From Influence to Pre-Suasion: A Scientific Breakthrough of How Subtle Clues Powerfully Influence Our Behavior

The article is inspired by the writings of Robert Cialdini. For those who don’t know him, Cialdini is a psychologist that a few decades ago put together the most brilliant book (Influence) about how persuasion works. In fact, he laid down a framework based on few basic principles that go along these lines:

if you sell a pencil or a Ferrari, those six principles will apply: reciprocation, social proof, commitment&consistency, liking, authority, and scarcity.

At that time Cialdini’s book was revolutionary. In fact, the working of persuasion was popular only among successful sales professionals. For the first time, Cialdini popularized “the science of persuasion.” A step-by-step process that if mastered can lead to a high rate of compliance.

How Is It Possible That Six Basic Principles Can Get Applied to Any Practical Situation?

If you genuinely think about that, it is not so different from the way our society works. Each of us is not aware of all the laws, regulations, courts’ precedents existing in the legal system. Yet we are pretty successful in not getting in trouble with legal enforcement. Why? Because we have internalized few core principles that tell us how to behave within our society.

In short, if we take U.S., for example, I would guess that very few people know the Constitution’s Articles and Amendments by heart, yet day by day most of US citizens live a peaceful life.

The same applies to influence. The people that internalized the six levers of influence became the most successful in the business world. But this is not the end of the story.

In the last decades, the scientific understanding of our brain has grown exponentially. Nowadays through technologies such as the fMRA (Functional magnetic resonance imagingwe can track the physiological changes of the brain as we see, hear, touch, and feel. Also, we can understand the brain processes that lead us to seeing, hearing, touching and feeling!

In this scenario, we also understood that there is even more about persuasion that we missed all along. There is a subtle, almost invisible and counterintuitive aspect of it that is almost shocking.

On this premises, Cialdini’s second book, “Pre-Suasion” shows us some mind-boggling facts.

From Influence to Pre-Suasion

If I had to describe Cialdini’s book in few words, it would go something along these lines,

It doesn’t matter what weapons of persuasion you are using. If you don’t prepare the soil, they will be far from successful.

In short, if “Influence” answers to the “how” “Pre-Suasion” answers to the “when.” Paradoxically, Influence was written a few decades before. But when it comes to the procedural aspects Pre-suasive techniques and principles come before anything else.

The key point is about understanding, channeling and using the attention of the target’s person or audience to dramatically improve the compliance of that person or audience to the desired outcome. How is this possible?

The brain is not a perfect machine. Or at least it is a perfect machine for the environment in which it has been shaped. But our modern society evolved at such fast pace, that made most of our biological adaptations incredibly obsolete.

And although it is hard to admit we are animals and as such, we are still extremely influenced by a bunch of “invisible” clues in our environment. In other words, even though we are so good at explaining why we made certain choices or decisions; on the other hand, we have been influenced by factors that didn’t even appeared in our consciousness.

What? Really?

The Power of Openers

Let me give you a practical example. Cialdini in “Pre-suasion” mentions an experiment performed in France, where an attractive young woman asked middle-aged men to put themselves in a risky situation for her. For instance, she could ask things like getting back her phone stolen by a group of young fellows not far away.

So far, you may have understood where this is going. But stick with me for few lines, and you will understand how far from understanding you were.

Nothing new here, an attractive young woman ask a middle-aged man to put himself in a risky situation for her and as it turned out only 20% of those people complied. Yet there were few other samples for which compliance skyrocketed and doubled. Can you guess what the main persuader was?

Was it because she said something different to him? Maybe she proposed? Nothing like that. As it turned out by having another young woman asking the middle-age about “Valentine Street” just before the second girl, made them way more compliant.

In short, the word “Valentine” seemed to have evoked in the man a “romance or sexual feeling,” which went unseen but highly influenced his action afterward (Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini, Chap. 4,  page 68)!

It means that if you want your strategy to be successful, you need “an opener.” Not only that but also the fact that what gets drawn in our “attention’s field” becomes causal even if it is not (like in the case of a young woman asking about Valentine Street).

This and many other examples are given by Cialdini, which is a master storyteller.

What Does This Case Tell Us?

Frist, to be extremely careful in how your attention gets channeled. Especially if someone is trying to manipulate you. Even though it is impossible to control our environment, awareness is the first step.  Second, if you decide to use Cialdini’s techniques, you are better off if you do it ethically.

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Gennaro Cuofano, International MBA. Author of "The Enlightened Accountant," and "The Art of Mentorship."

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