Figuring out whether you’re under the influence


Have you ever been talked into buying something by a salesperson and immediately regretted it? Have you ever been in a situation where your intuition told you to act one way, but social behaviors made you act another? Have you ever found yourself agreeing to do or buy something simply because you liked the person asking?

These are all circumstances in which, although you appeared to make a particular choice of your own free will, you may have been acting under sneaky influential tactics.

Robert Cialdini examines and explains several of the influences of human behavior in “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.” In the book, Cialdini presents the guiding principles of compliant behavior and how we can take charge of our influences.

First, humans tend to behave in patterns that are comfortable; therefore, we can be predictable. If we do something once, we are likely to behave in that way again. Consistent behavioral patterns are even more significant when commitment to the action has been made.

Cialdini explains that “once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.” For example, even something as simple as signing a petition will influence you to later make a donation because, whether subconsciously or consciously, you want your words and actions to be consistent.

In addition to commitment and consistency, we also do not like being in any debt, no matter how small. If you have ever received a free gift in the mail, such as return address labels from a charity, you probably felt obligated to make a donation. This need to reciprocate is a basic principle of influence.

The rule of reciprocation is basic give and take: If you give something, you expect to get something in return. By virtue of the reciprocity rule, then, “we are obligated to the future repayment of favors, gifts, invitations, and the like,” writes Cialdini. We are easily influenced by things that we feel we ought to reciprocate.

Authority figures

Not surprisingly, a major factor of influence is other people. Known as social proof, this principle states that we ask information about how others behaved to help us determine proper conduct for ourselves.

Although this rule is generally reliable, sometimes the social proof can be misleading. “What is easy to forget,” explains Cialdini, “is that everybody else observing the event is likely to be looking for social evidence, too.”

Like social proof, he writes, we also look to authority figures to guide our behavior. There is “a deep-seated sense of duty to authority within us all.” Information we get from a recognized authority provides us with a shortcut for deciding how to act in a situation. This principle becomes ever more present if we like the person. Cialdini deems liking as “the friendly thief,” because the more we like someone, the more influence that person has over us.

Liking can also easily be attained with the right tools: respectable appearance, similarity between parties, generous compliments, overall familiarity and positive associations. These tools allow someone to manipulate our feelings of liking, and we therefore need to proceed with caution if we like that cheery salesperson all too quickly.

The final principle of influence is scarcity. When something appears to be scarce, it takes on a “special” quality to the beholder. The most straightforward use of the scarcity principle is the “limited number” tactic, in which “the customer is informed that a certain product is in short supply and cannot be guaranteed to last long.” As a rule, if something is rare or becoming rarer, its value increases, and we are more eager to obtain it by whatever means necessary.

Use of these tactics of influence creates an automatic response in us, so it is important to try to be aware of times when we might be a victim of manipulation. Technology in today’s world makes it much easier for these weapons of influence to fly under the radar because we are forced to process information much more quickly than in the past.

While “there is nothing inherently wrong with the shortcut approach of narrowed attention and automatic response to a particular piece of information,” writes Cialdini, not all shortcuts are reliable, and we must do our best to make our responses to likable, rare-gift-giving authority figures a little less automatic.

Steven F. St. Pierre is a CPA, and a financial advisor with LPL Financial in Manchester. He can be reached at 603-669-1999 or

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