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Advice Blog

How To Influence People (Part I)

1. Humans have an overpowering need to reciprocate favors. The rule of reciprocation states that we feel a duty to repay others in kind for whatever they have provided to us. This tendency forms the foundation of all societies, for it allowed our ancestors to share resources, safe in the knowledge that they would be reciprocated later.

If someone does us a favor and we do not return it, we feel a psychological burden. This is partially because, as a society, we are disdainful of those who do not reciprocate favors. We label them as moochers or ingrates, and fear being labeled as such ourselves.

Several experiments have shown that people are so keen to rid themselves of this burden of debt that they will perform much larger favors in return for small ones. For example, when a researcher, “Joe”, bought test subjects a ten-cent Coke as an unbidden favor and then later asked them to buy raffle tickets, on average they reciprocated by purchasing 50 cents’ worth of tickets. This was twice the amount compared to if no Coke was provided by Joe first. Obviously, the possibility for abuse exists here, because in the research situation all the truly free choices were Joe’s. He not only forced a debt onto the subjects by buying them a Coke, but also chose their method of reciprocation.

The Krishna organization used this tactic to great effect when they gifted flowers to passersby on the street. Though generally annoyed, people often made donations to the organization to satisfy their need to reciprocate the flower.

To fight back against attempts to take advantage of the rule of reciprocation, you cannot reject all favors, as you would rapidly become a cranky hermit. Instead, identify offers for what they fundamentally are, whether genuine favors or abusive manipulation tactics and only then reciprocate in kind.


2. Rejection-then-retreat is a devious tactic because it evokes reciprocation and the principle of contrast.

Just as we desire to pay back favors, so too do we feel obliged to match concessions in negotiations. If a boy scout first asks you to buy a five-dollar raffle ticket, but then retreats to requesting you only buy a one-dollar sweet, you are likely to buy the sweet to match his “concession,” whether you’re hungry or not.

This is known as the rejection-then-retreat strategy, and it is astonishingly powerful in gaining compliance. In addition to our desire to reciprocate concessions, it also evokes the contrast principle: when two items are presented to us one after the other, the difference of the second to the first is magnified. Thus, the sweet in the boy-scout example seems disproportionately cheap after the raffle ticket.

The rejection-then-retreat strategy has even brought down presidents, such as in the infamous Watergate scandal: In 1972, the re-election of President Richard Nixon seemed inevitable, yet somehow a man called G. Gordon Liddy managed to convince the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP) that they should give him 250,000 dollars to burglarize the offices of Democratic National Committee.

This was a preposterously risky undertaking, but Liddy used the rejection-then-retreat strategy: He started by suggesting a one-million-dollar scheme involving kidnapping, mugging, and prostitutes. Though his later second and third proposals were still scandalous and incredibly ill-conceived, the CRP felt they had to “give Liddy something” for his concessions from his first scheme. Also, compared to the initial outrageous one-million dollar proposal, the 250,000-dollar scheme involving “mere” burglary no longer sounded that bad. The resulting scandal, after the burglars were caught, eventually forced Nixon to resign.

3. People are easily swayed by authority but also by the mere symbols of authority.

Humans are trained from birth to obey proper authorities. We often do so even without thinking, as Stanley Milgram demonstrated: he found that volunteers would administer what they thought were potentially lethal electrical shocks to others simply because they were told to do so by an authority figure.

Or consider the nurse who got written instructions from a doctor to treat a person with an ache in his right ear: “Administer the medicine in R ear.” She proceeded to put the drops in the patient’s anus, and neither she nor the patient stopped to question how this would help his ear-ache. Authority negates independent thinking.

If we have no reliable evidence of another person’s authority, we use simple symbols to estimate it. Titles, for example, are very powerful devices. Faced with someone like a professor, we not only become automatically more respectful and accepting of their opinions, but we also tend to see them as physically taller!

Clothes and props are also powerful authority symbols. For example, in Milgram’s experiment, it was the authority figure’s white lab coat and clip board that convinced participants to "torture" their fellow test-subjects. Con-artists exploit the power of these symbols to their full extent by donning uniforms, suits and even priest’s robes if need be.

Authority figures like e.g. judges are often worth listening to, but how do we avoid people abusing our trust in them? Quite simply, we should ask ourselves two questions when confronted by an authority figure: First, is this person really an authority or merely masquerading as one? Second, how honest can we expect this authority to be in this situation? In other words, do they have their own interests at heart?

[To be continued]