How to Get Anyone to Do Anything (Ep. 463)
The social psychologist Robert Cialdini is a pioneer in the science of persuasion. His 1984 book Influence is a classic, and he has just published an expanded and revised edition. In this episode of the Freakonomics Radio Book Club, he gives a master class in the seven psychological levers that bewitch our rational minds and lead us to buy, behave, or believe without a second thought.
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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We like to think that we make up our own minds. That we make our own choices — about how we spend our time and money; what we watch and wear; how we think about the issues of the day. But the truth is, we are influenced into these choices. In ways large and small — and often invisible. Some of this influence may be harmless, even fun; and some of it isn’t harmless at all.
Robert CIALDINI: That’s right.
Stephen DUBNER: You make a really provocative but resonant argument that a lot of behaviors are copycat behaviors, including workplace or school shootings, terrorist attacks, product tampering. What should media outlets do about those events? You may say their coverage is dangerous. They say it’s their duty to cover it intensely. Why are you more right than they are?
CIALDINI: Because of that last word, “intensely.” They give us the news. They are invaluable for that. The problem is when they sensationalize it for ratings. That bothers me because the actions described are contagious. We’re seeing it right now with shootings, just a cluster of them. One after another after another, because people are learning from the news what other disturbed people do to resolve their issues.
Our guest today is among the world’s experts on the power of influence.
CIALDINI: My name is Robert Cialdini, I’m a behavioral scientist with a specialty in persuasion science.
Cialdini spent decades as a professor at Arizona State University, where he now enjoys an emeritus standing.
CIALDINI: I have become just as busy as I ever was. My wife says, how do you know that Cialdini has retired? He doesn’t have to deal with those pesky paychecks any longer.
Years and years and years ago, Cialdini realized that he was — as he puts it — “a patsy.” “For as long as I can recall,” he once wrote, “I’d been an easy mark for the pitches of peddlers, fundraisers, and operators of one sort or another.” And so, in the early 1980’s, he embarked on a research project. He decided to learn the tricks of these salespeople and other influencers. Cialdini was already a professor by now, and this new research would certainly have academic value. But his primary goal was to help the rest of us — consumers, voters, regular tax-paying laypeople.
CIALDINI: Because through their taxes and contributions to universities they had paid for me to do that research. I had found some things out, but I wasn’t communicating it to them. I always say that if experimental social psychology had been a business, it would have been famous for great research-and-development units. But it wouldn’t have had a shipping department.
But in this case, Cialdini did ship, in the form of a book he wrote about this research. It was called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. It was published in 1984; it sold only a few thousand copies. But word-of-mouth grew. After three years, it became a New York Times best-seller. And then it kept selling and kept selling and kept selling — compound influence. As of today: it’s sold roughly 5 million copies in 44 languages; just last year, Cialdini says, the book sold nearly 300,000 copies. There is a good chance you have read Influence; if not, there’s a good chance you should. Among the readers are many regular people — consumers like Cialdini himself, who no longer want to be exploited. But the book also became a blueprint for profiteers and others who wish to exploit the powerful psychological effects he identified. Cialdini, like a character in some ancient fairy tale, has found himself advising both sides of the bargaining table. Now, he has released a new and aggressively expanded edition of his book. Here he is reading an excerpt:
CIALDINI: There are some people who know very well where the levers of automatic influence lie and who employ them regularly and expertly to get what they want. The secret to their effectiveness lies in the way they structure their requests, the way they arm themselves with one or another of the levers of influence that exist in the social environment. To do so may take no more than one correctly chosen word that engages a strong psychological principle and launches one of our automatic behavior programs.
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DUBNER: I’m curious whether this edition is, to some degree, a mea culpa for having given unscrupulous users a bible to become even more unscrupulous.
CIALDINI: I wouldn’t use “mea culpa.” All information can be used for good or ill, but if I were to limit myself only to the information that couldn’t be used properly, there would be no information.
DUBNER: One of the creators of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, was apparently tortured for most of his life about that ethical conundrum of needing to help invent this instrument of war to end World War II, while creating a new instrument of war that we’re obviously still dealing with. My sense is that’s not a good parallel to you, correct?
CIALDINI: It’s a different level of unfortunate circumstances.
DUBNER: We shouldn’t downgrade the level of influence that your book has had. I could imagine many despots and dictators have read it.
CIALDINI: So what I try to do is emphasize the ethical uses to make it difficult for people to try to use it in untoward ways.
The new edition of Influence does indeed emphasize the ethics of persuasion. It’s also 200 pages longer than the original, and includes a slew of recent findings from behavioral and social psychology. The original book explained what Cialdini called the six levers of influence — for instance, “social proof,” the idea that if you simply see a lot of people like yourself doing something, you are more likely to do it too. That’s the idea we were discussing earlier, about the contagion of mass shootings; social proof may also dictate whether you’ll wear a face-mask, or listen to a given podcast. The new edition of Influence adds a seventh lever, which Cialdini calls unity. This idea is especially interesting at a moment in which the U.S., at least, seems less unified than it has in a long time. Meanwhile, the allegedly retired Cialdini still runs a consulting firm whose clients include Microsoft, Coca-Cola, and Pfizer. And so today, on this edition of The Freakonomics Radio Book Club, we are getting our own consultation, free of charge.
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As soon as Robert Cialdini started the research that would eventually become his book Influence, he realized that the professional persuaders he wanted to learn from wouldn’t divulge their secrets if he simply asked them.
CIALDINI: Not only did I get turned down, but everything I read told me that these organizations, they don’t want their competitors to know, and sometimes they don’t want their customers to know what they’re doing.
So he decided to go undercover and join these firms himself. He posed as a trainee named Rob Caulder. What kind of industries did Cialdini infiltrate?
CIALDINI: Back in these days there were door-to-door salespeople for encyclopedias and nutritional supplements and so on. So we did that. We did insurance, we did cars, we did portrait photography. And advertising firms.
Just to clarify, Cialdini is using the royal “we” here; he did this research on his own.
CIALDINI: There were people whose business is to get us to contribute to a particular cause, there were armed-service recruiters and corporate recruiters. There were P.R. people. I even studied cult recruiters.
DUBNER: How long a period was this in toto?
CIALDINI: About two-and-a-half years. But to be honest, I had everything I needed in six months, because what I found after that was pretty much the same thing, just in a broader range of instances.
DUBNER: That must have persuaded you that the principles were, in fact, principles, yes?
CIALDINI: Yeah. These were the seven that kept coming up, in all of the training programs that I infiltrated. And what this allows us is, we don’t have to carry around a long compendium of these things. Have you ever seen these lists of behavioral-science biases? There’s like 100 of them. Well, no, there are just seven. We can handle seven.
Here’s Cialdini reading from the introduction to the new edition of Influence:
CIALDINI: This book is organized around these seven principles: reciprocation, liking, social proof, authority, scarcity, commitment and consistency, and unity. Each principle is examined as to its ability to produce a distinct kind of automatic, mindless compliance from people: a willingness to say yes without thinking first.
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DUBNER: You write throughout the book that automaticity — automatic responses — is key to influence, that you want people to make a decision without thinking about it. Why is that?
CIALDINI: We live in the most information-overloaded, stimulus-saturated environment that’s ever existed. So, we need to be able to make our choices based on shortcut decisions. Is this person truly an authority? Is there real scarcity here? Do I really like this person? Those are the triggers that normally steer us correctly into saying yes. And so, if we can extract those from the mass of information, then we’re able to be both efficient and effective in our choices.
So Cialdini had identified these seven psychological principles during a couple years of undercover work as a trainee in different industries. Before writing the book, however, he faced a dilemma.
CIALDINI: I felt professionally required to get their informed consent. And I thought, “What could I do? Because all the gain was going to be mine. All the loss was going to be theirs, if they just let me use everything I learned.” And so I thought, “Well, I’ll use the principle of reciprocity on them,” the one that says people want to give back to those who have given to them. So when I exited the group, I would say to the trainer, “Look, I’m not who I said I was. I’m not looking for a job in your organization. My name isn’t Rob Caulder. I’m really writing a book on the influence process. And I want to learn from the pros, like you. And I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, whether you say yes or no, I’m going to send you a pre-publication copy of my book so that you will learn everything I’ve learned before your competitors do.” That worked for a percentage of the people, but not all of them. It wasn’t until I did something I didn’t even recognize was a principle of influence: They said, “What, you’re writing a book?” And I would say, “Yes, I’m a university professor, my area of expertise is persuasion and social influence, and I came to you to learn at your knee, essentially, because I think you have the information I need.” And they would say, “You’re a college professor and we’re your teacher?” And they’d puff up their chests and say, “Of course, you can use the material.”
DUBNER: You are good. You are good.
CIALDINI: I didn’t even know I was doing it. I was just being honest with them. And I assigned them the role of teacher. Well, teachers don’t hoard information. Teachers distribute it.
DUBNER: So, did anyone give you a blanket “no”?
CIALDINI: Stephen, 100-percent compliance.
Cialdini had also wanted to get a job as a waiter in a restaurant, since that’s such an obviously hands-on way to influence what a consumer will buy.
CIALDINI: I couldn’t get a job as a waiter. I just didn’t have the experience for it. But I did get a job as a busboy, and I could watch one particular waiter, Vincent, whose proceeds outstripped everybody else’s by a lot. He would change his strategy from situation to situation. If it’s a couple on a date, he would be imperious and try to intimidate the young man into spending a lot. If it was a married couple, he would be cordial and friendly, he used the liking principle, speaking to both people. If it was a family, he was actually a little clownish. He would speak to the kids and entertain them and so on. But here was his real masterpiece. For large groups, he would ask the first person for an order, usually a woman, and no matter what she ordered, he would frown, lean down so everyone could hear, and say, “That’s really not as good tonight as it normally is.” And then he’d recommend something slightly less expensive from the menu. “This, this, and this are really good tonight.” So, what he did was to say, “I’m being so honest with you, I’m willing to recommend something that will give me less of a tip.” Then when he returned at the end, he would say, “Would you like me to recommend a dessert wine or a dessert?” And people would all look at each other and say, “Of course, Vincent, you know what’s good here, and you have our interests at heart,” and they would spend on wine and dessert.
DUBNER: The story of Vincent, one reason I found it so appealing, is because it shows how important it is to A, read people, and B, be flexible.
CIALDINI: Exactly. This is why when people ask me, “So, Dr. Cialdini, which of the principals is the most powerful,” I tell them the single most effective influence tactic is not to have a single influence tactic.
DUBNER: What’s the difference between influence and manipulation? Doesn’t the former often contain a lot of the latter?
CIALDINI: Yeah, and the big difference is whether the principles of influence are employed by pointing to them where they naturally exist versus manufacturing or counterfeiting them.
DUBNER: In the book, you tell the story of your brother when you were much younger, that he would buy and resell used cars. And his big trick was to tell all the prospective buyers to come view the car at the same time, so that he’d have everybody come Sunday at 2:00 p.m. to create a sense of demand or a false scarcity. So, I don’t know if it’s manipulative, but it’s a little bit on the dishonest side?
CIALDINI: It’s entirely dishonest. He was benefiting from a false narrative, that he constructed, of scarcity and competition for the same resource.
DUBNER: Is your brother still alive and well, I hope?
CIALDINI: He is.
DUBNER: So, what does he think when he reads that story about himself in your book?
CIALDINI: He’s proud of it.
DUBNER: Okay, I’d like to go through the seven levers. Let’s start with reciprocation.
CIALDINI: Reciprocation is the rule that is installed in all of us, in every human culture, that says we are obligated to give back to others the form of behavior they’ve first given to us.
DUBNER: Can you give an example where the power of reciprocity is used in a nefarious or at least a pronouncedly selfish way?
CIALDINI: One has to do with the use of gifts to prescribing physicians from pharmaceutical companies. There’s very strong evidence that shows that if those companies give gifts as small as pizza for the office staff, those physicians prescribe that pharmaceutical’s drugs more. The same is true for legislators.
DUBNER: So, let’s say that you are consulting now for a pharmaceutical firm who wants to use the principles of influence to their gain, but they also want to use them ethically. And they say, “Bob, for years we’ve done exactly what you say one shouldn’t do, which is use the principle of reciprocity in a kind of shady way, we give these doctors fancy free trips and we expect them to prescribe our drugs. And lo and behold, they do.” What do you tell them?
CIALDINI: I tell them to give them nonmaterial gifts that will benefit all concerned. For example, you can put together a white paper for them on a particular topic, information they might not have had without your research team.
DUBNER: But then I think, “white paper versus Caribbean vacation,” and that’s a hard sell, no?
CIALDINI: Well, Caribbean vacation, that’s rare. It doesn’t have to be Caribbean vacation. It can be something like lunch.
This is a key point in Cialdini’s argument. These levers of influence are so powerful that even a small action can produce a relatively large response. Just how powerful is the pull of reciprocity? Here’s another passage from the book:
CIALIDINI: Take, for instance, the account of a student of mine concerning a day she remembers ruefully. “About one year ago, I couldn’t start my car. And as I was sitting there, a guy in the parking lot came over and eventually jump-started the car. I said “thanks,” and he said “you’re welcome.” As he was leaving, I said that if he ever needed a favor, to stop by. About a month later, the guy knocked on my door and asked to borrow my car for two hours, as his was in the shop. I felt somewhat obligated but uncertain, since the car was pretty new and he looked very young. Later, I found out that he was underage and had no insurance. Anyway, I lent him the car. He totaled it.”
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DUBNER: Let’s talk about the second lever of influence now, what you call “liking.” First of all, I have to say, you are incredibly likable.
CIALDINI: Well, thank you.
DUBNER: You’re welcome. Have you always been this way or did you apply these principles to yourself?
CIALDINI: I grew up in an entirely Italian family in a predominantly Polish neighborhood in a historically German city, Milwaukee, in an otherwise rural state. And it influenced my interest in the influence process, because whenever I would move from one domain to another, the codes of conduct changed. The things that people most resonated to in the presentation of an idea or a request would shift according to the norms and histories of those particular groups. And I recognized immediately, “Oh, how you modulate your approach will modulate your success depending on your understanding of the situation and the audience.” Likeableness was in there. So, I probably was reinforced for it.
DUBNER: You write that it is much easier to sell something or to persuade someone if they like you, which makes perfect sense. But how do you make someone like you?
CIALDINI: One is to point to genuine similarities that you share. The other is praise. Because first of all, people like those who are like them, and secondly, they like those who like them and say so.
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CIALDINI: Car salespeople, for example, are trained to look for evidence of such things while examining a customer’s trade-in. If there is camping gear in the trunk, the salespeople might mention, later on, how they love to get away from the city whenever they can; if there are golf balls on the back seat, they might remark they hope the rain will hold off until they can play the 18 holes they’ve scheduled for the next day.
In 1920, the psychologist Edward L. Thorndike conducted a study of military officers. He asked them to rate their subordinates on qualities including leadership ability, intelligence, their physical attributes, and so on. Thorndike found that a positive rating in one category — physical attractiveness, for instance, or even just height — seemed to correlate with a high rating in seemingly unrelated qualities, like intelligence. This would come to be known as the halo effect. It can work both ways — amplifying negative or positive attributes — and it plays a big role in Cialdini’s “liking” principle. In his book, he cites research by the economist Daniel Hamermesh, who “estimated that over the course of one’s career, being attractive earns a worker an extra $230,000.” Here’s another excerpt from Influence:
CIALDINI: A study of a Canadian federal election found attractive candidates received more than two-and-a-half times as many votes as unattractive ones. Follow-up research demonstrated voters did not realize their bias. In fact, 73 percent of Canadian voters surveyed denied in the strongest possible terms that their votes had been influenced by physical appearance; only 14 percent even allowed for the remote possibility of such influence. Other experiments have demonstrated that attractive people are more likely to obtain help when in need and are more persuasive in changing the opinions of an audience.
The third lever of influence in the book is “social proof.”
CIALDINI: We are more likely to say yes to a proposal or a recommendation if we have evidence that a lot of others like us have been doing so.
The power of social proof is so substantial that people who watch a presidential debate on T.V. are said to be significantly swayed by the magnitude and direction of the applause at the live event. This is not at all a recent phenomenon, as Cialdini writes in Influence.
CIALDINI: There is a phenomenon called claquing, said to have begun in 1820 by a pair of Paris opera-house habitués named Sauton and Porcher. The men were more than opera goers, though. They were businessmen whose product was applause; and they knew how to structure social proof to incite it. Organizing their business under the title l’Assurance des succès dramatiques, they leased themselves and their employees to singers and opera managers who wished to be assured of an appreciative audience response. So effective were Sauton and Porcher in stimulating genuine audience reaction with their rigged reactions that, before long, claques (usually consisting of a leader — chef de claque — and several individual claqueurs) had become an established and persistent tradition throughout the world of opera. As claquing grew and developed, its practitioners offered an array of styles and strengths — the pleureuse, chosen for her ability to weep on cue; the bisseur, who called “bis” (repeat) and “encore” in ecstatic tones; and the rieur, selected for the infectious quality of his laugh.
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DUBNER: When I’m reading you, writing about social proof, my mind goes to a lot of the negatives. I think about Nazi Germany, how one gets caught up in seeing one’s neighbors, bosses, eta., buying into a philosophy and a politics that turned out to be horrible. Can you counter with some big upsides of our adherence to or our appetite for social proof?
CIALDINI: Sure. Let’s take a study done in Japan, in the Covid-19 pandemic, where they looked at the willingness of a Japanese citizen to wear a mask, and they looked at a variety of possible reasons: their perception of the severity of the disease; the perception that they were susceptible to it; the perception that the people around them would be susceptible to it. None of those made any difference. The only one that made any difference was the number of people they saw wearing masks.
DUBNER: It would seem like the Internet is made for fabricating social proof. How big of a problem do you see that being?
CIALDINI: Big, big problem. Because it’s very difficult for us to check on the validity of that information. But here’s how we’re dealing with it. On those review sites that we check before we make a purchase, the average number of stars that most lead to a purchase is not five; it is a sweet spot of between 4.2 and 4.7 stars.
DUBNER: Because five is just too good to be true.
CIALDINI: It’s too good to be true.
DUBNER: Talk for a moment about the relationship between social proof and suicide. I was shocked at the research about the rise in car and plane crashes after a widely-reported suicide.
CIALDINI: What you see is that front-page suicides not only produce an increase in subsequent suicides within a week of the publication. They also produce an increase in accidental deaths — car accidents and plane crashes. How could that possibly be? Well, it turns out that a lot of the people who caused those car crashes and plane crashes are committing secret suicide. They’re seeing other distressed people like them ending it all, and they follow suit, and they cover it for reasons having to do with insurance, or shame for their families.
DUBNER: Bob, tell me how people who read about social proof and the power of social proof, how they can do it wrong? What’s the big mistake that communicators might make?
CIALDINI: There’s a big mistake that public-service communicators make with regard to social proof. They tell us that so many people are drinking and driving, so many teenagers are committing suicide, so many people are choosing not to be vaccinated. And what that does is to legitimize that choice out of social proof. If a lot of people are doing it, it must be the right thing to do. I had a graduate student who was coming to work with me from California, and he and his fiancée — the woman he described as the single most honest person he had ever known in his life; she wouldn’t borrow a paper clip that she didn’t return — they decided, “Well, let’s go see the Petrified Forest in northern Arizona on our way to work with Cialdini.” And they were standing in front of a sign at the entrance that said, “So many people are stealing petrified wood and crystals that the forest is endangered.” Some kind of language like that. And my graduate student, while he was still reading the sign, felt this elbow in his ribs, and his invariably honest fiancée said, “We better get ours, too.”
DUBNER: “Before it’s all gone.”
CIALDINI: So that tells you about the power of social proof, something that would turn this honest woman into an environmental criminal.
DUBNER: Let’s pretend that we are about to go into an ad break on this show, and my desire is to keep listeners from abandoning us during the commercial break. I’m not very good at influencing people, at least I don’t think I am. But you are. So, could you take over for a second and tell the listener whatever you need to tell them to stick around and come back?
CIALDINI: I’m going to tell you which principle of influence’s utilization that had been kept secret until recently may have saved the world by ending the Cuban Missile Crisis.
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You get the sense that the world has finally caught up to Robert Cialdini, the author of the classic book Influence: the Power of Persuasion. Today there is an entire class of people who openly seek to be called influencers. So their intentions aren’t hidden; but how does it work? What makes someone a success at influencing others? — whether they’re trying to sell you more stuff you don’t need or convince you that their cause is the right cause? That is where Cialdini comes in. He exposes the psychological factors that lead to persuasion. In his new, expanded edition of Influence, he describes seven principles, or levers, that essentially bewitch our rational minds and lead us to comply without a second thought. We’ve already covered three of these levers: reciprocation, likeability, and social proof. The remaining four are authority, scarcity, commitment and consistency, and unity. But before we hear about them, let’s get back to the cliff-hanger Cialdini left us with before the break, about the Cuban Missile Crisis. As it turns out, there was a hidden element to those crisis negotiations.
CIALDINI: I learned of it recently, when there was a release of information that had been kept secret for years. Many of your listeners, Stephen, may not have lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis. I did, as a teenager. The world trembled in fear because of a conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union at the time, President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev being the leaders, over the existence of nuclear weapons that had been sent to Cuba by the Soviet Union and pointed at the United States. Kennedy issued an ultimatum to Khrushchev, “You have to get out of Cuba.” There were already Soviet ships coursing to Cuba with more missiles. Kennedy said, “We’re going to blockade those.” Khrushchev said, “That’s an act of war.” They were staring each other down, steely-eyed, until one of them blinked. And the story we heard was that Khrushchev was the one who blinked. It was Kennedy’s steadfast refusal to compromise one whit that caused Khrushchev to take his missiles home.
But that is not what actually happened.
CIALDINI: What J.F.K. did was propose a reciprocal resolution. He said, “We’ll remove our missiles from Turkey, if you remove those from Cuba,” So it was the process of reciprocation, not being a hard-ass, that did it. And yet it was being tough and unyielding that got all the play.
DUBNER: You write that Kennedy, “made it a condition of the final agreement that the missile trade-off be kept secret. He didn’t want to be seen as conceding anything to the Soviets.”
CIALDINI: That’s right. And that view, by the way, is said to have influenced other leaders, including Lyndon Johnson, in the way that he approached Vietnam afterwards.
DUBNER: You’re saying that Johnson didn’t know even?
CIALDINI: Johnson didn’t know. It was kept from him.
DUBNER: Let’s talk about authority a bit now. Let’s say I buy myself a long, white lab coat and walk into a hospital and tell a certified nurse assistant that a particular patient needs to get a bunch of Astrogen* right now. What happens?
CIALDINI: There was a study that was very close to that. Someone called the nurses in various wards of hospitals and claimed to be a doctor on the staff who the nurse had never met and ordered the nurse to give a double dose of Astrogen to a patient. They’re not supposed to take these orders by phone. The dose was twice the maximum dose that was on the bottle of Astrogen. But 95 percent of them were on their way to give the drug to this patient before they were interrupted by a researcher who said, “Wait, don’t do that.”
DUBNER: That research was in the U.S., correct?
CIALDINI: Yes. And the researchers concluded that one would think there would be multiple intelligences operating to decide whether to give this amount of drug or not. But it turns out that, because of the principle of authority and the deference that the nurses were giving to the physicians, there was only one such intelligence function.
DUBNER: It’s interesting, a nurse is a trained, intelligent professional who in the case that you write about is essentially unthinkingly following an authority’s directive. That’s a pretty heightened example of how we often, as you point out, just don’t want to think for ourselves. Can you expand on that a little bit, the degree to which most of us want to be on autopilot for almost all of our decisions?
CIALDINI: Thinking is hard work. Especially in an environment of such challenge and change and overload. So, it is simpler and easier to use our shortcuts. Most of the time, if they’re well-founded, they steer us correctly. But some percentage of the time, they steer us very poorly.
DUBNER: It seems to me that at least in the U.S., the pull of the authority figure generally has waned over the past half-century or so.
CIALDINI: I would narrow it to the last 15 years, because of the internet. And we can get authoritative pieces of information by looking at what our peers are doing. And so, what is true for an authority — that is, somebody who knows all the ins and outs — may not be true for me. Sites like TripAdvisor, they don’t involve travel writers anymore. And the same with restaurants. Yelp, it’s about people like me.
DUBNER: On the other hand, allegiance to authority is what has historically made civilization work, yeah?
CIALDINI: It has, because they typically had superior knowledge. I would ask myself two questions when we get a piece of evidence from an authority figure: Is this person truly an authority in the domain he or she is commenting on? And secondly, can I expect this authority to be even-handed in presenting this information, or is there self-interest that might be confounding the picture?
DUBNER: Okay, let’s talk about scarcity for a bit, the notion that people really want what they can’t easily get. You write that this is largely driven by something called “psychological reactance.” What is that?
CIALDINI: So, the theory of reactance, which was developed by a social psychologist named Jack Brehm, says that we all cherish our freedoms and when we encounter anything that reduces or diminishes our freedom to choose, we react against that pressure. We push back against it and very often do the opposite.
DUBNER: Even if we didn’t even really want that other thing so much.
CIALDINI: Yeah. A young woman from Blacksburg, Virginia, said, “You know, this reactance thing that you described, it really helps me understand something that happened to me last year. I was 19 and I started dating a guy who was 26. Well, my parents didn’t like this and they kept pushing me to break up with him. And the more they pushed, the more I fought against them and the more in love I felt with this man, even though he was not my type.” And she said it only lasted about six months, but it was five months longer than it should have lasted if I had just looked at the situation objectively. But this pressure kept me there.
DUBNER: So, you’re saying Romeo and Juliet would have just been a fling had the Montagues and the Capulets not hated each other?
CIALDINI: Exactly. And pressured them to stay away from each other. Shakespeare scholars pitch them at 15 and 13 years old. That would have been puppy love without their parents.
DUBNER: I love the story you tell about the new Coke and the old Coke vis-a-vis scarcity.
CIALDINI: There was a time when the Coca-Cola Company simply decided to remove from the shelves their classic Coke formula. The thing that they had spent decades and decades promoting and getting us associated with. And then they just supplanted it with this new Coke formula, which their three years’ worth of taste tests showed was preferred by most of their customers. What they didn’t recognize is, taking away people’s freedoms to have something that was so positively associated with their histories and their childhoods was a big mistake. And there was this big revolution against it, that ultimately forced Coke to restore the old formula. Now, in their taste-test data, they had a piece of evidence that should have shown them that this was the case. Some of the taste tests were done blind. You got about 55 percent preferring the new Coke. There were others that were labeled “This is your traditional and this is the new Coke,” and now you get another 6 percentage points favoring the new Coke. How do you explain then that when you gave people the New Coke, properly labeled, they were against it? When Coke pulled the old Coke formula and replaced it with the new, the one they couldn’t get was the old Coke. It’s scarcity: you want what you can’t have.
DUBNER: What do you think of companies that create an artificial scarcity, essentially by limiting the amount of production they engage in. Let’s say it’s a T-shirt, a sneaker, a luxury watch. They could make a million a year. They choose instead to make 10,000 a year and charge 100 times what it might go for on the market as a mass-market item. Do you think that’s manipulation? A clever application of the scarcity lever?
CIALDINI: Manipulation. They’re not pointing to something that is rare or unique and is dwindling. They are creating those circumstances, just like my brother created the situation with three people contending for the same car at the same time.
DUBNER: When I was reading your chapter on scarcity, it made me wonder if it helps explain to some degree conspiracy theories. In other words, the information that conspiracy theorists adhere to isn’t widely available. And therefore, I can imagine my appetite for it becomes that much more intense.
CIALDINI: It sounds right, because indeed you are in possession of limited information, and as a consequence feel that you have something that other people don’t have, which, of course, enhances its value. But also you feel like — and now we’re talking about the principle of unity — you have a camaraderie with those individuals who all believe this.
Here is Cialdini reading another passage from the new edition of Influence:
CIALDINI: The more I learn about the scarcity principle, the more I have begun to notice its influence over a whole range of my own actions. I have been known to interrupt an interesting face-to-face conversation to answer the ring of a caller. In such a situation, the caller possesses a compelling feature that my face-to-face partner does not — potential unavailability. If I don’t take the call, I might miss it (and the information it carries) for good. Never mind that the first conversation may be highly engaging or important — much more than I could expect of an average phone call. With each unanswered ring, the phone interaction becomes less retrievable. For that reason and for that moment, I want it more than the other conversation.
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DUBNER: The sixth lever you discuss is called “commitment and consistency.” Now, when I see that, for some reason my mind turns to politics. So let me ask you this. Donald Trump acquired what strikes me as a type and magnitude of influence that is perhaps without precedent, at least in our lifetime. What did he do so differently and well?
CIALDINI: Well, if you remember, in his various rallies, he would say, “Turn the cameras around, look at this audience.” He was so savvy about the rule of social proof when people didn’t know him very well. And now I’m going to give you a reason that is going to, I think, reveal my political views on this. Why have people stayed with Donald Trump over all these times where there are consequential missteps? There’s an old literature in persuasion science and cognitive dissonance that says if people have made a choice that resulted in a negative consequence, the more negative the consequence, the less likely they are to believe it was a mistake.
DUBNER: So what you just described in economic terms would be usually called the sunk-cost fallacy. How well does your version of that and the economist’s version of that intersect?
CIALDINI: It does intersect because of the principle of commitment and consistency. Consistency is characteristic of a lot of strengths. You say what you believe, and you do what you say. You don’t come off as irresolute, or wishy-washy, or confused. The downside is if you’ve made a commitment, then you want to stay with it because of that initial action, even when the circumstances no longer warrant that choice.
DUBNER: I’m curious how the principle of commitment and consistency plays out in geopolitics. If you were called in to help the U.S. refine its position in regard to China or Iran or one of its other rivals, what would you advise?
CIALDINI: I’ll give you a couple of examples. The former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was a master negotiator, even under circumstances where he was objectively at a disadvantage. For example, when he was having to negotiate with Israel after the Six-Day War, in which Israel was superior. What Sadat would do is give his opponent a reputation to live up to. He would say to the Israelis, “I’m so glad that we were able to negotiate on this, and that you are my bargaining partner, because everybody knows how important equanimity and fairness is to the Jewish community.” And they would then behave that way. This happened to me, by the way, when a previous book that I wrote called Pre-suasion, the first 5,000 copies of the book were printed poorly. The pagination was wrong. My editor told me what happened and he said, “I hate when something like this happens to good guys like you.” And you know what I heard myself say, Stephen?
DUBNER: “It’s okay.”
CIALDINI: “It’s okay. You know, happens to everybody.” I became the good guy. My newspaper carrier goes by my door every morning in his car and he throws the morning newspaper and 75 percent of the time he gets it in the center of the driveway. And every year, he includes a little envelope around Christmas time. I’m supposed to put a check in there as a tip, which I always do. But this year, after I read the research, I put a little note in the envelope: “Thank you for being so conscientious in getting my newspaper in the center of the driveway so it doesn’t get wet from the watering systems on either side.”
DUBNER: And did that improve his aim?
CIALDINI: Stephen, 100 percent.
And here, from the book Influence, is one more example of the power of commitment and consistency.
CIALDINI: In one study, when six- or 12-person experimental juries were deciding on a close case, hung juries were significantly more frequent if the jurors had to express their opinions with a visible show of hands rather than by secret ballot. Once jurors had stated their initial views publicly, they were reluctant to allow themselves to change publicly. Should you ever find yourself the foreperson of a jury under these conditions, you could reduce the risk of a hung jury by choosing a secret rather than public balloting method.
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DUBNER: Okay, so “unity” is the brand-new chapter, the brand-new lever in this edition. What led you to add it?
CIALDINI: It was the building evidence within behavioral science of the power of social identities to drive people’s behavior, the groups with which they felt they shared an identity and the lengths to which people would go to promote and protect those within their “we” groups. I could see the tribalism that was emerging in our society and it seemed to me, “Oh, I missed this one.” I had always thought of it as something that was an accelerator of the other principles. If, you know, somebody inside your group gave you a scarcity appeal or a social-proof appeal, or authority, you’d be — no, no, this one stands alone.
DUBNER: I’m curious if your research has anything to say about family estrangement, because an astonishingly large number of people have an estrangement within their families.
CIALDINI: We often don’t like our fellow family members, but we still feel a connection to them. We still feel bonded with them by virtue of the unity group that a family constitutes. Let’s say I have a friend at work who is much more like me. We like the same authors, we like the same musical artists, we like the same ethnic food. And I have a brother who is the opposite of me on all of those things. And we’re out on a boat, fishing, and they fall in and there’s only one life preserver. There’s no question who gets it — my brother. So it’s the difference between me being able to say to my in-group members, you know, Stephen is like us, versus Stephen is one of us. If I can say that, all influence barriers come down for you inside that group.
And here is one last passage from Robert Cialdini’s Influence, on the power of unity:
CIALDINI: In the United States citizens agreed to participate in a survey to a greater extent if it emanated from a home-state university. Amazon product buyers were more likely to follow the recommendation of a reviewer who lived in the same state. People greatly overestimate the role of their home states in U.S. history. Readers of a news story about a military fatality in Afghanistan became more opposed to the war there upon learning the fallen soldier was from their own state.
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DUBNER: All right, Bob, how do you think you did today, persuading people to read your book?
CIALDINI: Well, you know, I don’t know. I have to say, I’m a little trepidatious about it because the last time the book appeared was 14 years ago, and I’m concerned that this new set of insights and features, people will say, “Oh, you know, I have that book or I read that book or I read about it,” and won’t appreciate that it’s quite different.
DUBNER: Now, is your sharing your trepidation like that part of your attempt to influence?
CIALDINI: You know, I suppose it could be if in the process I got people to say, you know, “I would feel the same way, we’re alike in that.”
That was Robert Cialdini and this was the Freakonomics Radio Book Club. His book is called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. We were discussing the New and Expanded edition, which has just been published. By the way, we’ve just started a separate podcast feed for the Freakonomics Radio Book Club, which includes all the episodes we’ve published to date and will include all future episodes. Most of your friends are probably going to subscribe right away. Also, a lot of university professors and other eggheads have already declared the Freakonomics Radio Book Club to be an excellent idea, that you won’t want to miss out on. But hurry: this offer won’t last long!
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Brent Katz. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Mark McClusky, Zack Lapinski, Mary Diduch, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Morgan Levey, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jasmin Klinger, and Jacob Clemente. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music was composed by Luis Guerra, Michael Reola, and Stephen Ulrich. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University.
- Influence, New and Expanded: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini (2021).
- “Why Do Japanese People Use Masks Against COVID-19, Even Though Masks Are Unlikely to Offer Protection From Infection?” by Kazuya Nakayachi, Taku Ozaki, Yukihide Shibata, and Ryosuke Yokoi (Frontiers in Psychology, 2020).
- “The Real Cuban Missile Crisis,” by Benjamin Schwarz (The Atlantic, 2013).
- The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths versus Reality, by Sheldon M. Stern (2012).
- “Airplane Accidents, Murder, and the Mass Media: Comment on Phillips,” by David L. Altheide (Social Forces, 1981).
- “Suicide, Motor Vehicle Fatalities, and the Mass Media: Evidence Toward a Theory of Suggestion,” by David P. Phillips (American Journal of Sociology, 1979).
- “An Experimental Study in Nurse-Physician Relationships,” by Charles Hofling, Eveline Brotzman, Sarah Dalrymple, Nancy Graves, and Chester Pierce (Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 1966).
- In Influence, Cialdini writes that the name of the drug used in this study is “Astrogen.” We include Cialdini’s spelling in this transcript to authentically reflect the language used in his book. However, in the original study, researchers asked nurses to administer “Astroten,” a fictitious drug (actually sugar pills) they had invented for the sake of the experiment.