Advice Blog

How To Influence People (Part II)

1. When uncertain, we look for social proof.

The principle of social proof states that we often determine what to do by looking at what others are doing.

This tendency is used to manipulate us, for example, when TV shows use artificial laughter to make jokes seem funnier, or when church ushers “salt” collection baskets with a few bills before the service to make it seem like everyone is making donations.

Social proof is especially strong when uncertainty reigns, which was unfortunately the case when a young woman, Kitty Genovese, was stabbed to death outside her apartment building in New York in 1964. The truly shocking aspect was that the attack lasted over half an hour, with 38 people watching and listening from their apartments, but no-one intervened or even bothered to call the police.

This so-called bystander inaction was mostly due to two factors. First, when many people are involved, it diminishes the personal responsibility felt by each participant. Second, an urban environment contains a lot of uncertainty: unknown things and unknown people abound. When people are uncertain, they look to see what others are doing. In the Genovese case, people were trying to inconspicuously peep out of their windows, which seemed to indicate to others that inaction was the right approach.

Considering these facts, if you find yourself in an emergency amid a crowd, you should single out an individual from the group and direct a clear help request at him. This way, the person won’t need to look for guidance from the others and will almost certainly help.

2. When opportunities become scarce, we desire them more.

A powerful influence in our decision-making is scarcity: opportunities are seen as more valuable if their availability is limited. This seems to be caused by the fact that people hate losing opportunities, which is well-known by advertisers, e.g. “For a limited time only!” “Last chance!” “Sale ends in two days!”

A study showed that when participants were told of a limited-time sale on meat, they bought three times more than if there was no time limit. Interestingly, this effect was compounded when people were told that only a select few knew about the sale. The scarcity of both the offer and the information itself made shoppers buy six times more meat than customers unaware of the time limit!

Scarcity becomes a powerful influence under two conditions: First, we tend to want something more if its availability has decreased recently rather than if it has been low all along. This is why revolutions tend to happen when living conditions deteriorate sharply rather than when they are consistently low. The sudden drop increases people’s desire for something better, so they take action.

Second, competition always sets our hearts racing. Whether in auctions, romances or real-estate deals, the thought of losing something to a rival often turns us from reluctant to overzealous. This is why, for example, real estate agents often mention to buyers that several other bidders are also interested in a given house, whether true or not.

To counter the eagerness that arises from scarcity, we should always consider whether we want the item in question because of its use to us (e.g. its taste or function), or merely because of an irrational wish to possess it. When scarcity is being used against us, the answer will often be the latter.

3. We are near-obsessed with being and appearing consistent in our words and actions.

When people on a beach witnessed a staged theft of a radio from a neighboring towel, only 20% reacted; but if the owner of the towel first asked people to “please watch my things,” 95% of them became near-vigilantes, chasing down the thief and forcefully grabbing back the radio. Their desire to be consistent with what they had said even trumped their concern for personal safety.

But what dictates consistency? The answer is simple: commitment. Research shows that once we commit to something with words or actions, we wish to be consistent with it; and public commitment is the most powerful driver of all. A juror in a court of law, for example, is very unlikely to change her opinion once she has openly stated it.

We even modify our own self-image to be consistent with our earlier actions.

For example, Chinese interrogators got American prisoners to collaborate after the Korean War by asking them to make very small concessions such as writing and signing innocuous statements like “America is not perfect.” When these statements were read across the prison camp, the prisoner was often labeled a “collaborator” by his compatriots.

Astonishingly, the prisoner then started to see himself as a collaborator as well, consequently becoming more helpful to the Chinese. He effectively adjusted his self-image to be consistent with what he had done. Having the commitment in writing was also an important element in this process: there is something inescapably powerful in written words signed by oneself.

This widely known “foot in the door” technique takes advantage of how even small commitments affect our self-image and is very popular with salesmen who frequently secure large purchases by getting customers to first make small commitments that change their self-image before a larger deal is offered.

Among the points in Part I & Part II, which one are you most likely to use right away?