Ancestors of present-day animals evolved 540 million years ago. They competed for food and sex. They survived by seizing opportunities and avoiding risks.
About 1 million years ago, hominids evolved the ability to learn from each other. This led to culture and ethnic groups. Heretics and cheats were cast out. Belonging was a matter of life or death—solitary humans were easy prey.
In modern times, these ancient evolutionary forces predispose what we find persuasive.
By learning tools of persuasion, you can defend yourself and influence others:
There is a group of people who know very well where the weapons of automatic influence lie and employ them regularly and expertly to get what they want. They go from social encounter to social encounter requesting others to comply with their wishes; their frequency of success is dazzling.
Advertisers sell sex and status. Stockbrokers pitch lucrative investments. Appeals to desire are particularly persuasive when fast and easy. For example, get-rich-quick schemes and instant-weight-loss pills.
If you would persuade, appeal to interest and not to reason.
Researchers have found that bad is stronger than good. Negative messages are more persuasive than positive ones. Fear of loss is more compelling than promise of reward. And fear of missing out leads to impulsive actions.
People find objects and opportunities more attractive to the degree that they are scarce, rare, or dwindling in availability.
If you want to control someone, all you have to do is make them feel afraid.
It’s hard to resist peer pressure—most people follow social norms. For example, studies found that people disregarded evidence from their own eyes and conformed to group opinion 33% of the time.
Since 95% of the people are imitators and only 5% initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.
Primates exchange favors and throw tantrums when cheated. Humans are no exception. Even a token gift can trigger reciprocity. For example, researchers found that giving someone a Coca-Cola doubled sales of raffle tickets.
In every relationship you get into—every business, social, or personal transaction—make sure that the other person gets as much benefit from it as you do.
Commitment and consistency
Most people’s actions are consistent with their values. They hate being called liars or hypocrites. The foot-in-the-door technique uses consistency—after people agree to a small request, they are more likely to agree to a large request. Similarly, people overvalue things they help create.
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Likeable people are more persuasive. Increase liking by:
Remember that a person’s name, is to that person, the sweetest sound in any language.
We are trained from birth to obey parents and teachers. Throughout history, it was usually a good idea to follow the leader. Nowadays, we follow presidents, police, doctors, scientists, and celebrities.
Blind obedience to authority is the greatest enemy of truth.
Overall, persuasion works best when there are no existing beliefs or decisions. It’s difficult to change someone’s mind—logic and facts are mostly useless. Social proof is effective, but takes time. For example, the civil rights movement began in the 1950s, but it took decades for racism to become socially unacceptable.
The single most wasteful thing you can do in marketing today is to try to change a human mind. Once a mind is made up, it’s almost impossible to change.
Never do anything in life if you would be ashamed of seeing it printed on the front page of your hometown newspaper for your friends and family to see.
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Risk aversion is a common behavior universal to humans and animals
Computer simulations indicated that rare, high-risk, high-payoff events such as mating could have driven evolution of risk-averse behavior in humans living in small groups
Boyd R, Richerson PJ. (2009). Culture and the evolution of human cooperation. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 364(1533): 3281–3288.
Over the past 1 million years, humans evolved the ability to learn from each other
This enabled cumulative, cultural evolution
Cultural norms for cooperation and group identification caused some groups to be more successful than others
Henrich J, McElreath R. (2003). The evolution of cultural evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology. 12: 123–135.
Humans evolved cognitive biases that improved survival
Success and prestige bias: imitate and focus on the most skilled individuals
Conformity bias: copy behaviors, beliefs, and strategies of the majority, especially in information-poor situations
Ethnic markers bias: in-group members are more likely to cooperate fairly
Herrmann E et al. (2007). Humans have evolved specialized skills of social cognition: the cultural intelligence hypothesis. Science. 317(5843): 1360–1366.
A study of 106 chimpanzees, 32 orangutans, and 105 human children found that children correctly completed 74% of social cognition tasks vs. 33–36% for primates
This suggested that humans evolved specialized social-cognitive skills for living in cultural groups: communicating with others, learning from others, and “reading the mind” of others
Tools of persuasion
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Goldstein NJ, Martin SJ, Cialdini RB. (2008). Yes! 50 scientifically proven ways to be persuasive. Free Press.
Cialdini R. (2016). Pre-suasion: A revolutionary way to influence and persuade. Simon & Schuster.
Rung JM, Madden GJ. (2018). Experimental reductions of delay discounting and impulsive choice: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Exp Psychol Gen. 147(9): 1349–1381.
A review of studies found that human and nonhuman species steeply discounted value of future rewards
A meta-analysis of 10 studies found that vividly imagining a positive future decreased discounting (effect size = 0.38)
A meta-analysis of 10 studies found that framing a choice as a gain instead of a loss decreased discounting (effect size = 0.47)
A meta-analysis of 5 studies found that cueing people with a safe, abundant, natural landscape decreased discounting (effect size = 0.63)
Johnson KL, Bixter MT, Luhmann CC. (2020). Delay discounting and risky choice: Meta-analytic evidence regarding single-process theories. Judgment Decision Making. 15(3): 381–400.
A meta-analysis of 26 studies found that delay discounting was associated with probability discounting (effect size = 0.25)
Delay discounting is devaluing future rewards
Probability discounting is devaluing uncertain rewards
This suggested that a patient person would be more willing to tolerate delays and low-probability rewards
Baumeister RF et al. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review General Psychology. 5(4): 323–370.
A review of studies found that bad events, bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback had more impact than good ones
Bad information was processed more thoroughly than good
People were more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones
Bad impressions and bad stereotypes were quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones
Tannenbaum MB et al. (2015). Appealing to fear: A meta-analysis of fear appeal effectiveness and theories. Psychol Bull. 141(6): 1178–1204.
A meta-analysis of 127 studies with 27,372 participants found that fear appeals influenced attitudes, intentions, and behaviors (effect size = 0.29)
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Brosnan SF, de Waal FBM. (2014). Evolution of responses to (un)fairness. Science. 346(6207): 1251776.
Studies with capuchin monkeys, macaques, chimpanzees, dogs, and crows found that animals responded negatively when a partner animal received a greater reward for same effort
The strongest negative effect was for a greater reward for no effort
Jaeggi AV, Gurven M. (2013). Reciprocity explains food sharing in humans and other primates independent of kin selection and tolerated scrounging: a phylogenetic meta-analysis. Proc Biol Sci. 280(1768): 20131615.
Regan DT. (1971). Effects of a favor and liking on compliance. Journal Experimental Social Psychology. 7(6): 627–639.
Commitment and consistency
Beaman AL et al. (1983). Fifteen years of foot-in-the door research: A meta-analysis. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 9(2): 181–196.
Pfeffer J et al. (1998). Faith in supervision and the self-enhancement bias: Two psychological reasons why managers don’t empower workers. Basic Applied Social Psychology. 20(4): 313–321.
Norton MI, Mochon D, Ariely D. (2012). The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love. Journal Consumer Psychology. 22(3): 453–460.
4 studies with 315 participants found they overvalued self-made creations
Self-builders of an IKEA storage box were willing to pay $0.78 vs. $0.48 for non-builders
Self-builders of origami frogs or cranes were willing to pay $0.23 vs. $0.05 for non-builders
Montoya RM, Horton RS, Kirchner J. (2008). Is actual similarity necessary for attraction? A meta-analysis of actual and perceived similarity. Journal Social Personal Relationships. 25(6): 889–922.
Montoya RM, Kershaw C, Prosser JL. (2018). A meta-analytic investigation of the relation between interpersonal attraction and enacted behavior. Psychol Bull. 144(7): 673–709.
Grant NK, Fabrigar LR, Lim H. (2010). Exploring the efficacy of compliments as a tactic for securing compliance. Basic Applied Social Psychology. 32(3): 226–233.
Howard DJ, Gengler C, Jain A. (1995). What’s in a name? A complimentary means of persuasion. Journal Consumer Research. 22: 200–211.
Segrin C. (1993). The effects of nonverbal behavior on outcomes of compliance gaining attempts. Communications Studies. 44(3–4): 169–187.
Haslam N, Loughnan S, Perry G. (2014). Meta-Milgram: An empirical synthesis of the obedience experiments. PLoS One. 9(4): e93927.
Washburn AN, Skitka LJ. (2018). Science denial across the political divide: Liberals and conservatives are similarly motivated to deny attitude-inconsistent science. Social Psychological Personality Science. 9(8): 972–980.
Ditto PH et al. (2019). At least bias is bipartisan: A meta-analytic comparison of partisan bias in liberals and conservatives. Perspect Psychol Sci. 14(2): 273–291.
Walter N et al. (2020). Fact-checking: A meta-analysis of what works and for whom. Political Communication. 37(3): 350–375.
A meta-analysis of 30 studies with 20,963 participants found that fact-checking had a positive influence on political beliefs (effect size = 0.29), but this effect was decreased by a person’s existing beliefs, ideology, and knowledge
Pro-attitudinal fact-checking was stronger (effect size = 0.43) than counter-attitudinal fact-checking (effect size = 0.28)
Researchers concluded: “the effects of fact-checking on beliefs are quite weak and gradually become negligible the more the study design resembles a real-world scenario of exposure to fact-checking.”
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