Friday, January 4, 2013

The Psychology of Influence

Early in December I had the privilege of attending a conference for work where I got the chance to hear a presentation by Dr. Robert Cialdini: an expert on the science of influence, a professor of business at Arizona State University, and an author of best selling books covering this area of expertise. He was a masterful presenter but more importantly he shared some really interesting ideas that I personally found really helpful.

He presents six fundamental principles of influence, principles that when applied prove influential in determining the kinds of decisions we tend to make. As human beings we are bombarded with information, so naturally we use shortcuts to help us choose in the face of limited knowledge. These shortcuts generally work well for us. Being conscious of these shortcuts will help us expand our sphere of influence. These principles may seem obvious, but I think the few of us really leverage these principles in a way that might increase our ablity to influence others.

People are motivated to act when the object they are pursuing is hard to obtain. They are even more motivated to act when there is a risk of losing what they already have.  A salesperson is more effective trying to sale insulation for a home, for example, when they describe it as a way to prevent the homeowner from losing money (a scarce resource) verses a way to save it. There are certain skills that are difficult enough to obtain that few people have them. These people are scarce and valuable. Often our time is of short supply and in the myriad of things we can be doing day-to-day, we should be focused on activities worthy of spending this scarce resource on. This is a powerful shortcut for us because often things are more valuable when they are in limited supply.

Commitment and Consistency
People are far more likely to follow through when they have made a firm commitment to do so. A restaurant owner having trouble with people making reservations but failing to show up needed a way to encourage their customers to call and cancel first. They were only successful in doing so, when they asked the customer directly if they would call to cancel if their plans changed. Getting a verbal commitment increased the likelihood of follow through. Getting it in writing is even more powerful.

Nobody wants to be thought of as a free loader or moocher. A powerful way to gain influence is by giving something to others. Gifts that are unexpected and personal yield the biggest response in return. This is a source of power that we all too often give up. When we help someone at  often we hear the words “thank you”, and in response we often say “no problem”. We de-emphasize and even dismiss the gift we just gave decreasing the likelihood that our gesture will be returned in kind. Rather, we should amplify what we did. “Of course, this is what friends do for one another”. This is important; we really do need each other. We need others to sacrifice just as we must if we want to collectively accomplish hard and important goals.

Entire industries have been built up around the fact that people will buy products from people they like. Tupperware and other products rake in money because they convince large number of people to sell their products to their friends. We are more willing to sacrifice for someone we like. We want to work with people we enjoy being around. To gain influence, we should build relationships. One powerful way to do this is to offer sincere, regular compliments to our colleagues. Do not be stingy with honest complements.

Those who are considered to be an expert in their field will also have influence over others in relation to their authority. If we want to have influence, we need to make sure others are aware that we have the expertise to warrant others to trust our opinions. Before Dr. Cialdini made his presentation, he was introduced by the person who pulled together the conference. In the introduction, the organizer presented a long list of Dr. Cialdini’s credentials on the topic of influence: his books, his research, his awards. When Dr. Cialdini was ready to present, the entire audience was ready to listen. Getting a trusted source to vouch for you is a valuable way to establish credibility.

If no one is available, we can improve our trustworthiness through credible honesty. If we start out by listing our weaknesses first, we are more believable when we follow this by mentioning our areas of strength. In one of the most influential commercials in history, Avis Rent-A-Car used the tag-line, “We are number two, but we are trying harder. The honesty of the first phrase was apparent, making the second part of that phrase more believable.

Social Proof: Consensus
A powerful short-cut for us in decision making is to follow the lead of the group. If many people are in line to purchase an iPad, our curiosity is peaked and we have a stronger desire to purchase one ourselves. The power comes when there are many other people doing a certain action and even more so when people similar to us are doing it. In our communities, churches, clubs or at work, we have a natural collection of people who have a lot in common. As a result we have a natural sphere of influence. We should use it to our advantage. One person doing the right thing will influence others to do it as well. Lead by example.

One point that was clearly emphasized in the presentation was to use these techniques ethically. We want to be an influence for good. We want to convince another of something that is actually true and worthy of their consideration.  We are marshaling evidence to facilitate good decisions. If we are actual experts, we want to use our expertise to marshal appropriate influence. We want to sacrifice for others, similarly, we need others to sacrifice for us. We are better for it.

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