On Getting People To Say Yes...

Social psychologist Robert Cialdini is an expert on getting others to comply with our requests. How do we get people to buy from us, contribute to our charities, accept a work offer, or join our causes? Cialdini has studied hundreds if not thousands of salespeople, direct marketers, television advertisers, nonprofit fundraisers, public relations specialists, and corporate recruiters to find out.

In his early career, Cialdini would answer want ads for salespeople and then pose as a sales trainee to directly observe the very best at selling cars, encyclopedias, vacuum cleaners, dance lessons, and almost anything else. He also infiltrated advertising, public relations, and fund-raising agencies. These experiences, combined with his academic training in psychology, laid the groundwork for his research on how we get people to say yes.

Cialdini’s best known book is Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. First published in 1984, it was an eye opener. Written before behavioral economics was popular, the book dug deep into human behavioral traits that make it easy for us to get lulled into a kind of automatic, mindless mode of decision-making. Once you’re in what Cialdini calls our “click whirr” mode, you can easily find that you’ve agreed to something you wouldn’t have if you had just turned off the auto-pilot and deliberated more carefully.

Now Cialdini also has a just-released new book, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade. It builds on the principles of his first book but has an additional thesis: that there are particularly opportune moments to get a person to say yes and that we can set the stage for those times right before we make a request.

The first book, Influence, outlines six fundamental principles about human behavior that can be used to get others to comply with a request. They are reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. All of them are powerful weapons of influence because they play on natural tendencies we all have.

As an example, reciprocation calls on our sense of obligation to give something back whenever we are given something first -- even if it is insignificant or unwanted. Give me a candy bar I didn’t ask for, and I’ll want to pay you back somehow. Make a concession to me, and I’ll make sure to help you out in the future. This is just how humans operate -- and for good reason. Reciprocation binds us together and makes our lives easier. But you also can see how reciprocation could be used in brilliant ways to get you to do things you wouldn’t expect.

One illustration of this is when Cialdini is asked by a 12-year old boy scout to buy several circus tickets at $5 each. Since nothing could sound less appealing to Cialdini, he immediately says no. Okay, the boy scout says, no problem, but then how about buying some chocolate bars instead for $1 each? Before Cialdini knows what’s happened, he finds himself holding chocolate bars he doesn’t want, several dollars poorer. Why? Because he felt obligated to make a concession to someone who had made a concession to him. And he doesn’t even like chocolate.

Several of Cialdini’s ideas will resonate with investors. For example, commitment and consistency are all about our nearly obsessive desire to avoid appearing inconsistent once we’ve made a commitment. When it comes to horse betting – or stock investing – we are more confident about our decision right after we’ve plunked down our money than before. We may have been dithering only minutes ago, but once we’ve committed, we suddenly become supremely confident – and sorely stubborn about searching for confirming evidence while ignoring disconfirming evidence.

Cialdini’s new book, Pre-Suasion, moves on to strategically guiding your decision-maker’s attention to where you want it before you’ve even made your request -- in essence, setting the stage so that your counterpart is already in agreement with you. It’s fascinating to read Cialdini’s ideas for bringing up mental associations and focusing another person’s attention where you want it. But if you have time for just one of these books, I’d say go for the classic. Influence is easy to read, convincing, and has something for everyone.