Influence: Science and Practice (5th ed)

“Over 2 million copies sold!”

The cover says it all. No, not about the popularity and prominence of the Influence: Science and Practice, but rather about the subtle ways in which our attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions of value can be manipulated by people who have knowledge of what Robert Cialdini calls “the weapons of influence.”

According to Cialdini, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University and a legendary figure in the field of compliance research, these weapons of social influence are capable of impacting our behavior in significant ways, often without our realization. Subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) cues can elicit fixed-action patterns, or what the author refers to as “click-whirr” responses. Take the above example, for instance. Highlighting the number of other people who have bought the book activates in us—click—a perceptual response regarding the popularity of the book and evidence of its value in the eyes of other, presumably rational people. This then—whirr—leads to a predictable behavior pattern whereby we, as similarly rational people, are likely to desire and possibly purchase the product.

This is a simple example of one of Cialdini’s six principles (weapons) of influence: The principle of social proof, which tells us that if other people are doing something, there must be a valid reason. Using engaging, real-world examples, the author walks us through this and the other principles: Reciprocation, commitment and consistency, liking, authority, and scarcity. Reciprocation, or “the old give-and-take”, refers to the idea that when someone does something nice for us, we feel a powerful urge to reciprocate in some way – and importantly, this is capable of explaining a great deal of compliance behavior. The next principle refers to the dual tendencies of staying the path once we have committed to a course of action, and of acting consistently with how we have acted in the past. Liking is probably the most straightforward and obvious of the weapons: If we like someone, they will have greater influence over us. However, if we dig a little deeper, some of the consequences of this principle may surprise the reader. Cialdini then elucidates the often-nefarious impact that authority status can have on us, whether that status is legitimate or not. Finally, no consumer should enter a store or shop online without first having read the chapter on scarcity and the subtle ways in which our evaluations of worth can be manipulated.

This book is not aimed at academics but rather a lay audience, and is written in an appropriate style using humour, accessible language, and personal anecdotes from Cialdini’s colorful past. He leverages vivid cases ranging from the splashy and high-profile (such the Jonestown massacre and other cult activities, the Watergate scandal, and Korean POW camps) all the way to the mundane techniques of sales professionals. Cialdini manages to make these examples fascinating and memorable, and always brings the reader back to the core principles underlying the resulting behavior change. However, this book is not without its fair share of examples of classic research; the reader should expect to find many of our classic studies from the social psychology literature by such luminaries as Festinger, Milgram, Zimbardo, and of course, Cialdini himself.

The one area in which I find Influence lacking is in the ‘defense’ section at the end of each chapter. After many pages of explaining to the reader that these principles and the behaviors that result are powerful, deeply-engrained, and often outside of awareness, his recurring advice is to simply be aware of what is happening. At one point he advises readers to listen to their gut and ask themselves whether what is happening feels right. Given that the distal purpose of these fixed action patterns and other heuristics that we rely on is to reduce our cognitive load, I did not find this advice helpful. We simply do not have the resources to stop at every turn and ask ourselves if we truly want to act in accordance with our tendencies. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any alternative defensive strategies – perhaps this is a direction for future research.

Overall, I found this book to be an educational, entertaining, and altogether exceptional read for academics and lay audience members alike. There is a tremendous amount of information contained in this volume, and I can think of no person better equipped to deliver it than Robert Cialdini. Influence: Science and Practice belongs on the bookshelf of anyone with an interest in human behavior.


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