I Went Into the Book for Persuasion Advice, and Came Out with the Realization that I’m a Vulnerable Target

Many people want to learn how to persuade others, but few want to admit that they themselves are vulnerable to persuasive techniques and would benefit from countering them.

“Many people” includes me. I picked up Influence by Robert B. Caldini mainly because it appeared on a recommended book list, but also because I would like to improve my ability to persuade others. So I was a bit surprised when I learned that Dr. Cialdini looks at it from the other perspective, that his main focus is learning how to defend oneself from persuasive techniques.

I can admit it freely now. All my life I’ve been a patsy. For as long as I can recall, I’ve been an easy mark for the pitches of peddlers, fund-raisers, and operators of one sort or another…With personally disquieting frequency, I have always found myself in possession of unwanted magazine subscriptions or tickets to the sanitation workers’ ball. Probably this long-standing status as sucker accounts for my interest in the study of compliance: Just what are the factors that cause one person to say yes to another person?

Dr. Cialdini covers six categories of techniques to get “compliance” from others, but they all share a single pattern. We get too much information to process everything. We need psychological shortcuts to make decisions without exceeding our brain’s capacity. The shortcuts which we are accustomed to using will steer us in the right direction most of the time. For example, one of the “compliance” techniques is “social proof” – do the same thing everyone else is doing. If we are uncertain about what we should do, most of the time, doing the same thing which similar people are doing will be much better than doing something random. Reading a #1 New York Times bestseller is almost certainly going to be a better experience than reading a randomly chosen published book. Because these shortcuts are not based on carefully evaluating all available information, they can backfire. Sometimes they backfire by accident, and sometimes someone exploits them for their own gain.

At the end of the book, Dr. Cialdini urges readers to retaliate against anyone who exploits these shortcuts in a dishonest way. He says that, as we are swamped with more and more information, we depend on these mental shortcuts more than in the past. We cannot afford to lose these shortcuts. Therefore, we much punish people who reduce the effectiveness of these mental shortcuts by fraud. For example, if a company advertises a product in a way which suggests it is popular when it is not, in fact, popular, Dr. Cialdini says that he will send a letter to the company saying that he will boycott their products forever and that they should fire their advertising agency.

I am not going to follow Dr. Cialdini’s example and retaliate against every instance of deceptive persuasion tactics I encounter because I have higher priorities in life. I do see his point.

Throughout the book, as I was processing the material, I thought of many instances in my own life when the compliance tactics he discusses worked on me. This blog itself is an example.

One of the six categories of compliance tactics is “Commitment and Consistency”. The person trying to get compliance will first get the target to make a (possibly trivial) commitment, and then, to maintain consistency, the target will follow through, even if the commitment turns into something they did not originally anticipate. Dr. Cialdini gives an example from his own life. A physically attractive woman knocked on his door and asked him what he liked to do for entertainment. Wanting to make a good impression on her, he told her that he went out for dinner multiple times a week, ordered wine with dinner, that he loved going out to the movies, symphonic concerts, pop concerts, and ballet performances. She then said that, based on what he told her, he would save a lot of money if he subscribed to the club she worked for, which offered discounts on all those activities. Since he already said that he frequently went to these events, it would have been awkward to admit that he was exaggerating and that the monthly club membership fee would be a waste for him, so he found himself with yet another unwanted subscription.

According to Dr. Cialdini, the “commitment and consistency” tactics are most effective when a) there seems to be little to no external pressure (i.e. no large monetary reward, no threats of violence, etc.) b) the target commits an act, even a small one and c) it is within public view. As he says about actions:

Our best evidence of what people truly feel and believe comes less from their words than from their deeds. Observers trying to decide what a man is like look closely at his actions. What the Chinese have discovered is that the man himself uses this same evidence to decide what he is like. His behavior tells him about himself; it is a primary source of information about his beliefs and values and attitudes.

How does this apply to this blog? Since January 2012, I have posted at least one new blog post per week. How did I persuade myself to do that? First of all, there is no external pressure for me to publish blog posts here. I don’t get paid, and if I were to skip a week, nothing externally bad would happen to me. This very lack of external pressure means that I perceive this as an inner choice. I own this choice. Since I look back, and I see “oh, I have published at least one blog post per week for more than eight years” I judge myself to be the kind of person who does this. And this blog is public. If I were to skip posting for a week, any of you all could easily find out.

If I were getting substantial external rewards for posting blog posts (or facing substantial punishments if I failed), I would not own my choice to publish a post every week. If this were a private journal, I could skip a post and nobody other than myself would ever know. And before I went ahead and published a new post every week, and saw that, yes, I am publishing at least one post a week, I would not believe that I am the kind of person who would do this.

If I were to spend a whole week without publishing a new post, externally, nothing bad would happen. Yet, to me, it is unthinkable. There is something inside me that believes that, if I don’t post a new post every week, the sky will fall. Fortunately, I wrote this blog post, so the sky is not going to fall…at least not this week.

There are other examples where I can see how the “commitment and consistency” psychological mechanisms shape my behavior (did I recognize it in how I transitioned to veganism? Oh yes I did, it was creepy).

The really scary thing is that outsiders can start this powerful process by using small rewards or punishments.

Let’s say that I started a weekly blog because someone paid me a billion USD per blog post. And then, three months later, they stopped paying. It would be easy to tell myself that my main motivation was the billion-dollars-per-blog post, and that without the ridiculously large payments there’s no reason for me to continue the blog.

Let’s say that, instead of a billion USD, the payment per blog post was a single persimmon. I love persimmons, but a single persimmon is not adequate compensation for the labor of writing a blog post. The persimmon-per-blog-post might be enough to get me started but I’d need to come up with some of my own reasons to justify it. And then, if a few months later, the persimmon payments stop, I’ll still have my own reasons which I generated for myself, and I’ll reach a psychological point where I’ll publish at least one blog post per week lest the sky fall.

Dr. Cialdini says, again and again, that we want to keep using the mental shortcuts which make us vulnerable to persuasion because they are a net positive in our lives. Sometimes, being persuaded by others is in our best interests. Though I recognize the ridiculousness of the “if you don’t publish a blog post every week the sky will fall” belief, I don’t want to dismantle it because I like the results.

Sadly, I can also recognize how, due to abuse by people trying to manipulate me, I’ve partially abandoned some of these mental shortcuts. For example, nowadays, whenever someone tries to get my compliance (to buy their product or do something else that is profitable for them) uses a “scarcity” tactic, my current reaction is to exit. If a marketer says “this is the last one in stock” or “available for a limited time only” or “x is about to buy it, you better get it first” I out of there (unless it’s something which can only be available in a very limited way, such as live performances). I respond especially badly to time pressure. This reaction is not rational. I’ve just switched one shortcut with an opposite shortcut, which is also prone to error.

Yet, I also notice that when I believe that the information about the scarcity is coming from a third party who will not profit from my compliance, I am still very vulnerable to “scarcity” persuasion tactics.

At the end of each chapter, Dr. Cialdini gives advice on how to counter the manipulative exploitation of these mental shortcuts. The TL:DR is: self-awareness. He does not think it is desirable or even possible to stop using the mental shortcuts which make us vulnerable to manipulation, but he thinks that self-awareness can protect us from the worst possible mistakes.

I went into this book, expecting it to just be a well-written marketing book, and I left it with scary insights into how vulnerable I am to common mental foibles.

1 thought on “I Went Into the Book for Persuasion Advice, and Came Out with the Realization that I’m a Vulnerable Target

  1. Pingback: Why do self-identified progressives/liberals use Uber/Lyft? And am I really any different? | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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