influence sign            (Names have been changed to protect the innocent. And guilty.)

The illiteracy rate in this country is appalling. I have a ‘no soliciting’ sign by my front door, but it only stops about half the pedestrian sellers. (Lest you think I’m heartless, the sign makes a clear exception for Girl Scouts selling cookies!)

Last week, a guy knocked on the door to sell me a bottle or three of clean-everything cleaner. He made three mistakes that prevented him from selling me any: first, he ignored the sign; second, he ignored me when I said I was familiar with the product and proceeded to demonstrate it anyway; third, he misused the six forms of influence to try to persuade me.

The six forms of influence, as famously outlined by Bob Cialdini, are reciprocation, social proof, commitment and consistency, liking, authority, and scarcity. I see these increasingly misused by people who don’t understand them. Here’s my encounter with Sam Salesguy so you can see how it went wrong:

The first tactic was a combination of social proof and commitment and consistency. No joke, the first words out of his mouth were “I was just across the street talking to your neighbor Fred, and he told me you like black people.”

I’ve never heard such a weird opener in my life! The fact that Sam was black made it more weird. I looked across the street to see my neighbor Fred standing in his driveway. When he realized I was looking, he laughed. Jerk. Fred has no way of knowing how I might feel about any particular group of people (except Girl Scouts selling cookies) because most of our conversations are about things like borrowing my ladder or how the boys feel about their sister. You know, neighbor stuff.

So if Sam was relying on the social” proof” of my neighbor’s supposed testimony in order for me to behave consistently with my liking of black people, he failed. It’s not that I don’t. I don’t use color to determine who I like or dislike. I think the statement was supposed to be a joke, which would – in theory – have supported liking. But it fell flat, so he failed there, too.

Social proof, commitment and consistency, liking. Strike one, strike two, strike three. Oh, but he kept playing.

He asked if I’d ever seen his wonder cleaner before (ignoring me when I said yes) and told me the Surgeon General herself just declared the product safe around kids and pets (an appeal to authority). Maybe she did, before she resigned last year. Strike four.

He tried reciprocation. He wasn’t supposed to take checks, but if I didn’t have cash handy, he’d do me a favor and make an exception, if I’d just agree to buy two bottles. (At $20 each.) Even if I was interested, I don’t use checks, so I don’t have checks. Strike five.

The last ditch effort was telling me he was down to the four bottles he was carrying and he didn’t think I’d have another chance to get any at such a great price, possibly for months. Well, I’m forced to take my chances because – as I told him, I’m familiar with the product. I have a bottle, and the stuff lasts forever. Scarcity isn’t a concern. Strike six, and he was done.

What happened to keeping it simple?
What happened to keeping it simple?

There’s nothing wrong with using these tactics to enhance influence and persuasion. But not all in the space of two minutes, and not so clumsily.

If you’re unfamiliar with Cialdini’s work, it’s summed up here on PsychCentral rather nicely. Back in the day, he offered a social psychology course to undergrads, which was one of the best classes I ever had. And it’s partly responsible for my career choice. But I digress.

If you’d like to talk about what Sam did wrong, how it could have been better, or how to use these concepts – effectively – on your own, please leave your comments! If you have a question you’d like me to address, let me know that, too! And don’t forget to share!

– Adina


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