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Thu, Jul 7, 2011

Talent Acquisition

The Psychology of Influence

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Few terms are as frequently tossed about or as poorly understood as the term “influence.” The term’s overuse is understandable. After all, what is leadership but influencing a group in pursuit of a common goal? What is selling but influencing someone to part with their money in exchange for a good or service?

As you can quickly see, the ability to influence is a skill that underlies many of the competencies necessary to be a successful businessperson. Psychologists, (notably Robert Cialdini) who can rarely agree on anything, have arrived at a well-defined canon of what it means to be influential. In his seminal work, The Science of Persuasion, Cialdini puts forth the following six ‘weapons of influence’:

The “Six Weapons of Influence”

6. Reciprocity:  You know those chicken nugget samples that they hand out at the mall? Those greasy little morsels are little more than deep-fried psychological warfare. The simple truth is that we feel beholden to people who have done us a solid and are inclined to want to repay that favor. And here you thought they just wanted you to sample their product.

5. Commitment and Consistency:  When we make a commitment, no matter how trivial, we tend to want to act in ways that are consistent with that commitment. A famous study on this concept involved asking California housewives to take a 5-minute phone survey about their household cleaner usage.

Many agreed, and a few weeks later the same group was called again to ask if six men could spend a few hours rummaging through their drawers to make more detailed notes about their cleaner usage. Those who had initially been contacted about the phone survey were more than twice as likely to agree to the invasive visit than were a control group who had not been asked to participate. After all, they had made a previous commitment to household cleaner research and wanted to act in a manner congruent with their commitment.

4. Social Proof:  As anyone who has ever been to college can attest, humans are herd creatures that can be swayed to do all manner of things by a group of peers. But can influencers leverage our need to belong when no one else is around?

You may have seen the cards in hotel bathrooms asking you to “Please Reuse Your Towels – Help Us Protect the Environment.” Well, these sort of simple appeals result in a paltry 38% compliance rate, which doesn’t do much to help the hotel save money, I mean, the Earth. However, when the phrasing is changed to “Please Join 75% of Your Fellow Guests in Helping to Save the Environment”, the compliance rate jumps to 53%! After all, who wants to be in the bottom quartile of jerks that don’t care about the planet? If you can use social proof in the bathroom, you can use it anywhere.

3. Authority: 9 out of 10 doctors agree that people tend to obey those who are perceived as speaking from a position of authority. ‘Nuff said.

2. Liking:  We are most easily influenced by people that we like and that we perceive to be like us. We think that people that are like us “get it”, whether that means rooting for the same baseball team, living in the same neighborhood, going to the same church, or sharing an alma mater. Influencers of all stripes would be wise to play up similarities and minimize differences when attempting to persuade.

1. Scarcity:  The most obvious examples of leveraging scarcity are of the “Limited Time Only” and “Supplies are Limited” variety. However, those attempting to sell a service might also benefit from scarcity by emphasizing the uniqueness of an idea or approach. Using scarcity to influence can be tricky though, because people tend to value things that are scarce but attainable.

I was recently drooling over a Mercedes Benz commercial and spent the first twenty seconds of the ad telling my wife how I would do whatever it took to make one my own. At about the 21st second, the small print appeared and I realized that the object of my desire cost upwards of $80,000, making the car too expensive for my scarce dollar bills.

I immediately turned on the idea of the Benz, and immediately went on a rant about the irresponsibility of driving such a vehicle when there is so much sadness and want in the world. What happened? The car I had lusted over just seconds before was too scarce for my resources, so I attacked the car rather than deal with my disappointment at it being out of reach.

Far from being the ineffable idea it is sometimes presented as, influence is typically comprised of some combination of the six principles you see above. I challenge you to determine something you would like to influence, and construct a plan of action that uses at least three of the six “weapons” you see above.

I hope you’ll take me up on this challenge, after all, I am a doctor.

About the Author

Dr. Daniel Crosby is an organizational psychologist and President of IncBlot, a consultancy that helps businesses select and develop exceptional talent. You can follow Daniel on Twitter @incblot.

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