Robert Chialdini on Why the Hell We Say Yes

‘There’s a sucker born every minute’ – David Hannum

We all use mental shortcuts to navigate our world. To avoid information overload we filter, and we respond automatically, quickly and unconsciously to much of what we encounter.

For the most part we get it right. We’ve evolved systems and behaviors that deliver a successful result most of the time. These shortcuts, these automatic responses, play a big role in whether we say yes to, agree with or comply with requests. And these unconscious processes can  be manipulated by compliance professionals like sales people or politicians, or 6 year olds who are unnaturally savvy to what makes us say yes.

In his classic work on the study of persuasion, compliance and change, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition, Chialdini helps us understand 6 psychological principles that underpin influence – consistency, reciprocation, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. And with an understanding he equips us with the beginnings of a defense.

I’ll summarize each in a short post:

Chialdini fills his book with real world examples of influence at work. They are funny in the sense that something is funny when it didn’t happen to you. Except that they have.

Imagine 3 buckets, one with cold, one with lukewarm and one with hot water. You place one hand in the cold, one hand in the hot, and then place both in the lukewarm bucket at the same time. The water in the lukewarm bucket feels different (hotter and colder respectively) depending whether the hand was originally immersed in the cold or hot bucket.  This is the principle of contrast, explained physically.  But it applies psychologically as well.

Its why a sale item at 50% off grabs your attention, even if the item was never really marked down in the first place.  Its also why a savvy salesman will lead with the highest priced item (a suit for $1,000) and once that’s done sell you another item for less (a shirt for $150).  $150 doesn’t seem so bad once you’ve just spent $1,000.

Chialdini’s work has a synergy with that of Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002. It is sobering that we fall victim to the influence process so easily and so frequently. This is because the mechanisms at work are are largely unconscious. Kahneman explains this as the action of System 1, the part of our brain that makes intuitive snap judgments based on emotion, memory, and hard-wired rules of thumb . Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is a wonderful complement to Influence.

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