How to Influence People

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Central to the art and science of persuasion is understanding three goals for which everyone is aiming.

The art and science of persuasion is often discussed as though changing people’s minds is about using the right arguments, the right tone of voice or the right negotiation tactic. But effective influence and persuasion isn’t just about patter, body language or other techniques, it’s also about understanding people’s motivations.

In the scrabble to explain technique, it’s easy to forget that there are certain universal goals of which, at least some of the time, we are barely aware. Influence and persuasion attempts must tap into these to really gain traction.

Techniques of persuasion

To illustrate these universal goals, let’s have a look at six common techniques of influence that you’ll have come across either explicitly or implicitly (from Cialdini, 2001):

  1. Liking: It’s much easier to influence someone who likes you. Successful influencers try to flatter and uncover similarities in order to build attraction.
  2. Social proof. People like to follow one another, so influencers imply the herd is moving the same way.
  3. Consistency. Most people prefer to keep their word. If people make a commitment, particularly if it’s out loud or in writing, they are much more likely to keep it. Influencers should try to gain verbal or written commitments.
  4. Scarcity. Even when companies have warehouses full of a product, they still advertise using time-limited offers that emphasise scarcity. People want what they can’t have, or at least what might be running short.
  5. Authority. People are strongly influenced by experts. Successful influencers flaunt their knowledge to establish their expertise.
  6. Reciprocity. Give something to get something. When people feel indebted to you they are more likely to agree to what you want. This feeling could arise from something as simple as a compliment.

There are many more, but these six are often quoted, especially in business circles. The reason these work is that they tap into three basic human goals, and it’s these goals that are the key to understanding how to influence and persuade people (from Cialdini and Goldstein, 2004).

1. Goal of affiliation

In the most part humans are social so they want to be liked. Rejection is no fun and we’ll do almost anything to avoid it.

We reciprocate because it sends a message about our sociability. We try to elicit liking from other people by behaving in ways we guess will be attractive, like agreeing with them or complimenting them.

Not only do we want approval from specific people, we also want it from society at large (see this article on conformity). We want the things we do, think and believe to be broadly in line with what others do, think and believe. It’s not impossible to be different, but it is difficult.

The techniques of liking and reciprocity mentioned above both clearly play on our desire for affiliation, as do many other techniques of persuasion and influence. Most people are joiners and followers so influencers like to give us something to join and someone to follow.

2. Goal of accuracy

People who don’t care about doing things correctly never get anywhere in life. To achieve our goals in what is a complicated world, we have to be continually trying to work out the best course of action.

It could be accuracy in social situations, such as how to deal with the boss or how to make friends, or it could be accuracy in financial matters like how to get a good deal, or it could be accuracy in existential matters. Whatever the arena, people are always striving for the ‘right’ answer.

Influencers understand our need to be right and so they try to offer things that appeal to our need for accuracy. For example, experts or authority figures influence people heavily because they offer us a ‘correct’ view or way of doing things, especially one that we don’t have to think too carefully about.

The techniques of social proof and scarcity both nag at our desire to be accurate because we assume other people are likely to be right and we don’t want to miss out on a bargain.

3. Goal of maintaining positive self-concept

People want to protect their view of themselves because it takes a long time to build up a semi-coherent view of oneself and one’s place in the world.

We work hard to keep our world-views intact: we want to maintain our self-esteem, to continue believing in the things we believe in and to honour whatever commitments we have espoused in the past. In an inconsistent world we at least should be self-consistent.

Persuaders and influencers can leverage this goal by invoking our sense of self-consistency. A trivial but instructive example is the foot-in-the-door technique. This is where an influencer asks you to agree to a small request before asking for a bigger one. Because people feel somehow that it would be inconsistent to agree to one request and then refuse the next one, they want to say yes again.

People will go to surprising lengths to maintain their positive view of themselves.

Unconscious motivators

Everybody wants to be accurate, to affiliate with others and to maintain their concept of themselves, however little awareness we might have of these goals. Effective persuasion and influence attempts can target one or more of these goals.

With these goals in mind it is possible to tailor persuasion attempts to the particular characteristics of an audience, rather than relying on transparent generic techniques. Whether it’s at work, dealing with your boss, or at home negotiating with a neighbour, we can all benefit from thinking about other people’s unconscious motivators. Then we can work out how to align our message with their goals.

Image credit: ATIS547

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 28 July 2010

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