Robert Cialdini wrote the modern book on influence in 1984, offering six universal principles for marketing, negotiating and dealing effectively with colleagues. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein nudged that effort ahead with ideas from behavioural economics that encourage others to freely act in desired ways. With Influence and Nudge, both books coincidentally being updated this year, it’s a good time to deepen our understanding of their methods for persuasion and give some attention to what has been added to their thinking.

Prof. Cialdini, of Arizona State University, says in the updated version of Influence that his principles can produce a kind of automatic compliance from people – a willingness to say yes without thinking first:

  • Reciprocation: People will be inclined to repay what a person has provided them. When McDonald’s restaurants in Brazil and Columbia gave children balloons on entering, the total family spending that visit rose by 25 per cent, including a 20 per cent increase in coffee, adults, probably unconsciously, repaying a gift to their child.
  • Liking: As legendary car salesperson Joe Girard put it: “There is nothing more effective in selling anything than getting customers to believe, really believe, you like them.” Malpractice suits are less likely when the doctor-patient relationship is strong.
  • Social proof: We determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct. Sales of menu items in a chain of restaurants jumped by an average of 13 to 20 per cent when they were labelled “most popular” rather than “chef’s recommendation for this evening” or “specialty of the house.”
  • Authority: The famed experiments by psychologist Stanley Milgram showed how powerful deference to authority is, as unwitting participants succumbed to a teacher ordering them to inflict dangerous levels of electric shocks on an alleged learner for giving wrong answers. Con artists, Prof. Cialdini notes, drape themselves with the titles, clothing, and trappings of authority.
  • Scarcity: Less is best. If an item is rare or becoming rare, it is viewed as more valuable. “In fact, when a desirable item is rare or unavailable, consumers no longer base its fair price on perceived quality; instead, they base it on the item’s scarcity,” he says.
  • Commitment and consistency: Every year Amazon gives each of its fulfilment centre employees an incentive of up to $5,000 to leave. The company wants them to take a moment to think of what they really want, since people prefer to be consistent and will thus intensify their commitment to the company. If you can get people to make a commitment – to go on record and take a stand – for your idea or product, it can lead to consistency.

But in his updated edition, he added a seventh principle: Unity. If individuals can be convinced that a communicator shares a meaningful personal or social identity with them, those individuals will become remarkably more susceptible to the communicator’s persuasive appeals. An example is when guests at a Tupperware party make a purchase, they are welcomed to “the Tupperware family.” Shared identities can be extremely powerful, as we see in the tribe-like categories individuals use to define themselves and their groups, such as race, ethnicity, nationality, family and political and religious affiliations.

In Nudge: The Final Edition, Professors Thaler and Sunstein – the former from the University of Chicago and the latter from Harvard University – urge you to become choice architects. A common example is where a cafeteria manager places items – earlier in the lineup, say, or at eye level – can dramatically influence purchases, a fact schools and hospitals trying to encourage health eating have been applying. This can be used to increase sales, of course, but they are proponents of libertarian paternalism, intending nudges to help people.

A new topic they tackle is Smart Disclosure. “The idea is that governments should consider the radical thought of moving at least into the 20th century in the way they disclose information,” the duo write, noting that its fine to list ingredients on the side of food packages but someone with shellfish allergies should be able to search on the internet for all foods with that ingredient. And to improve self-control in your life, consider their nudge to themselves: By adding the label “final edition” to the book title, it might discourage further laborious updates. That’s a trick Prof. Cialdini missed.

Quick hits

  • Smiling can help during a presentation but communications professor Amy Boone warns to be careful. Fake smiles don’t work because audiences are good at detecting them, research shows, and real smiles won’t make up for incompetence. If you are focused more on smiling than on speaking, it could negatively affect your performance. But if you do the rest of your work well, an authentic smile leaves a positive impression.
  • Ideally, entrepreneurs should begin planning their exit from the firm they created seven years before it happens, suggests marketing advisor Steve McKee.
  • To reduce anxiety about your career status – perhaps repeatedly comparing yourself to others – research analyst Lindsay Morgia recommends reflecting on what success means to you, forgetting about how it is defined by family, friends and society at large.
  • Seventy-seven per cent of bloggers say their posts drive results, with 22 per cent labelling those results “strong.” But it takes effort: The average blog post takes four hours to write, the annual survey by Orbit Media found.
  • If you want to find a better path, you have to be willing to explore a better path. “That sounds simple, but how often do you try something different?” asks Atomic Habits author James Clear.

The Globe and Mail, November 4, 2021