Monday, August 25, 2008

Book review: Robert B. Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

I started reading Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion after Tyler Cowen called it "one of [his] favorite social science books." I can see why: although some of Cialdini's points have become relatively commonplace since the book's initial publication in 1984, Influence still provides an engaging blend of social scientific scholarship, anecdotes of Cialdini's undercover ventures as a "compliance professional," and something like the self-help genre in Cialdini's advice on resisting each of the compliance techniques he describes under the headings reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity.

I'll supplement this main review post with some snapshot reactions to a few of Cialdini's points that prompted me to think of specific tangential issues. For now, two overarching thoughts:

First, this book provides a valuable counterpoint to works of behavioral psychology and economics that emphasize the internal biases that affect individual decision-making. Although those works sometimes address social factors and Cialdini sometimes touches on the classic behavioralist issues (loss aversion, endowment effects, etc.), Cialdini's focus on influence and compliance is still refreshing.

Second, the more practical side of Influence, especially the information that flows out of Cialdini's undercover work, raises issues akin to those of publicizing methods of picking door locks. Cialdini is handing out the keys to human consent. Cialdini's direct advice is almost entirely defensive--he tells the reader how to ward off the tools of compliance, not how to deploy them--but it is easy enough to imagine ways to gain influence. For one example, I am highly confident that the techniques Cialdini describes, carefully applied, could help professors positively influence students' evaluations of their courses--an extremely valuable skill. I leave the reader to consider the implications of that possibility.


softwareNerd said...

What I liked about "Influence" is the underlying message that human beings are basically rational, and the mistakes we make are things we can correct. (My review here.)

I'm not a social scientist, but I have always found that a certain type of experiment misses the point... something like this: the subject gets to choose between two similar items, not knowing anything about either except the price, and in a situation where he's not paying for it. The researcher has priced the poorer quality thing higher for some subjects and lower for others. The subjects predominantly pick the higher-priced item.

It seems to me that an experiment like that proves little. It definitely does not prove that human beings can be irrational, because that is to define rationality by single outcome rather than by principled process. For instance, suppose that maxim that "you get what you pay for" is true broadly and in principle. Suppose it is based on multiple actual experiences. In that case, the fact that it fails occassionally does not indicate that the choice was a poor one (in the face of ignorance), because it is the choice that comes out a winner over all. If it was the wrong choice, in principle, then it would not be supported by facts in the first place.

It seems to me that too many social scientists take perverse pleasure in laughing at the notion of rationality, rather than trying to explain that it actually works, and how we recognize exceptions and deal with them. So, Cialdinit's book impressed me as being of the correct tone.

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