Use your weapons wisely - Cialdini's 6 principles & a story from Bali

What do you picture when you think of Bali?

White beaches, turquoise seas, mysterious temples?

In 2001, I headed off across the world with a couple of friends, to see for myself. It was indeed paradise, but while we were there something happened that I’ve never made sense of…Until last week!

I was alone, walking down the street in a busy market, when a lady grabbed my wrist and tied a leather bracelet around it. She was not unfriendly, she kept repeating, “Gift, gift, gift”.

I am, by nature, suspicious. I protested.

I fumbled, trying to untie the knot, but couldn’t. In broken English she told me she had a shop down the next street. She wanted me to see it.

I felt mildly uneasy.

But I went with her.

I went, of my own accord, down a small alleyway in a place I didn’t know, with a woman I had never met.

What occurred when we reached the shop is not important - needless to say we were not on our own, things became a little tense and I ended up throwing a large note - about 50,000 Indonesian Rupiah (the equivalent of only a few pounds) at the lady as I ran.

I’ve not thought much about this over the years since, but one niggling question has remained with me. 

It’s probably a question you're asking too.

Why on earth did I go with her?

Strangely, the answer came to me last week as I read the book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini.

In his book, Cialdini sets out six principles, or weapons, of influence used by salespeople, fund raisers and the like – the type of people who try to get us to do things we don’t necessarily want to do!

For each of these principles he provides enlightening case study and anecdotal evidence to suggest both how and why these behaviours occur and how, as marketers, we could use these to benefit us.

One of the reasons I am drawn to copywriting is learning about the psychological aspects of buyer behaviour and how to tap into them – I found this book fascinating! Yes, it was published 30 years ago, but the ideas in it are still completely relevant today.

What are the 6 ‘principles of influence’?

1. Reciprocity

The theory: As a society we view fairness as important. If someone gives us something we feel the urge to return the favour, to give something back. No-one likes to be left feeling like they ‘owe’ someone else.

At its simplest, think of a time when someone has given you an unexpected Christmas present. It leaves an uneasy feeling, a knot in the stomach, the need to provide a present in return, to find a way to ensure you are ‘even’. Often, the temptation will be to over-compensate – providing something of greater value to somehow make up for it.

Companies all around us use this principle. Charities send packs of blank Christmas cards through the post, requesting that a donation be made before you use them. Copywriters offer free content health checks or free e-books. In return we willingly provide our contact details. Because, we owe them that, right?

But even more subtle than that – the huge push towards content marketing and selflessly sharing useful information is driven, in part, by the law of reciprocity.

If you make it your business to help people, when they need the type of services you offer, not only will you be at the forefront of their mind, they might feel like they owe you one.

2. Commitment (and Consistency)

The theory: We like to be seen to act with consistency. If we say something out loud or write something down we are more likely to stick to it.

If I claim to be a vegetarian, and campaign against animal cruelty, I am unlikely to suddenly tuck into a juicy steak (at least not in public!). Not only that, if someone approaches me to give money to a charity like the RSPCA, I may feel that in order to demonstrate that I’m committed to my beliefs I should donate to them.

After all, if I love animals as much as I claim to, how could I justify not wishing to provide a shelter for a dog for a week?

To refuse would be to make myself look like a fraud.

Charity fundraisers use this principle. Rather than asking outright for a large donation, they might ask for a small act instead. Something that is very difficult to refuse and will cost you little or nothing. This could be spreading the word about their charity, or asking you to place a fundraising box in your house. Once you have shown support for them in some way, preferably publically, it then becomes easier for them to ask for more…And believe it or not it becomes harder for you to refuse.

3. Social Proof

The theory: What parent hasn’t at some point used the phrase, “Just because your friend Johnny does it, doesn’t make it right!”? And yet, it is the most natural thing in the world to follow the crowd. It is instinctual. If you see other people doing something you assume it’s the right thing to do.

Not just that, it suddenly becomes a more desirable thing to do.

You have the choice of two restaurants next door to each other. One is bustling, with a small queue forming in the doorway and the sound of laughter spilling onto the street. The other has only three occupied tables. Which one would you choose? 

You don’t want to miss out, of course you choose the busy one – look at all those people who think it’s great – look at the ‘social proof’ – it MUST be the better restaurant.

Is this necessarily true?

Look around and you’ll see this in action. Tip jars and buskers caps ‘pre-populated’ with coins (well if other people are giving money, I should too!), the popularity of Trip Advisor for making travel decisions, and the determination of brands to receive as many ‘Likes’ on Facebook as possible. It makes sense – If a post appears on your timeline to tell you that four of your friends like something, you’re much more likely to at least give it a shot!

4. Liking

The theory: If you genuinely like someone, you are far more likely to buy from them.

It’s a no brainer - how often do you meet a sleazy salesman and decide that you wouldn't buy from him if he was the last chocolate seller in the world?

Well, maybe you'd make an exception for chocolate, but you know what I mean!

We tend to like people who are similar to us, or familiar. By making themselves more personable and conversational brands and small businesses alike play on this. 

5. Authority

The theory: We feel a sense of duty or obligation to people in positions of authority.

This could be a teacher or a manager, or it could be someone we merely perceive to be an authority. We might base this on their clothes, how confidently they speak about their subject, or even their car. 

Business blogging is a great way to take advantage of this. By sharing your knowledge about your subject, not only do you increase the chance of people finding you online, but when they do find you they see you as someone who knows their stuff. And who else do you choose when buying a product or service, than someone who you think of as an authority.

6. Scarcity

The theory:  It's no secret that if the biscuits in the tin are running low we make sure we get there quick to get our fair share. If something looks like it might run out we are far more likely to want it! Hence the popularity of limited edition or 'limited time only' offers, not to mention the incredible overwhelming response to Black Friday this year!

I saw scarcity in action recently...

Our house had been on the market for three weeks and we’d had a fair amount of interest, but no offers.

There was a second viewing in the diary for Thursday. A young couple came to look round on Tuesday, 2 days before this second viewing. Quick as a flash they were back for a second viewing and had made an offer. We refused their first offer and before the end of Wednesday they had offered the asking price, which we happily accepted.

I wouldn’t mind betting that the other second viewing in the diary for the next day weighed heavily on their minds when they were trying to work out what to do – after all the estate agent, surely, would have dropped it into conversation! 

In fact it probably worked in our favour in two ways by limiting the time they felt they had available before the house was sold, but also offering some level of social proof that someone else liked it too!

Back to the streets of Bali...

So, what strange forces were at play when I mindlessly followed a stranger down a lonely alleyway?

Well this is my theory:

When I was given a ‘gift’, even though it was not one I received willingly, I immediately felt that I owed the woman something (reciprocity). My first thought was to return the gift, but I couldn’t. She gave me an option to do something easy in return – go and see her shop. Once I had said I would go, I felt I had to go through with this (consistency), but decided I could immediately turn and leave. Obviously this was not as easy as I had naively assumed, but I didn’t like the people in the shop, there was no way I was going to buy anything from them ([not] liking). 

As this story illustrates, Cialdini’s principles are not necessarily always used for the good, it is possible to use them to deceive or mislead.  It pays to be aware of the theories so that you can resist other people using them to manipulate you.

Next time you want to persuade someone to do something think about whether you could take advantage of one of the six principles. But remember, if you want to be ‘liked’ in business you must be careful just how you use your ‘weapon’ of choice...


Have you ever been caught out by any of Caildini's principles? I'd love to hear your stories below...

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