I Don’t Want It, Need It or Like It, But Now You’ve Put it Like That, I’ll Buy One

Or to be more specific, I don’t want it, need it or like it but because:

  1. I like you;
  2. you have already given me something;    
  3. lots of people I know have already bought it; and,
  4. I have already said that I think something about it is good….

 …I am going to buy it.

But why?  Why would I decide to buy something on the basis of these reasons since they don’t seem connected to the value or use I might get from the product?  

The answer seems to be, unfortunately, because I am human.

Of course, we all like to think of ourselves as rational decision makers.  If asked about how we come to our decisions to buy a specific thing, the reasons we will offer are most likely to be about an understanding of our needs and how the specific features of the product or service will meet those needs. 

 We largely believe that when we make a decision to buy, we base our choice on a rational and informed evaluation of the product, often in considered comparison to the alternatives we could have chosen.  Happily, that tends to mean that we come away from purchases pleased with our selection. 

However, evidence suggests that in reality there are other reasons, less rational and less acknowledged, which explain our purchasing decisions and whilst they are not always obvious to us, large organisations are selling us things in full knowledge of what they are. 

The 4 reasons listed at the beginning of this article are included in the 6 “weapons of influence” described by psychology Professor Robert Cialdini in his best-selling book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”.  But they are almost certainly not those we would list if asked, for example, why we signed up on the doorstep to be a regular donor to a worthy international charity (more about this later). 

Nevertheless, these principles are now so well-known to anyone who wants to sell something, that even door-step fundraisers are deftly building their entire sales pitch around them. 

Now I know that many people wince when writers use “we” in reference to a description of a pattern of  irrational or self-destructive  behaviour.  It often seems that it is used only as a patronising device designed to reduce disagreement with the premise forwarded.  In other words, the writer uses the word “we” but by virtue of being the “expert” who is writing about the subject she is clearly exempted from the silly behaviour described. 

Obviously quite galling.  So, to reassure you that when I say we tend to rationalise decisions based on less than rational influences, I really do mean we, let me give you an example I personally was involved in.  But first let me summarise the full 6 weapons, or as they are more palatably referred to, principles, so that with the benefit of hindsight we can examine together an example of the slick application of these principles in real life.

The 6 principles of influence are as follows:

Liking:  we are more influenced by people we like.

Reciprocity : we are motivated to give something to someone who has already given us something.

Social proof : we feel better if we are doing what other people do and like – another way of thinking about this we infer that if everyone else is doing something, there must be very good reasons to do it.

Consistency: we like to demonstrate that our behaviour and attitudes are consistent, so if we have already committed ourselves to something in some way, we are inclined to keep our behaviour and attitudes in line with it.

Scarcity:  the less available something is to us, the more we tend to want it.

Authority ; we look for guidance on our decisions from those who appear to be more knowledgeable than us.

As each one of these principles in action increases the chances that we will agree to something suggested in these circumstances, I guess it is not surprising to see two or more of these being used together by organisations who are serious about trying to sell us something.  And I experienced a textbook example of someone using these techniques with me.

 Here is what happened, up to the point that I signed on the dotted line.

Last week I opened the front door to 2 informally dressed, smiling young women with Red Cross (RC) tabards on, and I know what is coming, or I think I do.

RC woman 1:  Hallo!  I wasn’t sure if you were in or not.  Oh!  I really like that top you are wearing.  My cousin has one just like it – where did you get it?

Me : (taken aback) : Oh! Er, thanks, well, I think I got it from a catalogue.

RC woman 1 : It’s really unusual – I like the.. (leans forward)….oh, they are little birds on there aren’t they?

Me : Um, yes they are.

RC woman 1 : My cousin has the same top – I wondered where she got it.  She must have got it from the same catalogue as you.

Me : Yes I guess so.

RC woman 1:  Oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t go on about it, I was just surprised to see it again.

Me :  Well, that’s Ok, no worries.

RC woman 1:  Well, we are just here in the area for the Red Cross today.  (Laughs) Oh well, you can probably see that by these (points to tabards), can’t you!

Me:  (Smiling) Well, yes, I thought you probably were…..

RC woman 1:   I am sure you have already seen the pictures of what we do on the news.    Most people know about our work overseas because of seeing it on the news, like with the famine victims in East Africa.  We are all shocked at the suffering there at the moment….. ……

Me : Oh yes, of course..  It’s terrible.

RC woman 1:  …but you might not know as much about what our volunteers do here in the UK such as supporting the firefighters tackling the recent forest fires we had in Oxfordshire, or providing transport for isolated house-bound people to get to medical appointments or day centres.

Me:  Yes, I have, it’s good….

RC woman 1:   Well we’ve been talking to people in your street today and lots of your neighbours have been signing up to support us by contributing to a donation scheme we are running where you make a small monthly donation, maybe the price of a cup of coffee or two, and this helps us be much more effective in the work we can do as it gives us regular funds that we know we can commit to delivering our essential services.  Do you think perhaps that is a way you might be able to help us?

Me:  Erm, well, maybe, I guess – what would I need to do?

And so then I signed up. 

My memory of the discussion gets less clear at this point, probably because I stopped being engaged on two levels – that of participant and observer, – and then had to focus on the participating role.  

But up to this point, here’s how it worked from the perspective of Cialdini’s 6 principles of influence, plus quite a few other aspects of interpersonal behaviour thrown in for good measure that psychological research suggests also help to influence people.

The internal, and probably largely unconscious, narrative in relation to the interaction goes as follows.

1.    The first utterance from the fund-raisers was a remark that displayed a small degree of uncertainty along with setting the tone for the chatty conversation they wanted to have: “Hallo.  Oh I wasn’t sure if you were in or not!”  Perhaps her uncertainty was intended to engage an instinctive motivation in me to help and reassure someone who is less strong and sure than oneself.  Or maybe it was just to redress the inbalance of being disturbed at my home by strangers who outnumbered me and whose intentions I had no prior knowledge of, by establishing their own relative lack of confidence in the situation thereby reducing any instant defensiveness in me.  Either way, nifty move to minimise counter-productive defensiveness in the householder.

2.  After the first few seconds – first impressions count – it seemed to me that these strangers were not at all intimidating and were eminently LIKEABLE – smiling, informal and jovial throughout.  They also stood at some distance from me during our conversation.  That is, they kept a “safe” distance away from me in terms of personal space – an appropriate distance for friendly strangers – thus not engaging any reflexive defensive cognitions and behaviour in me.  Another smart move:  so many door-knockers stand much too close and I immediately want to close the door to them and retreat into safety. 

3.  At the offing, they paid me a compliment.  In effect, they gave me something, engaging the principle of RECIPROCITY.  Now the scene was set for me to give something back: buying something from them perhaps…..

4.  The compliment was backed up by detail and evidence – both of which were likely to make me feel that this was a sincere compliment.  More than that, someone one of the women is related to, is similar to me, since she has the same great taste as I do.  And her cousin (who I am “chatting” with) thinks I have good taste too.  At a sub-conscious level it is starting to feel like a small world we three are in and probably we must almost  be friends.  In that case. this woman probably has other opinions and ideas that I will like too…..

5.  Then an apology – “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t go on about it..” perhaps building rapport between us and my empathy for her, by encouraging me to explicitly forgive her.  Now I may be more inclined to feel positively about what she is asking.  She has displayed her human fallibility and I have acknowledged her flaws.  Perhaps this takes it too far, but it occurs to me that there is a similarity between this utterance and animal behaviour designed to elicit specific, friendly and socially supportive behaviour from a more dominant animal.  For example, it is similar to a less dominant dog crouching down lower in the presence of a more dominant, stronger dog – at which the “Fixed Action Pattern” kicks in and the dominant animal is most likely to indicate that they will not aggress the smaller animal.  In the human exchange, the Red Cross fund-raiser declares her flaws, implies I am dominant (my comfort levels in the interaction raise another notch and I can grant them with my attention with more confidence) and induces a declaration of acceptance from me.  What is more, yet again, on an emotional level I am effectively giving her something – forgiveness – and there is a well-established experimental effect that we are more likely to give something larger to someone to whom we have already given something small.

6.  Next comes SOCIAL PROOF, strengthened by social networks and familiarity.  “We have been calling at houses in your street today talking to people and lots of your neighbours have been agreeing to support us by signing up for a donation scheme”.   The Red Cross fund-raisers are talking here about people I probably know, am possibly on good occasional terms with and certainly share some experience with.  So, they say, lots of people are signing up for this scheme.  This could mean that most of my neighbours are doing this.  Perhaps the idea has merit for someone like me, since these are people I know and whom I share a street with.   By virtue of them being my neighbours – a carefully chosen word – I am likely to feel a degree of affiliation with these people who are all acting in a particular way.  Maybe it would be a good idea for me to, too.  After all it’s a small sacrifice (“price of a cup of coffee or two”) for a significant gain (“much more effective …essential services”).

7.   Then the issue of CONSISTENCY.  Now I am being asked for something specific, I need to make sure I am acting consistently and as I have already expressed an appreciation of the work of the Red Cross, (“Oh yes of course.  It’s terrible”  and “Yes, I have, it’s good”)  unless I have a really good reason why not, it now requires behaviour that would be clearly inconsistent with this belief, if I were to refuse this opportunity to support such a good cause.  How would that make me feel about myself?  And what will these people, and more importantly all my neighbours, think about me if I choose not to sign up right now.

8.  And finally, on reflection, I realise that it was just one of the two women talking to me for the entire exchange.  The strength of any relationship we were building up was not then diluted by having to build up two relationships and learn to like to two people.  The goal could be achieved in the minimum time – good for them, and good for me too, being in the middle of a busy day when the doorbell rang.  Two minutes of an extremely sophisticated and streamlined approach to influencing me.

And they barely touched on the other 2 principles of Authority and Scarcity. 

No need.

It’s a bit exhausting reading between these lines – there was so much going on in such a short space of time.  That is part of the power since it is fundamental to the effectiveness of these influences that they don’t alert us to their use and the effects take hold in the pace and flow of natural discourse whilst we are focused on other aspects of our experience. 

Because of this, we can be influenced in ways that we do not recognise and we post-rationalise our decisions to support our view of ourselves as careful and informed, rational decision makers.    And that’s why I always, but always, buy a large portion of the cheese that the friendly man at the delicatessen has let me try…….

In this case, I remember the details of the conversation and became aware of the sub-text only because when the fund-raisers knocked on the door, I happened to  be in the middle of reflecting on the psychological underpinnings of influence, so I was primed to notice it.  Nonetheless, analysing the conversation afterwards, I realise that it was even richer in influencing techniques than I was aware of at the time.  Regrettably, this also forces me to see my apparently spontaneous generosity and compassion in a somewhat different light – less of a rosy glow for my self-concept perhaps……

But on another day, when I had been thinking about other things, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the techniques underlying the conversation with the nice Red Cross people on the doorstep.  And I probably would have put down my signing up to a donation scheme as being because of a timely suggestion of an effective way in which I could express my natural concern to help those in distress. 

Which is how, at some time in the future, thanks to fading memories and my need for cognitive consonance and a positive self-concept, I shall probably recall the event.

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2 Comments to “I Don’t Want It, Need It or Like It, But Now You’ve Put it Like That, I’ll Buy One”

  1. Great article and a marvellous example of how invisible connections are made between people. I would be interested to know your views on how these type of physical connections can be reproduced in our new digital age. Where less physical interactions are taking place and more people are using the net to purchase items? How do they connect? What are they connecting with? The brand? Do we require the The 6 principles of influence to be in a prioritised order?

  2. Hi Russell –thank you for your comments and insightful questions.

    As you indicate, since digital communication still depends on at least two people – one at each end of the interaction, however mediated – I don’t doubt that the emotional and unconscious responses are still very pertinent to the outcomes. That would mean that psychological perspectives on interaction like Cialdini’s are just as powerful, albeit overlaid with new cognitions and emotions about technology and a more public interaction sphere. You raise an intriguing question about relative weight too: perhaps some of his principles are becoming more influential in our increasingly connected, information-dense era, for example, arguably, social proof and authority are now much more evident and accessible than ever before.

    That said, my personal experiences, both as a customer and a psychologist, suggest that there is not as much consideration of how to understand these factors across new social media interactions as there has been via direct contact media such as the telephone and in stores.

    Of course there are exceptions but it may be that many organizations are still grappling with the facts of how and where to establish a media presence and developing ways to meet new expectations about speed of response, rather than exploring the more sophisticated considerations of what kind of relationships they can build in these new customer experience environments.

    If an organization is already truly customer-centric, transferring its principles and techniques of customer interaction should be organic and appear naturally within its digital communication processes. In reality, it will take some thinking about. Involving customers in exploring what kind of experiences they want with the organization, alongside ensuring that employees are engaged and confident in using social media communication will both be key to success I am sure.

    As a customer, alongside my emotional response to the brand, I react to the content, tone, flexibility and speed of response to my concerns, just as I would when talking to a real person, although my expectations regarding response speed etc, may differ somewhat. There is definitely a need for greater understanding about how our responses are influenced by the variety of communication media we can choose from. There is probably a lot more to understand about what kinds of people choose to use which kinds of contact methods too.

    I am conscious that I am not answering your questions but rather raising more: my apologies! Whilst there are many examples of people who create warm, engaging and influential relationships on social media, I do think we are only at the beginning of developing a sound evidence-based knowledge base around the principles of human relationships within social media environments. Nevertheless, I suspect that any organization that fully appreciates the psychology of how we interact with each other on a face-to-face basis, will also have much of the information needed to develop digital relationships that are as successful as its more personal ones.

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