Mad Men, Persuasion, Influence and the Science, Application, and Psychology of Robert Cialdini

Posted by Inside Influence Report | Mar 26, 2012 2:26:59 AM

Mad Men, Persuasion, InfluenceWith all the buzz about the season five premiere of AMC’s Mad Men and the extra attention on advertizing and changing people’s behavior, we thought we’d use this opportunity to provide you with a sample of the new book, Six Degrees of Social Influence: Science, Application, and the Psychology of Robert Cialdini by Kenrick, Goldstein and Braver. The following is the entire forward written by Dr. Cialdini from this new book. Feel free to share this with your friends and colleagues who are also interested in the psychology of changing behavior in others.


    The capacity to persuade – to capture the audience, convince the undecided, convince the opposition – has always been a prized skill.  But, thanks to relatively recent developments, it is no longer only an elusive art, the province of those with an intuitive grasp of how to time an argument or turn a phrase just so.  For most of us, this is welcome news.  After all, one problem with an art form is that only artists can truly manage it.  But, what about the rest of us?  Must we resign ourselves to fumbling away open opportunities to move others in our direction because we so frequently fail to say the right thing or, worse, say the right thing at the wrong time?  Fortunately, no.  As is evident in the pages of this book, the delicate art of personal persuasion has been transformed into a solid social science.1

    There is now a substantial body of systematic research into how people can be moved to agree with a request.  It is worth noting that the persuasive practices covered in this work rarely concern the merits of the request itself.  Instead, they concern the ways in which the merits are presented.  There is no question that having a strong case is crucial to success.  But having a worthy argument or set of arguments is not enough, because other worthy (yet competing) arguments are likely to exist as well.  So, although making a good case is important, it’s the person who can make a good case well who will gain the lion’s share of assent.  For optimal persuasive effect, the, our focus should be on methods for communicating our case in the most effective manner.  A reading of the chapters that follow offers a rich vein of information regarding precisely those methods.


Dangerous Fruit

    Before encountering that information, though, a brief foray into the past is in order.  The renowned scholar of social influence, William McGuire, determined that in the four millennia of recorded Western history, there have been only four scattered centuries in which the study of persuasion flourished as a craft.  The first was the Periclean Age of ancient Athens; the second occurred during the years of the     

    Roman Republic; the next appeared in the time of the European Renaissance; the last was the 20th century, which witnessed the advent of large scale advertising, information, and mass media campaigns (McGuire, 1985).  Although this bit of background seems benign, it possesses an alarming side:  Each of the three previous centuries of systematic persuasion study ended similarly when political authorities had the masters of persuasion killed.

    A moment’s reflection suggests why this should be.  Information about the persuasion process was dangerous because it created a base of power entirely separate from those that the authorities of the times controlled.  Persuasion is a way to move people that doesn’t require coercion, intimidation, or brute strength.  Eloquent communicators win the day by commissioning forces that heads of state have no monopoly over, such as cleverly crafted language, properly placed information, and, most importantly, psychological insight.  To eliminate those few individuals who truly understood how to engage the process.

    One aspect of this history appears relevant to the achievement of modern influence goals.  Because of a variety of factors that have emerged in commercial, educational, and social contexts (e.g., matrix-based organizational structures, egalitarian empowerment practices, globalization), hierarchically-organized command approaches to change are rapidly becoming outmoded.  Increasingly in work settings, for example, individuals come together on a project from different arenas within the same organization.  The heterogeneous make-up of these teams makes unclear who is in charge of whom.  Similarly, members of one organization often partner with those of different, cooperating organizations on joint projects.  Here, again, issues of line authority are inapplicable or obscured.  Finally, savvy managers, educators, and government officials have always recognized the morale costs of playing the Because-I’m-the-Boss card.  In each of these instances, where reliance on hierarchical lines of command seems inappropriate, impractical, or imprudent, some other form of influence is preferred.  That is why a thoroughgoing knowledge of the process of persuasion can be so valuable.  As the rulers of old recognized, persuasion moves people by means that don’t depend on formal power structures.  Quite simply, it can provide influence without authority.

    Recall, however, that each of the first three centuries of systematic persuasion study ended in the same unsettling manner – with a purge of the reigning persuasion experts.  Should the recent completion of the last such century alarm those who master the material in this book, out of the justified fear that they might be included in an impending fourth era of annihilation?  Not this time.

The Flowering of Science

    Something revolutionary has happened to the study of persuasion during the past half-century.  In the bargain, the change has rendered ridiculous the idea that persuasion expertise can be eradicated by eradicating the persuasion experts.  Alongside the art of persuasion has grown a formidable science of the process.  For well over 50 years, researchers have been applying a rigorous scientific approach to the question of which messages most successfully lead people to concede, comply or change.  Under controlled conditions, they have documented the sometimes astonishing impact of making a request in one fashion versus making the identical request in a slightly different fashion.  Besides the sheer size of the effects these researchers have uncovered, there is another noteworthy aspect of their results – they are repeatable.

    Scientists have long employed a set of systematic procedures for discovering and replicating findings, including persuasion findings.  As a consequence, the study of persuasion no longer exists only as an ethereal art.  It is now a science that can reproduce its results.  What is more, whoever engages in the scientific process can reproduce its results.  Brilliant, inspired individuals are no longer necessary to diving the truth about persuasion, for a compelling new reason:  The power of discovery doesn’t reside, Socrates-style, inside the minds of a few persuasive geniuses anymore but inside th scientific process.  As a consequence, knowledge about persuasion can’t be eliminated by eliminating, Socrates-style, those who posses it – because somebody else can come along, use the same scientific procedures, and get the knowledge back again.  So, (whew) we’re all safe from threatened power holders, who should now be more interested in acquiring the information than abolishing it.

    We have a right to feel more than just relieved.  We are entitled to feel encouraged, even emboldened, by the fact that similar procedures can produce similar persuasion results.  If that is indeed the case, it means that persuasion is governed by natural laws.  The upshot is a pair of considerable advantages for any prospective persuader.  First, if persuasion is lawful, it is learnable.  Whether born with an inspired talent for influence or not, whether preternaturally insightful about the process or not, whether a gifted artisan of the language or not, it is possible to learn how to be more influential.  By applying a set of principles that govern the persuasion process, communicators can move effectively move acquaintances, neighbors, coworkers, and even superiors (who, I’ve recently learned, include grandchildren) in desired directions.  Second, if persuasion is lawful, it is teachable.  Therefore, vital communicators can be trained inside our organizations to apply those same principles to secure crucial commitments, concessions, and consensuses.  The impressive contributors to this volume show us an array of persuasion-based lessons that are especially worth learning and teaching.

    Scholarly and pragmatic issues aside, I need to acknowledge and convey my personal reactions to the contents and publication of this book.  Although there is no English term able to capture those reactions completely, there is a Yiddish word that does the job with remarkable precision.  It is kvelling, which refers to the process of swelling with pride and delight.  Even though this word (rightly) conjoins the two elements of pride and delight into a single experience, they are separable and flow from different sources.

    My pride in the book comes from the intense feeling of gratification that so many respected individuals looked at my work and saw fit to honor it in this singularly satisfying way.l  my delight in the book comes froma recognition of the quality of the product itself.  So many times in reading one or another chapter, I’d say to myself, “That’s right, that’s right!  They (the authors) got it exactly right.”  Even the sequencing of the chapters was impressively wrought – something not easy to do and a credit to the characteristic thoughtfulness with which Doug Kenrick, Noah Goldstein, and Sandy Braver conceived and managed the project.

    I recently saw a series of TV commercials for a financial services company in which a 20-something fellow encounters a much older incarnation of himself, who attempts to convince the young man that if he just works hard to do his best, things will go better than he could sensibly predict at that point.  If I were to write a version of the ad in which I approached my just-getting-started self with that message, I know I wouldn’t have to say anything to persuade him to it:  I’d only have to hand him a copy of this book.  At that moment in the ad, the camera would register a pair of simultaneously occurring, yet wholly different, facial expressions.  The young Cialdini would be displaying absolute astonishment (complete with a tiny run of spittle from the corner of his mouth).  The old guy, on the other hand, would be kvelling.

Robert B. Cialdini

Topics: Science, Research, CMCT, Dr. Cialdini, Academic, Books, Psychology of Persuasion