The Science of Getting A 'Yes' Is persuasion an art or a science? Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist, explains how a little psychology can improve your shot at getting what you want. Cialdini is one of the authors of Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive.
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The Science of Getting A 'Yes'

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The Science of Getting A 'Yes'

The Science of Getting A 'Yes'

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This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. What if I told you that there is a scientific formula, really scientific method for getting your way and I'm not talking about bribing people here. And that post-it notes and smiley faces used judiciously can greatly improve your chances of getting what you want. I know it sounds naughty, but my next guest says there's science to back it up. This hour, we're going to be talking about the science of persuasion. Robert Cialdini is the co-author of "Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive." And we're going to find out how politicians are tapping into persuasion science and why attack ads? Why do they work so well? And then we're going to change to news you can use and find out how social psychology can work for you.

Let me introduce my guest. Robert Cialdini is the president of Influence at Work and the Regents professor of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University in Tempe. He joins us from the studio. Welcome, Robert Cialdini to us.

Dr. ROBERT CIALDINI (President, Influence at Work, Professor of Psychology, Arizona State University, Co-Author): Well, thank you, Ira. It's good to be with you and your listeners.

FLATOW: Thank you. 50 - is there really a science behind persuasion? People think, you know, that they're just good talkers, smooth talkers, salesman who know how to buy - you know, to sell ice in the winter time.

Dr. CIALDINI: That's right. For the longest time, we thought of persuasion as simply an art. Someone who's born with a preternatural ability to convince us in one way or another through the gift of gab. And that's true. But for the last 50 years, what's developed is a solid science of persuasion. A scientifically grounded rigorously controlled set of experiments that tell us how we can increase the likelihood that people will give a cent to what we have to say by changing the way we present what we have to say.

FLATOW: And you go through your book in many different ways. And one way that if I have to summarize an overreaching way or an all encompassing way is to persuade people to make people think that they are part of a larger group of people who are all doing something.

Dr. CIALDINI: That's right. It's the principle of social proof, the idea that an idea, a concept, the behavior becomes more valid to the extent that it is grounded in the crowd. The wisdom of the crowd prevails very often in our thinking to very primitive way of choosing the right thing to do. We follow what people like us are doing.

FLATOW: Would that be one of the reasons in this political season why Barack Obama would like to have his speech in a giant stadium rather than a smaller indoor location to get more people to say hey, look. Look at all these people behind me.

Dr. CIALDINI: Precisely. Not only does he get 70,000 people behind him in - on the sight. He gets the perception that there are 70,000 people there. Remember, Barack Obama started out as a community organizer. Community organizers think about mobilizing and getting things done by tilting against the windmills of traditional institutions by marshalling forces, not simply changing minds. Marshalling forces to contend against those more powerful institutions.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Also in Second Life, go to Science Friday Island if you like leave us a question. We're talking about "Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive" with Robert B. Cialdini. Also, you know, politicians like to give out things to people, little gifts, things like that. Does that work?

Dr. CIALDINI: Gifts work remarkably well. There was a little study that I love about waiters in restaurants who can increase their tips significantly by living a mint on the tray with the check. If they live one mint on the tray for each diner, their tip goes up 3.3 percent. If they live two mints on the tray for each diner, their tip goes up 14 percent. For the price of a mint.

FLATOW: Wow. But you also talked about if then, the waiter or waitress can convince you that you're getting a special mint and no one else, it goes up way, way higher, right?

Dr. CIALDINI: If the waiter says, here's your first mint, and then comes back to the table and says, you know what? For you, nice people. And he puts the second mint down, tips go up 23 percent. It's all in the science of knowing how the rule for reciprocation works in our society. People want to give back to those who have given to them. And in the moment after they have received, they are most vulnerable to the action of that rule.

FLATOW: Do people want to feel like they're part of a bigger good? I mean, we talked about, you know, if you're in a war, everybody wants to feel like they're contributing to it.

Dr. CIALDINI: Definitely, we want to be part of the correct choice and the unifying choice. And so, images that suggest that we are with a crowd, with the wave of the future, those are very powerful persuasive appeals.

FLATOW: Can things backfire on you?

Dr. CIALDINI: Very much so. Let me give you an example of how we can take that same principle of social proof and show how it can backfire. I live in the state of Arizona where the Petrified Forest National Park is located. At the entrance to the Petrified Forest, there's a sign that says because so many people are stealing petrified wood and crystals from the forest, it is undermining the integrity of the forest. Please don't do it. We put that sign along certain paths in the petrified forest and found that it increased theft by almost 300 percent because the message was being sent. All of your - all of the guests to the park steal, and it made it all right.

The fact is only two percent of the guests - of the visitors to the park steal anything, but the sign made it seemed as though everyone was doing it and it increased theft. You know, when the IRS last told us that because so many people were engaging in tax fraud, they were severely increasing the penalties for tax cheating. Fraud went up the next year because the subtext message was all of your neighbors are cheating. And that very primitive message was more powerful than the penalty.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phone, 1-800-989-8255. Is it Jinei(ph) in Stigler Oklahoma?

JINEI (Caller): Yes, this is Jinei.

FLATOW: Yes, go ahead.

JINEI: Well, a pleasure to be on your show, Ira. And I have a job. I am breastfeeding peer counselor for the WIC Program here in Oklahoma. And so, it's my job to convince expectant and new moms to breastfeed their babies in a part of the world where it's done that much. And so, I have sort of a two - my first, I guess, weapon is that I'm a peer. I'm a woman who had breastfed my own children and so, I tried to establish commonalities between us. And then, we've learned that we have to change our message from it's good for your baby to breastfeed to it's bad for your baby to give your baby formula. And when we couch it in those terms rather than, it's risks of formula versus benefits of breastfeeding, they pay more attention and we get their - I don't know, but we get a better response, a better rate of response when we speak about it that way.

FLATOW: Accentuate the positive.

JINEI: Well, it's more...

Dr. CIALDINI: No, it's the opposite.

JINEI: I don't know. It's - benefits make it sound like it's something extra that they can give their baby rather than risk, which - I don't know. It just - it makes more sense to them. And because breastfeeding is normal and formula is not a normal way to feed your baby, they just - I don't know. We have to say risk of formula. Their baby will be sick if they give formula rather they'll be healthy if they get breast milk. But also the fact that I'm a peer, I'm someone who's been in their shoes to some extent. It makes me more credible.

FLATOW: Interesting. The peer, is that important, Robert?

Dr. CIALDINI: It is very important. As we suggested, people look when they're confused and uncertain on what to do. They don't look inside themselves for an answer. All they see is that uncertainty. They look outside, and one place they look is the people just like them. The other thing that your caller suggested is something that I think relates to the negative advertising we're seeing these days in the political campaigns. It turns out that information about potential losses, about potential costs, is more powerful than information about potential gains. Three years ago, a man named Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University, won the Nobel Prize in economics partially for his research on something called Prospect Theory that shows precisely this - people are galvanized.

People are more mobilized and it's more memorable to hear about potential losses than potential gains. And so, your caller was correct in saying that she's noticed a greater buy in to her message when she said, what the cause of failing to breastfeed would be as opposed to the gains for breastfeeding.

FLATOW: So fear and negative campaigns do work.

Dr. CIALDINI: They do work. It turns out negative information is more powerful than positive information in the human psyche. Now it has - that negative campaigning has to be countered, otherwise it will seep in and make a big difference. But it can also be used in a positive way, for example, training of firefighters show that if they were given training showing how previous firefighters made the right choice and produced good outcomes in the field, they were less well-trained than firefighters who were told about previous firefighters who had made the poor choice and produced poor outcomes. That galvanized the attention of the trainees, and they were better equipped subsequently to do well in their profession.

FLATOW: So if you have a fear, if you instill fear, you can also give a positive message of how to overcome the problem.

Dr. CIALDINI: Exactly right. The key is not to just send a fearful message but to send a message that shows steps that can be taken to reduce the problem, eliminate the fear, and that will motivate people more powerfully than simply positive messages.

FLATOW: Are we just sheep? I mean, it seems like, you know, you're able to psychologically, to just group us all as doing these things?

Dr. CIALDINI: You know, at a very primitive level, we do respond automatically to these powerful tendencies in us because they normally steer us correctly. But we have the capacity with the cognitive apparatus that we've evolved to stop and think about these tendencies and these pressures that we experience. And counter them when we encounter them but it does require that we have to think about them. We think about the influence process, the persuasion process critically. This is what we should be doing with our children when we're sitting in front of a TV and a television commercial comes on. We should say, do you see what they just tried to do there?

FLATOW: Oh, I'm screaming at the TV most of the time.


FLATOW: My kids think I'm nuts. I agree. I'm talking with Robert Cialdini, author of "Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive," on Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow going to the phones to Michael in Kingston, Illinois.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi there. How are you?


MICHAEL: I've worked with people over the last, I don't know, 12 years or so, using what we call Social Norms Theory, and we're very familiar with the influence work that Dr. Cialdini has been doing. And what we've been finding is that the population, the peers are absolutely ignorant to their own goodness. And that if we use data to ascertain the protective and healthy behaviors that are already resident or indigenous in the population, be it high school students or college students or women in a poor housing project, and we feed that back to them, give that a lot of exposure that it actually increases the adoption of that behavior. It's using the idea that, in a sense, it's more normal and more typical to do the good behavior than the potential bad behavior that people are identified with.

FLATOW: Robert?

Dr. CIALDINI: Absolute, I couldn't agree more with Michael. The problem is we are typically a nation of people who do perform socially responsibly and in ways that are beneficial to the larger group, but we don't recognize it to the extent that we do in. So a very effective lever for producing change in socially desirable directions is simply to inform people honestly of the levels of pro-social behavior that are going on. We just completed a study in hotels, where, you know, you're asked to hang up your towels to help save the environment, reuse your towels.

They typically say on the sign that you get in the room, do this for the environment. Do this for future generations. Do this so your children would have more resources, and so on. We put a sign in the rooms that would fit very much with what Michael just said. It said, the majority of guests who do stay at our hotel recycle their towels at least once. We got a 34 percent increase compared to the signs that the hotels typically use. The key for me in all of this is that that was absolutely true. It was costless to the hotels and they've never used it, ever.

FLATOW: Quick question about the political season here. How do we get more people to vote? I mean, you can't - you know, it seems like an incredible problem in this country.

Dr. CIALDINI: There's interesting research on this. A study just came out in the Journal of Politics that showed, that if you tell people, and Michael will also agree with this one. If you say to people, look, so many individuals failed to vote last time that it had a corrosive effect on the Democratic Party. We didn't get - or the Democratic process - we didn't get the kinds of buy in and collaboration that we wanted, right, versus so many people like you did vote last time that this encourages us about the impact of our communities on the governance process. That second message produced significantly more people going to the polls than the first one that was decrying the problem, the lament. Look at all the people who are doing this wrong carries the subtext message. Look at all the people who are doing this wrong and that spurs them to continue to do things wrong.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is the number. We're talking with Robert Cialdini, author of "Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive," and it's an interesting book. It's got those 50 ways in there and some surprising results. We're going to take a short break and come back, then talk some more about the power of persuasion, how it's being used on us and how you might take advantage of it with Robert Caildini. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about persuasion with author Robert Cialdini, author of "Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive". And one of the things you mentioned, an interesting part of your book was you mentioned that a single word that makes you more persuasive and it's not please. What word is that? What word makes you more persuasive?

Dr. CIALDINI: The word is because. We are structured psychologically to need reasons for what we do. So, one of the things you can do to significantly increase the likelihood that people will accede to your request is to use the word because and follow it with a reason. When I tried to get a late check out, let's say at a hotel, I used to say, I want a late check out until 3:00. Could you accommodate me? It wasn't very successful. If I say because I have a meeting in the hotel until 3:00 or because my plane doesn't leave until 4:00, I get significantly more assent and it's because people are ready to give assent to reasons. So we should always have the word because included even if our reasons aren't that great. There's research done by Ellen Langer at Harvard University that showed just the word because is enough to cause people to be more willing to concede.

FLATOW: Wow. Let's go to Roger in the Montague, California. Hi, Roger.

ROGER (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi there.

ROGER: As the science of persuasion becomes more exact, it seems to me that like stem cells, and like atomic power, and like other things that have a possibility of harming people. There need to be ethical standards of what do we think about ways of preventing the misuse of this knowledge or perhaps the ways of vaccinating people against the misuse of the knowledge.

FLATOW: Ethical question, Robert.

Dr. CIALDINI: This is a crucial question and indeed in our book with Noah Goldstein and Steven Martin, what we did was take to 50 lessons from the science of persuasion, explicate the finding, describe why it worked the way it did, and then have a final paragraph or two that address exactly the question. How could we use this piece of information ethically so that no one's interests were being abused, no one was being coerced or deceived into yes but were being informed into yes.

FLATOW: Where is the frontier of the science of persuasion? What do you need to know or would like to know that you don't?

Dr. CIALDINI: Well, right now, it is in the neuroscience of persuasion, how certain kinds of arguments are persuasive by how they activate particular areas of the brain to lend themselves to agreement.

FLATOW: Because we've seen studies in the brain that there are all kinds of conflicts that go on in different parts of the brain when making a decision about something.

Dr. CIALDINI: That's right. So for example, if someone acts in a way that is against the group, against the crowd, there is a portion of the brain that is associated with conflict and pain that is activated in a way that doesn't occur if this person acts in a way that is contrary to, let's say, what a computer has told him or her to do. So it's that social conflict that registers in the brain as pain that leads to different kinds of practices and actions on the part of the people who receive the information.

FLATOW: Very interesting. Robert Cialdini, author of "Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive", co-authored with Noah Goldstein and Steven Martin. Thank you for being with us today and good luck to you.

Dr. CIALDINI: Well, I enjoyed it. I'm gratified to have had the chance, Ira.

FLATOW: Our pleasure.

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