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. Continue reading

Why I Don’t Call Myself a Liberal

People who have read much of this blog have probably figured out that my political views have a liberal flavor. So why don’t I identify as a liberal?

Ironically, I think part of it has to do with growing up in San Francisco. Most of my school teachers were very liberal, and most of my classmates were very liberal. And I was disturbed by the way they regarded Republicans and conservatives. I was not disturbed by them critiquing Republican or conservative ideas, I was disturbed by the way they regarded the Republicans and conservatives themselves. Republicans and conservatives were often regarded as boogey-monsters instead of people.

While I’ve had less contact with Republicans and conservatives, I know they also regard Democrats and liberals the same way. They are no better.

And in San Francisco itself, there is a split between the ‘moderates’ and the ‘progressives’, and they sometimes fight each other bitterly over minor differences. It’s as if it’s more important for them to fight each other than to get the issue handled in the best way.

Then there is Paul Rosenberg’s essay ‘What We Always Knew About Politics, But Couldn’t Prove’ by Paul Rosenberg (you need to scroll down to find the essay). I disagree with the conclusion that we should walk away from politics … unfortunately, politics affects the world too much for us to walk away from it. But we should find a way to engage in politics which does not destroy our empathy for people who disagree with us.

I think this is why I do not want to identify as a ‘liberal’, or anything else political. I want to be able to have empathy for any thirsty person in a hot desert, regardless of their political identity, and I think I am just as capable of killing my empathy as the average person.

And finally … politicians and elites use this ‘us vs. them’ psychology to cover up true evil. For example, many Democrats still support Obama and vehemently argue with anyone who criticises him, even though Obama has, among other things, failed to launch a serious investigation into Wall Street fraud. For an example of what I’m talking about see:

Glenn Greenwald: “Obama: I can’t comment on Wall Street prosecutions”
(Warning: ableist language) The People’s View: Fraudster Glenn Greenwald’s Trouble with the Truth

For my own (incomplete) response to the People’s View piece: you do not know whether there was illegal behavior or not if you do not investigate, and because there is plenty of probable cause, many people on Wall Street should be prosecuted. A prosecution is not the same as a conviction. And if the people who wrecked the economy are not held accountable, then they will continue to wreck the economy.

I know there is a lot of power in organizing around an idea or identity, and that unorganized people have very little political power. However, I want to organize around ideas like ‘Investigate Wall Street’, not ‘We are liberals’.