Robert Cialdini: The master of persuasion returns (with a new book)

Cialdini's stranger-than-fiction insights should make this book another sure-fire bestseller - despite the fact it's not quite up to the standard of his first.

by Dr Gorkan Ahmetoglu
Last Updated: 27 Oct 2016

Any time I hear anyone mentioning influencing skills or persuasion, it seems to be followed by the name Cialdini. It's been many years since I read Influence (his notorious bestseller). I've since been teaching it to students, used it in my talks, and based a lot of my research around it.

Cialdini is no doubt the godfather of persuasion, and I wouldn't be surprised if Pre-Suasion causes another revolution in the influence arena. Having said that, I think it is more like Godfather 3: a 'must-see' (read), but not quite as good as the first (or second).

This book demonstrates how trivial and seemingly irrelevant signals, presented at a critical moment, can be used as powerful weapons to subconsciously influence people.

And there are three reasons why it is likely to be a success. First, the mere fact that Cialdini has written another book on persuasion is likely to get the crowds whispering (if not shouting). I don't think there were many disappointed customers among the three million who bought 'the original'. And the word of mouth probably stretches far beyond this number.

Second, it does have the crucial ingredient of a bestseller: it is mind-blowing. Had it not been for the real case studies and scientific experiments presented, readers may have mistaken Cialdini for a crazy scientist with wacky ideas bordering on insanity. We learn that our productivity can be increased by seeing a picture of a runner winning a race, our liking of someone else can be determined by whether we are holding a warm or a cold drink, and our company's stock market performance is related to whether it has a pronounceable name or not. Like captivating science fiction novels, nothing is what it seems and you can forget what you know about your actions and choices. The difference is, this isn't fiction.

Third, the book will be a welcomed and awaited meal for anyone in the industry. It provides a plethora of new persuasion techniques for practitioners to work with - ones that are harder to detect and protect against. Fluffy clouds, irrelevant numbers, background music, sitting position, all may apparently be used as ways to influence us before we even realise someone is attempting to. This is whole different ball game. Cialdini even has a section warning against the unethical use of these techniques, which function at the subconscious level.

While this sounds like the road to 1984, I don't think we will need to call for security any time soon. This sequel hasn't quite lived up to its forerunner. One reason for the success of Influence was the simplicity in understanding and remembering the message: six universal principles. I don't think the same can be said about this book. The central message that attention is important, can be manipulated by simple cues in the environment, and has a momentous impact on behaviour, gets blurred in an amalgam of case studies and experiments, which sometimes seem to contradict each other. Cialdini argues for the importance of focal attention and provides us with tools to get it: sex, violence and novelty. Advertisers spend millions on it. Yet priming - slight changes in wording, colour, sounds or pictures - seems to 'work' without requiring focal attention. This complicates the message.

There has also been doubt about the robustness of some priming results among academics, due to failures in replicating the effects. I myself am a 'general believer' (in Daniel Kahneman's words) in priming effects, but believe that the questions about context are crucial. I was once giving a talk to exhibitors on the importance of 'primes', like colours, sounds, and numbers, when an audience member asked what colour he should use for his stall when selling his ice-cream brand. Here's the issue: I could have said 'blue' or 'red' and they would both be equally defensible (blue because it is congruent with cold ice-cream, and red because it is more likely to grab attention). And without context, I wouldn't be confident that either would have an effect. The problem with what Cialdini calls 'privileged moments' is knowing which cue works in which situations, and whether another competing cue (of all the potential hundreds or thousands) wouldn't be more dominant.

Godfather 3 wasn't as good as 1 or 2. But it did well. I similarly think that despite its imperfections, Pre-Suasion will be a big hit. Who isn't interested in improving their influencing skills (including persuading oneself)? It will certainly become the sequel that advertisers, publicists, fundraisers, marketers and politicians do buy. The only way one could really be disappointed is if one was expecting Godfather 2 rather than 3.

Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade by Robert Cialdini is published by Simon & Schuster, £18.99

Dr Gorkan Ahmetoglu is lecturer of business psychology at University College London

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