Archive for June 2009

Managing Authority so as Not to Lose Your Sense of Responsiblity

June 28, 2009

George Carlin once said, “I have just as much authority as the Pope; I just don’t have as many people who believe it.”

One of the most pervasive weapons of influence is the use of authority. Being told to, and indeed, “following orders” is such a powerful concept that it has been used in times of war and even the Holocaust of the 1940’s as a justification for committing horrific atrocities. Yet, when used for positive and appropriate purposes, it allows for order and the development of social and political structures that enables each of us the opportunity to live safely and productively in society and avoid a frightening state of lawless and dangerous anarchy. Talk about a double-edged sword!

Cialdini asserts that this is why we are literally trained from birth “that obedience to proper authority is right.” We learn this concept at home, in school and in our houses of worship. The Bible early on teaches us that the consequences of disobedience are pretty severe (Eating a forbidden fruit gets Adam and Eve – us? – tossed out of paradise or Abraham being tested and asked to sacrifice his beloved son because a Higher Authority tells him to do so).

The interesting thing is that once we have learned the importance of obedience, we pretty much follow it without giving it too much thought. We do this because we understand quickly that others know more than us or have greater access to information and there are true benefits to listening and following instructions from those who are “in the know.”

The challenge though is to know when to stop and think for oneself and avoid blind obedience. Cialdini cites a great example of this and one that most of us have experience with — healthcare. HCFA (The Healthcare Financing Administration) did a study and found that there was a 12% daily error rate in patient medication dispensing. A decade later, in the 1990’s, a Harvard University stated that 10% of all cardiac arrests were attributable to medication errors and while these errors can occur for a variety of reasons, at least one book attributes this situation to the “mindless deference” to the person in charge of the patient’s case – the attending physician.

The two professors who wrote this book, Medication Errors: Causes and Prevention, humorously tell the story of a patient who was prescribed ear drops with this note “place in R ear” and how the duty nurse place the drops in the patient’s butt instead of in the patient’s right ear. While tragically funny, more than likely, many of us have personal experiences that have taught us to ask questions when dealing with the medical establishment.

For purposes of our discussion, this example dramatizes how easily we submit to authority. More than that, we also submit to the symbols of authority. Seeing someone in a certain uniform (makes you realize the importance of understanding clothing as costumes), with a certain title, with a certain type of office or car, or with a certain level of authoritative expertise creates an automatic response to be influenced. One could make a case that Bernard Madoff leverage his positions on boards and trappings to such a great extent that he was able to create the greatest scam of all time.

Caildini notes how people become more deferential in conversation when they learn someone has a title. In fact, in one of the studies that he cites, he noted a correlation between perceived height and title. The greater the title, the greater the perceived physical stature.

So how does someone control this powerful form of influence? Cialdini believes that being aware of the powers of authority and its trappings is the first step to managing the inappropriate influence of authority. There are two questions that he feels needs to be asked – (1) Is the authority truly an expert? and (2) How truthful can we believe the expert to be to us?

Answering the first question enables us to decide if the authority is worth following and if that particular expertise is relevant to the situation. The second question is a little more complex in that if the authority has a vested interest in the outcome, the way that the information is presented in worth questioning.  Sometimes a practitioner of authoritative influence will use a tactic to show us that he or she is really on our side. They tell us something negative about the product so that when something positive is presented, we find their claim more believable. (L’Oreal – a bit more expensive but worth it) Still, this prescription for deciding whether to follow authority seems very practical.

Our next post will focus on Cialdini’s last weapon of influence – scarcity.


People Buy From Those They…Like?

June 19, 2009

The fourth weapon of influence is one Cialdini attributes as “liking.” The classic example of this weapon in action is the Tupperware party. The Tupperware party actually employs several weapons at once (attendees win prizes – putting reciprocity in play), and each participant has to speak to the value that they receive from using Tupperware (public commitment and consistency) and, of course, social proof as each purchase reinforces the belief that other similar people want to buy the product.

Make no mistake, though, the foundation for success is predicated on the belief that you will be going to a friend’s house and she will be “asking” you to buy Tupperware products. While the Tupperware person may do the “ask,” the hostess sitting off to the side is the reason that you are even there.

The key success factor in many of these types of sales presentations is the referral from a friend.  Turning the salesperson away in these circumstances is like turning a friend away and that is exceptionally difficult for most people to do.

Cialdini, however, uses a very broad definition of the term “liking.” For example, physical attractiveness encourages people to like a person. In fact, we frequently attribute talent, honesty, kindness and intelligence to those people who look good. (Can someone say Billy Crystal’s impression of Fernando Lamas saying “It is more important to look good than to feel good.”) This is such an important element that for beer or car ads, “beautiful people” are frequently the spokespeople. And Cialdini cites studies that physical attractiveness impacts court settlements and sentences.

Sometimes those same car and beer manufacturers employ a different flavor of “liking,” one that Cialdini calls “similarity.” We like people who are similar to us. People, who dress, think, look and talk like us are ones that we relate to. Some sales people use this to great advantage by citing similar backgrounds (“You’re kidding — I grew up near Montana, too!”) so that we may relate to them more closely. Studies have also shown that people respond extraordinarily well to compliments…even if they are not entirely true.

The final component in his liking section is one devoted to contact and cooperation. This section is perhaps the most important element he discusses, because of its implications for tolerance among races and countries. Cialdini points out that where there is more contact between groups, familiarity breeds friendship – with one notable distinction.

When people are placed in competitive environments where rewards are perceived as zero sum games (only one or limited winners), enmity actually increases. This is an astounding perception because it crystallizes why school desegregation doesn’t usually create greater understanding among races and why longstanding political conflicts continue. Cialdini cites studies that suggest that if people share a critical (important because it encourages cooperation) goals and work together toward achieving it, friendship and respect are created.

As he does with all his sections, Cialdini concludes his discussion with how best to mange this weapon of influence. He recommends that we cognitively separate the message / offer from the messenger so that we may weigh the offer on its own merits.

Social Proof: Is there really strength in numbers?

June 12, 2009

I had expected that when I read about Professor Cialdini’s third weapon of influence, social proof, I would not discover anything terribly intriguing. Boy, was I wrong!

Social proof is predicated on this theorem: Since the vast majority of people are imitators, people are persuaded by the actions of others than by any other proof that is offered. We see this rule put into play quite often. Canned laughter, TV and print endorsements by “people on the street,” bartenders loading a jar with tips before people arrive, are all examples of creating a social proof that it is appropriate for us to take an action simply because there is an appearance that others just like us are taking that action.

The applications of this rule are significant. Studies have shown that children and adults can overcome fears by observing people doing what they are personally afraid to do. If they see someone else doing it, it feels safe to them.

The interesting application of this idea is the concept of similarity. It may not be sufficient to see someone else do something but, rather, it often has to be someone like us. In other words, a child will respond to seeing another child doing something as opposed to an adult doing the same thing. (Overcoming an irrational fear is easier for a child if another child demonstrates no fear when doing that particular thing.)

This, however, leads us to another cultural phenomenon.

Many years ago, Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City. I first learned of the unusual circumstances surrounding her death when I heard the Phil Ochs’ song, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends.” Her murder was particularly remarkable because 38 people observed the murder taking place over a period of more than a hal hour from adjacent apartment buildings. Yet, none called the police.

Ochs attributed her death to widespread apathy and said it was indicative of how unfeeling we had become. Cialdini, though attributes it to something he calls “pluralistic ignorance.”

Pluralistic ignorance assumes that when multiple people are present, people will (a) assume others will take actions and (b) look to others to see what actions should be taken because, to some degree, (c) they are uncertain. (It also may explain why when an e-mail is sent to multiple people requesting an action be taken, no one takes the action.) The interesting point about all of this is that if nobody takes an action, the assumption becomes that no action should be taken (Otherwise someone would have taken it, right?)

To test this theory, Cialdini cites a study, where an emergency was staged – sometimes in front of multiple bystanders and sometimes in front of a single individual. Help was provided nearly three times more often when staged in front of the individual than =when staged in front of the bystander groups.

The way to mitigate the likelihood of inaction is to do three things (1) Indicate that help is required – this eliminates the situational uncertainty, (2) designate an individual to help – this eliminates the perspective that “if I don’t help, someone else will” and (3) request a specific action – this removes any remaining uncertainty about what should be done. (“Hey you in the green coat – I’m hurt – stop, call an ambulance now!)

So how do you combat this form of influence? One needs to recognize the manipulation going on in social proof situation and, as the author suggests, recognize that bad social proof is being demonstrated and the our own behavior can be controlled.

Consistency and Commitment: A Two Stage Influencer

June 8, 2009

Cialdini’s second weapon of influence is commitment and consistency. The rule here is that we feel required to be consistent with what we have already said or done. As Cialdini explains, “once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that decision.”

Here are some examples of how this type of behavior manifests itself. Someone takes a public position and then must explain it afterward. Or one of the more interesting studies that the author cites is one where staged thefts of a radio were performed on a beach. Onlookers attempted to stop the thief four in twenty times. However, when onlookers were asked by the individual beforehand to watch the radio before leaving the scene, an astounding19 out of 20 times an onlooker attempted to stop the thief! The power of commitment and consistency was so strong that people were actually willing to put themselves in harm’s way.

Much like reciprocity, consistency is a desirable personality trait. People who are inconsistent are thought to be two-faced or confused while those who are consistent are thought to be balanced and decisive.

In fact, my mentor Carl, shared with me a business aphorism long ago. It simply stated that “management should always be consistent but never predictable.” Until reading this book, I had always believed that aphorism meant that employees needed to have common and fair rules. Cialdini adds dimensions that speaks to the management portion of the equation, such as trustworthiness and stability.

Most of us relish consistency as it allows us to apply rules and patterns to our thinking. “If this is true then that must also be true.” Applying these types of rules enables us to accelerate our thinking and decision making process. In fact, once the rule is applied, we may never revisit the circumstance again. This explains why automatic consistency is a state that we relish.

However, like any rule, we appreciate its value most of the time but are discomfited when it is used against us. Cialdini discusses how toy stores use consistency and commitment to get us into their stores in January – after the holiday rush and massive toy shopping has just finished.

It’s really quite simple. A toy gets heavily advertised. Your child is excited by it and approaches you about buying it for the holidays. After some consideration, you agree and make the commitment to buy it. When you get to the store, you discover the toy is out of stock. You may check out other stores and then discover that it simply is not available.

What should you do?

You buy other toy(s) to compensate and apologize to your child.

Miraculously, in January, a fresh shipment of these toys arrive. Your child or you notices – and then consistency kicks in. Off you go to buy the toy… The toy stores have thereby leveraged your commitment to yourself and your child as well as your need for consistency to get you back to shopping. (Think beanie babies, cabbage patch kids or more recently, the Wii)

The key element in all of this is that commitment precedes consistency. If your commitment is on the record, the consistency trait kicks in and you will almost certainly respond in a way that supports the commitment. Knowing this, if you want to raise funds for a charity, the first step might be to get your target market to sign a petition that states that the cause is worthy. Commitment precedes consistency.

Cialdini emphasizes that commitment can come in stages. Supporting one campaign well set the stage for supporting extended versions of that campaign. So starting with a little request, such as a petition, creates the foundation and sets the stage for larger requests, such as a donation.

So how does one fight this overwhelming need to be consistent? Cialdini believes that while consistency is required in our day-to-day lives, we do know when it would be wise to forgo consistency in favor of what we know to be right. That feeling that we have in our stomachs when we are not comfortable with a decision is our mind and body’s way to tell us that we should rethink our position – or our actions, and we should learn to recognize and “follow our gut.”

The Compelling Role of Reciprocation

June 4, 2009

At its core, a “weapon of influence” is a trigger. It stimulates a response that is truly compelling and one that we have difficulty ignoring.

The first “weapon of influence” is one that Cialdini refers to as reciprocation. You can see the concept of reciprocation being put into play every single day. Those address labels that accompany the letter requesting that you donate to a worthy cause… reciprocation, in this case, in the form of an uninvited debt. Gifts to politicians with the intention of receiving support later on…reciprocation. Even the free sample given by manufacturers with the intention of exposing someone to a product is still another form of – you guessed it – reciprocation. And it is core to the way we raise our children (i.e. the golden rule and if you want him to be nice to you, you have to treat him nicely)

The rule of reciprocation states that “we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided to us.” The need to reciprocate is a self-imposed obligation that we place on ourselves. You can even see it in our language as “much obliged” has become synonymous with “thank you.” In fact, this sense of obligation is pervasive in all human society.

In reading Cialdini’s work, I was frankly ambivalent. On the one hand, I was concerned that I was becoming wise to ways that I was being manipulated (or, dare I say, in fact, manipulating others). However, as I reflected more and more on the book, I realized that these influence factors are truly an engine for advancement and care.

Some sociologists note that this sense of future obligation has made a significant difference in our ability to evolve because it meant that what we shared, gave, or even taught, would not be lost. Reciprocation is the basis of trade, mutual defense and perhaps even friendship. Those who do not live by the rule of reciprocation are ultimately scorned (i.e moocher or ingrate). Reciprocation does indeed create a positive cultural norm.

The rule is also overpowering that it can even overcome dislike for the requester. Cialdini cites the Hare Krishna as truly understanding the rule. When they would solicit passerbys, they would not only offer a flower, but they would insist that the flower be accepted. They referred to it as “gift” and would not accept no for an answer. Fundraising was so successful that two important phenomena should be noted.

The first is that the passerbys often discarded the flower at the first available trash can. The Krishnas were thus able to recycle the gifts. There is also now a common practice in many airports to restrict solicitations to certain discrete areas simply because the power of obligation to accept a gift and to repay it is so overwhelming.

The reciprocation rule can also trigger unfair exchanges. Cialdini cites a woman whose car wouldn’t start. She was helped by a young man. About a month later, the young man asked to borrow the car, and while the woman hesitated, she felt compelled to lend him her car, even though she had misgivings about his age. Needless to say the young man totaled the car. The lesson though is that indebtedness and the need to reciprocate is an itch that we must scratch.

There are exceptions and they typically fall into the category of circumstance or ability. If circumstances or ability prevent us from reciprocating, we allow ourselves that latitude

The area that was particularly enlightening to me was the concept of reciprocal concession. This is a common tactic in negotiations where one party asks for something that would be deemed inappropriate simple so that the offer can be withdrawn and replaced by a less outrageous offer. The other party often feels a need to reciprocate to the concession and agrees to the new request.

To make this point, Cialdini draws on the testimony of Nixon associate Jeb Stuart Magruder, upon hearing that the Watergate burglars had been caught, responded by asking, “How could we have been so stupid?”

As the story goes, it seems that G. Gordon Liddy, who was in charge of the intelligence gathering for the Nixon campaign, had initially asked for $1,000,000 in cash for a wide range of activities. Magruder and Campaign Director John Mitchell kept declining the offer. Liddy kept scaling back the request until finally the rule of reciprocal concession kicked in and his request for $250,000 in cash for the break-in was approved.

As to more mundane examples, think of the salesman who shows you the top of the line product so that he can scale you back to sell you a more “affordable” item in the product line

Is there a way to say no? Cialdini suggests that one can say no if one adopts a mindset that recognizes the tactic for what is. This requires us to cognitively understand that reciprocation is a tactic and be present so that the tactic can be effectively managed.

The Psychology of Persuasion

June 1, 2009

About a week ago, I had dinner with one of my favorite friends. Andy’s mind is always racing. He had served as CEO of a very successful company in Buffalo, NY that was recognized as being a model for one of the most outstanding places to work in that region. Andy is also a serial entrepreneur and his quick and agile mind has enabled him to create, build and overcome almost any challenge.

I enjoy our dinners for so many reasons. It is a chance to catch up with a friend whom I admire and at the same time, I always discover that I have learned something insightful and valuable after we have spent time together. After four hours of dining and conversation with Andy, I found myself mentally exhausted but intellectually stimulated.

A significant portion of our evening’s discussion focused on the work of Dr. Robert Caldini. He’s the Ph.D. referenced in one of my earlier posts. I had bought his seminal work, Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion, about the same time as I had read the Time Magazine article. It was on my list of must-reads – I just hadn’t created the space to get through it.

Andy had met with Cialdini and was very favorably influenced by his thinking. This was the impetus that I needed to pick up Cialdini’s book.

Cialdini’s book is a mix of theoretical study and empirical research. He cites the works of others but frequently intertwines their research with his own experiences and investigations into how our minds assist others in moving us to certain decisions – often without us even realizing it.

His work is important. While it teaches us how our minds work, it also teaches us how to move people to appropriate directions. I don’t view his book as a study in manipulation. In fact, I believe it to be just the opposite. If you subscribe to the strategy of pre-eminence, that is, that as leaders and business consultants we have an obligation to help people past their fears while addressing their concerns, Caldini gives us methods to consider. Like everything in the world, it can be used appropriately or not.

With that as introduction, let us look at the six factors that he refers to as “weapons of influence.” These six are:

  1. Reciprocation
  2. Commitment and Consistency
  3. Social Proof
  4. Liking
  5. Authority
  6. Scarcity

Effectively employing these six factors allows one to perform a mental ju-jitsu on the other party. In his terms, it allows one to leverage the natural beliefs and inclinations of the buyer to create a preferred outcome for the seller.

To illustrate these weapons of influence / ju-jitsu perspectives, he poses the question about whether a salesperson would be more effective selling a high priced item before selling a low priced item or the other way around. In other words, which approach is more likely to result in both items being sold?

One’s initial thought might be to sell the low priced item and establish a “foot in the door.” However, marketers have discovered, particularly with higher priced items, that the exact opposite is true.

Think about it.

After you have bought the tailored suite or the fashionable dress, it is only then that the salesperson suggests that you might want to look at shirts, ties, socks, or accessories and shoes. There is a simple reason for this approach and it is the concept of “contrast.”

After spending a significant amount of money, the cost of the additional item does not seem all that much. By contrast, buying a sweater to complete a look is an insignificant purchase.

In our next post, we’ll look at the first of these weapons that Cialdini outlines – reciprocation.

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