Skills of Persuasion: The Science of Influence and Getting What You Want

Not too long ago, I taught a course at the University of Toronto titled the ‘Psychology of Persuasion’. The reason I believed the course was worthwhile was not, as I had initially worried, to encourage manipulative behaviour in the workplace or general psychological malice onto society  – characteristics the word ‘persuasion’ generally conjure up to mine – but because in my pre-PhD career in advertising, I noticed the effect that certain influential skills had on the public from buying toys at non-peak seasons of the year to craving fast food after just having eaten dinner. While the principles of persuasion could indeed be used to manipulate, my rationalization for offering such a course, and now, writing this article, was to believe that most people generally strive to do well in the world and generally operate within some sort of moral compass. As sentiments similarly noted by the ‘Father of Influence’, Dr. Robert Cialdini, his six principles are worth taking note of:


As a child, I noticed that whenever I was in a mall, salespeople would reach over to my mother and offer her a dollop of hand cream, a tiny vial of perfume, or simply a branded knick-knack, to which she would, almost without fail, wave her hand in protest. Whenever I asked her why she refused the kind gesture, she would say it was because she didn’t want to be indebted to purchase anything. Indeed, the principle of reciprocity is a strong one. This is because in our evolutionary history, cooperation is a skill of survival, and if someone ‘gives’, we feel the need to ‘give’ as well. Thus, if marketing a product, exerting influence using this principle can mean offering free samples or incentives to buy, like a price kickback, or offering informational services and being helpful to those around you, if in a more traditional role. The key here is to provide information that is helpful and positive, because, as Cialdini puts it, “there is a natural human tendency to dislike a person who brings us unpleasant information, even when that person did not cause the bad news. The simple association with it is enough to stimulate our dislike.” And, as detailed below, there is very little hope of exerting influence if we are disliked.


Here’s an easy exercise you can try at home: Play your favourite show which featured a laugh track (shows such as Friends, How I Met Your Mother, and The Big Bang Theory are all good possibilities), and watch it with the laugh track removed (some muted versions of the shows are also uploaded on YouTube) or on mute with closed captioning on. Chances are, it won’t be as funny as you had first thought: According to research, audiences laugh longer and more often when a laugh track is running, and moreover, they tend to rate the material as ‘funnier’.  Why might this be? As Cialdini noted, it’s social proof: We view a behaviour as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others similarly enacting it. This is why, you might notice, in situations which are awkward or difficult, people will look at others before behaving, to ensure their reaction is socially acceptable and/or “correct”: No one wants to be the black sheep or ‘odd man out’. Social proof is thus important to humans because we make fewer mistakes, hypothetically, when we go along with the crowd. Although there are pitfalls to going with instead of against the grain (such as the bystander effect, wherein everyone assumes another person is helping an individual in need and they are merely, like the others around them, bystanders), marketers have exploited the idea of social proof by touting that they have the “fastest-growing” or “largest selling” product or service. In other words, we tend to think, if everyone else is doing it, so should I!


As our society values commitment and consistency, so do we, as individuals: When we say ‘yes’ to something, we are much less likely to back out of it because keeping our word is a noble quality and it allows us to function well as a society. The need to ‘save face’ and be consistent is deeply ingrained in us, and we fear the shame attached to not being a consistent person: As Cialdini notes, “Embarrassment is a villain to be crushed”. Interestingly, according to new research, the older we get, the more we become ‘set in our ways’ and value consistency.

We can use this principle to influence others by getting them to say yes to something small, preferably through a public declaration, then gradually making larger requests (also known as the ‘foot-in-the-door’ technique). Another way in which we can profit by the use of commitment and consistency is to remind someone who is hesitant to side with you of decisions they’ve made in their past: By highlighting how your request is similar, you thereby indicate that the decision they are currently facing should be consistent with one they’ve made in the past.


It should come as no surprise – particularly if you’ve ever been invited to an Avon sale, Tupperware party, or thinly veiled pyramid scheme like those of multi-level marketing companies – that we tend to say ‘yes’ to people we know and like. Hearing our name said over and over – a common selling technique – helps us like the person we are speaking with, especially if they are physically attractive, as does receiving compliments and finding similarities between ourselves and the person we are speaking with. According to Cialdini, “One of the things that marketers can do is honestly report on the extent to which the product or service – or the people who are providing the product or service – are similar to the audience and know the audience’s challenges, preferences and so on.”


Simply put, people respect others who are credible experts in their field. We’d be much more likely to pay special medical attention to someone named ‘Dr. Oz’ than we would to simply a mysterious man from ‘Oz’ (pun intended). We are similarly significantly more willing to purchase performance-enhancement products if they are promoted by people with superior physical skill (a reason why product endorsements are so lucrative for athletes). We trust our ‘dentist-recommended’ toothpaste brands, not because we understand the chemistry of toothpaste enough to differentiate between brands, but simply because we see ‘dentist recommended’ on the packaging, and who wouldn’t trust a dentist when it comes to toothpaste? Even a well-known spaghetti sauce brand has recently used, in new commercial advertising, an interesting showing of authority to attest the greatness of their sauce: Italian grandmothers. Why? Because all of these authoritative individuals, Italian grandmothers and their sauce-tasting abilities included, are presumably far more knowledgeable about a specific topic than we are. It saves us time to put our trust in an authority; it’s cognitively resourceful and also helps shift the blame if the products we’ve purchased don’t turn out to be as wonderful as we’d been led to believe by the aforementioned authority. So, to employ influence, become a recognized expert about a certain subject and exert influence based on your expertise, whether that’d be on your work-team or your soccer team. Similarly, if promoting a product or service, incorporate testimonials from recognized experts which would help potential customers differentiate your brand from that of another.


There are only a few pieces left!”, “Don’t miss this rare opportunity…”- “Here’s what you’ll miss out on if you don’t call within the next fifteen minutes …”. If you’ve ever watched a shopping channel, or late-night infomercials, exploiting scarcity is a tactic that’s often used because it’s tried and true. According to Cialdini, in the case of scarcity, ”The feeling of being in competition for scarce resources has powerfully motivating properties…[and] the joy is not in experiencing a scarce commodity but in possessing it.” The principle here, as it is commonly exploited, plays on the impression that we are losing something: “The idea of potential loss plays a large role in human decision making. In fact, people seem to be more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value.” Thus, in order to exert influence using this technique, emphasizing what someone will be missing by not buying your product or services, or not taking your advice, is a much greater strategy than emphasizing the benefits.

While not all of these techniques will work, as they are context-dependent and required to be carefully considered within a specific setting for maximum efficacy, being armed with the knowledge of the principles needed to exert influence can not only help us become more influential, but it can help us recognize when we are being influenced, as well.

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