Those in the world of advertising and social influence will know Robert Cialdini’s Seven Laws of Persuasion as well as they know their multiplication tables; these principles are applied every day in business in order to help companies persuade their customers, their investors, and their associates that they are the people to do business with. Those who are successful in business or in personal interaction with others use these rules every day in a thousand different ways, even without knowing that they are applying them.
Most of us apply them ethically.
However, the effectiveness of any technique does not lessen when used for deceitful, or harmful, purposes. As anyone familiar with the darker side of the Internet knows, the very technology which has brought us global, universal communication, has also put each and every one of us within the grasp of any predator with a modem. Similarly, the Seven Laws of Persuasion, which Robert Cialdini has so exactly observed and quantified, can be used to harm as easily as they can be used to help.
And, of course, the best way to protect yourself from predators is knowledge of how they work. To this end, we have devised the acronym:
“C U, RASCAL!”
Although Cialdini has put these laws forth in a different order in his recent book, Pre-Suasion, we present them here re-arranged into an easily-memorized mnemonic, so you may better remember them, and use this vital knowledge to protect yourself from predators and their snares.
The seven laws are: Consensus, Unity, Reciprocity, Authority, Scarcity, Commitment, and Liking.
Consensus – “Everybody’s Doing It!”
Consensus means agreement. We often act like pack creatures: we follow the group, diverting from the well-worn path at our peril. If we know that a certain soft drink or automobile or restaurant chain is the most popular, we usually decide that it satisfies our needs, and look no further.
This principle also works outside the marketplace, in the sphere of social expectation – we have all visited households where the request to remove one’s shoes at the door is communicated wordlessly by a resident pile of shoes just inside the entryway. Similarly, Cialdini found that hotels could influence their guests to recycle their linens – simply by informing them that a large percentage of other guests had agreed to do so in the past.
There is a flip-side to this phenomenon that is exploited by marketers, con artists, cult leaders and politicians: being different or a “maverick,” and straying from the pack. However, this tactic is tricky to manage, and sometimes backfires disastrously. Most often, savvy predators try to convince you that everyone is doing exactly what they want you to do – whether it’s buying into their investment scheme, or trying their new diet plan, or even joining their religion.
The first step to protect yourself from predators is to think for yourself.
Unity – “We’re just like you!”
We have all experienced that sudden emotional bond we have with people who are from our hometown, or went to the same college, or even root for the same sports team. Any good salesperson or politician knows how to use these connections – some more authentically than others.
Unity amplifies our sense of belonging and makes us feel more secure.
Clever manipulators manufacture a complete, individually tailored persona to mirror the victim’s likes and values, all the better to lure them into the trap. Very clever manipulators will let their victims fill in the blanks themselves; so, unscrupulous politicians win votes based on promises their constituents made on their behalf. Even without hearing the candidate’s views on a given issue, you know that he or she agrees with you on everything that you find important, because he or she is just like you.
Reciprocity – “Here’s a Small Token …”
Token being the operative word here: even if the value of a gift is literally pennies, we feel obliged when others give us something. Give and take is part of the architecture of human cooperation: our neighbors take in our mail, we feed their dog.
But it is a far cry from the mint handed out with a restaurant check garnering higher tips for the server, to the alcohol and drugs bought for an insecure teen to lure her into an obligation to the predator grooming her for sexual abuse. As with all of these laws of persuasion, it is not the methods themselves, but the desired result – and the honesty of intent – that make all the difference. Simply being aware that a gift predisposes you to cooperate should put you on your guard, especially if your “benefactor” is asking for something that you’re not comfortable with.
There is no such thing as a “free sample”.
Authority – “It’s The Rules!”
As the Milgram study chillingly proved, people are willing to do pretty much anything if they think that the responsibility has been assumed by someone “in charge”, even if that authority is only implied.
Many religious groups hold their position of authority by dictating the most intimate decisions of their devotees, based on the understanding that the leaders speak directly for a supreme being. Even if no divinity is invoked, we respond instinctively to people with the trappings of authority.
Although it is good to look for and be reassured by your doctor’s or lawyer’s credentials, or other professional certifications, sometimes those in authority have no business being there, and, indeed, will use their credentials – real or faked – to lure their victims: the infamous Doctor Shipman being one of the most heinous examples of this abuse of authority. But even if there is no ill intent, it is always a good idea to examine authority, and question any rules that don’t make sense.
Scarcity – “This is a Limited Offer!”
Those who know this principle well were not surprised, when, in 2003, British Airways announced it would be cutting down service on their Concorde, and sales the next day skyrocketed. Even though nothing about the flight had changed, people wanted it more, because supplies were limited.
Although anyone who has worked in retail will tell you that sales come and go in cycles, and that even if you missed today’s bargain, the same item will go on sale again in the near future, savvy predators still use the tactic of limited supply – and limited time to buy – in order to keep their victims from going home and thinking it over. An honest salesman knows that if the deal he’s offering you is as good as he says, you will return after sleeping on it. Conversely, a con artist doesn’t want you thinking anything over.
Simply put, if you have to “buy now”, DON’T.
Commitment and Consistency – “In for a penny, in for a pound”
Once we’ve started on a route, our inertia often keeps us moving. And the more public the first step, the more committed we are to following that route.
Although this principle can be used for good – to commit groups to positive action, or the raised probability of quitting smoking successfully when your peer group is told your intention – a predator can transform the need for personal consistency into a slippery slope. A teen being groomed on the Internet will be cajoled into sending first only slightly risqué shots before being blackmailed into posing naked – and the predator will be careful to employ a gradual process of compliance.
Although we tend to be more committed to something in which we’ve already invested time, energy, or money, we can and should have the strength to walk away from any situation that has become unpleasant for us – regardless of how much we have put into it – and then take a long, careful look at the steps which led up to the point of discomfort.
As the proverb says, we should never throw good money after bad.
Liking – “I’m Your Friend. Really.”
This is possibly the strongest – and the simplest – of the seven laws of persuasion: most of us are sociable creatures and we like to be liked. And most of us are worth liking: we are gregarious, inquisitive, and helpful, possessed of natural compassion and good humor. Even those of us with no negative motives use this method to let others know that our intentions are honorable.
We know that complimenting a neighbor on their garden, or a friend on their new hairstyle, is an easy, effective way to make someone else feel good about themselves, and most of the time, that lift of another’s spirits is our only motive. However, a predator will charm in order to manipulate, agree with whatever you say, and become your best friend and loudest supporter.
Although those who are naturally gregarious readily feel affection for people they meet, it is always sensible to be wary of “instant friends”, whose advances seem just a little too friendly, too fast. Remember that if a friendship is real, it will last – and it will also stand a refusal of that offer to invest in a deal that really is too good to be true. If you find that your new best friend won’t take no for an answer, they’re most likely not your friend after all.
Cialdini’s Seven Laws of Persuasion are used by people with good intentions and bad, ethically and otherwise. It’s a very good idea to learn how to use them, if you wish to succeed in today’s business world, particularly if you work in marketing. But, if you wish to protect yourself from predators, it’s an equally good idea to look at the ways these laws are used to persuade us against our better judgment – and to be aware of when, how, and by whom these techniques are being used – and why.
Most people are well-intentioned and kind-hearted, but some people are simply Rascals.
Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.
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