In Tin Men, Richard Dreyfus and Danny De Vito play two salesmen locked in bitter competition as they sell aluminum siding to householders in Baltimore. The movie is somewhat forgettable, but it offers a master class in sales techniques.
In one scene, Dreyfus knocks on a prospective customer’s door while also dropping a five-dollar bill on the doormat. When the customer opens the door, Dreyfus picks up the bill and says, “Wow. I just found this on your doormat. It’s not mine. It must be yours.” Somewhat confused, the homeowner accepts the bill and invites Dreyfus inside where he makes a big sale.
Robert Cialdini would call Dreyfus’ maneuver a good example of pre-suasion. Before Dreyfus even introduces himself, he has already done something to show that he’s a stand-up guy. He has earned some trust.
Cialdini himself gained our trust in his first book, Influence, which details six “weapons of influence”: reciprocity, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. In his new book, Pre-Suasion, he invites us to look at what happens before we deploy our weapons.
Pre-suasion is not a new idea. It’s at least as old as the traditional advice: Do a favor before asking for a favor. Like Dreyfus, however, Cialdini seems like a stand-up guy so we go along for the read. It’s a good idea because the book is chock full of practical advice on how to set the stage for persuasion.
A key idea is the “attention chute”. When we focus our attention on something, we don’t see anything else. The opportunity cost of paying attention is inattentional blindness. Thus, we don’t consider other alternatives. If our attention is focused on globalization, we may not notice how many jobs are eliminated by automation.
As Cialdini points out, the attention chute makes us suckers for palm readers. A palm reader says, “Your palm suggests that you’re a very stubborn person. Is that true?” We focus on the idea of stubbornness and search our memory banks for examples. We don’t think about the opposite of stubbornness and we don’t search for examples of it. It’s almost certain that we can find some examples of stubbornness in our memories. How could the palm reader have possibly known?
The attention chute is also known as the focusing illusion. We believe that what we focus on is important, but it may just be an illusion. If we’re focused on it, it must be important, right? It’s a cognitive bias that a palm reader or aluminum siding salesman can easily manipulate.
What’s the best defense? It’s a good idea to keep Daniel Kahneman’s advice in mind: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it.” If the media is filled with horror stories about the Ebola virus, you’ll probably think it’s important. But really, it’s not nearly as important as you think it is while you’re thinking about it.
Cialdini takes the attention chute one step further with the idea that “what’s focal is causal.” We assume that what we focus on is not just important; it’s also the cause of whatever we’re focused on. As Cialdini notes, economists think that the exchange of money is the cause of many transactions. But maybe not. Maybe there’s another reason for the transaction. Maybe the money is just a side benefit, not the motivating cause.
The idea that focal-is-causal has many complications. For example, the first lots identified in the famous Tylenol cyanide attacks were numbers 2880 and 1910. The media broadcast the numbers far and wide and many of us used them to play the lottery. They must be important, right?
Focal-is-causal can also lead to false confessions. The police focus on a person of interest and convince themselves that she caused the crime. (This is also known as satisficing or temporizing). They then use all the tricks in the book to convince her of the same thing.
Cialdini is a good writer and has plenty of interesting stories to tell. If you like Daniel Kahneman or Dan Ariely or Jordan Ellenberg or the brothers Heath, you’ll like his book as well. And who knows? It may even help you beat the rap when the police are trying to get a confession out of you.
Some years ago, Suellen, Elliot, and I flew from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia — a long, somewhat dreary, overnight flight with several hundred people on a jumbo jet. The flight was smooth and uneventful with one bizarre exception. About six hours into the flight — as we were all trying to sleep — the plane’s oxygen masks suddenly deployed and fell into our laps. Nothing seemed wrong. There was no noise or bumping or vibration or swerving. Just oxygen masks in our laps. We woke up, looked around at the other passengers, concluded that nothing was wrong … and ignored the masks.
It turned out that we were right. The pilot announced that someone had “pushed the wrong button” in the cockpit and released the masks. He advised us to ignore the masks which we were already successfully doing. Later in the flight, I spoke with a flight attendant who told me she was shocked that none of the passengers had followed the “proper procedures” and donned the masks. I said that it seemed obvious that it wasn’t an emergency. She asked, “How did you know that?” I said, “By looking at the other passengers. Nobody was scared.”
I was reminded of this incident as I was re-reading (yet again) a chapter in Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence. Our little adventure on the airplane was a classic example of social proof. When we’re in an ambiguous situation and not sure what’s happening, one of the first things we do is to look at other people. If they’re panicking, then maybe we should too. If they’re calm, we can relax.
Cialdini points out that social proof affects us even when we’re aware of it. The example? Laugh tracks on TV. We all claim to dislike laugh tracks and also claim that they have no effect on us. But experimental research suggests otherwise. When people watch a TV show with a laugh track, they laugh longer and harder than other people watching the same show without the track. We realize that we’re being manipulated but we still succumb. According to Cialdini, the effect is more pronounced with bad jokes than with good ones. If so, Seth McFarlane clearly needed a laugh track at this year’s Academy Awards.
Cialdini refers to one of the problems of social proof as pluralistic ignorance. I looked around at other people on the airplane and they seemed calm and unfazed. At the same time, they were looking at me and I seemed … well, calm and unfazed. As I looked at them, I thought, “No need to get excited”. As they looked at me, they thought the same. None of us knew what was really going on but we were influencing each other to ignore a potentially life-threatening emergency.
Cialdini argues that pluralistic ignorance makes “safety in numbers” meaningless. (See also my post on the risky shift). Cialdini cites research on staged emergencies — a person apparently has an epileptic seizure. The person is helped “…85 percent of the time when there was a single bystander present but only 31 percent of the time with five bystanders present.” A single bystander seems to assume “if in doubt, help out”. Multiple bystanders look at each other and conclude that there’s no emergency.
So, what to do? If you have to have a heart attack, do it when only one other person is around.
Want to be more seductive? Of course you do. It’s not always easy but there are some systematic approaches that can help you convince people to do something because they want to do it. Watch the video to learn six such approaches.
It’s a variation of a basic rule called reciprocity — as identified by Robert Cialdini in his book, Influence. Every society adheres to some form of reciprocity — it helps cement relationships. It’s useful to know that, if you do someone a favor, you’ll likely be repaid in the future.
The reciprocity principle may seem obvious. But there are many subtleties and variations. Learn three of the major variations — and how to get a sports car — in this week’s video.