How to get anyone to say 'yes'
We've been taught that effective persuasion is all about the message, but astonishing research now shows that a lot of it lies in 'pre-suasion' - that is, the moment before the message
Have you ever said 'yes' to someone when, really, in your head, all you could hear was a resounding 'NO'? Or donated more to a charitable cause than you initially intended to? You'd be forgiven for putting all those wavering decisions down to the wiles of a very charming or convincing sales guy - but leading social psychologist Dr Robert Cialdini, who's devoted his entire career to studying the science of influence, believes otherwise.
Effective persuasion, he says, isn't just about what is said or how it's said - but also about what goes on in the moments before it's said. In other words, it also involves effective 'pre-suasion': subtle turns of phrases, seemingly insignificant visual cues, certain locations - because, believe it or not, all of these can actually influence you to say 'yes' before you're even asked.
Cialdini first found fame with Influence, his 1984 global bestseller on the art of winning people over, for which he went 'undercover' for three years - and which has now sold more than three million copies (or, to put it as candidly as he did, "was more successful than I sensibly imagined selling"). Speaking by telephone from his office in Phoenix, Arizona, he explains his personal fascination with the field. "All my life, I've been somebody who bought things I didn't really want or contributed to a cause I didn't know much about. It seemed to me that it wasn't the merits of the thing that was being offered that got me to say 'yes', but the way it was presented to me by the communicator," he says.
It was definitely worth studying professionally - only a university laboratory wasn't really the place where the majority of persuasive appeals occur. "They occur in the real world: in the communications of salespeople, marketers, advertisers, fundraisers and the like," points out Cialdini. "I wanted to find out what worked best for those whose business it was to get others to say 'yes' - whose economic livelihood depended on the strategy they employed." That's when he decided to go 'undercover', applying to the training programmes of a number of influence professionals. "I learnt to sell portrait photography over the phone, insurance, used cars. I listened to what the trainers said worked, and it turned out that there were only six universal principles that worked in all industries designed to get us to say 'yes' (see below)."
MASTER OF INFLUENCE: Dr Robert Cialdini
That was more than 30 years ago. Now, in his new book Pre-suasion, Cialdini offers new insights, telling us how one can create a state of mind "consistent with the message that is still to come"- and it's all based on fascinating empirical data. Like the time researchers approached people on the street for a marketing survey and offered no compensation in return. Only 29 per cent agreed to participate. But when the researchers went out to a second group of people and preceded that request with a pre-suasive question - namely: do you consider yourself a helpful person? - 77.3 per cent agreed to help. "That's because when they were asked earlier if they were helpful, nearly everyone said yes," he explains. "So, when the request for help occurred, more people now agreed in order to appear consistent with this recently put forth image of themselves as helpful people." And that's just one example of a pre-suasive technique. [For more case studies, see below.]
The research that led to his new book has been compelling, but Cialdini admits there was one astonishing study for 'pre-suasion' (from Belgium) that, when he read, "rocked me back in my chair". It involved researchers bringing subjects into an experimental lab, and showing a third of them photos of a person standing alone. To another third, they showed pictures of two people standing apart from each another; and to the final third, they showed images of two people standing together, shoulder to shoulder, in a kind of cooperative, friendly pose. In all three cases, the researcher got up from the table and pretended to drop items all over the floor. Which group was more likely to get off their chairs, onto their hands and knees, and help the researcher pick up the items? The answer was clear: the sample group that had seen the image of togetherness was found to be three times more likely to help. "But here's the shocker," he reveals. "The subjects in this experiment were 18 months old. Babies. That's how fundamental this process is in human functioning. What we see first, channels us to act in ways that are consistent with that first image, idea or word we saw - even at 18 months old... I thought that was powerful."
So, is persuasion an art or a science? To Cialdini, it's both. Some people seem to be born with a knowledge or talent for saying just the right thing at just the right time, he says. "These are the artists of the process - but they're only a few. In the last several decades, we've learnt that persuasion is also a science. It can be taught and learnt. So, even those of us who weren't born masters of the process can discover how to be as successful as the artists of the process."
Cialdini contends that the reason we've never considered the power of pre-suasion is because we've always been trained to focus on the message. As a result, we miss what happened immediately before receiving/sending said message. But it's not only professionals like politicians, admen and marketers to whom these techniques apply, but communicators and consumers alike - even parents with difficult children! "Pay attention to the moment before the message," he says. "Communicators who do that will be more successful with their message, and consumers who do so will be able to better judge what course of action they wish to pursue."
Not to be caught off-guard when asked about those who might use these tactics for unethical or dishonest gains, he responds: "There's research to show that if you do that regularly, you'll think less of yourself as a person. Your self-esteem goes down because you see yourself as a cheater or someone who has to cheat to get success. You don't want that self-image."
One theory, three case studies
The world of 'pre-suasion' is one in which seemingly insignificant visual cues or apparently unimportant details are all you need to get people to say 'yes' before you ask. Here are three case studies that prove the point
Study #1: The Location
Researchers in France had a very attractive young man walk up to women in a shopping mall, stop them, compliment them, and ask for their phone number. His strike rate was fairly low when he approached women in front of random shops; he got only 13 per cent of the women to give him their numbers. However, they found his strike rate nearly doubled (24%) if he spoke to women outside a flower shop. Reasoning? Flowers are associated with romance and, though the women were not conscious of it, when they passed the shop, they'd been put in the mood for romance - and were therefore more willing to give out their number.
Study #2: The Setting
US researchers trying to disprove a stereotype claiming young men were better at math than young women argued that this was only true because the women believed that stereotype and got nervous before a math test. To test their theory, they set up an exam room with pictures of famous women scientists and mathematicians on the walls. When the results came out, the female candidates had done just as well as the males! "Before they started taking the test, they saw evidence of women doing well, which gave them confidence that they could do well too - and so, they scored significantly more," explains Cialdini.
Study #3: The Visual Cue
An online furniture store sent half their website visitors to a 'Home' page that had a background wallpaper of soft, fluffy clouds, and the other half to a page that had coins and pennies. Those who encountered the image of clouds went on to search for furniture that was high on comfort, while those who saw the pennies searched for furniture that was less expensive. Interestingly, when they were asked if they thought the clouds or coins had made any difference, they said: "Of course not. I make my own decisions." They failed to recognise that their preferences had been shaped by what they saw.
The six principles of persuasion
1. Reciprocation - People are always inclined to return a favour or do something for those they feel indebted to.
2. Social proof - People will do things they see other people doing, when uncertain about what to do themselves.
3. Commitment and consistency - People who commit to something, either orally or in writing, are more likely to follow through with it.
4. Liking - People are happier to say 'yes' to people they like.
5. Authority - People tend to obey figures of authority, even if asked to carry out objectionable acts.
6. Scarcity - People will display greater desire for those things perceived to be rare, uncommon or scarce.