There is perhaps no better demonstration for the separation of how we wish to act versus how we are subconsciously influenced to act than Robert Cialdini’s methods, discussed in his seminal 1984 book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.
Cialdini discussed six weapons of mass influence that underlie many of our actions and subtly persuade us in a certain direction. The book in general stemmed from his desire to understand the techniques of salespeople and how they were able to persuade people to act against their best interests and purchase things they didn’t need. In truth, these six weapons touch on fundamental human needs, desires, and predispositions and can be applied far more widely than just in advertising or sales.
For instance, if you want to convince a friend of yours to meet at a certain restaurant, you might say something like “There are 500 reviews and they are all amazing.” This is related to one of Cialdini’s six principles and it is something we do naturally, which further demonstrates how much of basic human psychology that he was able to identify and articulate.
His influence factors are listed below:
- Social proof
We’ll go through each of them individually, and you will begin to understand just how widespread they are and how big of an impact they have on you without your conscious awareness. It’s rare to see an advertisement that doesn’t invoke at least one of these six methods.
Social proof is taking a cue from other people to make our decisions. If we observe others leaning a certain way, then we will as well because “if so many people are doing it, they can’t be wrong,” even though they clearly can be. You can also think of this as the mob mentality at work. We feel safe following the lead of others—the more people involved, the safer we feel that we are making a wise decision, even one that we might regret skipping over. When we follow others, we are able to expend less brainpower and ultimately claim less accountability for our actions because we can just blame someone else. It’s just an easy way to outsource decision-making, especially if you tend to be indecisive or uncertain—you can just go the way of the majority.
This is why testimonials and reviews play such a heavy part in persuading someone to make a certain decision. Monkey see, monkey do. “Millions of people just like you agree!” Advertisers force you to open your wallet by proclaiming that their product has the consensus agreement, and in most cases, we will use that as a proxy for quality, value, and overall worth. Social proof causes money to be spent because, most of the time, we just want something that has a high chance of being good and a low chance of being bad. Our money goes where most people seem to spend it.
Liking takes something you’ve subconsciously known your whole life and makes it an official aspect of the psychology of buying. We are more easily persuaded and influenced by people we like, people we find attractive, people who appear to be more similar to us, and people who seem to like us in return.
We feel that they have our best interests at heart and that we can trust them more. Furthermore, if they are more similar to us, then we feel that they innately understand us and have the same worldview as us. You’d probably listen to someone from your remote, tiny high school more than someone who is from another country based solely on their perceived similarity and trust. We will buy more easily from people who we have a rapport with, which is why salesmen typically spend so much time nurturing relationships, buttering you up, and complimenting your ugly golf swing—they are in it for the long-term sale, which banks on likability.
A study conducted between business graduate students saw that when the students were told to negotiate as they normally would, there was a 55% chance of coming to an amicable agreement. However, students in a second group were told to exchange personal information with each other before commencing with the negotiation. The second group came to an agreement a whopping 90% of the time. That’s the power of likability.
In other words, some people can indeed charm us out of our money. This can be a spokesperson, saleswoman, or even mascot. The more likable, the more we want to give them our money.
Reciprocation takes advantage of the fact that when someone is nice to us, we immediately feel an emotional debt and the compulsion to pay them back. Of course, in this context, our payment back to them is a literal payment of money.
When someone does us a favor, it’s natural for us to seek ways that we can perform a favor for them. This is human nature. Thus, savvy salespeople will grant you favors and take advantage of the fact that you feel an emotional pull to reciprocate the act. If someone occasionally brings you free coffee, you’ll more than likely donate to their charity when the time comes. You’d feel bad if you didn’t—that’s emotional debt. If someone takes time out of their day for you and buys you a free lunch, you’re going to feel like an ingrate if you don’t let them pitch to you and sell to you afterward. You will feel a pull of debt or obligation, which is the sign that reciprocation is occurring—you don’t want to do or buy something, but you feel that you should or have to.
You might give a tip of X to a good server at a restaurant. But if this very same server included a gift of after-dinner mints just for you, it’s a good bet that you would tip more than X this time. When advertisements or salespeople appear to invest in us, it makes us feel that we should invest in them— whether we want to or not.
Scarcity fuels all things similar to “limited time offer” or “prices shoot up at midnight” or “act now because there are only three
left!” This is behind every purchase that you make “just in case” or “because you didn’t want to miss out.” There is a ticking time bomb hanging over your head, and you are pressured into making the safe choice, which is to buy.
Scarcity is when you are compelled to make a decision because something seems to have low availability; it really means that you are driven by your need to not miss out on something, rather than a need to actually possess something. Scarcity makes you reactive to a situation rather than proactive. We all have useless objects we don’t need because we felt that we needed to buy them before the price went up. We fear what will happen to us if we miss it; this is capitalizing on our imagination in the negative consequences (if you don’t buy this product), where most advertisements tend to focus on the positive benefits and the life that could be (if only you buy this product).
Authority figures are theoretically in their positions because they know best, so we should heed their words. We listen to those in authority, no matter how arbitrary the position is, and we don’t often question them. It’s just how we are programmed from childhood, and this hierarchy persists throughout our lives in work, politics, sports teams, and any type of organization. There is always a chain of command, and we heed those at the top—including those who tell us to buy!
This hearkens back to the Milgram Shock Experiment from an earlier chapter, where a man in a simple white lab coat and a clipboard commanded subjects with enough authority to make them believe that they had shocked a man to death. Whenever we see someone we perceive to be in authority, we disproportionately weigh the importance of their words because we assume that they know much better than we do. We give them the extreme benefit of the doubt, regardless of whether it is deserved or earned. We listen to them because we think they know better, and if we still make a mistake, we can say that we depended on an authority figure.
Obviously, then, advertisers will either find authority figures (“leading doctors and dentists endorse this product”) or paint themselves as one (“we are the world’s leading authority on snails”) to make you listen to their pitch for buying.
Commitment takes advantage of the fact that people like to be consistent with the things they have previously said or done. If you aren’t consistent with past actions or words, then you are seen as unreliable or dishonest. For example, you would feel compelled to give a donation to charity if you were first asked if you are a kind, charitable person.
Cialdini puts it in this way: “Once people make a decision, take a stand or perform an action, they will face an interpersonal pressure to behave in a consistent manner with what they have said or done previously.”
You can see that advertisers will capitalize by understanding what you think about yourself and then positioning themselves as the natural extension of that self- perception. For instance, “You did X so you’re this kind of person. Those kinds of people also buy my product!”
These six persuasion methods support the fact that we are driven by subconscious emotion more than we like to admit. Purchasing is not about the prices we are paying; it’s about the emotions that are evoked and eventually push us to purchase. A typical emotional decision happens extremely fast. Studies have quoted figures of around 0.1 seconds. This was necessary to activate your fight-or-flight instinct to simply keep you alive. It’s what creates the “hunches” or gut feelings we sometimes have.
However, most of us (and certainly you, if you’re reading this right now) don’t live in that kind of world any longer. As author Jonah Lehrer put it, “The human brain (the ‘rational’ brain) is like a computer operating system rushed to market with only 200,000 years of field testing… [It] has lots of design flaws and bugs. The emotional brain, however, has been exquisitely refined by evolution over the last several hundred million years. Its software code has been subjected to endless tests, so it can make fast decisions based on very little information.”
The logical, rational brain is relatively new and still doesn’t know what to look for to make sound decisions, but the emotional brain has had millions of years of information and experience to react to. Try as we might to be impartial or coldly calculating, it’s impossible to ignore the instincts that kept human beings alive. We buy out of emotion and instinct, not with a budget in mind.
The Monopoly Effect
First of all, what is gamification and how does it make you spend your money?
Gamification is when you apply the principles that make games addictive to non-gaming contexts. If you know what makes people feel compelled to stay up all night playing a game, you can translate those methods to make people similarly “addicted” to your product. For instance, gamification in a classroom setting would be handing out stars to children based on their accomplishments and allowing them to “level up” accordingly. This drives achievement because the kids want to keep leveling up, and the actual work itself is a part of that process.
In an office setting, you can motivate someone to work harder and make more money for the company as a byproduct of wanting to level up. For instance, let’s say that for each sale someone makes, they gain a point. If they accrue enough points, their title is upgraded from sales salmon to sales tuna, then sales shark, sales whale, and sales fisher.
The idea behind gamification is to make people care about these levels and, in the process, make them care about their sales numbers. Gamification makes you want to continue something, even when you don’t really want to do it. You see this all the time with points, badges of honor, loyalty programs, and prizes for those who move up in the ranks. Hint: it’s not about the points or badges at all—it’s about motivating people to perform the underlying action that gets them the points or badges.
What exactly does this have to do with buying psychology and sales?
It creates an extremely fertile ground for purchasing because it makes people forget about the money they are spending. Instead, it makes them focus on gaining points and gaining in general. Their reward system becomes completely rewired and turned backward because they actually feel they are being rewarded when they spend money, as opposed to feeling slight loss and regret at the expenditure of money. In order to keep advancing in levels, rewards, stages, or rankings, you must spend money—at some point, that achievement far overshadows the money spent.
Let’s take a famous example that has driven literally millions of dollars in revenue: the McDonald’s Monopoly game.
The McDonald’s Monopoly game is a gamification strategy where customers receive stickers every time they purchase something at McDonald’s. The stickers can be used in two ways. First, they could be used to complete a Monopoly board, and the more complete it was, the better chance you had to win a prize. Second, certain stickers by themselves bestowed rewards and gifts like free hamburgers and drinks. Right off the bat, there were two very strong motivations to spend money at McDonald’s versus going somewhere else—the draw of free food and bigger rewards down the line.
For many, it became an obsession to try to complete the Monopoly boards or get free prizes—all of which could be accomplished by simply spending more money at McDonald’s. The outcome McDonald’s desired was clearly to increase its revenue, and by making people focus on progressing in the Monopoly game, they distracted people from the fact that they were spending much more money to get something for free than the overall value of the free item. And of course, since the game 148 was basically like playing the lottery, McDonald’s got a whole lot more revenue from those seeking to fill out their Monopoly boards day after day.
An important aspect was how the two rewards of free food and the Monopoly boards were fundamentally different kinds of gamification. The free food was a short- term and immediate reward that kept people returning on a day-to-day basis, while the completion of the Monopoly board was a long-term reward that kept people returning on a yearly basis—it gave purpose to the entire venture, and the food made sure that you were satisfied in the meantime. Having both rewards was critical because together they addressed short-term boredom and long-term lack of positive reinforcement.
Because of the gamification strategy employed, people ignored the fact that they were spending a lot on fast food for very little tangible reward—the reward was advancing in the game itself. In 2010, McDonald’s increased its sales by 5.6% in 149 the United States solely by using this strategy. It’s similar to how games at a carnival can be so profitable. People will pay a sum to throw beanbags and knock down a pyramid of cans for a prize worth less than a dollar. But it’s not about the value of the prize; it’s about accomplishing the goal of knocking down the pyramid. That sweet feeling of advancement is a huge psychological reward. We anticipate it, then we feel it, and then we immediately seek more of it by striving to level up once more. It’s addicting. The viral mobile game Candy Crush was on virtually everyone’s phone in its heyday. It wasn’t a particularly engaging or even interesting game. The focus wasn’t on gameplay or even game design. The graphics were bright and vivid, just like every other similar game. The goal was similar to the goal of Tetris—fill in the gaps to complete rows of three, which would open up new lanes for you to create new rows of three. At first glance, it was a completely average game, but the genius 150 wasn’t in the game itself; it was in how it made itself an addictive hit.
Candy Crush was exceedingly easy—at first. It was simple to get through the first or so levels, and in doing so, people gained momentum and felt positive sentiments toward the game. No one likes a game that is too difficult or stumps you right in the beginning. That causes people to give up and is the opposite of engagement and encouragement. Candy Crush allowed people to get into the swing of things, feel good about their performance, and build up a reservoir of confidence about their skills. This encouraged feedback and endeared the game to people because, after all, we all like what we excel at.
As the levels began to grow more difficult and people’s confidence started to waver, players started to be able to unlock bonuses, boosts, and charms that allowed them to perform better and preserve their positive feelings about the game. These boosts and charms were free, at first, but players had to pay for them later in the game. People were 151 able to continue advancing and moving toward their goals while not feeling too discouraged about their prospects.
In order to keep the same good vibes and level of performance as before, money was becoming a requirement. As you might have guessed, the goal of the Candy Crush designers was to extract money from people’s wallets.
The more people played, the more they would inevitably spend on seemingly useless boosts and charms because they wanted to keep playing and advancing levels. They got people used to performing well, and eventually, it became virtually impossible to advance in the game unless players started shelling out money for additional boosts and charms. A crude analogy would be what drug dealers do with their clients—they offer the first taste for free to get them hooked on the feeling, and then the dealers start to have leverage because what they have to sell is suddenly in high, high demand.
If you are enjoying a game and suddenly you feel like you have hit a wall in terms of advancement and there is an option for you to buy your way through it, you will probably take it. In fact, you will probably jump at the opportunity—and that’s the essence of gamification. When you can make people spend money by distracting them from the fact that they are spending money, you’ll know you did a good job.
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- Brain Blunders: Uncover Everyday Illusions and Fallacies, Defeat Your Flawed Thinking Habits, And Think Smarter (Or Just Less Stupidly) By Peter Hollins
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