A Conversation with Dr. Robert Cialdini, the Godfather of Influence.

A Conversation with Dr. Robert Cialdini, the Godfather of Influence.

Harvard Business Review lists Dr. Robert Cialdini’s research in “Breakthrough Ideas for Today’s Business Agenda.” He is a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today Best-Selling author. Fortune Magazine lists Influence in their “75 Smartest Business Books.” CEO Read lists Influence in their “100 Best Business Books of All Time.”

Dr. Robert Cialdini has spent his entire career conducting scientific research on what leads people to say “Yes” to requests. The results of his research, his ensuing articles, and New York Times bestselling books have earned him an acclaimed reputation as a respected scientist and engaging storyteller. His books, including Influence and Pre-Suasion, have sold more than five-million copies in 41 different languages. Dr. Cialdini is known globally as the foundational expert in the science of influence and how to apply it ethically in business. His Six Principles of Persuasion have become a cornerstone for any organization serious about effectively increasing their influence. As a keynote speaker, Dr. Cialdini has earned a world-wide reputation for his ability to translate the science into valuable and practical actions. His on-stage stories are described as dramatic and indelible. Because of all of this, he is frequently regarded as “The Godfather of Influence”.

In this exclusive interview, I speak to Dr. Robert Cialdini, Renowned Scientist, New York Times Best-Selling Author and CEO of Influence at Work (IAW®) about the power of influence, how to build influence and the tools of the best influencers in the world.

Q: What is influence?

[Robert Cialdini]: Influence is the ability to move people in our direction through what we do or say, that they perceive in some way. There are a lot of ways we can be influential. We can move people in our direction by paying them- we can bribe them.. We can reinforce the behaviours we want… we can punish or sanction them if they don’t move in our direction… We can coerce them if we’re in charge… We can even trick people into compliance. All of these methods have costs (financial or social). I always focus on the route of persuasion as a way to influence people into alignment with our requests, proposals, recommendations or view of the world.

Q: Why are reciprocation and liking so important to influencing?

[Robert Cialdini]: Reciprocity builds relationships. If we engage in an exchange with someone else and we first give to that person, there becomes an immediate need for that person to give in return. That begins an exchange process that allows for the building of a relationship, and it is inside relationships that people are more compliant.

There is an overlap between reciprocity and liking. We like those who give to us and we like those who we are in exchange relationships with where there is a predictability such that what we do for that person will be reciprocated with benefits and advantages in return.

The key to reciprocation that doesn’t exist just in the process of feeling affinity for somebody else is the sense of obligation that goes with the receipt of a gift, favour or service. This has been built into us from childhood. You must not take without giving in return. In every human language we have very nasty names for people who violate that rule. In English, we call them ‘moochers’ or ‘takers’ Nobody wants to be labelled like that, so people will go to great lengths to give back to us what we have first proffered to them.

If you go into a new situation where you don’t know anybody and you want to be more influential, don’t look around the room and say hmmm… who can most help me here?… instead, look around and say hmmm…. Who can I most help here? You will put that person in a position where they will be standing on the balls of their feet to help you! Nobody wants to violate the social norms of not giving back to someone who has first given to them!

Q:  What is the role of social proof on influence?

[Robert Cialdini]: We have the tendency to follow those who are comparable to us. It reduces uncertainty and provides us with an extremely effective shortcut into deciding how to best behave in a world that has become overloaded with information and stimulus. We need shortcuts! One such shortcut is to do what those like you are doing – following what they follow- following their recommendations on products, services or ideas. That’s what those star ratings are all about! That’s what those consumer groups and brand groups do! They’re checking in on social proof!

As humans, we’re always looking for what’s available around us that will quickly give us reliable counsel. Not perfect counsel, but just reliability in deciding what’s good for us to do or believe.

Q: How does authority influence?

[Robert Cialdini]: Authority and social proof have one thing in common- they reduce uncertainty about how to behave. If I see experts are counselling me in a certain direction, that gives me a shortcut to decide what would be wise in any given situation.

The difference is this. Social proof is about peer-suasion instead of per-suasion. It’s a muscular form of persuasion where it’s my peers- the people around me, who are like me- that guide me… it makes sense, right? They’re like me… they’re similar to me… their experiences are likely to be aligned with mine.

Authority is about expertise. It’s about knowledge, credentials and evidence of wise decision-making prowess on the part of the communicator. Imagine you are looking at a product on a website and there is a testimonial from someone who is an acknowledged expert on that topic- how do you multiply that authority? You multiply the authorities. If there are multiple authorities saying something, you get multiple levels of influence. It becomes a type of social proof.

Q: How can we adapt our psychology to be less vulnerable to influence tactics?

[Robert Cialdini]: I suggest asking two questions of someone who purports to be informative or an expert on a topic. Firstly, is that person truly an expert on the topic? What does that celebrity really know about the car they’re selling? When you ask that question, you come away much less influenced by adverts! We have the internet available to us – and it’s a marvellous tool when it comes to vetting the credentials of the people who claim to be influence agents. Secondly, even if the person is an authority – are they being honest? Are they acting with self-interest? A lot of influencers are paid or given inducements to present products on their blogs, to rave about something, or comment favourably about something.

We want to be influenced because we want to be right. We want to take the more adaptive strategies in any situations in order to have good outcomes. It’s an evolutionary psychological adaptation.

It’s important for us to have defence, to be able to say no to things. Imagine we’re in that car showroom and the salesperson has given us something – a bottle of soft drink or mineral water- or has complimented us on our choices- or has created some ‘connection’ about growing up in the same area… remember… it’s the car you’re driving off the forecourt, not the salesperson. You have to step back and focus on the merits of the offer- not the person who brought the offer to you. That’s how you defend yourself. You recognise that there’s something that goes on first as important as the message itself inclining you towards purchase or agreement.

Q:  How can we use the techniques of influence to build bridges?

[Robert Cialdini]: There are people who will be influenced by what people like them, or the authorities are doing, and there are some who are just unwilling to move from their position because they ideologically think that anyone on the other side from their position is inherently wrong, mistaken, and perhaps even deceptive. There’s a procedure in persuasion science that allows you to get to those people, it’s called the convert communicator. The convert communicator is the individual who is representative to those hesitant folks as being one of them- not just demographically or regionally, but someone who believed what they believed, and then had a new piece of information that allowed them to change.

Imagine a vaccine hesitant person who says, ‘you know, I used to believe that vaccination was the wrong thing to do… but yesterday we buried my mother… this happened to me…’ – The audience can’t dismiss this person, he or she is one of them. It may be someone who says, ‘You know, I used to think Trump was for the little people… and then my brother-in-law got a job at one of his casinos and Trump stiffed him! Wouldn’t pay him!’ What you’re saying to the other people is that you made a decision based on the information you had, but then you got a new piece of information. It unmoors people from their initial commitment as everyone recognises that good decision makers take all the information into account.

Q: What are the steps towards persuasion?

[Robert Cialdini]: A few years ago, I wrote a book called Pre-suasion. It’s about the state of mind that certain communicators put us in before they send their message, so it’s aligned with the message the recipient is yet to receive.

If you go into a wine shop and the proprietor has a new shipment of Riesling- the proprietor may play some German music to make you more likely to buy the German vintage. You are putting people into a state of mind that’s related or aligned with the concept of what you want them to do next and driving the behaviour. The people who influence the best are the ones who take the advice of the ancient Chinese military expert, Sun Tzu. Every battle is won before it’s fought. If you put people in a mindset that is congruent with the major focus of the message you are yet to send them, it opens the door to persuasion.

They put people in a mindset that is congruent with the major focus of the message they are yet to send.  And that opens the door to persuasion.

We have to first recognise what the core idea, feature or differentiator is of what we’re offering people. We then reverse engineer to the moment before we send the message and ask people to focus on this concept- readying them for the receipt of that core feature that will be in our message.

There was a study done with an online furniture store. For one week, half the visitors were shown a landing page with fluffy clouds in the background and the other half went to a landing page with pennies in the background. The pennies group were more likely to prefer inexpensive furniture and the cloud group, comfort. There’s good behavioural science evidence that if I put people in a mindset that’s congruent with the core feature of that message, they will be more receptive to it.

Q:  What made you decide to focus your life on influence?

[Robert Cialdini]: I’d been a patsy all my life, an easy mark for the appeals of fundraisers or sales operators who would come to my door. I’d end up with unwanted magazine subscriptions… I’d end up with unwanted possessions… I’d give to charities I’d never heard of… and I remember thinking wait a minute! There must be something other than the features of the offer that got me to say yes, because I don’t want those features, it must be the way the offer was presented to me that swung me in that direction.

That is worthy of study – that is worth knowing… it’s not just self-defence, but important knowledge. We need to know what the contingencies are that lead to people saying yes. I’ve never met a person who is uninterested in the persuasion process… how it works, either to harness it or how to defend and deflect it when used against us in unwelcome, undue fashion.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.