By Robert B. Cialdini (1984)

Pages: 320,Final verdict: Don't-read

What does it take to be a master of persuasion? How do great salespeople, brands, religious groups and other organizations influence our decisions, and how can we recognize when we’re being “played"?

To understand this and more, in a book combining academic research with the study of people who make a living out of the art of human persuasion, in this review we will explore Robert B. Cialdini’s 1984 Influence:The Psychology of Persuasion.

The six principles of Influence

We are all part of the social fabric of the game of persuasion. This is true at work when you're convincing your colleagues to reach a certain decision, outside of it while figuring out where to go for dinner with friends, or during the mental exercise of thinking how you’ll invite your crush out on a date.

To avoid draining our brainpower with every decision that comes our way, nature took care of adding a few "automatic response” mechanisms on the way we handle external stimulus. This is the underlying premise of Influence, which starts by exploring how these triggers - such as how we tie the quality of a product with its price - can be used both for and against us.

"Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them" by British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead

Piggybacking on this concept with a sound foundation of research every step of the way, Robert shows us how the art of persuasion can be broken down into 6 principles we can relate to:

  • Reciprocity: We try to repay, in kind, to what another person has provided us. This is the first principle presented, which can have an overpowering effect on the person that is subjected to it, as it is human nature to lower our natural inhibitions when we receive an uninvited favor.

  • Commitment and Consistency: We crave consistency and commitment to feel comfortable with the decisions we take. This explains why people who bet are considerable more confident after placing that bet than immediately before. By reading through the examples, you'll also understand why retailers boost their sales by choosing to have a limited supply of their most desired products during Black Friday, Christmas, and other shopping intensive seasons.

  • Social proof: Robert Cialdini claims that about 95% of us are followers, meaning that we seek validation from our peers and find peace of mind with feeling that our decisions are aligned with the social norm. In two dramatically different examples, we explore why the annoying canned laughter of TV sitcoms increases our perception of how funny a show is, and recollect the reasons that led to the mass suicide of Jonestown in 1978.

  • Liking: Far from surprising, research shows that we're more likely to say yes to people we like. Attributes like physical attractiveness, similarity and the art of giving sincere compliments go a long way in helping candidates secure election votes, and can be used in the school setting to increase cooperation between students and reduce incidents of bullying and discrimination.

  • Authority: People can go to extreme lengths to comply with commands from someone perceived as an authority figure. And although generally a figure of authority does “know better”, over compliance will lead us to make irrational decisions. Here, among other examples, you'll learn why a nurse administrated drops on a patient’s rear (read “r.ear”) who had come in with a right ear infection. In a set of experiments with shocking revelations, you’ll have a glimpse of why most of us are willing to inflict increasing amount of pain to another human being merely by our built-in need to follow the "rules of the game”.

  • Scarcity: Opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited. That’s why the last cookie of the jar is the one we crave the most and explains why compliance professionals place so much emphasis on “limited offer only” deals and why Ryanair tells you that there are “only 5 seats left at 19.99$”. As an opportunity becomes less available, we begin to lose our freedom of choice. And since we hate to loose what we already have, our automatic response mechanism kicks in, sometimes to our disadvantage (and our wallet’s one as well).

To complement the wide range of examples that comes with every principle, every chapter has a dedicated section titled "How to say no", summarizing how we can acknowledge when these techniques are being applied to us, and avoid falling prey to them.

Bottom line

Influence is not an easy book to categorize. It shows the reader, through 6 insightful principles, how the "automatic responses" we have wired in our brains can be used to influence our decision making, acting as a powerful realization for most of us. However, the road to guide the reader through each chapter is paved with an absurd repetition of examples to back each of the principles, making the book unnecessarily long (a light 150-page book turns into a 320-page novel, with little added value in between).

If I were to read it again, I'd probably browse through the first dozen pages of each chapter, take a few notes on the key ideas and move on to the next one. And because of that, I would not recommend Influence to a friend. I'd advise her to read a few summaries of the theory and principles highlighted in the book (or just watch the video below). For a great book, I’d recommend her to pick any of the must-reads from our list.

Further learning: