Robert Cialdini – Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion


This book is a response to two main research questions, which the author succinctly lays out in the Introduction:

  1. “What are the factors that cause one person to say yes to another person?”
  2. “Which techniques most effectively use these factors to bring about such compliance?” (xvi)

To answer these questions, Cialdini employed a methodology of participant observation coupled with a thorough examination of empirical research from the fields of sociology and psychology. He actually immersed himself in the work of successful “compliance professionals—sales operators, fund-raisers, recruiters, advertisers”—in order to see first-hand which tactics these people used to achieve their ends (xii). When direct observation was not possible, he uses real-world examples of compliance and reverse engineers them in order to show where their power is derived from.[1] From this body of research, Cialdini concludes that the “tactics that compliance practitioners employ to produce yes…fall within six basic categories. Each of these categories is governed by a fundamental psychological principle that directs human behavior and, in so doing, gives the tactics their power” (xiii). The principles are as follows:

  • Consistency & Commitment – “Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment” (37).
  • Reciprocation – “we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us” (17). This principle’s cultural roots run especially deep. Cialdini traces it to “the social pressures surrounding the gift-giving process in human culture,” which have famously been articulated by anthropologist Marcel Mauss (31).
  • Social proof – sellers “don’t have to convince us directly that the product is good, they need only say that many others think so, which seems proof enough” (117).
  • Authority – Stanley Milgram’s obedience study is the poster child for this principle: “’It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths of the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of this study” (215). “Information from a recognized authority can provide us a valuable shortcut for deciding how to act in a situation” (218).
  • Liking – we are more likely to comply with the requests of someone whom we like. Factors that influence liking include: physical attractiveness (171), similarity (173), compliments (174), contact & cooperation (176).
  • Scarcity – “Opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited” (238).

The characteristic that all of these principles hold in common is that they can be exploited as automatic responses on the part of audiences (Cialdini calls these “click, whirr” responses because they resemble a pre-recorded tape clicking into place and playing without any conscious thought given to the content or outcome (5)). The fact that they are automatic is due to their pervasiveness in our culture.[2]

My Question

Louis Althusser is famously known as a Marxist thinker. Because he coined the term ‘interpellation’ for use in the social sciences, it is thus laden with the weight of his ethos. Accordingly, some would argue that his notion of interpellation is fundamentally a passive one, one which strips individuals of power and instead ascribes all decision-making (i.e. role-assigning) authority to the potent hegemonic forces that comprise the Ideological State Apparatus. However, this view neglects the ambiguous, jarring, and even humanitarian qualities that can constitute some interpellative experiences and events.

Synthesizing across authors, make a case for interpellation as an active, conscious, and fundamentally positive happening.

[1] For example, he traces the common activity of parents returning to toy stores after Christmas to purchase a previously sold out item for their kids to the Commitment and Consistency principle: because a parent made an implicit promise to either herself or her child that the toy would be purchased, not following through with that commitment would produce feelings of dissonance. Thus, to avoid this, the parent finds herself at the toy store, even despite the fact that other toys were bought in lieu of the sold out one. From a marketing perspective, Cialdini claims that stores will often undersupply items that have been heavily publicized in order to capitalize on parents’ consistency and commitment drives and thereby ensure that sales will remain steady even after the Christmas holiday rush.

[2] Though it’s beyond the purview of the book, I’d venture to say there’s a neurological component to many of the principles Cialdini describes. For example, there could very well be a biological basis for why we tend to trust people who’re more attractive than others and who’re better dressed than average (the Authority principle).


~ by ahatter on September 21, 2009.

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