Robert Cialdini’s Six Universal Types of Influence

by Simon. Average Reading Time: about 2 minutes.

The human mind is an intriguing thing, capable of the most complex thought processes and ideas. Yet the brain is on automatic pilot for many situations. That allows the conscious mind to focus on other tasks. One potential drawback is that it is possible take advantage of our conscious inattention.

Professor Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, the classic book on persuasion, explains the psychology of why people say “yes” and how to apply these understandings. Cialdini’s six “weapons of influence” are as follows:

  1. Reciprocation – Reciprocation is the idea that by giving something to someone for free, they will feel obligated to return the favour. This makes them react more favourably to your requests, compelling them into an action they might otherwise ignore. Cialdini often uses the example of Ethiopia providing thousands of dollars in humanitarian aid to Mexico just after the 1985 earthquake, despite Ethiopia suffering from a crippling famine and civil war at the time. Ethiopia had been reciprocating for the diplomatic support Mexico provided when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935.
  2. Commitment and Consistency – People are driven to behave consistently with their past actions and statements. Once a person goes on record with a belief or opinion, it can be very difficult for them to take actions that appear to contradict their previously statements, even if the original incentive or motivation is removed. See Cognitive Dissonance
  3. Social Proof – When faced with indecision, we often turn to the wisdom of the tribe. Social proof occurs when our actions mimic the actions of our peers. An example of this is when shoppers become overwhelmed or untrusting of elaborate product descriptions and turn instead to user reviews and testimonials to inform purchasing decisions. See conformity, and the Asch Conformity Experiments.
  4. Scarcity – Scarcity is making an item appear scarce in order to increase its perceived value and influence a person to pay more for it than its actually worth. It may also cause them to act impulsively, fueled by the fear that it may be gone later.
  5. Liking – Whether because of familiarity, attractiveness or association, we unconsciously act much more favorably toward people we find likable. See the Physical Attractiveness Stereotype.
  6. Authority – By placing ourselves in a subordinate position, we tend to unquestioningly obey the commands of people in authoritative positions. See the Milgram Experiments of the 1960s.

David Travis of Userfocus elaborates on Cialdini’s weapons of influence, applying the persuasion triggers to web design.

Where to go next

  • MINDSPACE: Influencing Behaviour through Public Policy: A series of reports and guides from a UK Government think tank on how to apply these principles to improving public policy.
  • Design with Intent: A blog by Dan Lockton, providing many examples of how designers use these kinds of technique to influence behaviour.
  • The Nudge blog: A blog by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein that describes many examples of behaviour change based on what they call “change architecture”.

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