For years, the first book that I have recommended to anyone interested in persuasion is Cialdini’s Influence. It isn’t about cults or thought reform; rather it details the normal routines of influence.

Cialdini admits that he came to the study of influence because he was a ‘patsy’: someone who would buy almost anything from almost anyone. He wanted to understand his own susceptibility, and, as a professor of psychology, he was in the right place to pursue that understanding.

Over three decades, Cialdini has patiently revised his book, and it has remained in print, and long been the standard textbook on the subject. Now, he shares his examination of ‘pre-suasive’ techniques – known in some circles as ‘priming’.

Pre-Suasion is a highly readable and often amusing account of techniques that can be used to make it more likely that someone will accept an idea or buy a product. Cialdini immediately asks whether it is ethical to expound on such techniques, but waits until the penultimate chapter to give a reasoned explanation of his decision to publish.

The evidence shows that companies that use ‘pre-suasive’ tactics unethically will fail in a fairly short order of time: ‘An organization that regularly approves, encourages, or allows the use of deceitful tactics in its external dealings (with customers, clients, stockholders, suppliers, distributors, regulators and so on) will experience a nasty set of internal consequences that are akin to tumors.’

Companies like Enron are incapable of keeping ethical staff and will suffer from the predations of their own employees. Such bubbles will always burst: ‘those practices will lend themselves to the attraction and retention of employees who find cheating acceptable and who will ultimately cheat the organization as a consequence.’

On the other hand, ethical users of ‘pre-suasion’ will employ the techniques to incline people towards their products or ideas. This is more like providing a comfortable environment for decision-making, rather than gulling anyone into buying unwanted goods or notions.

Defining his topic, Cialdini says that ‘pre-suasion’ is: ‘the process of arranging for recipients to be receptive to a message before they encounter it.’ This is based upon the simple principle that ‘what we present first changes the way people experience what we present to them next.

Cialdini continues: ‘frequently the factor most likely to determine a person’s choice … is not the one that counsels most wisely … it is one that has been elevated in attention (and, thereby, in privilege) at the time of the decision.’

Cialdini’s gentle humour is evident throughout, for instance: ‘I have been flattered to learn through repeated messages that Ukrainian virgin prostitutes want to meet me; and if that can’t be arranged, they can get me an outstanding deal on reconditioned printer cartridges.’

Cialdini cites Bernard Cohen’s dictum, ‘The press may not be successful most of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling them what to think about.’

One experiment showed two different backgrounds for an Internet advertisement for furniture: one with clouds and one with falling coins. Those looking for comfort were more attracted to the clouds and those looking for value in the coins. This is a very simple act of pre-suasion.

We also find that company surveys of customers are not geared to change the company, but to increase the loyalty of the customer. The idea is to create a sense of community with the brand.

It seems that we give more authority to a person we can see, so Dr Shelley Taylor did an experiment in which a couple’s conversation was seen from behind one or other of the participants. Observers gave more authority in the conversation to the partner whose face they could see: ‘whomever’s face was more visible was judged to be more causal.’ We give more credence to whomever or whatever we are most focused upon.

This aspect of focus is exemplified by behaviour after 9/11 after which ‘many thousands of Americans with long-distance travel plans abandoned the dreaded skies for the roads. But the fatality rate for highway travel is considerably higher than for air travel, making the choice the more deadly one. It’s estimated that about 1,600 Americans lost their lives in additional auto accidents as a direct result, six times more than the number of passengers killed in the only US commercial plane crash that next year.’

After the 7/7 2005 bombing of the underground and bus system in London, many people journeyed on bicycles instead, with a concomitant rise, in the hundreds, of bicycle accidents.

Cialdini takes up the aged notion that sex sells, pointing out, ‘in Advertising Age magazine’s list of the top hundred ad campaigns of the twentieth century, only eight employed sexuality in the copy or imagery.’

There is a fascinating footnote to Pavlov’s experiments in conditioning dogs. It is not generally reported that the association of the famous salivation-inducing bell was easily interrupted if the dogs were in any way distracted, because the sound of the bell was associated with the imminent arrival of food: the reaction depended on the whole environment, rather than just the ringing of the bell.

We learn about the Zeigarnick effect, whereby unfinished tasks rank higher in memory that finished ones. So it is that soap operas continue to lure their audiences, even without ‘cliff-hangers’, because we are always in the middle of the story. For writers, the lesson is to leave the page knowing what will happen next, so that you will readily return to work at your next writing session.

Counter-arguments often trump an initial presentation. Cialdini explains the tobacco companies actually supported for the ban on television advertising of their product. It seems counter-intuitive, but Big Tobacco had realised that with the ‘equal time’ provision for opponents, they would most likely lose sales, because the counter-arguments to their product are so strong (save for those determined to die young). So they backed the ban, and moved their massive advertising budgets to billboards, race tracks, and magazines where there is no right to reply.

It seems that we are more likely to succeed if we focus on images of success. Just putting up a picture of a runner triumphantly crossing the line can increase productivity.  We respond to positive and negative images far more than we like to think.

There are also seemingly silly aspects to pre-sausion. For instance, names that are difficult to pronounce will lead to less customers, whether in the stock market or as a law firm: ‘An analysis of the names of five hundred attorneys at ten US law firms found that the harder an attorney’s name was to pronounce, the lower he or she stayed in the firm’s hierarchy.’

Acronyms – pronounceable abbreviations like ‘laser’ or ‘radar’ – are more popular than simple abbreviations – like CBS or NBC, too.

Gamers should be alert to the behavioural conditioning of their games: ‘We know from considerable research that playing violent video games incites immediate forms of anti-social behavior. For instance, such games make players more likely to deliver loud blasts of noise into the ears of someone who has annoyed them … A tellingly similar but mirror-image effect occurs after participating in prosocial gamesafter playing such games, players become more willing to help clean up a spill, volunteer their time, and intervene in a harassment scene…’

Of interest to those of us who have been recruited into a cult, or convinced to embark on a subservient relationship, is the idea that ‘immediate, large-scale adjustments begin frequently with practices that do little more than redirect attention.’  I well remember a talk given by forensic psychologist Dr Brian Tully, where he explained the increments of dissonance that so often precede white-collar crime. So, the boss might have asked the new associate to back-date a contract by a day, for instance, and years later that associate would find himself in a police interrogation room confessing to massive financial crime.

It is also true that once our attention is caught and held, it is more likely that we will be persuaded (though it is worth noting that momentary distraction is also a method of persuasion).

In chapter ten, we find ‘six main roads to change: broad boulevards as smart shortcuts.’ If you want to sell something expensive, just ask the customer to write down a number much larger than the price. Or, to sell French wine, play French music. For an untested product, ask if the potential customer is ‘adventurous’. To induce helpfulness, show a photograph of people standing close together. To generate a considered assessment, show a picture of Rodin’s Thinker (actually called The Poet by its creator, but we all associate thought with the image).

Kindness remains a significant method of persuasion. Osama bin Laden’s former chief bodyguard, Abu Jandal, only began to talk when his interrogator offered him sugar-free cookies to suit his diabetes. An Afghan patriarch was helpful after a gift of Viagra from a CIA operative.

Cialdini comments: ‘the number one rule for salespeople is to show customers that you genuinely like them. There’s a wise adage that fits this logic well: people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’

Another pre-suasive tactic is to admit mistakes: ‘Rather than succumbing to the tendency to describe all of the most favorable features of an offer or idea up front and reserving mention of any drawbacks until the end of the presentation (or never), a communicator who references a weakness early on is immediately seen as more honest.’

Pre-Suasion tells the remarkable story of Chiun Sugihara, a Japanese consular official who managed to save the lives of thousands of European Jews during the Holocaust. Cialdini attributes this to Sugihara’s childhood, when his parents kept a guest-house in Korea that was open to all comers. Out of the hospitality he witnessed in childhood, Sugihara developed fellow-feeling for humanity. This is an aspect of unity, which Cialdini adds to his existing six points of persuasion: we are influenced by our sense of community and unity with others in our decisions.

While reading, I kept wondering why the power of music was not being mentioned. I have long been aware of my own profound response to music and I’m familiar with both Ramachandran’s and Sacks’s work on the subject. Towards the end of the book, the author talks about Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s notion that we have two systems of thinking.

System 1 is ‘fast, associative, intuitive, and often emotional’, whereas System 2 is ‘slower, deliberative, analytical, and rational’. The catch is that only one of these systems will dominate at any given moment. Music is a sure road to System 1. As advertising professionals say, ‘If you can’t make your case to an audience with facts, sing to them. Or, as the Bard said, ‘Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast. To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.’

This excellent book closes with a chapter on ‘post-suasion’. Cialdini gives the example of Ignaz Semmelweis, the doctor who had a frustrating time trying to persuade his colleagues to wash their hands between patients, back in the 1840s.

Researchers Adam Grant and David Hofmann found that even in our enlightened times, doctors wash their hands about half as often as guidelines suggest. They tried various interventions, including testing two different wordings on soap dispensers: ‘Hand hygiene protects you from catching diseases’ and ‘Hand hygiene protects patients from catching diseases.’ The sign that suggested the doctors protect themselves had no effect upon the frequency of hand-washing, but the second sign – which focused on benefit to patients – increased soap usage by 45%.

Cialdini concludes with sound advice: ‘In large measure, who we are with respect to any choice is where we are, attentionally, in the moment before the choice. We can be channeled to that privileged moment by (choice-relevant) cues we haphazardly bump into in our daily settings; or, of greater concern, by the cues a knowing communicator has tactically placed there; or, to much better and lasting effect, by the cues we have stored in those recurring sites to send us consistently in desired directions. In each case, the made moment is pre-suasive. Whether we are wary of the underlying process, attracted to its potential, or both, we’d be right to acknowledge its considerable power and wise to understand its inner workings.

I cannot recommend this lively and engaging read too highly. It will change the way you think, and change it for the better.


What do you think about this article? Have you read Robert Cialdini’s work? Do you have a book you’d like to see us review? We’d love to hear from you!

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You can buy a copy of Cialdini’s Pre-suasion here, and don’t forget to check out Jon’s book, Opening Minds.