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Defense against the Dark Art of Persuasion

October 18, 2020

TL;DR Watch this on YouTube

In this post, I’ll share some examples from the book ”Influence” and talk about the psychology of persuasion. Psychology is my favorite subject and this book explains a lot about how compliance techniques work.

We often use heuristics in our day-to-day lives. For example, if something is expensive, it must be good. If your peers are using a particular thing, it must be good (based on social proof). If something has limited availability, it must be good. It’s a bummer that these rules of thumb are now so widely known that marketers and salespeople are using it to their advantage - and why wouldn’t they, it’s a part of their job after all. Some of us might think that we can’t be fooled.

Time to test! Imagine what would you do in the following scenarios?

What would you do?

  1. Promised Toys on Christmas

Let’s say your child saw an ad on TV for an attractive toy just before Christmas and you ended up promising to buy it. When you got to the shop, you find that it’s out of stock. What do you do? You buy a substitute. Here’s the twist: After Christmas, your child sees that ad again and runs up to you reminding you that “you promised”. What now? Do you see yourself going to a store to keep your word? Pretty plausible, right? I can definitely see myself doing this.

Here’s how big toy companies use this behavior to their advantage: They intentionally undersupply the stores with the toys they’ve gotten the parents to promise and supply plenty of other substitutes. Call it genius or call it unethical - it doesn’t change the fact that this works.

Knowing about these practices is the first step towards learning to identify these traps and start saying no!

  1. Coke and Lottery Tickets

Now assume you’re in a room with a stranger. He left the room and returned with one Coke for himself and one for you. In the experiment mentioned in the book, not a single subject refused the Coke. It is easy to see why it would have been awkward to turn down the favor: The money had already been spent; a soft drink was an appropriate favor in the situation, especially since the person had one himself; it would have been considered impolite to reject his “thoughtful” action. What ended up happening is that receiving that Coke led to a feeling that you’re in debt. Now the other person announced his desire to sell some lottery tickets. The study found that when the Coke was offered, people bought twice as many tickets. I want you to notice the important asymmetry here — you did not choose anything! The other person chose the form of the initial favor (Coke), and he also chose the form of the return favor (lottery tickets). Of course, you had the choice of saying no to both the offers. But those would have been tough choices. To have said no at either point would have required you to go against the natural cultural forces that favor reciprocation.

Think about it and let this sink in. It’s a perfect example of deception - Hook, line, and sinker!

Weapons of Influence

The book talks about six “weapons” of influence. I’ll go over the ones that I like the most:

  1. Reciprocation

Reciprocation is the deadliest of them all. In short, we mirror others. If someone’s nice to us, we are nice to them. Simple evolutionary surviving tactic.

We saw the Coke example above. Another way this could be used as a highly effective compliance technique is using compromise (also known as the rejection-then-retreat technique). Suppose you want me to agree to a certain request. You first make a larger request of me, which I will most likely turn down. After I have refused, you make the smaller request that you were really interested in all along. Used correctly, this can greatly increase your chances. Why? Because I view your second request as a concession to me. I am now inclined to mirror, that is providing a concession of my own, the only one I have immediately open to me is compliance with your second request.

  1. Commitment and Consistency

Let’s talk about the commitment and consistency principle. It basically says that once people commit to something, say take a side in an argument, it’s very hard to change this.

People want to seem consistent with their previous actions.

In horse racing, we can see this behavior easily. If you see a bettor thirty seconds before putting down their money, they are tentative and uncertain. Thirty seconds after the deed, they are significantly more optimistic and self-assured. The act of making a final decision—in this case, of buying a ticket—is the critical factor. Once a stand has been taken, the need for consistency pressures these people to bring what they feel and believe into line with what they had already done. They simply convince themselves that they had made the right choice and, no doubt, feel better about it all.

Moving on: Say I make a small request to you, and you agree. Now if I make a larger request, you will tend to grant that as well. Because you want to be consistent with your actions. I learnt about this Foot in the Door technique while studying a psychology elective in college. Well, frankly, I also tried this on many people and this got me hooked to explore more about psychology. I also learnt another well-known principle of human behavior which says that when we ask someone to do us a favor, we will be more successful if we provide a reason.

People simply like to have reasons for what they do.

If this got you intrigued about psychology, I’d definitely recommend reading the whole book. 💯

If you’d like to join a mastermind group of voracious readers, apply using the link in the description of the YouTube video linked at the start of this post.

Until we meet again, this is swap signing out. 🖖

Personal blog by Swapnil Agarwal, on a quest to find his Ikigai. To get new posts in your inbox, subscribe to my newsletter.