Book Summary: Influence - The Psychology of Persuasion

In this summary, you will learn

  • Why the six kinds of influence are so effective,

  • How they work for good or ill, and

  • How to exploit them or resist them.


  • Six types of persuasive appeals carry influence:

  • “Reciprocation”: When someone gives you something or does you a favor, you are more likely to do what they ask.

  • “Consistency”: People who get you to agree to a small favor can get you to do a related big one because you feel you must remain consistent.

  • “Social proof”: Those around you like to influence you, particularly when you are unsure.

  • “Liking”: You are more likely to do something if someone you care about asks you.

  • “Authority”: Those with expertise or power – like doctors or the police – or the trappings of power – like uniforms – wield more influence.

  • “Scarcity”: Rare items or opportunities seem more desirable.

  • Marketers use these tools of persuasion to tap into your natural tendencies. To defend yourself, be aware of these triggers.

  • When you make a decision, examine the evidence to determine if you’re acting emotionally or not.

  • Consider the motives and interests of those trying to persuade you.


Influential Instincts

“We...use the actions of others to decide on proper behavior for ourselves.”

Animals have instinctive reactions to specific triggers. If a turkey chick goes “cheep-cheep,” its mother will care for it. If a male robin sees the red breast of another male robin enter his territory, he’ll attack. Bring in a replica of a robin without red feathers and the territorial male won’t do anything. Animals follow these “fixed-action patterns” instinctively. Humans respond to certain cues almost as automatically.

Six broad principles describe how people influence one another and persuade others into complying often automatically without thinking. The world’s complexity dictates this reflexive response because everyone faces an increasing number of decisions and must make them in a decreasing amount of time. Learn these shortcuts to recognize when people are using these techniques to influence you, gain control over you or wield persuasive power. The six types of persuasive appeals are:

1. “Reciprocation”

Return unto others what they have given unto you. If you do something for other people, they will be willing to do something for you. This works even if the thing you do is small and they didn’t want it. This simple, powerful rule plays out in many fields and academic studies. When charities send small gifts with their request for donations, they hope to trigger your need to reciprocate.

“In the process of examining the reactions of other people to resolve our uncertainty, however, we are likely to overlook a subtle but important fact. Those people are probably examining the social evidence, too.”

Reciprocity is deeply rooted in human society. It’s what creates humanity’s “web of indebtedness” – you do something for someone else, knowing that the individual will feel obligated to do something that benefits you. Because reciprocity is so deeply ingrained in society, people disapprove if you accept a favor and do nothing in return. Reciprocation is hard to resist because you have only two apparent choices. Give in to the request and feel that you are acting in a socially approved way, or decline the request and face shame for breaking unwritten, long-established rules.

To resist reciprocity, recognize alternatives. Refuse the initial gift or favor if you think people use it to pressure you. Once you accept the offering, you are now part of an “honored network of obligation” or a web of indebtedness. If the initial offer provides you with genuine benefits, everyone wins and the reciprocity rule works for all concerned when you give back. If it is an attempt to exploit you, treat the gift as a trick, not a favor. If you can honestly redefine the gift as a trick, you will be released from the need to give something back.

“Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.”

Another aspect of reciprocity involves conceding something to an individual who previously conceded to you: You’ve refused to buy a circus ticket from a Boy Scout, so surely you’ll purchase a candy bar from this person when he requests that as a concession. Sometimes a persuader makes an unrealistically large request and then scales down only to make you feel that you should agree to a smaller one. This is called the “rejection-then-retreat” method.

2. “Consistency and Commitment”

“Although consistency is generally good, even vital, there is a foolish, rigid variety to be shunned.”

People experience internal psychological pressure to act consistently. If you commit to an action, position or statement, a persuader can use consistency’s magnetic power – commitment – to draw you toward a related step: more money, more time, and so on. External social pressure advocates for consistency, largely by disapproving inconsistency. Internally, your desire to be consistent continually nudges you to adjust your self-image. Once you think you’re the kind of person who does X, you seek to reinforce that idea by doing more of X.

This persuasive authority with its combination of internal and external pressures becomes obvious in social situations featuring initiation, as with college fraternities or military boot camp. People who go through intense, often humiliating, inductions value their new membership and identity far more than those who take part in similar activities without commitment rituals.

“We easily fall into the habit of being automatically [consistent], even in situations where it is not the sensible way to be.”

To free yourself, realize how different types of consistency work. Some matter deeply. Others are foolish or rigid. Trust your internal signals when demands of consistency clash. On one hand, you take an initial action and a follow-up beckons; on the other, your deeper sense of right and wrong sends out alarms. When the desire for consistency tugs at your instincts, examine why you want to comply. Heed your gut reaction to a proposition before intellectualization sets in.

3. “Social Proof”

“We all fool ourselves from time to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided.”

In uncertain situations, you take your cues from those around you and look to peers to see what to do. That’s why TV shows use laugh tracks. You’re more likely to trust the choices of people who are like you. This can mean people your own age, people who dress like you, people who use language like you, and so on. Social proof influences people in astounding ways. The “Werther effect” refers to how Johann von Goethe’s classic book The Sorrows of Young Werther influenced people. The hero’s suicide sparked “a wave of emulative suicides across Europe.” Today, when a suicide makes the news, often a series of imitative suicides and “accidents” unfold in its wake.

Social proof can be powerful and even dangerous. For example, if you are in an accident, don’t wait for the group around you to decide what to do. Everyone will look to other people for cues, and those people may not act because they are looking for cues, too. You must give explicit directions. Tell one person to call for help.

“Once you’ve got a man’s self-image where you want it, he should comply naturally with a whole range of your requests that are consistent with this new view of himself.”

Social proof is most powerful in ambiguous situations. When you know what you believe, what’s really going on and what to do, you don’t need clues from other people. But when you don’t know what’s going on, what’s right or what is socially acceptable, you instinctively look to others. Social proof can be harmless or beneficial. In a strange situation, following the lead of those in the know is a good idea.

Influencers use this common human tendency against you, so learn when to resist it and counterattack. Don’t walk away or stay silent. If a company uses false testimonials, complain. If a genuine group movement is underway, such as when a number of investors are buying a certain stock, evaluate the situation yourself. Don’t assume something must be correct just because everyone else is doing it: Find out for yourself.

Social proof avoids time-consuming deliberation, but problems arise from slavish acceptance of others’ choices. Cult followers represent a good example of this danger.

4. “Liking”

“One protective tactic we can use against authority status is to remove its element of surprise.”

You are far more willing to consent to a request from someone you like. Consider the neighborhood Tupperware party, which is always held at the home of a popular woman who has existing positive relationships with the attendees. When you agree with someone you like, the “halo effect” is often at work. If you care about someone – or if a person has some persuasively attractive characteristic, like being handsome or even tall – it casts a positive “halo” over who they are. In one Canadian election, good-looking candidates won two-and-a half times more votes than their less-attractive competitors. The unattractive suffer in the law courts as well: The handsome get shorter sentences, and attractive winning litigants get larger awards.

“A person who feels responsible for the terms of a contract will be more likely to live up to that contract.”

You’re more apt to like familiar people or hospitable people who bring you food and drink or perhaps announce good news to you, even news beyond their control, like telling you that your team won. You will also like people more if they like you, which gives them greater influence over you. Joe Girard, dubbed the world’s “greatest car salesman,” sent every customer a holiday card with the message “I like you” to draw people back to his auto dealership.

You can’t resist the power of liking by blocking how it originates. Focus instead on its effect. Start with observation. For instance, do you like a salesperson more than the limited time you’ve spent together legitimately allows? If so, review how the person acted or whether he or she has given you anything, from a snack to a compliment. Consciously separate your feelings for the salesperson from the transaction. Put your new affection for “Dealin’ Dan” over here and the facts about the car he’s pushing over there. Evaluate them separately.

5. “Authority”

“Whenever free choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us desire them...significantly more than previously.”

People tend to go along with those who are in charge, who have titles – such as doctor or professor – who wear uniforms – such as police officers – or who show the trappings of success – such as expensive cars. Civilization functions by respecting authority.

In the real world, you can see the power of authority when aircraft flight crews follow the captain’s instructions, even when they make no sense. To weaken authority’s influence, be aware of its impact. Examine the nature of the authority. Is the person you’re heeding really an expert? Asking yourself such a question helps you redirect your attention away from being agreeable and focuses it on the expert’s credentials. If they don’t apply – if, for example, an actor is portraying a doctor in a TV commercial – dismiss the message. If they do, examine further. Question what benefits or payments the authority figure gets from persuading you.

6. “Scarcity”

“People seem to be more motivated by the threat of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value.”

If something is in limited supply or if you have access to it for only a short while, it becomes more appealing. Entire markets – like rare stamp- or coin-collecting – rest on the power of scarcity. Sales professionals exploit this source of influence: Every coupon with an expiration date, every limited-time offer and every bargain available only if you act “right now” uses scarcity.

“Compliance professionals” are masters at this twist of psychology, employing familiar phrases to suggest, for example, that only a few more items are in stock, that inventory is on backorder, or that this tract is the last corner lot in the neighborhood. Scarcity sends its message along your existing wiring, which is primed to treat scarce opportunities as more valuable.

“It is easy enough to feel properly warned against scarcity pressures, but it is substantially more difficult to act on that warning.”

Scarcity’s intense urgency can be convincing, but a second powerful appeal often accompanies it – the fear of loss, particularly the fear of loss of free choice. If someone appears to give you something and then takes it back – or blocks you from obtaining something – you want it even more. Consider Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: The two young lovers fall even harder for each other because their families are feuding and trying to end the relationship.

“With each increase in status, the same man grew in perceived height by an average of a half inch, so that as the ‘professor’ he was seen as two and a half inches taller than as the ‘student’.”

When Florida’s Dade County [Miami] banned pollution-causing phosphate detergents, residents – perceiving the banned laundry soap as more valuable and effective – smuggled it in from other counties. When two sets of college students received the same book – one labeled “for adult use” and the others unlabeled – those with labeled copies felt the book was better and more enjoyable.

The core of scarcity is the desire to avoid losing or missing out. Once you’re aware of how scarcity works, you might think that you can resist its allure. That’s a dangerous assumption, because scarcity can short-circuit your intellectual responses.

Recognize when someone plays the scarcity card and step back, calm down and examine your desire for this object or opportunity. If you really want to eat, drink or drive the thing you are trying to get, your desire may be real. But if you want it because someone else might get it, scarcity is fueling your desire. Walk away.

“Instant Influence”

Today, everyone relies on information and decision shortcuts, and that gives these six tools great power. When compliance professionals abuse the power of influence, respond with aggressive written or electronic complaints. Embrace boycotts, confrontations and public condemnation. In short, retaliate.

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter Social Icon

© 2016 by aTrader