Book Review: Influence


If you’re like me, the behavior of other people can sometimes be baffling. How is it that marketing and advertising work so well on us? Why do people choose to do things which, standing as an outsider, we would think they shouldn’t want to do? Or you may say to a friend, “How can you vote for X?”. Following the recommendation of Scott Adams, I read Influence - The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini to figure out some answers to the question “Just why is it that humans can be influenced?”.

A social psychologist at Arizona State University, Cialdini has studied the “psychology of compliance”. His work has revolved around understanding how it is that people say yes to other people, and how people such as politicians or salesmen, can get others to say yes to them. Influence is a summary of the important principles which cause people to comply with someone. As a testament to how useful this knowledge is, according to the New York Times, Cialdini and his team helped advise the 2012 re-election campaign of Barack Obama.

Cialdini recognized there are groups of people – he calls them “compliance professionals” – who make a living by getting us to comply. These salesmen, recruiters, fundraisers, etc., have discovered what works and what doesn’t in getting people to say yes. For this reason then, Cialdini studied the psychology of compliance not only from an academic standpoint, but also a practical one. That is, he enrolled in courses offered by companies to train their compliance professionals, and got an inside look at the practical techniques for compliance. (Wouldn’t you like to know what car dealerships teach their salesmen about getting you to sign on the dotted line?)

As a result of his investigations, Cialdini concluded there are six basic categories of techniques for getting compliance: reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. These categories encompass a huge variety of techniques and tricks that can be used to obtain a “distinct kind of automatic, mindless compliance” from people. Each category is described and fleshed out in its own chapter. Cialdini weaves together descriptions of academic experiments, course training materials, personal anecdotes, and simple, but powerful explanations for why techniques in a certain category work. Each chapter can be read more-or-less independently from the rest; each is as engaging as the next.

So, how do the techniques work? For a full description, read the book! Briefly, though:

  • Reciprocation: We give back to those who give to us, and not necessarily in proportion to the original gift.

  • Commitment and Consistency: We want to act in ways consistent with our sense of identity, and big commitments can be had by getting people to make smaller ones.

  • Social Proof: In ambiguous situations, we tend to follow the crowd.

  • Liking: If we like someone, we trust them more, and will weight their words more heavily.

  • Authority: We will let those who have power tell us what to do.

  • Scarcity: If there’s not much of it to be had, we will do a lot to get it.

Cialdini does an excellent job of explaining how the techniques work out in practice. As a result, after finishing Influence I found myself much less baffled by people’s behavior, as it relates to compliance. The book is well-written, and not simply a dry, academic take on the subject of compliance! I would heartily recommend anyone who has found themselves perplexed by compliance-related behavior in people – including themselves – read this book.

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