Mastering the Art of Pre-suasion with Robert Cialdini

“If I find myself being drawn toward a particular message, I ask myself what did that communicator do before I received the message?”

According to Robert Cialdini, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University and author of the bestseller Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, the factors that shape our decision-making often fly under the radar. In his newest book, Pre-Suasion, Cialdini explores the ways that framing, context, and even slight changes to the way we ask questions can noticeably affect behavior. Recently, he sat down with Heleo’s Editorial Director, Panio Gianopoulos, to discuss the principles of pre-suasion.

Panio Gianopoulos: I read Influence in grad school, and I remember there are six core principles that you presented—huge concepts. In your new book, Pre-Suasion, you introduce a seventh principle, but it’s very different from the other six.

Robert Cialdini: It is. It’s the principle of Unity, the idea that if we can arrange for people to see ourselves inside the boundaries of ‘we,’ what they constitute as their unit, their identity, then everything becomes easier in the influence process. People like us more. They believe us more. They want to cooperate with us more. They trust us more, and they’re willing to follow our recommendations.

Panio: Is this the sense of creating associations and similarities? You wrote, for example, how in one study women who were messaged by people who had similar birthdays were twice as likely to respond than to a random, anonymous request.

Robert: Yes. Anything that leads people to believe not just, “Panio is like us, Panio is of us, is of our group,” that opens the doors to subsequent receptivity to what you recommend, or propose, or request.

Panio: Can you give an example of that—something that people are used to but maybe don’t know that it’s happening?

Robert: Here’s one. Suppose you need somebody’s support for an initiative. You’ve got an idea. You develop the draft of the plan and give it to your boss, and you say, “I’d really love to get your opinion about this.” That’s a mistake.

When you ask for someone’s opinion, that individual takes a half-step back from you, and goes into his- or herself. There’s a separation.

If, instead, you change one word pre-suasively, and ask for advice—“Could you give me your advice on this?”—that person takes a half-step towards you. Advice leads to a perception of partnership, teamwork, collaborativeness. The research shows that individual will become more supportive of your idea before reading it because they’ve now seen themselves as in collaboration with you on this idea.

There’s an old saying, “When we ask for advice, we’re typically looking for an accomplice.” The new research says, “If we get that advice, we get that accomplice.” Advice—that’s the word to use when you’re asking your boss for support because what better partner to have than someone in charge?

Panio: It’s almost like a Jedi mind trick, this one little word. Since we’re talking about work: what do you do if you’re going into an interview and you want to come off well? Is there a certain word you shouldn’t use? Is there a word you should use? A bad opener, good opener?

Robert: Let’s say that you’re called into an interview. There’s an evaluator across the desk. Sometimes there are two or three, a little committee that’s rating the candidates. What we typically say to them is, “I’m very glad to be here. Thank you for inviting me. I want to answer all your questions.”

Here’s what I’m going to recommend that we say, in addition: “Before we begin, I wonder if you can answer a question for me. Why did you invite me to interview today? What was it about my qualifications that attracted you to my candidacy?”

What you’ll see is that they’ll go into your record, and they’ll start looking for the things that are positive, the things that link to the job, and then they will tell you what is the strength of your record for them. I have an acquaintance who claims that he’s gotten three straight better jobs by using this little pre-suasive strategy.

Put people in a positive mindset with regard to your qualifications by having them dive deeply into the record to find those positive things that motivated them to get you there. It’s entirely ethical. Those are things that are real. You just want them prominent in consciousness for your evaluators when they’re conducting the interview.

Panio: You mentioned the ethics of it—you have a chapter where you talk about not only why people should use these techniques ethically, but that there are negative consequences if they use this unethically.

“A lot of what happens pre-suasively goes on unconsciously in the people that we employ these tactics on, so we have to be very careful that we employ an ethical approach.”

Robert: Yes. It’s very important for me because a lot of what happens pre-suasively goes on unconsciously in the people that we employ these tactics on, so we have to be very careful that we employ an ethical approach. One thing that underlines the importance of that, and the wisdom of being scrupulously ethical, is the research on what happens in an organization that has a culture that allows or approves of an unethical use to influence.

What happens is those individuals in the organization that are uncomfortable with the deception, with the unethicality, want to leave. And they do leave. They find other jobs, and there are turnover costs that are enormously expensive that have to be paid. But more interestingly, when those people who are uncomfortable with deception leave, what remains is a group of people who are comfortable with cheating, with dishonesty, and they will cheat the organization. That’s what our research shows. These are the people who will pad their expense accounts, who will steal equipment from the company, who will work under-the-table deals with suppliers or for customers.

When you drive out those people who are uncomfortable with dishonesty, you leave yourself with a precipitate of people who are comfortable with it, and those individuals who lie for you will lie to you.

Panio: This is a small point, but an interesting one because we’re all online a lot—you have a surprising defense of the efficacy of banner ads. They’re generally discredited; people think they do nothing and are just annoyances. But somehow the fact that people tune them out makes them hugely effective.

Robert: Because people see them on the peripheries, and they’re not really processing them, they don’t counter-argue them. One of the things that we know from the research in persuasion and social influence is that when people think that somebody is trying to persuade them, they build a wall and start scrupulously analyzing that message.

If you don’t think that this is really affecting you, it’s off to the side, you’re hardly paying attention, you don’t counter-argue it, and it gets in under the radar.

Panio: How does it register? If I’m not noticing it, is it just an association I’m making? Honestly, I’m so used to ignoring them that I cannot recall a single banner ad.

Robert: Right, but they get in. For example, research showed that individuals who were shown banner ads as much as 20 times while they were reading a piece of content online then became more favorable to the ad product—even though they never remembered seeing the banner ad. The more often they were shown a banner ad, the more favorable they were to the product, so it wasn’t some sort of glitch. There was a clear calibration effect. The more they had access, under the radar, to those banner ads, the more favorable they were to the products, even though they never recognized that they were exposed to those products.

Panio: That’s incredible. It reminds me of another myth you debunked in the book, where you talk about how everyone says sex sells, so advertisers throw it in everywhere, but in fact only in certain products is that effective. Why exactly is that?

“Sex doesn’t sell sandwiches.”

Robert: Somebody rated the top 100 advertising campaigns of the last century, and only 8% of them had sex or sexual imagery associated with it. That doesn’t fit with the idea that sex sells.

The truth is it sells selectively. Sex sells only for those products or services in which people use that product or service in sexually related ways: lingerie, for example, or body scents. Then sex does sell because it puts you in a mindset associated with the goal.

Panio: So a Carl’s Jr. ad, where there’s a model eating a burger—that doesn’t work.

Robert: Sex doesn’t sell sandwiches. It just doesn’t, even though the advertisers don’t know that. It doesn’t, and there’s good research in this regard.

Panio: Why do you think they hold onto that then? They’re fun ads to make?

Robert: Yes. They can sell it to a client, but they don’t sell it to the populace, and I think one of the reasons is they don’t read the behavioral science. They use creative ideas, and creative people who can be very original, but they may not be great marketers.

Panio: You wrote about how new psycholinguistic analysis of language argues that the main function of language is not to express, but to influence. As a writer and editor, that’s a little horrifying to hear. I’m curious about the research behind that, and what the consequences are.

Robert: If you think about it evolutionarily, even the earliest form of language—it could be grunts—it was to call somebody to move in a particular direction, or to in some way shift an individual. The idea always was to get people to mobilize into action in some way. That’s what language does.

As a consequence, when we encounter a particular word or a phrase that has positive associations for a particular behavior, that word or phrase then leverages the likelihood that we will undertake that behavior.

Let’s take an example that also works with not just words, but images. Here’s a study I love. It was done in Belgium. Researchers brought subjects into an experimental room, and they showed them photographs with people standing in the background either by themselves, or two people standing apart, or two people standing together in a togetherness pose, what I would call a unity pose. They had three kinds of subjects, and then in all the cases the researchers stood up from the table and accidentally dropped a series of items onto the floor. The question was: who gets down on their knees, spontaneously, without being asked, and helps the researcher pick up these things?

Those who were shown pictures of individuals standing in the background together were three times more likely to get down on the floor and help pick up those items. Putting the concept of togetherness in their minds led to helpful cooperative behavior. Here’s the thing about that study that made me whistle under my breath when I read it. I had to read it three times to be sure that I read it correctly. The subjects in this experiment were 18-months-old. They were babies, hardly able to speak, to talk, unable yet to plan or reflect, or reason, but this effect is so primitive in us, it works so fundamentally, that when we see something high in our attention, we then behave in ways that are congruent with it. That’s in there at 18-months-old.

Panio: That’s incredible.

Robert: That’s how primitive it is.

Panio: Is it possible, knowing all this, to pre-suade yourself? Can you set up certain desirable conditions for work or creativity? It makes me think of those motivational posters you see on office walls. Does it have to be subliminal?

“In open, expansive places people think in open, expansive ways by virtue of the associations between those two concepts.”

Robert: It doesn’t have to be subliminal. You can do it to yourself. Let’s say you’ve encountered a problem. A noisy neighbor, how do you handle that guy? It has been resisting your attempts at solving this problem, and you want to think about it in a novel way. Here’s a pre-suasive thing you can do to increase the likelihood that you will come up with a creative new solution to this problem. Before you begin to think about it, go to a room with a high ceiling. In open, expansive places people think in open, expansive ways by virtue of the associations between those two concepts. There’s research that shows people think more creatively when they’re out-of-doors than indoors. It’s for the same reason. When you’re out-of-doors, there really aren’t any constraints around you. The sky is sky high, right?

Panio: That’s great advice. We are just riddled with these biases that are unknown to us. We use these heuristics, unaware of how vulnerable we are to them, but it can be kind of funny sometimes the things we fall for. In your research, is there anything that stood out for you as entertainingly absurd about human nature?

Robert: Here’s one that I love. The internet is the way that products and services are being marketed these days, and where is the first place we go when we want to purchase something? It’s a landing page.

There was a study done by a furniture store that specialized in sofas, and they wanted people to buy more comfortable sofas because they had a bigger profit margin associated with those than those sofas that you purchase on the basis of price. They sent half of their visitors to a landing page that had clouds in the background, and the other half to a landing page with pennies in the background. The pennies people rated cost as the most important thing for them in deciding what kind of furniture to purchase. They searched for price-related features and bought more inexpensive sofas.

What we put in somebody’s mind at the outset determines what they consider about the message we have yet to present to them, our options, what they should prioritize in their search, and which they should prefer.

When they were asked if they thought those pennies or those clouds had any impact on their decision, they laughed, “Of course not. I’m a freestanding entity. I make those decisions based on my own internal standards.” No.

Panio: What seems consistent is everyone thinks they’re not being influenced, and yet it’s going on nonstop.

Robert: It’s going on nonstop, and very often it flies under the radar. It’s in the background where we’re not counter-arguing against those images, those words, those settings in which we find ourselves being moved.

There’s a lovely study of how place makes a difference. There’s a study done in France. Researchers go to a shopping mall, and they have an attractive young man walk up to young women who are walking along past shops. He stops them, compliments them, and asks for their phone number so he can call them later for a date. When he passes a variety of shops, a shoe store, a clothing boutique, a pastry shop, his success rate is dismal, only about 13%. Even though he’s an attractive guy, it’s risky to give your phone number to some stranger, right?

Panio: Of course.

Robert: If he asks in front of one other kind of shop, his success rate doubles.

Panio: Can I guess which one?

Robert: Yes.

Panio: Maternity wear?

Robert: No—and it’s not Victoria’s Secret, either. It’s a flower shop. Because flowers are associated with romance, simply walking by a flower shop focused those young women on romance rather than risk, and they were more likely to decide that’s the important thing, and to follow through with their behavior.

The researchers did an interesting followup. They asked the young women, “Of all the shops that you’ve passed, which products in those shops do you like the most?” It wasn’t the flowers. It was the pastries. But the pastries didn’t get phone numbers. Flowers got phone numbers because romance is associated with flowers, not cheese danish, right?

Panio: Right.

Robert: That’s the key for a pre-suader. You have to identify the central element or goal of your message, and then go to the moment before that message, raise it to consciousness, and steer people to that fundamental element that you would like people to be paying most attention to. They will be sent there by what happened pre-suasively.

Panio: Now that you know all this, is there anything you do to protect yourself from undue influence?

Robert: Yes. If I find myself being drawn toward a particular message, I ask myself what did that communicator do before I received the message? What did they put in the moment before they delivered the product that would steer me in the direction that I might not want to go if I was an objective observer?

This conversation has been edited and condensed. The full video can be viewed below.