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Business Report

New Technologies Persuade in Old Ways

Robert Cialdini, an expert in the science of persuasion, talks about its most modern methods.

For anyone interested in the science of persuasion, psychology professor Robert Cialdini has been the expert of choice since the 1970s. During his long career at Arizona State University, he has studied everything from the ways blood banks attract donations to the reasons why some people pick up litter and others don’t. Cialdini’s best-known book, Influence, has sold 2.5 million copies worldwide. It remains one of Amazon’s top 500 titles, 31 years after its debut.

Cialdini argues that practically every form of persuasion can be traced back to one of six timeless principles: reciprocity, likeability, authority, scarcity, consistency, and social proof. It’s human nature to reach for those levers, and to be influenced by them, he contends. MIT Technology Review contributing writer George Anders visited Cialdini to discuss what’s changed—and what hasn’t—as today’s influence peddlers use rapidly evolving technologies to ply their trade.

One of your core principles is that if you want to persuade people, it helps to be likeable. Is that still relevant if we’re doing most of our business online?
Yes. People often claim that e-mail and the Internet are bloodless. But there are lots of ways to put the humanity back in. There’s a piece of research showing that if you include a cartoon with your opening e-mail, you get a better outcome in negotiations. You’re not an opponent anymore. You’re a person who has a sense of humor, and who wants to make this a positive experience. In fact, if you mimic another person’s writing style, that gets better negotiating outcomes too. If the other person uses emoticons, you do too. Or exclamation marks.

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You’ve also said for a long time that we heed authorities’ advice. Dentists telling us what brand of toothpaste to buy, for example. Today do you need an advanced degree to be an authority?
Bloggers and product reviewers are the acknowledged experts now. I’ve read that 98 percent of online shoppers read product reviews before deciding what to buy. That’s a mind-blowing statistic. We can’t get 98 percent of people to agree that the earth is round. But now you can find authorities in Turkey or Tokyo or Portland, Oregon, that we didn’t have access to before.

We’ve always valued social proof. Now the Web has given us access that we never had before to large communities of individuals just like us. That’s revolutionized marketing. Look at Kiddicare, which is an online superstore for baby products. They categorize ratings in all sorts of ways: first-time parents, parents of twins, and so on. You’re going to go to these intensely comparable voices.

In the old days, store executives tried to impose their priorities on you. Kmart announced blue-light specials in hopes that shoppers would stampede toward that part of the store. That’s not the best approach anymore, is it?
It’s much more trustworthy when you tell customers what their peers are saying. I trust customers. I don’t trust the store manager.

Isn’t there a risk that we could spend so much time on an island of like-minded people that we never get to see the rest of the world?
I worry about this. I think you’re finding it in political attitudes that are becoming more polarized. We tend to go only to those places where we hear opinions that we want to hear. We end up reinforcing our preconceptions.

You’re a big believer in the importance of scarcity—or at least the appearance of scarcity—as a way of getting customers excited. On the Internet, supply and choices seem infinite.
People can create scarcity with … an offer available for only a short time. Groupon does it, and quite expertly, too.

Or restaurants that offer one table per night via online reservation sites?
Exactly. It’s price be damned. It’s hardly a bargain that you’re trying to get. It’s a distinctive, rare experience.

I’m thinking of Taylor Swift, who responds to lots of her fans via social media. She’s the one singer who still can sell a million CDs. In this case, it’s not scarcity at work so much as another of your principles: reciprocity. Fans feel duty-bound to buy her music in a pricey format rather than settling for cheaper downloads or free bootlegs. Is that because she’s reached out to them?
That’s right. You just don’t feel that you can take advantage of someone who has been a benefactor.

You’ve written about “the unthinking yes”—in which these persuasive techniques sweep us along so smoothly that we agree to do things without even reflecting on how we got there.
What’s good about automatic responses is that they give us a lot of efficiency. We don’t have to think very much about decisions. We will still do well if we follow social proof, or an authority. But the downside is that we’re not thinking. We’re reacting. And it does make us vulnerable to people who counterfeit the evidence.

That said, it’s inevitable. The pace of information is accelerating. We don’t really have the luxury to step back and think hard about the great majority of decisions that we make every day. And so we need these shortcuts.

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Next in this Business Report
Persuasive Technology

Consumers encounter technology designed to influence their choices daily. This report describes how that technology is being created and used by marketers, politicians, lawyers, and others.

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