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Use the Principles of Influence to Spot When You’re Being Manipulated by a Scam

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There are many factors that influence what we choose to buy or do. Some of them we’re aware of, and some of them are subconscious. But people who understand what influences us can use tactics to manipulate us into making decisions. We might be persuaded in the moment, only to regret our actions later. By learning the principles of influence and the tactics people use to persuade us, we can get better at spotting when something or someone is trying to compel us to react.



See 7 Ways You are Being Influenced with Dr. Robert Cialdini for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Robert Cialdini is an author, a keynote speaker, and a leading expert on influence and persuasion. His books have been published in forty-four languages and sold over seven million copies, and he has been a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestseller. He also has a personal interest in learning about influence and persuasion.

A Personal Interest in the Principles of Influence

Robert is a self-described pushover. He has been a sucker and easily fallen for the appeals of salespeople and fundraisers coming to his door. He frequently found himself in possession of things he didn’t want or contributing to causes he knew nothing about. At one point, he thought, “There must be something besides the merits of the offer driving me to buy these things, because I don’t want these things. It must be how the offer is presented.” He realized there had to be other psychological factors that pushed him towards these choices. The idea was worth studying. And it wouldn’t just help him – other people would also be interested in knowing what factors encouraged others to say yes.

So Robert started systematically and scientifically studying the psychological factors that lead people to say “yes” to things. He spent about four years in the process. And for the first two and a half years, he went undercover. Disguising his identity and goals, Robert joined the training program of as many “influence professions” as he could. He answered ads for trainees and learned to sell portrait photography over the phone, sell insurance from an office, sell cars from a lot, and sell nutrition packages door-to-door. In addition, he infiltrated training programs and fundraisers to find out how they got people to say yes. He even studied recruiters and how they convinced people to move from a job where they’re doing well to an uncertain new job where they might not succeed. What did all these people say? What were they doing to influence people?

The Results of Robert’s Research

Robert was looking for commonalities. He wanted to find the principles of persuasion and social influence and how they were being used when the goal was to get people to say yes. It surprised him how small the footprint really was. Across all the training programs and influence professionals he experienced, he only counted six universal principles of influence. He wrote a book on the topic, covering one principle per chapter.

But Robert didn’t stop there. He kept researching. When revising the book into an updated version that released this year, he added a seventh principle and how it was used on the internet and digital platform. The updated version includes twenty additional pages, a lot of new research into the influence process, including how it functions, why people are susceptible, and how people harness it for profit. The seven principles of influence are not necessarily unethical, but they definitely can be used in unethical ways.

Principle #1: The Principle of Reciprocation

The first principle of influence is the principle of reciprocation. This principle exists in every human culture. We all teach our children that they are obligated to give back behavior given to them. If Robert gives you a birthday gift, you should give him one. If you do Robert a favor, he now owes you a favor.

Here’s something that’s true around the world: People say yes to those they owe.

Dr. Robert Cialdini

People using the principles of influence unethically first give us something designed to make us feel grateful and obligated, then ask for what they wanted all along. When Robert was first traveling to promote his book, members of the Hare Krishna religion would spend time in airports. They would walk up to people and give them a book or a flower, and refuse to take it back if the person declined. Then they would ask for a small donation to the good work of the society.

Robert could always see the tension in these people. They didn’t want the book or the flower, but they couldn’t give it back, so now they felt an obligation to give something to this person. Usually they gave a couple dollars to be free from the interaction and obligation. Most of them then through the book or flower into the first trash can they saw.

Defeating the Principle of Reciprocation

The Hare Krishnas in this story knew about the principle of reciprocation and that it was potent. So they used it to manipulate people. But that’s not a legitimate way to use the principles of influence. A true gift is given out of a desire to benefit others or to give something that someone else needs. It’s a form of benevolence, and those gifts shouldn’t be turned down. That’s the way we exchange in society – people give, people receive, and everyone gets something good.

But people trying to manipulate you aren’t giving you a genuine gift. They’re giving you something just to activate this principle of influence. They don’t care about what they give you. They just care that it makes you feel obligated to give to them as well. But it’s only when there’s genuine benefit provided from reasons that don’t involve self-interest that it’s truly a gift.

You are not obligated to give something to somebody who’s used a sales strategy on you.

Dr. Robert Cialdini

It’s natural to feel obligated when giving anything. But remember that you are not obligated to be reciprocal to someone using a strategy on you. Only genuine gifts deserve reciprocation. You are not obligated to reciprocate when someone gives you something in an attempt to manipulate you with principles of influence.

Principle #2: The Principle of Liking

People prefer to say yes to people they like and feel rapport with. This principle of influence surprises no one. You can probably easily spot it in your own life – it’s much harder to agree with someone we don’t like than someone we do. But we also tend to like people who like us, and people try to use this principle to manipulate us. Comedic actor McLean Stevenson from the TV show M.A.S.H. had a quote that his wife tricked him into marriage by saying she liked him.

We’re tremendous suckers for individuals who like us.

Dr. Robert Cialdini

People trying to use the principles of influence may claim to like you, praise you, and give you compliments. They claim an affinity for us without any real reason. Another way for people to get you to like them is to give you something – bringing the principle of reciprocation into the mix.

Imagine you go into a car dealership to buy a car. You meet a salesman, and the first thing he’s likely to do is offer you a soft drink, water, coffee, or tea. By beginning the interaction with a gift, he engages the rinciple of reciprocation and makes you like him more. He’ll complement you on your choice of cars you want to look at. He may even claim similarities with you, whether or not they really exist. If he sees golf balls in the back seat of your trade-in, he may start talking about how he hopes the weather holds so he can play his golf game tomorrow. Suddenly, you’re bonding over golf and you start to feel a strong rapport with this salesman.

Defeating the Principle of Liking

When you’re confronted with a salesperson and you start to like them, stop. That should be a red flag. If you like this person more than you should considering you just met them, they are probably using principles of influence to manipulate you. Step back from the situation and separate the salesperson from what they’re offering. In the end, it’s not the salesman who will be driving that car off the lot.

Focus on the merits of the exchange itself, not the merits of the person offering it to you. Would you buy this if the salesperson was someone you liked less? Would you buy it if there was no salesperson and you were just looking at it online? Whether or not the salesperson likes you or you like them is irrelevant. Focus on the product and the sale, not the person.

Principle #3: The Principle of Social Proof

This principle of influence is about looking at what others are doing. If a lot of people like us are doing, choosing, or favoring something, then it probably makes sense for us to do, choose, or favor that thing as well. After all, a lot of people have tested it for us and decided it’s good. This is where things like online ratings come into play.

Online ratings fall in one of the principles of influence: the principle of social proof.

With online ratings, though, you have to be extra careful. People can fake, buy, or fabricate positive reviews, or get employees to submit them. This happens all the time. We have to be aware of unethical approaches to social proof. When you see a lot of people like you choosing something, it’s a strong principle of influence. But only when we see the evidence is genuine and provided by an independent source should we let it factor into our decision.

However, once we’ve proved it’s genuine, we should let it influence us. There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by the principles of influence, as long as they’re not being used to manipulate you.

Defeating the Principle of Social Proof

Using social proof is a very popular strategy for both genuine and unethical people. A study done by McDonald’s found that most McDonald’s customers don’t buy dessert. They did an experiment and had the person taking the order ask a question. If the person said, “Would you like to order dessert today?” desert orders didn’t change much. But if they said, “Would you like to order dessert? Our most popular dessert at this location is the McFlurry,” then McFlurry orders went up 45%. If you give people genuine social proof, they’re more likely to think it’s something they might be interested in.

The trouble is that it’s very easy to fake social proof online today. Unethical sellers are working hard to use the principles of influence to manipulate you. Sites are developing algorithms to detect fake reviews, but writers are figuring out way to beat the algorithms. Amazon products sometimes ship with a card that says “Leave a 5-star review and send us proof and we’ll send you a $20 gift card” – they’re fixing the system. When you see things like that, be skeptical of anything they say about their products or services.

It’s always a fight. It’s always a tussle. We just have to be alert to the fact that not all of the [reviews] are on the up and up.

Dr. Robert Cialdini

Principle #4: The Principle of Authority

This principle of influence is similar to the principle of social proof, because you’re looking outside of yourself to make decisions. But with the principle of authority, instead of looking to what people around you are doing, you look to what experts have to say. It makes sense to follow the lead of knowledgeable others. This is another time where if the authority is genuine, being influenced by the principles of influence can be a good thing. But just like social proof, there can be fake experts.

People, when they’re uncertain, don’t look inside for an answer. … They look outside [to others].

Dr. Robert Cialdini

For example, you see people on TV advertisements wearing a white coat, holding a stethoscope, and claiming medical knowledge, but they’re just actors. Decades ago, there was an ad that started, “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV.” That ad sold a lot of cough syrup because people were swept up by the aura of authority, even though there was no actual authority underneath. People can easily be dressed as authorities and given fabricated titles. We have to check in with reality to make sure people who look like authorities actually are.

Defeating the Principle of Authority

This principle of influence isn’t a bad thing on its own, but it becomes troublesome when it’s faked. Whenever you see someone claiming authority recommending something, ask yourself two questions. First, ask if they are an expert in the topic at hand. Sometimes people using the principles of influence unethically find people who are an authority in one thing and have them promote something they know nothing about. Matthew McConaughey is an expert at acting, but does he really know anything about Chryslers? Joe Namath may be an expert at football, but is he really an expert in reverse mortgages?

You’ve got to separate the true credentials of the authority from the message.

Dr. Robert Cialdini

The second question to ask is even if this person is a legitimate authority, are they providing an unbiased review? There are “influencers” on the internet now with thousands of followers. They’ll tell you how to put on makeup, buy a car, or do whatever. But many of times they’re being paid by companies to promote the products. Whenever that’s the case, reduce your confidence in their recommendations – they have a financial incentive to convince you this thing is good.

Principle #5: The Principle of Commitment and Consistency

This principle of influence is based on the idea that if people make a commitment to something, even something small, they’re more willing to act consistently with that commitment in the future. This is often used by asking you to take a small step in a particular direction, such as signing a petition. Once you’ve signed, the salesperson asks for a small donation. They got you to go on record supporting this cause first, and that makes you more likely to donate afterwards. A study in Israel found that people who signed a petition for housing for the homeless were significantly more likely to give a donation a week later. Another study where people asked to put an index-card sign supporting safe driving in their window were significantly more likely to agree to put up a yard sign supporting the same thing a week later.

The pressure to be consistent with what we’ve already committed ourselves to, especially in public, can motivate us to do things we ordinarily wouldn’t want to do.

Dr. Robert Cialdini
The principle of commitment and consistency is a principle of influence that is very powerful.

Defeating the Principle of Commitment and Consistency

Be careful of the first small steps anyone asks you to take. No matter how small the step, it’s not without consequences. It might seem easy to sign a petition to get a person out of your face, but the principles of influence will engage and you’ll be more likely to follow through. It’s the same as the “foot in door” strategy of sales. A salesperson asks you to say “yes” to small steps along the way, and when they get to the big thing at the end, you’re much more likely to say “yes” to that as well. No matter how small the commitment asked of you, think about it carefully.

Principle #6: The Principle of Scarcity

People want more of things that they can have less of. You don’t have to know the principles of influence to understand this – just look at how expensive and desirable rare things are. Where this becomes a problem is when scarcity is falsified. Some organizations have “limited time only” sales, but the time frame is forever. They are just using the principle of scarcity to get us to react.

Booking.com is an online company that does hotel and airline bookings. They first started using the principles of influence, specifically the principle of scarcity, on th eir hotel room bookings. They gave people evidence of the price of the room and then said that there were only two left at that price. Then they started adding competition – there are only two rooms left at that price, and five people are looking at it right now. It produced such a spike in purchases that the sales division emailed the technology division asking why their sales numbers were wrong. By combining low inventory with competition, they tapped into the principle of scarcity and crushed their previous sales records.

Defeating the Principle of Scarcity

The principle of scarcity is one of the more difficult principles of influence to defeat because we often don’t know if something is genuinely scarce. Booking.com is a Dutch company, and these practices were investigated by the government of the Netherlands. The government found that they were legal, but shady – for example, there were only two rooms left at that price, but there were five rooms available at just a few dollars more. They were pushed to do it more transparently.

For us, we have to rely on people who do know the situation, who’ve blown the whistle, or who’ve had the experience and put in a report or rating. And always stop and think. Don’t let scarcity, whether fales or real, rush you into doing something before you’ve thought it through.

We need to do our homework. We need to be detectives of influence on this sort of thing.

Dr. Robert Cialdini

Principle #7: The Principle of Unity

This seventh principle of influence is new in the latest edition of Robert’s book. This principle is about the perception that the person communicating with you is a member of a group you use to define yourself. This can be a member of a particular political party or religion, a resident of a particular community, or anything you use to define yourself. When someone claims an identity like that, your subconscious recognizes them as someone similar, someone part of your in-group. And we are all more likely to favor someone who shares category membership.

The Principle of Unity in Action

Robert found himself falling for the principle of unity a while ago. He has always been a fan of the Green Bay Packers, Wisconsin’s NFL team. A while ago, he read a newspaper article listing the favorite NFL teams of various celebrities. He learned that Justin Timberlake and Lil Wayne were both avid Packers fans. Robert immediately thought better of their music and wanted them to be more successful. The principles of influence engaged, and Robert got a “they’re one of us” feeling about two people he’d never met.

You can also see this in corporations professing values they don’t actually have to get customers. You’re an environmentalist? So is our company, buy from us! Companies also get us to give our input on their next line of products. Whether or not they actually use the input, giving it creates a feeling of unity with the company and encourages customer loyalty.

When Robert was first learning to sell stuff, he sold fire alarm systems to homes. He went along with a salesperson who was one of the best. There was a big book of information about features and benefits that most salespeople tool along. This salesman left it in the car, and started by asking the homeowners to do a small test about fire safety. While they were doing the test, he would say he forgot something in the car and ask the homeowners if he could let himself out to get it while they did the test. Then he went and got the book. When Robert asked for an explanation, he explained: Who do you let in and out of your house? Only people you’re closely connected to. He wanted to be in that group in his customers’ minds, and it helped him score sales.

Defeating the Principle of Unity

Watch out for people claiming they’re one of us. Beware of anyone claiming membership in your tribe, especially if you mentioned you were in that group. If a salesman walks in and sees your Green Bay Packers paraphernalia, they now know your favorite sports team and can use that to leverage the principle of unity. Sometimes it’s even possible to look up your group son the internet.

To spot when people are using the principles of influence on you, it helps to know what your strong identities are. Affinity scams happen when people use membership in a group – Baptists, Catholics, Armenian Americans, Republicans, or any other group – to get inside your boundaries and gain your trust. By using these principles of influence to gain your trust and favor, they can cheat you out of even more than a stranger could. Know what groups you identify with. And when someone claims to also be a part of those groups, take a step back from the situation and think about it. It will help you identify when someone is using the principles of influence to manipulate you.

Learn more about Robert Cialdini, his online seminars about ethical influence, and his books on his website, influenceatwork.com.

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