The Psychology of influence
The ability to engage and influence others is crucial when you want to make a positive change in your professional or personal relationships. Understanding how experts influence change can increase your understanding of the process involved and provide you with a toolkit to influence others in your daily life.
In his bestseller, ‘Influence’, psychologist, Robert Cialdini, explains that there are six potent ‘weapons of influence’ that we can all use to influence others. According to Cialdini, the ‘weapons of influence’ are incredibly effective because we are programmed to respond predictably (by complying automatically) when confronted with certain triggers. This predictable behaviour is known as a ‘fixed action pattern.’
Jumping the queue
Research by Harvard psychologist, Ellen Langer provided one of the most famous examples of a fixed action pattern. Langer examined the assumption that we are more likely to do someone a favour if they provide us with a reason for doing so, demonstrating a fixed action pattern
Langer’s team asked a favour of those standing in line at a photocopying machine, they approached them asking,
“Excuse me, I have pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” This simple request was extremely effective, with ninety-four percent of those asked allowing the researcher to jump ahead in the queue. When the request was made without giving a reason,
“Excuse me, I have five pages, May I use the Xerox machine?” The success of the request was significantly lowered, with only sixty percent of those asked agreeing.
It seemed that the significant difference between the success of the requests was the reason given in the first example “because I’m in a rush”. Langer showed that the reason given wasn’t the deciding factor by requesting the favour just using the word “because” but not following it up with a reason, just restating the facts,
“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” Almost all (ninety three percent of those asked) agreed to allow Langer to jump ahead in the queue even though no reason was given by Langer to justify their compliance. The word “because” was the trigger to the automatic compliance response.
What causes us to comply automatically?
Cialdini argues that such automatic types of behaviour exist because they are a necessary and ultimately more efficient way of behaving in a complex and stimuli rich environment. We are unable to analyse every event & person that we encounter and instead use stereotypes or key pieces of information to categorise people and situations and we use these trigger features to respond appropriately.
Although Cialdini accepts that behaviour elicited by our trigger features is not always advantageous or appropriate, he argues that, regardless of the imperfections involved, they are necessary and more importantly “without them we would stand frozen – cataloging, appraising and calibrating – as the time for action sped by and away.”
Cialdini is famous for his six principles of influence, they are:
- Commitment and Consistency
- Social Proof
The first weapon of influence we’ll take a look at in this series of blogs on the psychology of influence is the principle of reciprocation.
The Principle of Reciprocation – or why we say yes when we’d rather say no!
The rule of reciprocation is that we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has done for us or given to us.
I bought you a coke
An example of this principle is illustrated by psychologists at Cornell University. Two subjects were asked to rate a number of paintings as part of an experiment on “art appreciation”. Only one subject was really rating the pictures, the other subject was a research assistant, referred to as Joe. Joe was there to interact with the first subject for the real experiment which examined reciprocity. The experiment took place under two different conditions.
Condition One: Joe did a small, unsolicited favour for the subject. During a break Joe left the room and returned with two bottles of coke, saying to the subject,“I asked him (the experimenter) if I could get myself a coke , and he said it was okay, so I bought one for you too.”
Condition Two: there was a break but no favour was provided.
When the paintings had been rated, Joe asked the subject to do him a favour, saying that he had some raffle tickets to sell & that he might win a fifty dollar prize if he sold the most tickets. Tickets were 25 cents each. As expected, the subjects that Joe gave the coke to bought more tickets than the subjects who received no bottle of coke. What was interesting was the number of tickets sold, those who had received the favour bought twice as many tickets than those who didn’t receive the coke.
Does how much we like someone make a difference?
Another factor, how much the subjects rated themselves as liking Joe, was examined. Not surprisingly, those who reported liking Joe bought more tickets. Interestingly, the behaviour of subjects who’d received a favour from Joe wasn’t affected by how much they liked or disliked him, they still felt an obligation to reciprocate his favour. This research shows just how strong the principle of reciprocity can be.
Just as useful as knowing about the reciprocity principle is knowing how to say no to those who are using it as a means to getting us to buy or do something that we wish to avoid, for example, a sales pitch to buy an unwanted item after receiving a gift from a salesperson. Cialdini advises us to free ourselves from the obligation of reciprocity by redefining how we view the free gift. Don’t see the gift as a favour, see it for what it really is, a solicitation to buy a product.
Keep an eye out for the rest of this series of blogs on the psychology of influence, including the remaining 5 weapons of influence. Want to know more now? Take a look at this video of Cialdini talking about the importance of reciprocity: