The Six Principles of Influence

I recently made a personal commitment to read more books, so I turned to the lengthy “Saved Items” cart on Amazon that I had been filling with friends’ recommendations for the past 18 months and ordered several titles. The first to arrive was Dr. Robert Cialdini’s fascinating and bestselling book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”, which had been recommended to me by several friends, acquaintances, and subject matter experts, including Tim Ferriss, Guy Kawasaki, and Noah Kagan.

In is book, Cialdini (formerly a nationally renowned professor of marketing at Arizona State University) describes Six Principles of Influence which encompass every negotiation tactic and act of persuasion utilized in board rooms, living rooms and farmers markets the world over. That is to say, these are the six “puppet strings” that all of us tug at to gain compliance from those around us. They are vastly and widely applicable, from business negotiations to marketing to disagreements with your spouse. If you look closely, you’ll notice that all of us employ them every day to achieve our goals and influence those around us. Many of them are particularly applicable to entrepreneurs, so I’ve attempted to crystallize the essence of the six principles and share them below.

Cialdini’s Six Principles of Influence

  1. ReciprocityThe concept of reciprocation is pervasive in our society. It’s one of our established social rules – if someone does us a favor, we do them one in return. If someone invites us to a party, we put them on the list for our next gathering. It is a fundamental principle that has been ingrained in all of us since the earliest days of human society. It is the concept of reciprocity that allowed our ancestors to freely share food, skills, and protection with confidence that the resources would be returned in kind. The shared web of interdependency and obligation allowed for the division of labor and specialization of skills – reciprocity was truly an evolutionary advantage.Accordingly, it’s no surprise that our modern culture has socialized us all to carry a sense of indebtedness to those that help us first – the “Golden Rule”, Karma, and “Pay It Forward” are all reciprocal social concepts that are instilled in all of us from a very young age. We assign harshly negative labels to those that do not follow the cultural norm – mooch, freeloader, leech. It is no wonder that whenever another person does us a favor, we feel obligated to respond in kind. And so, our natural reactions can become a powerful influencer when exploited. Let me give an example.

    I experienced the reciprocity principle first hand this winter on a ski trop to Breckenridge. Our group pulled into the parking lot and began to unpack our equipment. As we did, a man approached and made a show of welcoming us to the mountain and complimenting our gear. He then handed out “free” Breckenridge wool hats to each one of us. After receiving our thanks, he quickly followed up the gifts with a request for a $10 donation to a charity he was representing. Three of the five in our group immediately ponied up, and the man went on to the next unsuspecting car. I later asked my friend what charity the man was representing. His response – “No idea, but hey – free hat!”

    The above is a perfect example of reciprocity in action – my friends felt compelled to donate to the man’s charity because they had first received the “free” hats, regardless of the nature of the charity’s work or whether they even needed or wanted a hat.

  2. ConsistencyThe consistency principle states that “Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision.” In layman’s terms, this means that once we have made a small commitment or statement (especially publicly), it becomes part of our self-identity. For example, if I can get you to make the statement “I love discovering new music” (and who doesn’t), you’ll be more than twice as likely to pull out your wallet when I then ask if you’ll buy my band’s CD. Because not buying the CD would be inconsistent with your previous assertion that you enjoy new music (a feeling known as cognitive dissonance), you feel compelled to purchase the album.
  3. Social ProofOf all the six principles, I believe we experience and are influenced by social proof most strongly and most often. Social proof refers to the phenomenon that we are far more likely to do or believe something if we have seen others like us do or believe it first. Cialdini cities several studies in the book, including one that analyzed reclusive pre-school children. Researchers showed each reclusive child videos of other children their age observing a social activity, then actively joining into the activity. At recess the next day, the formerly isolated children immediately began to interact with their peers at a level equal to that of normal children in their schools. The principle of social proof illustrates that we often copy behaviors simply because if many others are doing something, we believe it must be the correct thing to do. The children in the experiment perceived that being social was the “normal” thing to do, and which gave them the courage to alter their own behavior. The principle of social proof is applicable to far more than elementary school behavior, and there are further examples in the book that examine social proof as an explanation for buying decisions, mass suicide, and traffic jams.Entrepreneurs also run head-long into the social proof principle when raising capital for the first time. Many venture firms are reluctant to invest until they hear that others have invested as well. If you’re able to secure a commitment from a big name VC firm like Sequoia or Khosla, you’ll probably not have much difficulty filling out the rest of your funding round. This is due to the principle of social proof – if others are willing to invest, it must be a good deal. Similarly, when you go to raise a second round of capital, any new investors will want to see participation from the firms that initially invested in your Series A. After all, if your original investors are unwilling to commit further capital, why should anyone new invest? This is often called “The VC Signaling Effect”, and has been discussed in depth by both Chris Dixon and Mark Suster.
  4. AuthorityThis one is fairly self explanatory – if someone in a position of authority commands you to perform a task, you are likely to comply. This was proved out in the now infamous and controversial Milgram Experiment. You can read the link for further detail, but essentially Milgram proved that despite moral objections and severe emotional distress, subjects were still willing to administer what they thought to be lethal electric shocks to others when commanded by someone in a position of authority. Milgram used his studies to explain the brutal actions of certain German soldiers during the Holocaust, committed despite stated strong moral objection by the soldiers themselves.
  5. LikingThis one seems obvious, but it’s very true – we tend to comply with requests from people who we like (friends, family, etc). Tupperware Corporation has exploited the liking principle to great success; each day thousands of people invite their friends over for tea and finger food, only to eventually ask them to purchase some Tupperware at the end of the party. By relying on the obligation we all feel toward those we like, Tupperware has built one of the largest direct sales organizations in history. In fact, Tupperware no longer sells in retail stores at all, relying almost solely on parties and the liking principle to generate over $2 billion in revenue each year.However, it’s not only your friends and relatives that can exploit the liking principle. The liking principle also encompasses arguably the most powerful persuasion method of all – attraction. An attractive, flirty stranger can create the same persuasive “liking” effect that your best childhood friends enjoy. That’s the reason nearly every pitchman, model, and TV commercial family is good looking, and all those Bud Light commercials feature women in bikinis. The more attractive the person trying to gain our compliance is, the stronger “liking” that they create, and better chance they have of persuading us. “Liking” is the principle that explains what Hollywood has known to be true for years – sex sells.
  6. Scarcity“Hurry, supplies are limited! This deal won’t last! Call now!”How many times have you seen slogans like those above plastered on store windows or shouted by TV infomercial salesmen? Probably more than you can count, and it’s because of the scarcity principle. We are far more likely to agree to a request if we believe (falsely or correctly) that we will not have another chance in the future. Fear of losing an opportunity can be a very powerful motivator. It is generally true that things which are difficult to obtain are better than things which are easy to obtain – thus we are subconsciously conditioned to use scarcity as a proxy for higher value. Cialdini mentions a used car salesman that always made sure more than one interested buyer was present whenever he was selling a car. The competition increased anxiety in both buyers and made the car seem that much more attractive, which without fail increased the price the salesman got for the car.

Cialdini’s book provides far more detail on the above principles than I have included here, including numerous studies and examples ripped straight from current events that illustrate each principle in action. I’d recommend Cialdini’s book to any entrepreneur, product manager, or marketer, as well as anyone looking to be more persuasive in general. It’s an absolutely fascinating read.

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  • Thanks for the info Bill!I really enjoyed reading the Six Principles of Influence and I’m pretty sure that I will be more aware in making decisions in the future. I admit, I already experienced this things and once became a victim:)

  • Relevant post sir.

    As an aspiring young entrepreneur, I perfectly relate to the reciprocity principle of influence. Building bridges with as many people as possible is important, as you can never know who you may need in the future (it’s said that success in the business world becomes easy when you work hard and also know relevant people). Through networking, I get to do certain things for other people knowing that they will be useful to me in one way or the other in the future.

Bill D'Alessandro