3 min read

Author: Robert Cialdini

Published: 2007 (280 pages)

Started reading: 30.September.2016

Finished reading: 6.October.2016

Brief description

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition came to me highly recommended and is regarded as a foundational book for marketers.

Author and experimental social psychologist Robert Cialdini examines six principles of influence and their constituent elements, breaking down the mechanics of how ‘compliance agents’ subtly bend us to their wills. The core characteristic each of these principles shares is the ability to shortcut our brain circuitry, to make us respond automatically, even against our own interests.

These ‘weapons of influence’ are: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity.

Of course, Cialdini goes into greater depth on each: showing, for example, in the chapter on reciprocity, how concessions can also be framed as favours, enabling the classic ‘rejection and retreat’ move employed by salespersons, or, in the chapter on liking, that people like you more if you are attractive, similar to them, cooperate towards common interests, and associated with good news.

Parts of the book are odd (like his continual referencing of his friend ‘Sara’ and her misguided relationship with the persuasive ‘Tim’, who both by now must be either apocryphal or annoyed at having copped so many unfavourable mentions), while other parts seem to rely overly on theory-based common sense rather than empirical evidence (like his somewhat repetitive recommendations for how to avoid compliance tactics at the end of each chapter – ‘How to Say No’ – and his apparent preference for social over evolutionary explanations for why we are vulnerable to weapons of influence).

But the majority of it is well-researched, persuasive, and entertaining – and well-structured, which is something hard to notice when done successfully.

The most entertaining aspect of the book is the expose´ of tactics used by compliance professionals, such as marketers and salesman. Admirably, Cialdini garnered these industry insights via a research method known as ‘participant observation’, whereby the researcher infiltrates his subject to get an inside experiential look. Thus he applied for sales and restaurant jobs and spied on Hare Krishna activities and a home vacuum cleaner operation.

An example: how do toy companies resolve the problem of their revenues plummeting once the Christmas period ends?

As Cialdini explains, the companies will aggressively promote their most desirable toys before Christmas, but then deliberately under-supply stores with these items.

Invariably, parents commit to buying them for their kids. But as the store has run out of stock, they must settle for a second-best present instead, so that the child has a present to open on Christmas Day.

Then, after Christmas, toy companies resume advertising the sold-out items, which are suddenly back in stock, and after lots of pleading, parents return to the stores to buy these as well.


The tactic works since parents strive to be consistent with the promises they make to their children. As a result, they are almost choiceless in the matter.

The core metaphor running through the book is how we respond automatically to compliance tactics as if running on a cassette tape. Its great benefit is therefore in waking you up to when you’re being exploited, and also in giving you some tools to use – ethically – for yourself.

Actionable insights

> Political leaders seeking to be legislatively successful in the context of hung or minority parliaments should engage the rule of reciprocity by making, usually in advance, other legislators feel indebted to them, rather than just relying on the force of argument to persuade. Even small favours or concessions can result in disproportionate feelings of indebtedness (as Cialdini shows in the book). President Lydon Johnson’s propensity to do political favours for members of Congress arguably accounts for his success in getting programs through, whilst Jimmy Carter had difficulty getting anything passed, largely because (Cialdini believes) he was an ‘outsider’, new to the Capitol.

> If you’re selling your car, invite all the prospective buyers to examine and trial it at the same time, say 2pm on a Sunday, rather than separately. You will be simultaneously leveraging social proof and the scarcity principle to secure yourself the best price.