THE POWER of Persuasion

Article excerpt


A few years ago, I read a newspaper article describing $5,000 in humanitarian aid that had been sent between Mexico and Ethiopia. At the time, Ethiopia could fairly lay claim to the greatest suffering in the world. Because of a long drought and a series of armed conflicts, Ethiopians were dying daily by the hundreds of sickness and hunger. Relief agencies were calling out to the rest of the world for food, medicine, and funds. It was not surprising that such a gift would be sent.

It shocked me, though, when I read further and learned that the money had been sent from Ethiopia to Mexico. Officials of the Ethiopian Red Cross sent the funds that year to help victims of the Mexico City earthquake. Now I was bewildered. Why would such a needy country make such a gift?

As it turns out, there was a very good reason. Despite the enormous needs prevailing in Ethiopia, the African nation sent the money to Mexico because, in 1935, Mexico had sent aid to Ethiopia when it was invaded by Italy.

The need to reciprocate had transcended great cultural differences, long distances, acute famine, many years, and immediate self-interest. A half-century later, against all countervailing forces, obligation triumphed.

As a psychology professor, the science of influence fascinates me. Why is it that one person feels obligated to another, and what compels someone to fulfill an obligation? Can one person influence another ethically, in a way that leaves both parties feeling satisfied?

To answer these questions, I undertook a three-year program of research, studying the regular practices of professionals who had been getting me to comply with their requests all my life. I infiltrated various settings to learn from the inside. I enrolled incognito in the training program of sales organizations and learned how to sell encyclopedias, automobiles, and appliances. I took a job in a restaurant to see how servers generated larger tips. I worked in a public relations firm, in a pair of advertising agencies, and in the fundraising departments of two charity organizations.

What I learned surprised me.

Although I registered hundreds of individual compliance tactics, the great majority of techniques could be understood in terms of only a few universal principles of human behavior. In my book, "Influence: Science and Practice," I outline six rules of persuasion, and explain how companies and polished professionals utilize them to gain compliance - sometimes from unknowing and unwilling targets.

But the six rules need not be employed dishonorably. Savvy individuals can make full use of them, ethically, bettering society and providing fulfillment to willing donors. How do they do it? To find out, the Stanford Social Innovation Review sent out a questionnaire to nonprofit executive directors and consultants, and asked them which of the six rules were most relevant to their fundraising work.

The survey results, as well as follow-up interviews, suggest that at least four rules offer unique opportunities for nonprofit development. They are: (1) "reciprocity" - people try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided them (it is this rule that prompted Ethiopia's gift to Mexico); (2) "scarcity" - opportunities seem more valuable when they are less available; (3) "authority" - people tend to defer to legitimate authorities as a decision-making shortcut; and (4) "consistency" - once people make a choice or take a stand, they encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.1

Although use of these principles optimizes influence, they are employed optimally by only a fraction of those who could benefit from them. Many nonprofit leaders regularly fumble away the chance to employ the principles because they do not understand them or know how to harness their force. Others know quite well what the principles are and how they work, but they import them dishonestly, achieving short-term goals while leaving a target feeling manipulated. …