“Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”

Robert B Cialdini

Another one from the book club at work! I think this is the one I’ve enjoyed least so far, frankly. It reminds me of some of the pop psychology books I’ve read, though somewhat better-researched—which makes sense, I suppose, given that Cialdini is a name you’ll see a lot if you’re looking through academic papers in this field. Where the book falls down for me, though, is that it feels like Cialdini hasn’t really considered some of the implications of his work as well as he should. Then again, I’m coming at that thought with the perspective of someone living in 2023, and the original version of this was published in, like, 1980something.

The key point where that thought coalesced for me was the chapter on authority. It’s a long discussion of the impact of authority on how we think about someone’s trustworthiness, but it somehow gets through that entire discussion without ever seeming to acknowledge the concept of a power differential. One of the key examples he cites is a study about how well people listen to someone telling them to stand in a slightly different place on the street. Some low percentage listen if it’s a random person asking that; a higher percentage listen if it’s someone in a security guard’s uniform asking. Which is, sure, something of a useful data point, but he just stops there. Do a follow-up study with different uniforms! Use something other than a security uniform—do people listen if they’re in a paramedic’s outfit? Scrubs? One of those airline pilot hats? Y’know, any uniform that doesn’t carry all the cultural baggage of “this is a person somewhat trained to and distinctly more likely to apply violence as a solution to their problems.” Is it really the uniform that made people listen, or is it the implicit threat of that specific uniform?

Similarly, people are apparently more cautious driving behind a luxury car than an “economy” model. Cialdini attributes that to the aura of authority inherent in the luxury car, but again, is it an “aura of authority,” or is it the background knowledge of who’s likely to be driving that? If you get in a fender-bender with someone driving an economy car, it’s one thing; someone driving a $200,000 Porsche, though, has the implicit weight of “they can afford a lawyer and I can’t.”

Beyond that, I feel like Cialdini didn’t do enough to dissuade people from misusing the techniques he discusses. There’s the apparent disgust with people using them as sales techniques, but it never feels like he truly considers them being used for anything worse. And, here in 2023, that feels… deeply naïve. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

Still, it’s an interesting overview of the psychology of persuasion, and I did appreciate that there’s a bit towards the end of each chapter discussing how to try to immunize yourself to the technique, so it may be useful. It’s worth skimming through, at least.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

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