Using weapons of mass persuasion

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2011-06-08 09:32
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One of behavioral science's most accomplished researchers is Robert Cialdini. He is an expert in the field of psychological persuasion. In the early 1980s, Cialdini went undercover to study tricks used by car dealers and business executives to influence people. He categorized the tricks as "weapons of influence" and, although his initial work was meant as a warning to naive consumers, he has subsequently studied and written about how the weapons can be used to effect positive changes.

Recently, Cialdini was interviewed by the American Psychological Association. That interview appears in the February, 2011 edition of APA's magazine,"Monitor."

Cialdini offers a prescription as to how we can use principles of persuasion more effectively to find a job, succeed in romance, communicate better, and become more aware of our dining habits.

Regarding finding employment, Cialdini suggests the following strategy. Assume you have a job interview and are being considered among a variety of candidates. Tell the interviewer that you are happy that you are being considered and would like to provide relevant information. Then ask the interviewer to tell you why you are being considered. The persuasive strategy here is that the interviewer will be validating what it is that the company, preliminarily at least, values about you. The interviewer will be making your case for you and because people want to stay consistent, the interview becomes a way for the prospective employer to sell himself and commit to you.

A passive persuasive strategy may help in affairs of the heart. Advertisers often use a "scarcity" principle to sway customers. These are the types of ads in which the sellers offer products at a certain price for a limited time or in limited supply. The idea works in romance as well.

Although I am an average-looking older gentleman of moderate means who wouldn't draw a second glance in the States, I have found that I am more attractive in China because my qualities are somewhat unique here. My wife frequently remarks about the number of goofy-looking Westerners who attract Asians higher up on the "looks scale." Become scarce and you become more valuable.

Cialdini is often invited to speak with high-level policy makers about improving negotiating strategies. One strategy he recommends which can work just as well for spouses, friends, and business associates in their communications is to adopt a mutuality of perspectives. Go beyond confrontation and focus on the other person's needs rather than your own. Take another’s perspective and work with that person to then identify common interests and mutual goals.

Finally, here's a psychological tip Cialdini offers people courtesy of research from China conducted in 2006. Duke University economist Hanming Fang and Peking University's Hongbin Cai and Yuyu Chen, studied ordering habits of diners at Meizhou Dongpo restaurants in Beijing. Specifically, the researchers wanted to learn if denominating certain dishes as "most popular" affected sales.

They found that diners are anywhere from 13-20 percent more likely to order a dish, depending upon the dish, if they know it is among a restaurant's most popular. The restaurant indicated "most popular" by putting placards with that information at tables.

The results from Meizhou Dongpo are consistent with Cialdini's earlier field studies in which he developed the idea of "social proof." We often make shortcut default decisions by deciding that if others made that choice, it must be a good one. What we should probably remember when we encounter daily specials or "most popular" dishes at restaurants is that previous customers were not operating on any better information than we are.

Understanding ways in which we can be influenced by others and in turn be persuasive ourselves is an important tool which we should add to our toolbox.

Patrick Mattimore is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism, a former high school psychology teacher, and an adjunct instructor of law at Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing.