Thoughts and Notes on Influence by Robert Cialdini

This is a really long read. I’ve basically taken all the quotes I found interesting from the book Influence by Robert Cialdini and just typed them out here, along with some of my own notes and commentary in bold italics. If you’ve never read the book, this is probably going to give an overview of what the book is about and its six main sections. I think this is a highly valuable book, with lots of insights on human psychology that is relevant whether you are operating in the markets or going to a party. Going through the book again and writing all of this helped further solidify my own takeaways from this amazing book.


The 6 principles = reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. Commitment and consistency is something I’ve touched on in the past and I believe all six of these principles tie into the general theme of understanding various psychological mental models.


A well-known principle of human behavior says when we asked someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do… The word “because” trigger an automatic compliance response from Langer’s subjects, even when they were given no subsequent reason to comply.

I’ve tried to be especially cognizant of this in my professional life, making sure to give a reason as to why I would like something done or why a request is important. This ties into what Munger talks about when he mentions the CF Braun Engineering Company and how the rule for all communications at that company had to include the five W’s: who was going to do what, where, when, and why. This principle that was established at the Braun Company was rooted in what Cialdini talks about above.

Mailed-out coupons that – because of a printing error – offered no savings to recipients produced just as much customer response as did error-free coupons that offered substantial savings. The obvious but instructive point here is that we expect discount coupons to do double duty. Not only do we expect them to save us money, we also expect them to save us the time and mental energy required to think about how to do it.

I recall hearing a story about how P&G tried to move away from coupons and actually just implement the savings discount into the product price itself, but customers were so used to receiving and using coupons and also seeing with their own eyes the discount being applied when the coupon was scanned that they were infuriated and demanded the coupons be reinstated, even though there was literally no difference between A) No coupon with the MSRP adjusted for a discount and B) Coupon with the MSRP not-adjusted for the coupon discount. This is why psychology is so interesting and potentially exploitative for those who know how to use the tools of compliance to shape our decisions.

It is odd that despite their current widespread use and looming future importance, most of us know very little about our automatic behavior patters. Perhaps that is so precisely because of the mechanistic, unthinking manner in which they occur. Whatever the reason, it is vital that we clearly recognize one of their properties: They make us terribly vulnerable to anyone who does know how they work.

Our automatic response tapes usually develop from psychological principles or stereotypes we have learned to accept.

I am just as guilty for this as anyone. It is mentally exhausting to always be questioning, being critical, and trying to slowly think through all the messages we are bombarded with in every day life.

There is a group of people who know very well where the weapons of automatic influence lie and who employ them regularly and expertly to get what they want. They go from social encounter to social encounter requesting others to comply with their wishes; their frequency of success is dazzling. The secret of their effectiveness lies in the way they structure their requests, the way they arm themselves with one or another of the weapons of influence that exists.

There is a principle in human perception, the contrast principle, that affects the way we see the difference between two things that are presented one after another. Simply put, if the second item is fairly different from the first, we will tend to see it as more different than it actually is. So if we lift a light object first and then lift a heavy object, we will estimate the second object to be heavier than if we had lifted it without first trying the light one. The contrast principle is well established in the field of psychophysics and applies to all sorts of perceptions besides weight. If we are talking to a beautiful woman at a cocktail party and are then joined by an unattractive one, the second woman will strike us as less attractive than she actually is.

Be assured that the nice little weapon of influence provided by the contrast principle does not go unexploited. The great advantage of this principle is not only that i works but also that it is virtually undetectable… it is possible to make the price of the same item seem higher or lower, depending on the price of a previously presented item.

Clever use of perceptual contrast is by no means confined to clothiers. I came across a technique that engaged the contrast principle while I was investigating, undercover, the compliance tactics of real-estate companies… The salesman… was to give me tips to help me through my break-in period. One thing I quickly noticed was that whenever Phil began showing a new set of customers potential buys, he would start with a couple of undesirable houses. I asked him about it, and he laughed. They were what he called “setup” properties. The company maintained a run-down house of two on its lists at inflated prices. These houses were not intended to be sold to customers but to be shown to them, so that the genuine properties in the companies inventory would benefit from the comparison.

Automobile dealers use the contrast principle by waiting until the price for a new car has been negotiated before suggesting one option after another that might be added.

1. Reciprocation

By the virtue of the reciprocity rule… we are obligated to the future repayment of favors, gifts, invitations, and the like.

The impressive aspect of the rule of reciprocation and the sense of obligation that goes with it is its pervasiveness in human culture. It is so widespread that after intensive study, sociologists such as Alvin Gouldner can report that there is no human society that does not subscribe to the rule.

This is why, even if you are explicit about wanting nothing for Christmas (because you are an adult and can readily purchase anything you want) you still get gifts and trinkets and you then in turn feel obliged to get a gift for the other person, which makes it near impossible to break out of the cycle of gift giving for the holidays.

A widely shared and strongly held feeling of future obligation made an enormous difference in human social evolution, because it meant that one person could give something (for example, food, energy, care) to another with confidence that it was not being lost.

I know of no better illustration of how reciprocal obligations can reach long and powerfully into the future than the perplexing story of five thousand dollars of relief aid that was sent in 1958 between Mexico and the impoverished people of Ethiopia. In 1985 Ethiopia could justly lay claim to the greatest suffering and privation in the world. Its economy was in ruin. Its food supply had been ravaged by years of drought and internal war. Its inhabitants were dying by the thousands from disease and starvation. Under these circumstances, I would not have been surprised to learn of a five-thousand-dollar relief donation from Mexico… I remember my chin hitting my chest, though, when a brief newspaper item I was reading insisted that the aid had gone in the opposite direction. Native officials of the Ethiopian Red Cross had decided to send the money to help the victims of that year’s earthquakes in Mexico City… Despite the enormous needs prevailing in Ethiopia, the money was being sent because Mexico had sent aid to Ethiopia in 1935, when it was invaded by Italy. So informed, I remained awed, but I was no longer puzzled… Quite simply, a half century later, against all countervailing forces, obligation triumphed.

Human societies derive a truly significant competitive advantage from the reciprocity rule, and consequently make sure their members are trained to comply with and believe in it. Each of us has been taught to live up to the rule, and each of us knows about the social sanctions and derision applied to anyone who violates it. The labels we assign to such a person are loaded with negativity – moocher, ingrate, welsher.

To understand how the rule of reciprocation can be exploited… we might closely examine an experiment… A subject who participated in the study found himself rating, along with another subject, the quality of some paintings as part of an experiment on “art appreciation.” The other rater – we can call him Joe – was only posing as a fellow subject… the experiment took place under two different conditions. In some cases, Joe did a small, unsolicited favor for the true subject… In other cases, Joe did not provide the subject with a favor… Later on, after the paintings had all been rated and the experimenter had momentarily left the room, Joe asked the subject to do him a favor. He indicated that he was selling raffle tickets… the major finding of the study concerns the number of tickets subjects purchased from Joe under the two conditions. Without question, Joe was more successful in selling his raffle tickets to the subjects who had received his earlier favor.  Apparently feeling that they owed him something, these subjects bought twice as many tickets as the subjects who had not been given the prior favor.

The [reciprocity] rule possess awesome strength, often producing a “yes” response to a request that, except for an existing feeling of indebtedness, would have surely been refused.

People we might ordinarily dislike – unsavory or unwelcome sales operators, disagreeable acquaintances, representatives of strange or unpopular organizations – can greatly increase the chance that we will do what they wish merely by providing us with a small favor prior to their requests.

The Hare Krishna Society… had a considerable public-relations problem. The people being asked for contributions did not like the way the members looked, dressed, or acted… The Krishna’s resolution was brilliant. They switched to a fund raising tactic that made it unnecessary for target persons to have positive feelings towards the fund-raisers… The new strategy still involves the solicitation of contributions in public places… but now, before a donation is requested, the target person is given a “gift” – a book (usually the Bhagavad Gita), the Back to Godhead magazine of the Society, or in the most cost-effective version, a flower… Only after the Krishan member has thus brought the force of the reciprocation rule to bear on the situation is the target asked to provide a contribution to the Society. This benefactor-before-begger strategy has been wildly successful… producing large-scale economic gains and funding the ownership of temples, businesses, houses, and property in 321 centers in the United States and overseas.

Political analysts were amazed at Lyndon Johnson’s ability to get so many of his programs through Congress during his early administration. Even members of congress who were thought to be strongly opposed to the proposals were voting for them. Close examination by political scientists has found the cause to be not so much Johnson’s political savvy as the large score of favors he had been able to provide to other legislators during his many years of power in the House and Senate. As President, he was able to produce a truly remarkable amount of legislation in a short time by calling in those favors. It is interesting that this same process may account for the problems Jimmy Carter had in getting his programs through Congress during his early administration, despite heavy Democratic majorities in both House and Senate. Carter came to the presidency from outside the Capitol Hill establishment. He campaigned on his outside-Washington identity, saying that he was indebted to no one there. Much of his legislative difficulty upon arriving may be traced to the fact that no one there was indebted to him.

Contrast this to Obama who had an extremely difficult time with the legislative arm of the government. Obama was a relative political newbie who hadn’t built up the long and deep connections a lifetime in the Congress and/or Senate – possessing closer ties with the long-standing members of the legislature surely would have been at the least helpful in getting more compromises and programs passed. It’s a good thing Obama had his LBJ-lite in Joe Biden as Biden did have strong and established relationships with powerful members of the Congress and Senate.

At another level, we can see the recognized strength of the reciprocity rule in the desire of corporations and individuals to provide judicial and legislative officials with gifts and favors, and in the series of legal restrictions against such gifts and favors.

During the 1992 presidential primary campaign, actress Sally Kellerman was asked why she was lending her name and efforts to the candidacy of Democratic hopeful Jerry Brown. Her reply: “Twenty years ago, I asked ten friends to help me move. He was the only one who showed up.”

As a marketing technique, the free sample has long and effective history… The beauty of the free sample, however, is that it is also a gift and, as such, can engage the reciprocity rule. In true jujitsu fashion, the promoter who gives free samples can release the natural indebting force inherent in a gift while innocently appearing to have only the intention to inform.

Diane Louie, was an inhabitant of Jonestown… when its leader, Kim Jones, called for the mass suicide of all residents, most of whom compliantly drank and died from a vat of poison-laced Kool-Aid. Diane Louie, however, rejected Jones’s command and mer her way out of Jonestown and into the jungle. She attributes her willingness to do so to her earlier refusal to accept special favors from him when she was in need. She turned down his offer of special food while she was ill because “I knew once he gave me those privileges, he’d have me. I didn’t want to own him nothin’.”

Another person can trigger a feeling of indebtedness by doing us an uninvited favor… For instance, the Disabled American Veterans organization reports that its simple mail appeal for donations produces a response rate of about 18 percent. But when the mailing also includes an unsolicited gift (gummed, individualized address labels), the success rate nearly doubles to 35 percent.

A person who violates the reciprocity rule by accepting without attempting to return the good acts of others is actively disliked by the social group… For the most part… there is a genuine distaste for individuals who fail to conform to the dictates of the reciprocity rule.

Women frequently comment on the uncomfortable sense of obligation they can feel to return the favors of a man who has given them an expensive present or paid for a costly evening out. Even something as small as the price of a drink can produce a feeling of debt. A student in one of my classes expressed it quite plainly in a paper she wrote: “After learning the hard way, I no longer let a guy I meet in a club buy my drinks because I don’t want either of us to feel that I am obligated sexually.” Research suggests that there is a basis for her concern. If, instead of paying for them herself, a woman allows a man to buy her drinks, she is immediately judged (by both men and women) as more sexually available to him.

The general rule says that a person who cats in a certain way toward us is entitled to similar return action. We have already seen that one consequence of the rule is an obligation to repay favors we have received. Another consequence of the rule, however, is an obligation to make a concession to someone who has made a concession to us.

It is in the interests of any human group to have its members working together toward the achievement of common goals. However, in many social interactions the participants begin with requirements and demands that are unacceptable to one another. Thus the society must arrange to have these initial, incompatible desires set aside for the sake of socially beneficial cooperation. This is accomplished through procedures that promote compromise. Mutual concession is one important such procedure.

Just as in the case of favors, gifts, or aid, the obligation to reciprocate a concession encourages the creation of socially desirable arrangements by ensuring that anyone seeking to start such an arrangement will not be exploited.

Because the rule for reciprocation governs the compromise process, it is possible to use an initial concession as part of a highly effect compliance technique. The technique is a simple one that we can call the rejection-then-retreat technique… One way to increase your chances would be first to make a larger request of me, one that I will most likely turn down. Then, after I have refused, you would make the smaller request that you were really interested in all along.

The truly gifted negotiator, then, is one whose initial position is exaggerated enough to allow for a series of reciprocal concessions that will yield a desirable final offer from the opponent, yet is not so outlandish as to be seen as illegitimate from the start.

I witnessed another form of the rejection-then-retreat technique in my investigations of door-to-door sales operations… the percentage of successful door-to-door sales increases impressively when the sales operator is able to mention the name of a familiar person who “recommended” the sales visit.

If I want you to lend me five dollars, I can make it seem like a smaller request by first asking you to lend me ten dollars. One of the beauties of this tactic is that by first requesting ten dollars and then retreating to five dollars, I will have simultaneously engaged the force of the reciprocity rule and the contrast principle.

2. Commitment and Consistency

Just after placing a bet, [people] are much more confident of their horse’s chances of winning than they are immediately before laying down that bet. Of course, nothing about the horse’s chances actually shifts… but in the minds of those bettors, its prospects improve significantly once that ticket is purchased.

This is important when operating in the stock market as the stocks you pick and buy might be held to less scrutiny once you possess them. Must apply Karl Popper’s stringent use of fierce attacks on your most precious ideas.

Although a bit puzzling at first glance, the reason for the dramatic change has to do with a common weapon of social influence. Like the other weapons of social influence, this one lies deep within us, directing out actions with quiet power. It is, quite simply, our nearly obsessive desire to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have already done. Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.

Take the bettors in the racetrack experiment. Thirty seconds before putting down their money, they had been tentative and uncertain; thirty seconds after the deed, they were significantly more optimistic and self-assured. The act of making a final decision – in this case, of buying a ticket – had been the critical factor. Once a stand had been taken, the need for consistency pressured these people to bring what they felt and believed into line with what they had already done. They simply convinced themselves that they had made the right choice and, no doubt, felt better about it all.

Again, the importance of not getting too in love with your ideas. Having been around the internet block for a few years now, I ran into a situation where someone, I believe, had become so infatuated with their own idea that they believed it was the best thing since sliced bread and would not take any constructive criticism of the idea. That situation exploded into the craziest back-and-forth exchange I’ve ever been apart of on the internet. It was so odd yet fascinating at the same time, what commitment and consistency can do to a person.

We all fool ourselves from time to time in order to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided.

Inconsistency is commonly thought to be an undesirable personality trait. The person whose beliefs, words, and deeds don’t match may be seen as indecisive, confused, two-faced, or even mentally ill.

On the other side, a high degree of consistency is normally associated with personal and intellectual strength. It is at the heart of logic, rationality, stability, and honesty.

Good personal consistency is highly valued in our culture. And well it should be. It provides us with a reasonable and gainful orientation to the world. Most of the time we will be better off if our approach to things is well laced with consistency. Without it our lives would be difficult, erratic, and disjointed.

But because it is so typically in our best interests to be consistent, we easily fall into the habit of being automatically so, even in situations where it is not the sensible way to be. When it occurs unthinkingly, consistency can be disastrous.

First, like most other forms of automatic responding, it offers a shortcut through the density of modern life… It offers us a way to evade the rigors of continuing thought… There is a second, more perverse attraction of mechanical consistency as well. Sometimes it is not the effort of hard, cognitive work that makes use shirk thoughtful activity, but the harsh consequences of that activity. Sometimes it is the cursedly clear and unwelcome set of answers provided by straight thinking that makes us mental slackers. There are certain disturbing things we simply would rather not realize. Because it is preprogrammed and mindless method of responding, automatic consistency can supply a safe hiding place from those troubling realizations. Sealed within the fortress walls of rigid consistency, we can be impervious to the sieges of reason.

If I can get you to make a commitment (that is, to take a stand, to go on the record), I will have set the stage for your automatic and ill-considered consistency with that earlier commitment. Once a stand is taken, there is a natural tendency to behave in ways that are stubbornly consistent with the stand.

The tactic of starting with a little request in order to gain eventual compliance with related larger requests has a name: the foot-in-the-door-technique.

Something special happens when people personally put their commitments on paper: They live up to what they have written down.

Whenever one takes a stand that is visible to others, there arises a drive to maintain that stand in order to look like a consistent person… For appearances’ sake, then, the more public a stand, the more reluctant we will be to change it.

Deutsch and Gerard found that, by far, it was the students who had publicly recorded their initial positions who most resolutely refused to shift from those positions later. Public commitment had hardened them into the most stubborn of all.

It appears that commitments are most effective in changing a person’s self-image and future behavior when they are active, public, and effortful.

Social scientists have determined that we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressure. A large reward is one such external pressure. It may get us to perform a certain action, but it won’t get us to accept inner responsibility for the act. Consequently, we won’t feel committed to it. The same is true of a strong threat; it may motivate immediate compliance, but it is unlikely to produce long-term commitment. All this has important implications for rearing children. It suggests that we should never heavily bribe or threaten our children to do the things we want them truly to believe in.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

3. Social Proof

Experiments have found that the use of canned merriment causes an audience to laugh longer and more often when humorous material is presented and to rate the material as funnier.

The principle of social proof… states that one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. The principle applies especially to the way we decide what constitutes correct behavior. We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it.

Like others weapons of influence, it provides a convenient shortcut for determining how to behave but, at the same time, makes one who uses the shortcut vulnerable to the attacks of profiteers who lie in wait along its path.

Bartenders often “salt” their tip jars with a few dollar bills at the beginning of the evening to simulate tips left by prior customers and thereby to give the impression that tipping with folding money is proper barroom behavior.

The producers of charity telethons devote inordinate amounts of time to the incessant listing of viewers who have already pledged contributions.

At the height of the disco craze, certain discotheque owners manufactured a brand of visible social proof for their clubs’ quality by creating long waiting lines outside when there was plenty of room inside.

We’ve all been out to a club where there is a line with a stern, overly muscular bouncer who makes you wait even though there is literally no one inside the club.

Since 95 percent of the people are imitators and only 5 percent initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.

Various sects and cults have prophesied that on one or another particular date there would arrive a period of redemption and great happiness… of course, these predictions have invariably proved false. To the acute dismay of the members of such groups, the end has never appeared as scheduled. But immediately following the obvious failure of the prophecy, history records an enigmatic pattern. Rather than disbanding in disillusion, the cultists often become strengthened in their conviction.

In general, when we are unsure of ourselves, when the situation is unclear or ambiguous, when uncertainty reigns, we are most likely to look to and accept the actions of others as correct.

In times of… uncertainty, the natural tendency is to look around at the actions of others for clues. We can learn, from the way the other[s]… are reacting, whether the even is or is not an emergency.

Social proof, like all other weapons of influence, works better under some conditions than under others. We have already explored one of those conditions: uncertainty… The principle of social proof operates most powerfully when we are observing the behavior of people just like us.

Advertisers now know that one successful way to sell a product to ordinary viewers (who compose the largest potential market) is to demonstrate that other “ordinary” people like and use it. So whether the product is a brand of soft drink, or a pain reliever, or a laundry detergent, we hear volleys of praise from John and Mary Every-person.

Health researchers have found, for example, that a school-based antismoking program had lasting effects only when it used same-age peer leaders as  teachers.

After a suicide has made front-page news, airplanes – private planes, corporate planes, airliners – begin falling out of the sky at an alarming rate… it has been shown that immediately following certain kinds of highly publicized suicide stories, the number of people who die in commercial-airline crashes increases by 1,000 percent.

It is [Professor David] Phillip’s argument that certain troubled people who read of another’s self-inflicted death kill themselves in imitation. In a morbid illustration of the principle of social proof, these people decide how they should act on the basis of how some other troubled person has acted.

No leader can hope to persuade, regularly and single-handedly, all the members of the group… Thus the most influential leaders are those who know how to arrange group conditions to allow the principle of social proof to work maximally in their favor.

A bit earlier, we noted the proliferation of average-person-on-the-street ads, in which a number of ordinary people speak glowingly of a product… these testimonials from “average people like you and me” make for quite effective advertising campaigns. They have always included one relatively subtle kind of distortion: We hear only from those who like the product; as a result, we get an understandably biased picture of the amount of social support for it. More recently, though, a cruder and more unethical sort of falsification has been introduced. Commercial producers often don’t bother to get genuine testimonials. They merely hire actors to play the roles of average people testifying in an unrehearsed fashion to an interviewer. It is amazing how bald-faced these “unrehearsed interview” commercials can be. The situations are obviously stage, the participants are clearly actors, and the dialogue is unmistakably prewritten.

This is a burger commercial by A&W that does what Cialdini says above, except that it is exceptionally well done and very hard to tell that it is staged. In hindsight, it’s a bit more obvious but if you were exposed to it right away, most people would likely not know that the interviewees are all actors. I know because a friend of a friend of a friend was in one of these commercials and said it was staged and rehearsed.

4. Liking

As a rule, we most prefer to say yes to the requests of someone we know and like.

Although it is generally acknowledged that good-looking people have an advantage in social interaction, recent findings indicate that we may have sorely underestimated the size and reach of that advantage. There seems to be a click, whirr response to attractive people… The response itself falls into a category that social scientists call “halo effects.” A halo effect occurs when one positive characteristic of a person dominates the way that person is viewed by others. And the evidence is now clear that physical attractiveness is often such a characteristic.

Research has shown that we automatically assign to good-looking individuals such favorable traits as talent, kindness, honesty, and intelligence. Furthermore, we make these judgements without being aware that physical attractiveness plays a role in the process.

Certain of the consequences of this unconscious assumption that “good-looking equals good” scare me. For example, a study of the Canadian federal elections found that attractive candidates received more than two and a half times as many votes as unattractive candidates. Despite such evidence of favoritism toward handsome politicians… 73 percent of Canadian voters surveyed denied in the strongest possible terms of such influence.

One only needs to look to the current Canadian prime minister to see this effect in action. This article, aptly titled Why Trudeau is like Trump, by Bloomberg covered this phenomenon quite well.

Attractive people are more likely to obtain help when in need and are more persuasive in changing the opinions of an audience.

Our judicial process is similarly susceptible… Good-looking people are likely to receive highly favorable treatment in the legal system… the attractive defendants were twice as likely to avoid jail as the unattractive ones.

Good-looking people enjoy an enormous social advantage in our culture. They are better liked, more persuasive, more frequently helped, and seen as possessing better personality traits and intellectual capacities.

Because we like attractive people and because we tend to comply with those we like, it makes sense that sales training programs include grooming hints, that fashionable clothiers select their floor staffs from among the good-looking candidates, and that con men are handsome and con women pretty.

We like people who are similar to us. This fact seems to hold true whether the similarity is in the area of opinions, personality traits, background, or life-style. Consequently, those who wish to be liked in order to increase our compliance can accomplish that purpose by appearing similar to us in any of a wife variety of ways.

If you frequent personal finance or investing blogs, you can see this in action as often times blogs fill a certain niche – dividend investors, frugal-muchers, early retirement folks, etc – and the comment section reflects this.

Marchers in an antiwar demonstration were found to be not only more likely to sign the petition of a similarly dressed requester, but also to do so without bothering to read it first. Click, whirr.

The information that someone fancies us can be a bewitchingly effective device for producing return liking and willing compliance. So, often in terms of flattery or simple claims of affinity, we hear positive estimation from people who want something from us… We are phenomenal suckers for flattery.

There is a natural human tendency to dislike a person who brings us unpleasant information, even when that person did not cause the bad news. The simple association with it is enough to simulate our dislike.

The principle of association is a general one, governing both negative and positive connections. An innocent association with either bad things or good things will influence how people feel about us.

In one study, men who saw new-car ad that included a seductive young woman model rated the car as faster, more appealing, more expensive-looking, and better designed than did men who viewed the same ad without the model. Yet when asked later, the men refused to believe the presence of the young woman had influenced their judgements.

Because the association principle works so well – and so unconsciously – manufacturers regularly rush to connect their products with the current cultural rage… The linking of celebrities to products is another way advertisers cash in on the association principle.

Like those ridiculous Japanese commercials Hollywood stars do, like this one:

Political fund-raising these days regularly involves the presentation of food. Notice, too, that at the typical fund-raising dinner the speeches, the appeals for further contributions and heightened effort never come before the meal is served, only during or after.

According to the association principle, if we can surround ourselves with success that we are connected with in even a superficial way (for example, place of residence), our public prestige will rise.

If it is true that, to make ourselves look good, we try to bask in the reflected glory of the success we are even remotely associated with, a provocative implication emerges: We will be most likely to use this approach when we feel that we don’t look so good. When ever our public image is damaged, we will experience an increased desire to restore that image by trumpeting our ties to successful others. At the same time, we will most scrupulously avoid publicizing our ties to failing others.

We should not be surprised to learn, for instance, that outside the hockey arena, in the aftermath of the win over the Soviet team, scalpers were getting a hundred dollars a pair for ticket stubs.

Several of the factors leading to liking – physical attractiveness, familiarity, association – have been shown to work unconsciously to produce their effects on us, making it unlikely that we could muster a timely protection against them. Instead we need to consider a general approach, one that can be applied to any of the liking-related factors to neutralize their unwelcome influence on our compliance decisions. The secret to such an approach may lie in its timing. Rather than trying to recognize and prevent the action of liking factors before they have a chance to work on us, we might be well advised to let them work. Our vigilance should be direct not toward the things that may produce undue liking for a compliance practitioner, but toward the fact that undue liking has been produced. The time to react protectively is when we feel ourselves liking the practitioner more than we should under the circumstances.

By concentrating our attention on the effect rather than the causes, we can avoid the laborious, nearly impossible task of trying to detect and deflect the many psychological influences on liking. Instead, we have to be sensitive to only one thing related to liking in our contacts with compliance practitioners: the feeling that we have come to like the practitioner more quickly or more deeply than we would have expected. Once we notice this feeling, we will have been tipped off that there is probably some tactic being used.

5. Authority

Milgrim is sure he knows the answer. It has to do, he says, with a deep-seated sense of duty to authority within us all. According to Milgrim, the real culprit in the experiments was his subject’s inability to defy the wishes of the boss of the study – the lab-coated researcher who urged and, if need be, directed the subject to perform their duties, despite the emotional and physical mayhem they were causing.

A multilayered and widely accepted system of authority confers an immense advantage upon a society. It allows the development of sophisticated structures for resource production, trade, defense, expansion, and other social control that would otherwise be impossible. The other alternative, anarchy, is a state that is hardly known for its beneficial effects on cultural groups and on that… would render life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Consequently, we are trained from birth that obedience to proper authority is right and disobedience is wrong. The essential message fills the parental lessons, the schoolhouse rhymes, stores, and songs of our childhood and is carried forward in the legal, military, and political systems we encounter as adults. Notions of submission and loyalty to legitimate rule are accorded much value in each.

Our obedience frequently takes place in a click, whirr fashion, with little or no conscious deliberation. Information from a recognized authority can provide us as a valuable shortcut for deciding how to act in a situation.

Conforming to the dictates of authority figures has always had genuine practical advantages for us. Early on, these people (for example, parents, teachers) knew more than we did, and we found that taking their advice proved beneficial… Because their positions speak of superior access to information and power, it makes great sense to comply with the wishes of properly constituted authorities… Once we realize that obedience to authority is mostly rewarding, it is easy to allow ourselves the convenience of automatic obedience… We don’t have to think; therefore, we don’t. Although such mindless obedience leads us to appropriate action in the great majority of cases, there will be conspicuous exceptions – because we are reacting rather than thinking.

This is huge in the area of investing. Proponents of the Efficient Market Hypothesis come to mind.

Let’s take an example from one facet of our lives where authority pressures are visible and strong: medicine. Health is enormously important to us. Thus, physicians, who possess large amounts of knowledge and influence in this vital area, hold the position of respected authorities… the medical establishment has a clearly terraced power and prestige structure… the M.D. sits at the top. No one may overrule the doctor’s judgement in a case, except perhaps, another doctor of higher rank. As a consequence, a long-established tradition of automatic obedience to a doctor’s orders has developed among health-care stiffs. The worrisome possibility arises, then, that when a physician makes a clear error, no one lower in the hierarchy will think to question it – precisely because, once a legitimate authority has given an order, subordinates stop thinking in the situation and start reacting.

This reminds me of how Korean Air had to completely overhaul how they trained their pilots as junior pilots were not to correct senior pilots and some fatal accidents occurred as problems that were obvious to the junior pilots were not reported to the senior pilots who had not noticed the errors.

Con artists, for example, drape themselves with the titles, clothes, and trappings of authority.

Look at Bernie Madoff and how he dressed, acted, and ran his investment business.

Titles are simultaneously the most difficult and the easiest symbols of authority to acquire. To earn on normally takes years or work and achievement. Yet it is possible for somebody who has put in none of this effort to adopt the mere label and receive a kind of automatic deference.

Studies investigating the way in which authority status affects perceptions of size have found that prestigious titles lead to height distortions.

A second kind of authority symbol that can trigger our mechanical compliance is clothing. Though more tangible than a title, the cloak of authority is every bit as fakable. Police bunco files bulge with records of con artists who artistry include the quick change. In chameleon style, they adopt the hospital white, priestly black, army green, or police blue that the situation requires for maximum advantage.

Another kind of attire that has traditionally bespoken authority status in our culture: the well-tailored business suit.

Think about Wall Street or anyone who works in finance: they all wear suits. An unintelligent asshat could wear a suit and immediately gain the power of authority over some average joe looking to invest their life savings.

Aside from its functions in uniforms, clothing can symbolize a more generalized type of authority when it serves an ornamental purpose. Finely styled and expensive clothes carry an aura of status and position, as do trappings such as jewelry and cars.

I remember this episode of American Greed on Samuel Cohen to be the perfect example of all three authority structures utilized to scam people out of millions of dollars. This is just the preview, but if you can find the whole episode somewhere, it was well worth watching just to see how he did it.

6. Scarcity

The idea of potential loss plays a large role in human decision making. In fact, people seem to be more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value.

Collectors of everything from baseball cards to antiques are keenly aware of the influence of the scarcity principle in determining the worth of an item. As a rule, if it is rare or becoming rare, it is more valuable.

Probably the most straightforward use of the scarcity principle occurs in the “limited-number” tactic, when the customer is informed that a certain product is in short supply that cannot be guaranteed to last long.

In real-estate horny Vancouver, you hear talk of how limited homes and land are and how buying at crazy prices is justified because of the “limited” availability of housing stock in the market. It leads people to do crazy things, like pay, on average, +$1.5 million for a shitty, single-family house in Vancouver.

Related to the limited-number technique is the “deadline” tactic, in which some official time limit is placed on the customer’s opportunity to get what the compliance professional is offering.

You’ll see this one used a lot by bloggers who offer courses online, where a course is open for a specific, short period of time before it closes for registration. It will often be accompanied by the “limited-number” tactic as well, stating only a certain number of people will be allowed to sign up to take the course as well as the short window of opportunity. If you aren’t aware of these tactics, it is easy for you to feel panicked and make rushed decisions, often to the benefit of the course purveyor. Ramit Sethi is probably one of the more sophisticated bloggers who uses these, and other compliance tactics, to really get you to buy-in to what he is trying to sell you. 

A variant of the deadline tactic is much favored by some face-to-face, high-pressure sellers because it carries the purest form of decision deadline: right now. Customers are often told that unless they make an immediate decision to buy, they will have to purchase the item at a higher price or they will be unable to purchase it at all.

Come to think of it, I recall that in order to get access to even think about paying Ramit Sethi to take one of his courses, you need to sign up for his email list that will, once subscribed, slowly start sending “take-action” emails filled with pretty good advice and things for you to go try out in the real world. It’s a tool made to see that Sethi delivers “great value” for free and to make the hint that the product you will be spending thousands of dollars on (his courses) must be amazing if the free stuff has such great value. Only after a few weeks of getting his auto-generated emails and actually opening them, will you eventually get an email stating that (lol, of course) for a limited time a spot for his course is open and you have the opportunity to sign up. However, if you do not “take advantage” of this window to pay and register, there might not be another opportunity for you to give him money to take his course, because of course, he supposedly isn’t interested in your money. This final part is a fascinating psychological tool he utilizes – to say that he isn’t interested in your money and that he only wants serious “students” taking his course – as that is intended to make you gawk in awe of such a man who isn’t interested in your money (news flash, yes he is VERY interested in your money). Anyways, that’s sort of what I remember of how things went with trying to get a look into how he operates his subscriber list and how he sells his products. It’s very, very polished and advanced operation on converting customers to sales. I’d highly recommend checking his stuff out as a real world case study in how super effective compliance works in real life.

Compliance practitioners’ reliance on scarcity as a weapon of influence is frequent, wide-ranging, systematic, and divers. Whenever such is the case with a weapon of influence, we can feel assured that the principle involved has notable power in directing human action. In the instance of the scarcity principle, that power comes from two major sources. The first is familiar. Like the other weapons of influence, the scarcity principle trades on our weakness for shortcuts. The weakness is, as before, an enlightened one. In this case, because we know that the things that are difficult to possess are typically better than those that are easy to possess, we can often us an item’s availability to help us quickly and correctly decide on its quality. Thus, one reason for the potency of the scarcity principle is that, by following it, we are usually and efficiently right. In addition, there is a unique, secondary source of power within the scarcity principle: As opportunities become less available, we lose freedoms; and we hate to lose the freedoms we already have.

This desire to preserve our established prerogatives is the centerpiece of psychological reactance theory, developed… to explain the human response to diminishing personal control. According to the theory, whenever free choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us desire them (as well as the goods and services associated with them) significantly more than previously. So when increasing scarcity – or anything else – interferes with our prior access to some item, we ill react against the interference by wanting and trying to possess the item more than before.

When our freedom to have something is limited, the item becomes less available, and we experience an increased desire for it. However, we rarely recognize that psychological reactance has caused us to want the item more; all we know is that we want it. Still, we need to make sense of our desire for the item, se we begin to assign it positive qualities to justify the desire. After all, it is natural to suppose that if one feels drawn to something, it is because of the merit of the thing.

Perhaps the authors of this country’s Constitution were acting as much as sophisticated social psychologists as staunch civil libertarians when they wrote the remarkably permissive free-speech  provision of the First Amendment. By refusing to restrain freedom of speech, they may have been attempting to minimize the chance that new political notions would win support via the irrational course of psychological reactance.

It is not the traditionally most downtrodden people – who have come to see their deprivation as part of the natural order of things – who are especially liable to revolt. Instead, revolutionaries are more likely to be those who have been given at least some taste of a better life. When the economic and social improvements they have experience and come to expect suddenly become less available, they desire them more than ever and often rise up violently to secure them.

When it comes to freedoms, it is more dangerous to have given for awhile than never to have given at all.

This is an interesting concept in terms of managing an office or business: the importance of thinking through the consequences of providing… things to the workforce.

The feeling of being in competition for scarce resources has powerfully motivating properties… For example, a realtor who is trying to sell a house to a “fence-sitting” prospect will sometimes call the prospects with news of another potential buyer who has seen the house, liked it, and is scheduled to return the following day to tall about the terms. When wholly fabricated, the new bidder is commonly described as an outside with plenty of money… The tactic… can work devastatingly well. The thought of losing out to a rival frequently turns a buyer from hesitant to zealous.

I think an even more powerful tactic is the bidding process on real estate. In a hot real estate market, you have situations where multiple people bid on a property. Often, these types of sales will lead to people paying hundreds of thousands of dollars over asking with no conditions attached. Insanity. It is never a great idea to get into a bidding situation: there are too many factors working against you for you to think straight and act rationally.

The joy is not in experiencing a scarce commodity but in possessing it. It is important that we not confuse the two.


Very often in making a decision about someone or something, we don’t use all the relevant available information; we use, instead, only a single, highly representative piece of the total. And an isolated piece of information, even though it normally counsels us correctly, can lead us to clearly stupid mistakes – mistakes that, when exploited by clever others, leave us looking silly or worse.

We are unchallenged in the ability to take into account a multitude of relevant facts and, consequently, to make good decisions. Indeed, it is this information-processing advantage over other species that has helped make us the dominant form of life on the planet. Still, we have our capacity limitations, too; and, for the sake of efficiency, we must sometimes retreat from the time-consuming, sophisticated, fully informed brand of decision making to a more automatic, primitive, single-feature type of responding.

With the sophisticated mental apparatus we have used to build world eminence as a species, we have created an environment so complex, fast-paced, and information-laden that we must increasingly deal with it in the fashion of the animals we long ago transcended.

This reminds me of a metaphor the author Ronald Wright used in his book A Short History of Progress where he described us as running the most advanced software on hardware that was last updated millions of years ago.

Because technology can evolve much faster than we can, our natural capacity to process information is likely to be increasingly inadequate to handle the surfeit of change, choice, and challenge that is characteristic of modern life. More and more frequently, we will find ourselves in the position of the lower animals – with a mental apparatus that is unequipped to deal thoroughly with the intricacy and richness of the outside environment. Unlike the animals, who cognitive powers have always been relatively deficient, we have created our own deficiency by constructing a radically more complex world. But the consequence of our new deficiency is the same as that of the animals’ long-standing one. When making a decision, we will less frequently enjoy the luxury of a fully considered analysis of the total situation but will revert increasingly to a focus on a single, usually reliable feature of it.

Recommended Readings

Leave a Reply