. And that’s when I thought to myself: "This is an idea that’s worth writing a book about."

Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion
1. Reciprocation:

People want to reciprocate for a gift or other kindness.

2. Commitment and consistency:

People try to live up to their commitments.

3. Social proof:

We look to our peers to reassure ourselves we’ve made the right choice.

4. Liking:

It’s easier to say yes to people we know and like.

5. Authority:

People want to follow the lead of people they believe to be experts.

6. Scarcity:

The more rare and uncommon something is, the more people will want it.

His new principle of pre-suasion:

Often, it’s not necessary to change somebody’s mind. To win agreement, you just need to change what’s uppermost in the person’s thoughts at the moment of decision.

What’s the best way to resist pre-suasion?

It’s the mirror image of what I would say to a communicator: You need to think not only about what a communicator has put into the message you have received, but what he or she has put into the moment before delivering that message. What was depicted on the landing page of that website you are visiting? What did this person say to you first before delivering a message? What was the setting in which this person delivered the message? All of those things can pre-suade you.

You come to some fairly frightening conclusions about how easily people can be manipulated, noting for instance that psychologists have found that it’s hard for people to think logically when they hear music playing. Yet you suggest that pre-suaders with good motivations will be more successful in the long run. Why are you so confident?

The last time I bought a television set, I was actually in an appliance store to buy something else. I was not interested in buying a new big-screen TV, but as I was walking down one of the aisles, I saw one model that was on sale and I started looking at it. A salesman came up to me and he said, "I see you’re interested in this TV. Let me tell you about it and why it’s such a good deal. But before I do, I want to tell you that it’s our last one. And, I just got a call from a woman who’s on her way to buy it. I just wanted to let you know."

Fifteen minutes later I was wheeling that set out of the store. Now, I write books on pre-suasion and social influence and I was still susceptible to this!

But here’s the point of the story that has to do with the ethics of it all: If the salesman was telling me the truth, I consider him an ally. I wanted that information to make a decision that would be best for me. If he was deceiving me, to scare me into this purchase, then I would consider him an enemy.

So I went back to the store the next day, to see if another TV had been brought in from the storeroom. But, no, there was still an empty spot on the shelf. After that, I went online and I wrote a positive review of that store and the salesperson. If there had been another of the same set on the shelf, I would have written a very negative review.

That’s the way I think we have to deal with this process. We shouldn’t be resistant to pre-suasive techniques if they steer us correctly. We should only resist them if they are used in deceptive ways. And, we should reward and punish accordingly.

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