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What a little bit of tape can do – the psychology of persuasion

The science and psychology of persuasion are fascinating subjects. When I contemplate them or read up on the latest findings about the subjects I always end up concluding that we humans are very small and so easy to manipulate into more or less anything.

And then I’m thorn. On the one hand as an entrepreneur I love to dig deep into all aspects of sales and marketing, and learning more about how best to promote services or products is part of that and fun to do. On the other hand I am a human – hence a consumer – and in that respect companies use the same persuasion tactics on me as they do on other consumers.

More often than not I will see through the trickery and end up feeling played or even abused. The more flagrant the mind trick the more negative the feelings will be about my purchase. So even though the trick still works, once I’m aware of it the company loses credibility and my trust. As with all things, it’s a matter of applying it in a balanced way.

In any case, the science itself is extremely useful and the thought father on persuasion to me is Robert Cialdini. In 1984 Cialdini came out with a book called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. To this day the book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand persuasion and it’s possible applications in the field of marketing.

Robert Cialdini’s theory is based on six key principles of influence. Here they are, based on results of my own Internet Marketing campaigns.

Scarcity
The Scarcity principle has been going around the Internet for a while now. More and more companies use it or abuse it to make sales. The reason for this is that it works. In our human minds perceiving scarcity generates a sense of urgency. A sense of urgency generates a demand that wasn’t initially there when we thought there was plenty of that which we wanted.
An example of this is when online shops will show you the limited amount of items in stock they have left or offer you something for a limited time only.

Authority
Based on personal experience Authority to me ranks right below scarcity when it comes to marketing and selling online. It’s in our human nature to follow power and authority, even when we don’t agree with the demands that are made (just thinking about the Milgram experiments from the 60s gives me the chills).
The Internet is filled with examples of this. Think of all the thought leaders in your field. Excelling at a particular subject and being seen as an expert in your field has become a strategy on it’s own.

Social Proof
I would rank Social Proof right below Authority. First, both principles are connected. When you are an authority in your field people will easily follow your example and do what you do. But that is not all. Social proof is also connected to the principle of conformity. We humans have a tendency to copy what our neighbors are doing and love to conform with other people’s behavior. So even if you are not an authority of any kind, if enough people do what you do convincing others to follow will be a piece of cake.
There are many experiments and examples of this. One that I particularely like and that shows how dangerous this conformity behavior can be is an experiment I saw a couple of years ago. Actors are gathered in a waiting room. One person is added to the bunch. He is the test subject. The alarm of the building goes off but none of the actors stand up or make their way to the exit. You see the test subject looking around and in distress, not knowing why everyone is just sitting down while the alarm is going off. But he too stays there and does not leave.

Commitment and Consistency
To me Commitment and Consistency is the most amazing principle in the list. The science behind it is a little more complex. When we humans commit to something we tend to stick to it, even if what we committed to does not fit our general beliefs. If that’s the case we will simply reprogram our self-image to accommodate that which we committed to. This principle is also known as cognitive dissonance.
A good example of this is is provided by Robert Cialdini when he talks about the brainwashing on American prisoners of war by the Chinese in an effort to rewrite their self-image to achieve unenforced compliance of the prisoners.

Liking
The last principle in the list is Liking. When we like someone it’s easy for that person to persuade us to do something, believe something or even buy something.
A good example of this are the home-hosted parties for items such as jewelry, clothes or even Tupperware. The reason why those parties work so well is that the host is tapping into her or his personal network of friends and acquaintances, where the level of liking is much higher than other selling instances.

But enough about the theory. I have found a really cool video online that shows another, less prominent aspect of persuasion. This one is more of the suggestion or subliminal kind. In the video below you will see a Dutch experiment in which people are gently yet unconsciously pushed to use the stairs instead of the elevator. Simply by using a little bit of well-placed tape. The results are amazing.

There are a lot of great books written on the subject of persuasion. Another one of my favorites is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Together with Robert Cialdini’s book, this one has helped me as an entrepreneur and in my private life. If you have the time and are interested, I would recommend the read. It’s well worth it.