A Quick Guide to the 6 Principles of Persuasion

Everyone should know Robert Cialdini’s classic principles of persuasion. Here is a quick guide explaining what they are and how to use them.

I remember the first time I read Robert Cialdini’s revolutionary book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. I was absolutely amazed by the subtle yet powerful principles that influence you, me, and everyone in between. Like magic, these principles persuade us to do things we would never dream of doing. Unless you want to blindly be “influenced” by these strange forces, I suggest you quickly get up to speed with the 6 Principles of Persuasion that guide human behavior—the knowledge will serve you well.

1. Reciprocity

It was early December, and my wife and I were assembling our annual list of holiday card recipients. Inevitably, we found ourselves with more recipients than cards. A quick visit to Shutterfly’s website gave us the bad news: we wouldn’t be able to get additional cards in time for Christmas. We needed to decide which names to take off our list, and the exercise consisted of me asking my wife the same question multiple times: Did (insert name here) send us a card last year? If the answer was no, then the name was fair game for removal. But if the answer was yes, and they did in fact send us a card last year, then their name stayed on the list and we sent them a card.

This is an example of the first principle of influence: Reciprocity. The principle states that people are obliged to give back to others in the form of a behavior, a gift or a service that they received first.

When a friend invites you to their party, you feel compelled to invite them to a future party of yours. If a buddy does a favor for you, then you feel you owe that buddy a favor in the future. In regard to a social commitment, individuals are much more likely to say yes to the people whom they owe.

So if you want to leverage the Principle of Reciprocity, be the first to give, and make sure that what you give is personalized and unexpected.

2. Scarcity

This principle relates closely to the law of supply and demand. We all know that when you reduce supply, demand goes up—that is because the fewer there are of something, the more people desire them. You’ve seen this principle in action when marketers motivate us with warnings like “Offer ends tomorrow!” and “Only three left!” Potentially losing something before we’ve even had a chance to possess it drives us to action.

On April 10, 2003, British Airways announced that they would retire the London-New York Concorde flight later that year. They cited low passenger numbers and rising maintenance costs as the trigger, and an interesting thing happened the day after the announcement: Sales (no pun intended) took off!

Nothing about the flight itself had changed—it was the same price, same flight time, same crew and same service. The only difference was that just overnight, it had become a scarce resource. And as a result, people wanted it more. A lot more.

So, if you want to persuade via the Principle of Scarcity, it’s not enough to only showcase the values and benefits of your offer or solution: you need to also make sure that everyone understands what they stand to lose if they fail to act now.

3. Authority

The Principle of Authority states that people prefer to follow the lead of a credible and knowledgeable person: officials, professors, doctors and other experts in various fields. As an example, a person is more likely to give change for a parking meter to a complete stranger if the person requesting the money is wearing a uniform rather than regular clothing.

In the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram directed a study that showed subjects were so deferential to an individual wearing a lab coat (the “authority”) that they were willing to torture an unseen individual with electric shock. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the experiments were staged, and no one was actually harmed in the experiment. Milgram concluded that “It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study.” Translation: The Principle of Authority is in full effect.

If you want to be successful when applying this principle, make sure you’ve convinced others that you are a credible, knowledgeable figure of authority before you attempt to influence them.

4. Consistency

The Principle of Consistency is most fascinating to me. Once you understand it, you will see it in action on a regular basis with people you know and love. The principle states that people have a strong desire to be consistent with the things they have previously said or done. Experiments have proven that if a person performs even just a trivial favor for someone, they are far more likely to perform a much bigger favor in the future.

In one famous study, researchers found that very few homeowners were willing to erect an unsightly wooden board on their front lawn to support a Drive Safely campaign for their neighborhood. However, by leveraging the Principle of Consistency, the researchers were able to get four times as many homeowners to erect this unsightly board. But how did they do it?

Ten days earlier, homeowners had agreed to place a small postcard in the front window of their homes that signaled their support for the campaign. The small card was their initial commitment, which then led to a 400% increase in a much bigger commitment—the unsightly wooden board. Why? Because of their need to be consistent.

The Principle of Consistency thrives in another familiar place: politics. Turn on FOX News and CNN and you are sure to see some irrational views based on consistency rather than logic.

If you want to be influential by using the Principle of Consistency, start by having people perform small, voluntary commitments, and then leverage them to take on larger, more substantial commitments moving forward.

5. Liking

The Principle of Liking states that people prefer to say yes to those that they like, which begs the question: What causes a person to like someone? The science of persuasion tells us that there are three important factors: we like people who are similar to us; we like people who pay us compliments; and we like people who collaborate with us towards a mutual goal.

It’s no surprise that many salespeople are friendly and affable—their livelihood depends on it! They understand that the closer they can align themselves with the customer, the better chance they have to get a sale.

In a series of negotiation studies carried out between MBA students at two well-known business schools, one group was informed that “Time is money. Get a deal done as soon as possible.” In this group, around 55% were able to come to an agreement.

A second group, however, was told, “Before you begin negotiating, exchange some personal information with each other. Identify a similarity you have in common and then begin negotiating.” In this group, 90% of them were able to come to successful and agreeable outcomes.

So to master the Principle of Liking, find common ground between you and your “target.” Expose these similarities, include a genuine compliment or two, and you will pave the way for increased success.

FYI: Another book that explores this topic in more detail is Dale Carnegie’s timeless classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

6. Consensus

The Principle of Consensus, also known as “Social Proof”, states that when people are unsure how to act in certain situations, they tend to look to others to see how they should respond.

The next time you hear a laugh track during your favorite sitcom, you are experiencing the manipulative power of Consensus. Studies show that people find shows funnier when they hear other people laugh, even when that laughter is known to be fake.

One troubling aspect of Consensus/Social Proof is a phenomenon known as the “bystander effect”. The bystander effect occurs when the presence of other people discourages a person from helping in an emergency situation. People in a crowd tend to look towards the behavior of others when determining if and how to act. Studies show that the more people present when something goes wrong, the less likely it is that anyone will help.

If you want to harness the Principle of Consensus, there is no need to rely on your own ability to persuade others. Instead, find testimonials, endorsements, and social media posts that support your message and your target will find comfort in following the crowd.

The 6 Principles of Persuasion Are Now in Your Hands!

So there you have it—the 6 universal Principles of Persuasion. What will you do with this new-found information? Will you leverage these principles to become an influential force? Or merely use this knowledge to defend against them being used on you? Please let us know by leaving a comment below.  Thank you!


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