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Thu, Apr. 13th, 2017, 10:35 pm
Nonfiction: Pre-suasion

Robert Cialdini, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and PersuadeCialdini’s Influence is one of the best books on how to get people to buy things (and do things, but often operationalized in buying things) there is. Here, Cialdini more explicitly targets the persuaders, versus the persuaded, and argues that there are key moves made before any request that influence its chances of success. One might wonder about his touting of the utility of expertise, given the current nightmare of “screw the experts” we’re living in, but otherwise it’s a really powerful read. Indeed, it provides reinforcement for some other lessons from the 2016 election: there is strong evidence that people do agree that whatever the media focuses on is really important (but her emails!), related to the larger phenomenon that what is prominent is seen as important and causal. Thus, for example, the practice of embedding journalists with troops in the war on Iraq led to many more stories, proportionally, about the troops’ lives and tactics, and fewer about the overall nature of the war, with similar consequences for American opinion.

Unsurprisingly, lots of persuasion is about similarity, and we are really vulnerable to similarities that are irrelevant, like salespeople with similar names to ours, or ethnic backgrounds. Women are twice as likely to friend a man who contacts them on Facebook if he claims to have the same birthday, and people prefer foods with names that share letters of the alphabet with their own names. If you saw all those Coke bottles with names, they produced the first increase in US Coke sales in a decade. The best factoid here: In 2004, Rolling Stone listed the greatest 500 songs of the rock era, and the two highest ranked were Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and of ten similar lists, none of them picked either as the top choices.

Persuasion is also about fluency—the ease with which we understand something influences its believability. That’s why rhymes are more persuasive. More than getting targets to like you, selling requires targets to believe you like them, and similarities and compliments produce these beliefs—targets believe that if you like them, you will steer them well. Social proof, where we follow others and also improve our behavior if shown that others around us are behaving well, is not just about our belief in the wisdom of crowds; it shows that improvement is feasible for people like us.

How do we come to see others as within the circle of “us”? Cialdini tells the story of the Japanese civil servant Chiune Sugihara, who wrote visas for hundreds of Jews even as it destroyed his career, and suggests that the foundation of his acts was at least in part his childhood in Korea, where his family operated an inn: he routinely saw others within his home, expanding his sense of family. Likewise, he argues, the Jewish refugees in Japan saved themselves when a Nazi representative in Tokyo suggested brutal repression by a rabbi’s response to an official’s questions, Why do our allies the Nazis hate you so much and why should we side with you? The rabbi’s response, he reports, was “Because we are Asian, like you.” This triggered the officials’ understandings of white racism against the Japanese and led them to reject the Nazi entreaties. If he’s right, the circle of “us” is not irredeemably closed, with the right techniques.

Less politically charged: if you want to use sex to sell, sex is associated with individuality/standing out because it triggers mental patterns about showing off/being chosen. Distinctiveness-based appeals should therefore be associated with non-frightening stimuli; in general, “don’t be left out” ads work better if people are frightened, so show those social proof ads with horror movies and sex/“show your distinctiveness” ads with romantic movies. To persuade someone, first intrigue them with a mystery: pose the mystery, deepen the mystery, consider and offer evidence against alternative explanations, then give them clues about the proper explanation and resolve the mystery. So, for example, tobacco consumption rose after TV ads for tobacco were banned. Why? The fairness doctrine: anti-smoking ads had been running as often as tobacco ads, and they were persuasive; removing persuasive counter-arguments was more helpful for tobacco sales than keeping the ads.

Cialdini also argues against abusing these techniques out of enlightened self-interest, though he recognizes that short-termism among business leaders makes this a hard sell. He argues that businesses that cheat their clients end up experiencing employee underperformance (from demoralization), excessive turnover, and employee malfeasance (since if cheating is ok, it’s fine to cheat the boss), with some very suggestive study results supporting that, as well as intuition. I guess we’ll have a chance to look at all of that in the White House these next four years. PS: Among other studies, he cites evidence that income inequality leads lower-income people to put less trust in others, since they didn’t believe others would be fair—and this meant that “[s]tudents in schools in geographic regions characterized by large income inequality are more likely to visit online sites that provide them ways to cheat,” apparently because they have lower trust in others and think everyone’s doing it.

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