Home » psychology » The art of changing a mind – Influence

The art of changing a mind – Influence

I will finish the post on authority in the coming weeks, but I wanted to move on to the original topic I had hoped to discuss.

Today, we will be discussing a great book by Dr. Robert Cialdini entitled “Influence – Science and Practice.” The book breaks down factors of influence into a handful of main points. We will look at each of them in the coming posts, briefly, and discuss how it looks in the real world. Today we will focus on contrast, reciprocity, and commitment/consistency. You can grab it for around five bucks over on Amazon -> check it out (granted this is an older edition and it will probably be used!)

1. Contrast – This is a gestalt psychology idea that essentially describes how we compare two things when they appear in a given sequence, or in relation to one another. For example, if I show you product A for 50$ and it’s competitor (product B!) for 10$ dollars, you would be willing to think B is a great deal. However, if I show you product C for 5$ first, you will feel the opposite way about it. Clearly this isn’t ground breaking or mind blowing, but the trick is how to use this in the real world. Have you ever gone house hunting with a real estate agent? If you have, they may have attempted this simple tactic. They will take you to an overpriced house that is not what really what you are after. Lets imagine House A cost 400k and is not at all what you want. House B and C are both closer to what you had in mind, but cost 350k. This seems like a better deal, and according to the contrast principle, it will cause you less dissonance to purchase the 350k house.

Cialdini has done research to validate this effect, but his anecdotal story to go along with it is what I will share today. A colleague of his was at the airport waiting for his flight. The flight was overbooked, so someone from the airline was asking for volunteers. The spokesman made a joke by saying, “if you take a later flight, we will give you a $10,000 voucher!” The people laughed and then the spokesman continued, “here is the real voucher for $200.” People did not want to take the voucher, and the airline had to raise the amount a few times before anyone would volunteer (to $500). According to Cialdini, if they would have used the contrast principle, the man could have said, “the voucher will be for 14 cents!” Once again, this anecdote was confirmed by laboratory experiments showing that participants would expect to be given more compensation when they hear that higher number. Needless to say, this is a simple and powerful effect!

2. Reciprocity – This is another simple idea that is surprisingly powerful. Once again we are looking at cognitive dissonance forcing us to reduce our mental stress. This time, when we feel indebted to someone, we feel a measure of dissonance. If someone is raising money for the fictional group, ” We Love Texas,” (WLT) I would try to avoid contact with the person as I was walking down the street because I don’t feel like donating. However, if they stop me and ask for money, I may resist the urge to give if I don’t have much cash on me. This is where reciprocity could come in…

The person from WLT hands me a small Texas flag button and says, “show your Texas pride.” While I am not one to flaunt my Texan heritage, I feel a tiny bit of dissonance. This person gave me something just now, and automatically I feel as if I need to give them something back. Not only do I need to give them something, it needs to be more than what they gave me. This ensures that I am no longer indebted to them. Further, they should be indebted to me! Thus I give them a few more dollars than I would have otherwise. Be wary of the next time a salesman offers you free stuff. “Come out and see us and get free coupons to restaurant XYZ!!” The purpose of such a tactic is two-fold. First it brings you to them, and second it makes you more likely to purchase out of a feeling of dissonance.

3. Commitment and Consistency – These factors can catch even the best of us off guard. Consistency plays a major role in our self esteem. Why? Just imagine being called a “flip-flopper.” You change your mind on a whim, you do not think critically about your decisions thus you are forced to change your mind often. Clearly this highly politicized term is taken out of context almost 100% of the time. If someone changed their mind because they evaluated the situation, that is far more important than simply “sticking to your guns” because you felt your image was on the line. But this factor really hits us hard. The idea of being an inconsistent person causes us a lot of dissonance. Cialdini summarizes the work of psychologists Freedman and Fraser (1996) to elaborate this effect.

Research assistants went door to door asking people to place a small magnet on this refrigerators that said, “drive safely,” in an effort to promote public safety. Two weeks later, the researchers returned to the homes they had visited before (for this example let’s say 100 houses) and then they also visited completely new houses in the same neighborhood (100 new people). They asked each of these people if they would be willing to install a very large billboard in their front yard which said, “drive safely” which would obstruct much of the view of the house. As you may have guessed, people who were completely new to the study would often decline, while people who had accepted the magnet a few weeks prior would often agree. Why would this occur?

By giving someone this simple magnet and allowing them to place it on their refrigerator, they begin to form a construct about their self identity that simply says, “I care about the public good,” (or something to that effect!). When you later ask them to go the next step, the person is challenged. “Am I going to live up to my expectations of myself, or am I going to back out and be inconsistent?” is what you would ask yourself. If I really care about the public good, I better go along with this, as failing to meet my own expectations would cause me a lot of dissonance. So, to reduce dissonance, I agree to something that is awfully silly. Why? Because two weeks ago someone gave me a little magnet to place on my refrigerator. Obviously this does not turn people into mindless drones, but it significantly increases their liklihood to engage in the behavior.

In the real world, what does this look like? Let’s imagine my friend and I are going to buy cars at two separate car dealerships. My friend walks up to Dealer A and is immediately asked to wait for about 15 minutes to see someone, while I get immediate service. Afterwards, my friend has to start filling out personal information that all seems a bit bland. He has to fill out his name and contact information, where he heard about the dealer, and if any of his contacts referred him to the place. Then my friend had to sign a piece of paper (not a contract or anything, just a signature at the bottom of his info sheet).  All the while, I was looking at cars with an associate. All other things being equal, which one of us is more likely to follow through with a purchase? My friend – but why?

My friend has already invested time and energy into even being allowed to talk with someone. Adding barriers increases the commitment level! The more work you to do get something, the more you convince yourself it was worth your time. You do this automatically… TO REDUCE DISSONANCE!  Also, signing the bottom of that little info paper which merely has your personal details on it further serves to increase your commitment as it feels official. What about me? Well I don’t have a large effortful investment which I had made, so I have minor dissonance if I choose to leave the dealership without making a purchase. Just imagine dissonance as being similar to guilt. If I feel like I made someone file all my paperwork, I made someone match me with an associate, I made them tell me all about these cars, I would feel bad about just walking off. Suddenly, I feel as if I am wasting their time when I am actually being manipulated. I should feel a bit offended, shouldn’t I?

So what do you do? I’d suggest knowing the products you wish to buy prior to buying them, and being mindful of the situational forces that impact your behavior. Remember, just because a dealer thinks you need to fill out a personal information sheet doesn’t actually mean you have to do it. Of course if they need to do a background check- yes give them everything, but they don’t need to know your life history just to answer some questions about vehicles!

Next time, we are going to talk about a few more of the eight factors – Social proofing and liking!



  1. Yannick says:

    I find this all quite fascinating, especially how little the typical person accepts that these tactics occur, and are absolutely successful. People wonder why advertising budgets are so large because such efforts “would never work on me, I’m too smart for that!” – and then they go to Walmart and buy overpriced Advil to cure their non-existent ails. It’s also intriguing as to how effective these tools are in political elections – people claim money can’t buy an election, but it obviously can, and with the approval of super-PACs, it’s scary to think how all of that extra cash will be spent.

    But at the end of the day – does understanding these tactics really help us either avoid or think through them? Or are we hardwired to respond in certain ways (such as convincing yourself your time was well spent to reduce dissonance) that we can’t change?

    • The reason these tactics tend to work is the general automaticity of behavior we have. Which is to say, much of it is automatic. We are not ever really instructed that we need to avoid being in debt to other in social terms (reciprocity). We are never told to view a deal as cheaper when posed next to a higher priced item (contrast).

      There is little research on resisting these tactics. One can attempt to use these back towards the “influencer”, but that’s not always very functional.

      Dissonance is the key thing, though. When we are experiencing dissonance due to any behavior, we need to analyze it before we work to reduce it. I honestly believe that’s your opportunity to see through a sales tactic for what it is or is not. When I am feeling guilty for wasting a salesman’s time, I need to stop and think about the source of this guilt. This general mindfulness (knowing where our impulses and feelings are coming from) can really help us understand our actions and better control ourselves.

      Imagine this scenario – you are about to buy a car but you realize the salesperson has been using reciprocity to make you feel indebted to them. Now that you are aware of the situation, you have re-framed it. The process of framing, in psychological terms, is the way in which we perceive a situation. We now see this act of kindness of the salesperson’s part as an act of “aggression.” They are trying to take something from me with a tiny investment in me. Now, for me to give into the tactic would actually serve to cause me even more dissonance, as it would fly in the face of my contingencies of self worth (such as the contingency that I am not a mindless drone). When you are aware of a tactic, your dissonance can actually guide you out of it when you have re-framed it successfully.

      Dissonance reduction is not always a bad thing. It’s when we mindlessly reduce our dissonance that we run into problems. Please keep in mind this is my interpretation, not Cialdini’s!

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