Scott Adams had a list of books he recommended on the science of persuasion. At the top of his list was this book, which was a really fascinating and enlightening read. It reminds me why being a skeptic and a cynic are so valuable and necessary, particularly in today's world. As Lily Tomlin said, people would often accuse her of being a cynic, but she found she could still barely keep up. In the book Robert Cialdini delineates the 6 ways a "compliance professional" will lead us down the yellow brick road - to do things which are often both foolish and against our self interests. I'm going to steal from the Wikipedia post and reprint these here:
1. Reciprocity – People tend to return a favor, thus the pervasiveness of free samples in marketing. In his conferences, he often uses the example of Ethiopia providing thousands of dollars in humanitarian aid to Mexico just after the 1985 earthquake, despite Ethiopia suffering from a crippling famine and civil war at the time. Ethiopia had been reciprocating for the diplomatic support Mexico provided when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935. The good cop/bad cop strategy is also based on this principle.
2. Commitment and consistency – If people commit, orally or in writing, to an idea or goal, they are more likely to honor that commitment because of establishing that idea or goal as being congruent with their self-image. Even if the original incentive or motivation is removed after they have already agreed, they will continue to honor the agreement. Cialdini notes Chinese brainwashing of American prisoners of war to rewrite their self-image and gain automatic unenforced compliance. Another example is children being made to repeat the Pledge of Allegiance each morning and why marketers make you close popups by saying “I’ll sign up later” or "No thanks, I prefer not making money”.
3. Social proof – People will do things that they see other people are doing. For example, in one experiment, one or more confederates would look up into the sky; bystanders would then look up into the sky to see what they were seeing. At one point this experiment aborted, as so many people were looking up that they stopped traffic. See conformity, and the Asch conformity experiments.
4. Authority – People will tend to obey authority figures, even if they are asked to perform objectionable acts. Cialdini cites incidents such as the Milgram experiments in the early 1960s and the My Lai massacre.
5. Liking – People are easily persuaded by other people that they like. Cialdini cites the marketing of Tupperware in what might now be called viral marketing. People were more likely to buy if they liked the person selling it to them. Some of the many biases favoring more attractive people are discussed. See physical attractiveness stereotype.
6. Scarcity – Perceived scarcity will generate demand. For example, saying offers are available for a "limited time only" encourages sales.
The trick is that as the world gets more complex, these 6 things also provide us with social shortcuts, to keep on the straight and narrow with minimal effort. But this means we have to be vigilant - to make sure we are not being taken advantage of. He notes that we often get that funny feeling in the pit our stomach when we are being manipulated against our will, and he suggests using that feeling/intuition to our advantage - to recognize when we are at risk. One of the things I love about this book is that Cialdini himself is the first to admit that even with all he knows, even he was and is not immune, and he provides some very funny examples to show how he personally has been taken advantage of.
This really is a must read book. In the same vein, the last thing on his list is a one sentence course on persuasion - the sentence being, "People will do anything for those who encourage their dreams, justify their failures, allay their fears, confirm their suspicions, and help them throw rocks at their enemies."
I think one of the most amazing examples in his book concerns well publicized suicides, as there are not just the expected copy cat suicides, but also up to 10X more fatal aircraft and automobile crashes. It's amazing how little it takes to establish a new subconscious social norm. Our lizard brain betrays us more often than we might think.