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Understanding how persuasion works can make consumers more savvy

Staff Writer |
When someone offers a free sample, it's not really free. It comes with the implied expectation that if a person accepts it, he or she will feel obligated to return the favor and eventually pay for the full product.

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That's just one of the many insights psychology has uncovered about the subtle mechanics of persuasion and how people can recognize and respond to attempts to influence their behavior.

"Persuasion is no longer just an art, it's an out-and-out science," said Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, speaking at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.

"Indeed, a vast body of scientific evidence now exists on how, when and why people say yes to influence attempts."

Considered by many to be the expert in understanding social influence, Cialdini has conducted decades of research to formulate his six universal principles of influence.

The first principle is reciprocity, Cialdini said. This is a simple quid-pro-quo relationship where people feel the need to return a favor. Everyone has encountered this with the "free sample" marketing campaigns or the "free trial."

Logically, that leads into the next principle, commitment, according to Cialdini. Once someone is hooked on a product, it's easier to get him or her to commit to paying for it.

When people decide or promise, they tend to stick to their word, according to this principle. If that commitment ends up being out of line with their internal beliefs, people tend to rationalize or change their beliefs to be in alignment with that choice, he said.

This is also the basis of the low-ball approach favored by car salespeople, according to Cialdini, who conducted research early in his career suggesting that a preliminary decision to take an action tends to persist even after the costs of performing that action have been increased.

Humans also have an innate pack mentality, which Cialdini calls social proof, citing research he conducted with hotel guests who were asked to reuse towels to save the environment.

His study found that guests were 29 percent more likely to reuse their towels if they were told that most other guests chose to reuse the towels. The percentage went up to 39 percent when they heard the majority of guests who had stayed in that room reused their towels.

Authority is another very powerful principle in play in almost all efforts at persuasion. If someone is an expert in a field, people often believe he or she is more likely to be effectively persuasive, according to Cialdini.

"When it comes to world economics, who are you more likely to listen to for advice: a Nobel laureate in the field or some random commenter on Facebook?" he asked.

People are also more likely to listen to others who are complimentary and similar to them. This is known as the principle of liking, according to Cialdini.

Finally, people are more likely to want what they think they can't have.

This is Cialdini's principle of scarcity, which works through the concept of anticipated regret, where people look to the future and regret the possibility that the option of a decision might be taken away from them, according to Cialdini. One example of this is when stores offer a sale with limited availability.


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