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influence-book-coverInfluence, by Robert Cialdini Ph.D., is a book about how we get duped all the freaking time. And, how we might be inadvertently duping other people all the freaking time. I was first introduced to these concepts by The Personal MBA, which really didn’t do Cialdini’s source material justice. Well, anyway, it was excellent, if not a little personally disturbing.

Cialdini is a Ph.D.. It’s important that I say that–because it makes me look good to have read a book by someone with such a high academic status. You see, I’m going to imply that a bunch of stuff is true throughout this review-round-up-thingie that I do. So, right now, I’m appealing to Cialdini’s authority in hopes that you won’t notice that I have none.

Cialdini uses a little shortcut throughout this book. “Click. Whirrrrr…”. He’s talking about an organism’s automatic, or quasi-automatic, responses to various stimuli. He uses the example of mother turkeys–who are apparently quite good at caring for their young. But, whether they identify something as their young, seems to be based almost entirely on the sound that it makes. “Cheep-cheep”–or “Chepe-Chepe” in French, probably.

In one experiment a stuffed polecat–a turkey’s natural predator, and a hilarious sounding animal–was presented to the mother turkey attached to a string, creating the primitive affect of being alive. The turkey attacked it, as one might expect. But then they stuck a tape recorder inside the stuffed polecat, playing the “Cheep-cheep” sound. Then the turkey proceeded to care for the stuffed polecat.

The mother turkey has some kind of autopilot that’s turned on by that particular sound.

It took me a while to figure out how all this had anything to do with “Click. Whirr.”, even though he explained it. It’s tapes. Like, big reel audio tape that would make a whirring noise when it ran. “Click”–the play button, or the stimuli introduced. “Whirr”–tape stars spinning, or the automatic actions start flowing. In the turkey’s case, caring for her young.

It would seem that people have them too. And, what’s more, they are usually beneficial. For mother turkeys, under most circumstances, the cheep-cheep sound leads her to act in the right way. And that’s true for us too, according to Cialdini. So while our own “Click. Whirr.” responses can get us into trouble when we have to deal with “compliance professionals” who are trained to use these “weapons of influence” against us, we still wouldn’t want to try and eliminate those responses altogether.

In Cialdini’s research, he has named six of them in humans: Reciprocation, Commitment & consistency, Social proof, Liking, Authority, and Scarcity.


Reciprocation is just what it sounds like. Human beings have an automatic response-drive to reciprocate good done for us. Think about gift giving and the urge to give a gift in return. Or the urge to pay a friend for a ride to the airport. That’s the reciprocity rule, and it pervades every culture on earth. Cialdini quotes archaeologist Richard Leakey saying “We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honored network of obligation”. It was good for us, and it still is.

But, it’s not without it’s exploitable dangers, because the usefulness of the rule in culture also brings an obligation to receive. A subconscious one. So a sales person bringing you a cup of coffee might be laying a little groundwork to get a favor in return. And that’s the funny thing about it, the reciprocity rule doesn’t mean equal reciprocation–it’s not rational, it’s emotional, and therefore much more easily exploitable by someone who knows the controls.

Commitment & Consistency

Cialdini’s discussion on Commitment & consistency as a rule of influence was particularly fascinating to me–maybe because it’s a weapon of influence I used against myself. Cialdini describes the effect succinctly like this, “Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment”.

Taken at face value, that means if we declare something about ourselves or our intentions, we’re going to start feeling internal and external pressure to conform to what we’ve declared. But it can work the other way too. Cialdini describes gamblers at a horse race, where they feel unconfident of their choice until they have made it and put down their money, at which point they become inordinately certain of their choice. We all do it.

The urge for consistency is important for human beings, and activated by commitment. “Once we have made up our minds about an issue, stubborn consistency allows us a very appealing luxury: We really don’t have to think hard about the issue anymore.” And so, people who’s words and actions don’t match up are often looked at as “indecisive, confused, two-faced, or even mentally ill” while people who are seen as very consistent are looked at as “intellectually” and “personally” strong.

The danger in the automatic consistency response comes when we can be duped into mindless consistency, when we have no reason to be. For example, a real estate agent who has you on record saying how much you love brick fireplaces is going to have an opportunity to exploit your sense of consistency when he shows you an overpriced house with a brick fireplace.

Social Proof

Social proof Is essentially the idea of safety in numbers, and it’s often very effective at producing the right behavior without having to expend much cognitive energy. Think about traffic patterns, as Cialdini suggests. When a car in heavy traffic slows down and changes lanes, if the car behind him does it too, it’s likely to start a chain of identical actions. Everyone assuming the car in front of them knows something they don’t. And what they don’t know might just be that the lead car has an exit coming up on the left, or there could be a raving lunatic on a unicycle in the road. Either way, there wasn’t much thinking involved.

I can observe the effect in myself, too. Sometimes I don’t bother to read reviews of books and products if there are enough of them and a high enough overall score. And, It usually works out for me.

“We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it,” says Cialdini, while relating the point to the canned laughter in television shows we all hate.

When we perceive someone as like us we’re more apt to consider their actions when choosing which actions we should take. In an interesting point, Cialdini describes a study of pre-school aged children who were afraid of dogs. Simply watching a 20 minute video every day of a similar child playing with a dog completely eliminated that fear in the children.

The rule can present itself in some shadowy ways, however, especially in the case of faith. A faithful person, driven to make converts, will see their own faith bolstered as other’s come to accept their beliefs as true. “Convince and ye shall be convinced!” quips Cialdini.


It seems self evident to say that human beings are more likely to comply with the request of someone they like, than someone they don’t like. What is less self evident is that someone who is so inclined can leverage certain behavior in order to stimulate our Liking response without us knowing it. So we like them. But why?

It’s perhaps exemplified in the good cop/bad cop routine we’ve seen on TV so many times. The bad cop makes the world seem like it’s about to end for the prisoner, and thereby making a the good cop seem not only nice but working as an ally. Even for the innocent, the cops are never an ally. At best they are a neutral party. But if the prisoner is there and less than innocent, they have no rational reason to believe the good cop–a compliance trick has been pulled off. They like the good cop.

You can see the inverse of the rule in the idea of “killing the messenger”. We like things that are associated with other things we like, and dislike things that are associated with things we dislike. Why else would it make sense for an athlete to advertise for a fast food restaurant? We like that athlete, we like the idea of physical fitness and success they embody, and so we like the fast food. It’s duping–we have no reason to like fast food on those grounds–it’s just an automatic response, which is often useful when it’s not being abused.

If I like my friends, there’s a good chance I will like their friends as well. I’d hate to have to scrutinize that every time!


People have an innate sense of the authority rule. We comply when it feels like it is our job.

In one experiment, subjects were asked to deliver an electric shock to research participants when they answered a question incorrectly. With each wrong answer, they were to increase the intensity of the shock. Although the person receiving the shock was an actor, those delivering the shock almost universally continued with their duty, even as the shocks became unbearable for the receiver. The participants were visibly shaken by the experience, but the vast majority complied nonetheless.

So authority has a great deal of influence on us, even when that authority directs us beyond our personal and moral limitations.

Interestingly, however, almost all of us underestimate the effect of authority on our lives. Which creates some problems for us as compliance professionals brew these weapons of influence into a stew of automatic responses. For example, herbal supplements marketed with images of people in white lab coats.


People want stuff that is hard to obtain. When something becomes scarce, it’s perceived value goes through the roof. Cialdini says “opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited…”. And he shows it off with an interesting example.

When your phone rings in your pocket while you’re in the midst of something otherwise interesting, it’s very difficult to resist the urge to answer it. You are in the midst of something you might be enjoying, but with each ring of the phone, you’re aware the some other opportunity is passing you by. The time for the ringing phone seems so limited, and whatever is on the other side is going to be gone when it stops. It’s the urge to grab opportunities that are limited, before they’re gone for good, even if there is no present dissatisfaction.

The concept also extends to censorship and banning of activities. It tends to make us want it more. And to liberty, which once received, is hard revoked. For example, once we have an abundance of toilet paper (whether we have a bidet or not), the sudden scarcity of it makes it seem not only very valuable, but something we must maintain, and the subconscious urge to want.

Some more thoughts

The topics throughout this book, and the many examples and proofs Cialdini provides are almost endlessly interesting. The chapters felt meaty and exhaustive. For a good reader like myself, each chapter cost upwards of two delightful hours. However, as a practical book which also aims to equip the reader with tools to defend their “click. whirr” system from being exploited, it really seems like Cialdini has been burned by someone at some point. He seems hyper vigilant–perhaps he enjoys rooting out attempts to dupe him, more so that whatever life might be offering in the first place. And, since these “weapons of influence” are everywhere, it seems like you could turn up a lot of false positives for exploitation, and more importantly, miss a lot of forest for a few measly trees.

The book has brought up an ethical quandary for me: Do I use ‘weapons of influence’ in my relationships with people to get what I want? I certainly tend to do favors for people, while generally denying those offered to me (reciprocation). In my conversational style, including debate, I often bring up things that the other person has said in the past (commitment & consistency). When I mention something I think someone else will like, I often mention who introduced me to it, especially if I think that person thinks highly of the reference (social proof). When I am out and about, I’m consciously smiling much of the time, and often mention good things that are happening (liking).  When I mention things I have learned, I often refer to my source of knowledge, even in vague terms (authority). Whether I’m preoccupied or bored, I might say that I’m ‘busy’ (scarcity).

The question is, are these outflowings of long developed personality which happens to works for me, and also happen to jive with the rules of influence? Or, are these actions which have duped others in a way that works for me? The answer indeed may not matter. But instead, like every action we take, the question of whether there are lies, deceit, theft or harm, and if we are aware of them, is much more important.

So, perhaps if I’m bored I shouldn’t say I’m “busy”. And maybe if I learned something and wish to share it, I should endeavor be specific. But with the knowledge from Influence, I should be able to see my own actions more clearly, and make them into better, more socially conscious actions.

In Conclusion

It was an excellent book with a lot of personal, and social insights. If it were more neatly broken up into subsections, I think it would make an excellent read–especially for parents. The book presents many examples of parents inadvertently using influence in a counter-productive way. If they could learn to see their children’s minds and development just a little more mechanically, they could probably make their own lives a lot easier, and their children’s lives a lot happier and more productive.

Business people can also benefit a lot from these pages. But with caution–It’s hard to weigh the idea of ‘influence’ with our ethics. It’s too easy to blame the person being duped and too hard to recognize when we’re the one duping.