The Science of Persuasion

I am a coffee enthusiast and my old Italian espresso machine at home have had few mechanical issues in the past couple of weeks.  Over the weekend, we were at a nearby mall and I was strolling with my 18 months old son in the hallways of the mall. A big sign outside Williams-Sonoma (kitchen ware store) that read ‘Limited Time Only – Huge Sale’ caught my attention and through the large glass window I could see lines of well-arranged espresso machines. This definitely made me to walk into the store and see what’s up for sale.

Inside the store, I was greeted by a sweet spoken middle-aged woman who was wearing an apron and she gleefully engaged my son sitting in the stroller for couple of minutes. Later she introduced herself (let’s call her Lynda to protect identity) and told me of her nephew who is of the same age as my son and asked me what brings me into the store. I mentioned that I was window shopping, that I love espresso coffee and am planning on buying a new espresso machine. Lynda said “We take pride in making the best espresso machines in the world that consistently creates a very high quality crema”. Lynda sounded very knowledgeable about the finer aspects of making coffee and talked about her expertise and 10 years’ experience as a barista. She asked “would you like to try some of our best line-up of coffee we are offering here for a limited time?” which was very very hard for me to resist. Lynda made me sample three different types of coffee and explained every minute detail of each type. Finally she mentioned the company was offering a limited time 25% discount on the machine and free supply of coffee pods worth $100 on top of it. Lynda said directing to a customer at the cash counter “the gentleman you see over there just bought 3 of these machines… these are selling out like hot cake today”.  With all these conversations and sampling going on, my son was getting jittery and when Lynda was making her final sales pitch, my son had lost all his patience and I was forced to get him out of the store to calm him down. I thanked Lynda for the coffee and offered to come back later to consider buying the machine.

As I was walking out, I was reminded of Robert Cialdini and his ground breaking research on “The Science of Persuasion”.  I learnt about this topic while taking a course on Social Psychology by Scott Plous and also Charlie Munger writes about this research in his book Poor Charlie’s Almanack. Impressed by research, Charlie Munger gifted Robert Cialdini Class A share of Berkshire Hathaway ($220,400 per share value today)

Robert Cialdini argues that people do not take into consideration all the relevant information before making a decision. Given the overload of information, people use shortcuts or rules of thumb to make decisions. He explains –

“We can’t be expected to recognize and analyze all the aspects in each person, event and situation we encounter in any one day. Instead, we must use our stereotypes, our rules of thumb, to classify things according to a few key features and then to respond without thinking when one or another of these trigger features is present.”

Cialdini identified six rules that people follow in making decisions. Lets see how these six rules were at play in the coffee sampling scenario mentioned above.

  1. Reciprocity – People tend to return a favor. We appreciate unexpected gifts, favors and receiving things in-kind and feel uncomfortable or indebted if the favor is not returned.

Lynda offering me samples of coffee and giving me attention at the exclusion of all other customers naturally made me feel obligated to repay the favor.

Other day-to-day examples – Corporate gifts reciprocated in increased business, holiday gifts to employees reciprocated by increased productivity, free food / product samples  reciprocated by purchases, etc.

  1. Scarcity – When something is scarce, people automatically perceive it to be more valuable. The more rare and uncommon a thing, the more people want it. Scarcity triggers a feeling of potential loss and forces one to act on the offer.

‘Limited Time Only’ banner and Lynda mentioning “limited time 25% discount on coffee machines” is how a perception of scarcity is created. Obviously not able to save 25% on the coffee machine and $100 on free coffee pods triggered a sense of loss and clearly influenced me to seriously consider buying the machine.

Other day-to-day examples – Black Friday Deals, attention seeking from boss or skip boss who are difficult to reach, auctions, limited time offers / sale, etc.

  1. Authority – People will follow credible knowledgeable experts and people with presumed authority.

Lynda wearing an apron and mentioning her expertise and 10 years’ experience as a barista clearly established her as an authority in that field and everything she said sounded very logical backed by deep experience.

Other day-to-day examples – Professionals displaying certificates in their office, uniform, professional dress code, business titles establish power / pecking order, online expert opinions relied on for making decisions, etc.

  1. Consistency – People like to be consistent with things they have previously said or done and stay committed to their positions.

This is one thing Lynda did not get me to commit. Had the sales person asked me before starting the demo “if you like our machine and our coffee, would you be interested to buy  today at an all-time low price?”, I would have definitely said yes and that would have locked me into the consistency rule.

Other day-to-day examples – Car sales person getting a signature on a piece of paper for a negotiated offer, employee documenting commitments as a HR process, employees signing moral code of conduct influences ethical behavior, etc.

  1. Liking : People prefer to say ‘Yes’ to those they like. There are 3 important factors a) we like people who are similar to us b) we like people who pay us compliments and c) we like people who cooperate with us.

Lynda engaging my son and introducing herself and connecting with me at a personal level, talking to me about her nephew who is of the same age as my son quickly established a rapport that made me to like her.  Note that after establishing the rapport, her offer to sample coffee, which I obviously love, made me to say ‘Yes’. It’s another issue that I did not say ‘Yes’ to the final sale deal.

Other day-to-day examples – Tupperware party by a friend host obviously results in sales, consultants taking sports loving clients to events generally results in long term business relationships, politicians advertising their humble beginnings gets electoral advantages, business partnerships established on golfing fields, etc.

  1. Consensus / Social Proof: When people are uncertain, people will look to the actions and behaviors of others to determine their own behavior.

Lynda showing me a customer who bought 3 of the coffee machines is demonstrating social proof. It’s the sales person’s way of saying look at what others are doing and triggering my ‘follow the crowd’ instincts.

Other day-to-day examples – Laugh tracks on comedy shows / sitcoms, using popular personalities to advertise products, testimonials from satisfied customers shown to target clients by consultants, product reviews by customers on influences buying decisions, politicians getting on Twitter and Facebook to reach their electorates, etc.

Here is a very nice summary video about  the six rules of persuasion presented by Robert Cialdini himself.

I was very much aware of the forces of persuasion at play when the sales person was making her sales pitch. Many times, the rider (thinking mind) is not in control of the elephant (emotion / feelings) and given my love for coffee,  I was definitely treading towards empowering the elephant and making the purchase. I feel proud of my 18 months old son to have pulled me out of the situation and bringing back my discerning senses. After some research, I realized that the machine offered would not have met my needs. These are the  joys and benefits of taking a toddler out for shopping :).


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