I have started to reread Influence by Robert Cialdini, a seminal classic on the science of persuasion. These notes from Chapter 1: Weapons Of Influence are just for my recap and understanding.
What can ethology teach us?
Ethology – the study of animals in their natural habitat – has identified that many animals have “fixed-action patterns” usually activated by a simple trigger. For example, the maternal instincts of turkeys are activated primarily due to the “cheep-cheep” sound made by the young ones.
Before we smirk at animal behaviour, remember we also have simple triggers that unleash a sequence of actions or a ritual.
So what are our triggers?
Two important things about “fixed-action patterns”:
- It works very well for animals most of the time.
- Humans have these patterns and usually it works in our favour but there are manipulators on the prowl that may misuse these patterns against us to get their way.
“Because” Is A Powerful Word
Ellen Langer from Harvard conducted an experiment to test a well-known human behaviour which states that we will be more successful in obtaining favours from people if we provide a reason.
Scenario: Asking people for a favour to cut queue in a line of people waiting to use the copy machine in a library.
Request 1: Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush? (94% let her skip ahead of them)
Request 2: Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine? (60% let her skip ahead of them)
Request 3: Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’ve to make some copies? (93% let her skip ahead of them)
Notice that the 3rd request was kind of nonsensical but people complied just because she gave a reason.
Lesson: Don’t discard the power of the word “because” or the power of a reason. There are so many ways we can use it in our daily lives to get our requests fulfilled.
Stereotypes Are Powerful
We use stereotypes to guide our behaviour. Cialdini tells a story about how his friend was having trouble selling some torquoise jewellery so she instructed her salesperson to slash the price in half to get rid of the stock. Then she left for a trip. However, the salesperson doubled the price as the handwritten scrawled instructions were barely legible. Surprisingly, everything sold out.
The buyers who knew little about turquoise relied on the stereotype that “expensive = good.”
We rely on stereotypes because they usually work in our favour and save us from overwhelm because we live in a complex world where shortcuts are not just handy but essential. Sure stereotypes don’t work all the time but we accept that fact.
Another example of a stereotype in our daily lives is the “discount coupon” which obviously saves us money but what is not obvious is that it saves us time too. Time that we would have to invest in researching prices. However, research has shown that the rate of response for discount coupons is similar regardless of whether it actually provides savings or not.
Remember that we are quite vulnerable to individuals or corporations who know how to use the power of stereotypes against us.
Be Aware Of Our Vulnerability
Once again, research from ethologists show us that there are animals classified as “mimics” that copy the trigger features of other animals to trick them. For example, a small cleaner fish helps pick the teeth of a large grouper fish which results in satisfying the hunger of the small fish and the oral hygiene needs of the larger fish. The smaller fish performs a series of dance like moves which causes a trance like open mouthed reaction reaction from the bigger fish allowing the smaller fish to enter the bigger fish’s mouth without danger.
Enter the “mimic,” a razor toothed small fish called blenny which has learned the moves of the smaller fish and performs it for the bigger fish causing it to open its mouth wide in a passive manner. In an instant, the blenny will enter the bigger fish’s mouth and tear off a chunk of flesh then dart off before the bigger fish can even react.
Sadly, such mimics exist among us and they trigger certain behaviour from us by mainly using stereotypes for their gain.
The Contrast Principle
The exploiters of stereotypes and human perception principles do it so subtly that we don’t even feel manipulated.
A commonly exploited principle of human perception is the “contrast principle” that affects our judgment when two objects are presented one after the other. For example, if we lift a heavy object right after we lift a lighter object we tend to perceive it as heavier than it actually is. Another example is that if we see a beautiful woman followed by an average woman then we tend to percieve the second woman more unattractive than she actually is.
A fun experiment is when you take three pails of water: cold, room temperature and hot water then place one hand each in the cold and hot water. After a while, put both hands in the middle pail of room temperature water and each hand will feel a different sensation. The hand that was in the cold water perceives the room temperature water to be hot while the other hand that was in the hot water perceives the room temperature water to be cold.
How “Contrast Principle” Is Exploited
Retailers: Salespersons are trained to sell costly goods first. Doesn’t seem logical but here’s why? For example, if you sell someone a $500 suit then suggesting an add-on in the form of a $90 sweater does not seem extravagant. However, if you present the sweater first followed by the suit will make the suit seem more expensive.
Property Agents: Realty companies “maintain” a couple of run down places at inflated prices which they show to prospective customers before showing them places that they actually want to sell or rent. In this manner, the properties that the customers view later seems much more desirable.
Car Dealers: They will usually wait till the price of a car has been negotiated and agreed upon then start suggesting add-ons and accessories one by one. In the mind of the customer, the cost of the accessories does not feel like much compared to the price of the car until they get a rude shock when the final bill is calculated.
Be aware that individuals and companies are using the contrast principle actively against you.