The psychology of persuasion – because

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

I believe a lot of expertise about how people change their minds and their behavior resides in the selling and advertising and industries. A core mission of Take Back Your Brain is to learn the secrets those industries know about how to influence us and use them to make it more likely we will achieve our own goals. To that end I’ve been reading lots of books about sales, marketing and advertising. One of the best so far is Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert B. Cialdini.

Compliance practitioners

Cialdini identifies what he calls “compliance practitioners”, such as salemen, fund raisers, con artists and advertisers. He researched the book for three years by trying to learn what they know about how to influence us. He interviewed people, attended trainings, and read sales manuals. The most fascinating research method was apprenticing himself in the persuasion trades directly by answering ads for jobs such as encyclopedia, vacuum-cleaner, portrait-photography or car sales, fund raising, recruiting, advertising, and the like. He posed as someone who wanted to learn that job and embedded himself in whatever training and sales programs were offered.

It became clear that if I was to understand fully the psychology of compliance, I would need to … look to the compliance professionals – the people who had been using the principles on me all my life. They know what works and what doesn’t; the law of survival of the fittest assures it. Their business is to make us comply, and their livelihoods depend on it … The compliance practitioners have much more than the vague and amateurish understanding of what works than the rest of us have.

Weapons of automatic influence

Cialdini distilled and organized the thousands of tactics he observed down into a handful of basic techniques that he calls “weapons of automatic influence,” the common denominators found in most of the techniques he studied. He claims that each of them is based on a human psychological principle that has the “…ability to produce a distinct kind of automatic, mindless compliance from people, that is, a willingess to say yes without thinking first.”

These techniques leverage the force of psychological tendencies most of us have in a way that aligns them with the goal of the salesman. Much as an Aikido expert might transform the force of an oncoming attack into a throw-down with just a slight movement, the weapons of influence align our own natural inclinations with the intent of the salesman in such a powerful way that we find ourselves doing exactly what they want without even realizing it has happened.

Certainly in the time since I read the book I have noticed several salesman using the techniques Cialdini described on me, and could feel the powerful pull of my automatic response to the ploy, even though I knew what they were doing! It’s been really interesting to observe.

There seem to be several properties that the “weapons of influence” all share:

  • A nearly mechanical process by which it can be activated
  • Tremendous power that can be exploited by anyone who knows how to use it
  • People consistently underestimate how effective it is

Because these techniques are so effective, Cialdini makes the point that we are terribly vulnerable to anyone who understands how they work. In the context of Take Back Your Brain! that’s a good thing. I’m hoping we can take advantage of the power of these techniques to make our own ads more effective.

Just because…

One of the things that makes Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion so interesting and credible is that Cialdini cites many examples of psychological studies that support and explain the behavior he describes throughout the book. Where research doesn’t exist, he often designs an experiment with his students to go out and test the principle in question.

He cites a 1989 study by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer to demonstrate how one of these automatic weapons work:

A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do. Langer demonstrated this unsurprising fact by asking a small favor of people waiting in line to use a library copying machine: Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush? The effectiveness of this request-plus-reason was nearly total: Ninety-four percent of those asked let her skip ahead of them in line.

Compare this success rate to the results when she made the request only: Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine? Under those circumstances, only 60 percent of those asked complied. At first glance, it appears that the crucial difference between the two requests was the additional information provided by the words, “because I’m in a rush.”

But a third type of request tried by Langer showed that this was not the case. It seems that it was not the whole series of words, but the first one, “because,” that made the difference. Instead of including a real reason for compliance, Langer’s third type of request used the word “because” and then, adding nothing new, merely restated the obvious: Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies? The result was that once again nearly all (93 percent) agreed, even though no real reason, no new information, was added to justify their compliance.

I think these results are stunning. The implication is that we may be able to add power to our own messages by simply including the word “because” in the text. So, for example, statements like these:

  • I am strong and healthy, and I feel great.
  • Now that I read fast I get to learn anything I want.
  • I have enough time to do everything that’s important.

Might be 50% more effective if I write them like this:

  • I feel great because I’m strong and healthy.
  • I get to learn anything I want to because I read fast.
  • I have time for everything important because there is enough time.

I’m just starting to road-test the “because” technique yet here at TBYB! labs, so I don’t have results to report yet. Believe me, I’ll be inserting the word “because” into the text of my ads every chance I get! Please let us know in the comments if you try it and notice any results either way.

The next few articles will explore more of Cialdini’s techniques that seem to have potential for enhancing our personal marketing.

Other articles in the psychology of persuasion series

  1. The psychology of persuasion – because (you are here)
  2. The psychology of persuasion – perceptual contrast
  3. The psychology of persuasion – reciprocation
  4. The psychology of persuasion – consistency
  5. The psychology of persuasion – social proof
  6. The psychology of persuasion – liking
  7. The psychology of persuasion – authority
  8. The psychology of persuasion – scarcity

Related articles

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  1. Posted March 22, 2007 at 4:21 am | Permalink

    It would be interesting to see this type of statement combined with regular everyday goal setting sentences; for instance “I feel full of energy because I weigh XXX lbs and have xx% body fat”.
    You focus on the final result, feeling full of energy, and the because makes it easier to hit the final goal of XXX lbs and xx% body fat.

  2. Lynn
    Posted March 22, 2007 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    That’s a great idea. Please let us know how it goes if you try it.

  3. Posted September 24, 2008 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Are there any follow up results to any experimentations that you might have done?

    In the examples that you created you weren’t requesting anything, simply making statements. Presumably the request part has a huge impact because you want to influence people to take action rather than just accept, or take interest, in a statement?

    It might work well for e-mail newsletter headlines, e.g. ‘Could you open this message, because I really need your opinion.’ That might get more people to open them.

  4. Lynn
    Posted September 24, 2008 at 11:25 pm | Permalink


    I think you’re right about adding “because” to a subject line. Let’s hope spammers don’t read this blog and figure that out! In my personal marketing experiments I’ve been primarily trying to figure out how we can use these techniques to influence ourselves. You make an excellent point that action-oriented statements (with reasons embedded) are probably a better way to do that.

    Check out articles in the Results category for a number of examples where I believe personal marketing has make a difference, both for myself and others.

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