Defense against the Dark Arts (Of Persuasion)
Principles of Influence. How to spot them, use them, and defend against them.
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I’ve been keeping myself quite busy these two weeks. I went for my first BJJ lessons, attended a child first aid workshop, and a speech I helped draft on the Private Security Industry Bill was read in parliament.
I also finished reading Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion recently and wanted to share my notes and thoughts.
I read about Influence so you don’t have to.
Disclaimer: This is a summary of my own takeaways, not a faithful summary of the book.
What are levers of influence?
Our minds evolved various mental shortcuts to compute complex information. Levers of influences are triggers from these shortcuts that make us instinctively want to agree or comply to a request.
Why learn about influence levers?
The book draws on various research to categorise and identify these influence levers into 7 principles. We most likely already understand and know of these in our common sense, but I think a formal framework makes it easier to identify whenever one of these levers are operating, or to make use of them.
We can use influence levers to improve our own lives by being more persuasive. I am guilty of focusing too much on the logic and content of arguments, instead of spending time on framing my work along these subconscious techniques to maximise their effect.
The beauty of using influence levers is that a small action can lead to outsized returns. It can cost little to give a small gift to trigger the principle of reciprocity and win over a big client, or saying “we” instead of “you” to trigger the principle of unity when giving advice to make it more likely to be followed.
Influence levers are a natural operation of our brains. Everyone is susceptible to them, even an experienced judge, a master strategist, or a senior politician.
Influence levers are being exploited
Our influence levers are often being exploited by others so that we will make sub-optimal decisions for their benefit. To protect our own well-being, we need to learn to defend ourselves from exploitation and call it out.
Exploitation can be relatively benign, such trying to sell more products. The world has entered into demand side problems, where our capacity to produce far exceeds our actual demand for more goods. You could easily buy a new handphone at a store, but you may not need to change your phone to the latest model. Influence levers can be used to artificially create that demand.
The world is also getting more complex. It is becoming harder to fully consider all available data in making decisions. We need our mental shortcuts to help us make quick decisions or we would be left paralysed.
This makes it imperative that we not only resist exploitation of our influence levers, but to actively call out and discourage it. Otherwise it will erode our ability to trust the fastest processing parts of our brains. We will live worse lives, and have to be more guarded, in turn reducing our capacity to be better people, and bring kindness to others.
The state of Covid vaccinations is an example of these problems. We have enough supply of shots, but some simply refuse to take it. This decision is not made out of careful, objective analysis of data and arguments. It is likely one based on multiple influence levers acting on them to lead to their conclusion. We can all see how it is hard to shift a conclusions based on influence levers using logic and reasoning.
From another angle, those of us who vaccinate are also using shortcuts. I never read the full science and data behind the vaccines. Only a small group of people have the knowledge and the time to fully consider all the data. I want to be able to use my shortcuts so I can save my time for other things. This requires my mental shortcuts to be protected from constant second guessing.
The 7 Influence Levers
What is it: We are likely to agree to someone who has given us a gift, or made a concession for us.
Exploited by: Free gifts for the purpose of influencing a decision - business meals, door gifts . Even false concessions from positions that are already expected to be rejected will be viewed as a concession, such as starting from an exorbitant price and then seeming to agree to discount later.
Defend by: We can’t go about life without accepting gifts or concessions. Accept the gifts but reciprocate only in similar fashion.
What is it: We say yes to people we like (celebrity endorsements), people who like us (salesmen who treat us well, and even argue with their boss for us).
Exploited by: Liking can be easily faked.
Defend by: Be wary of someone who likes you too easily and consider their incentives. Remove them from the equation when considering pros and cons.
What is it: We do what others do. We look out for long queues or five star reviews. We follow rules if others follow them, and ignore rules if we think others are breaking them.
This is a natural defense mechanism to follow others when we find ourselves in uncertain ground. It is akin to checking out what everyone else is eating when we go to a new coffeeshop, or following what locals do when in a foreign train station.
Exploited by: False claims or reviews. Artificially creating precedent by pre-salting tip jars or donation boxes, creating queues that look longer.
Defend by: Considering if others really know what they are doing. Often, everyone else is as clueless or relying on the same social proof.
What is it: We instinctively follow authority, even against our own judgement. As an example, nurses were found to be likely to give unsafe dosages when ordered by a doctor, even when the nurse knew it was unsafe.
Exploited by: Not all symbols of authority are true indicators of it. Studies have shown that we might mistake things like rank, clothing, height, size, or depth of voice as symbols of authority.
Defend by: Questioning authority and demanding proof when it goes against our instincts. Focus on tangible sources of credibility such as special knowledge or training rather than symbols of authority.
What is it: We want things which we might become unavailable. Limited time discounts, goods close to being out of stock. It comes from our innate nature to want to do something after someone says you can’t have it, a response I get often as the parent of a toddler.
Exploited by: Manufacturing scarcity or over emphasizing it by withholding supply or creating time pressures.
Defend by: Focusing on inherent utility. Whether or not a decision is good for us is independent on availability.
What is it: We act consistently with positions we have declared. This applies even if we don’t take the statement seriously. It works better the more public the commitment or the greater effort to make it.
Interestingly, older people are more susceptible to this principle.
Using leading questions to trick you into expressing small commitments in the identity the other person wants you to have.
Low-ball offers. Getting someone to commit to something, and then later taking away a big part of the benefit or revealing a problem.
Defend by: Call out someone who tries to repeat your commitments to you. I also find journaling useful here, so that I make my strongest commitments on my own terms.
What is it: We say yes to someone who is “one of us”. This can come from a same hometowns, religions, ethnic groups, or school, or be built through rituals or joint distress (military training, corporate team building).
Exploited by: Bad actors injecting themselves into the “we” group. This in part explains why police unions or even churches might go against their morals to protect one of their own who has committed an offense.
Defended by: Deciding what is good or bad in advance, irrespective of the person asking it. I think this shows the importance for a “we” group to have a no-tolerance policy for problems like violence or sexual harassment. When the incident does occur, assessment of fault might get distorted by loyalties when one of our own is in question.
Short essay about how new ideas are always easy to attack, and we need to give them room to develop before beginning criticism. Good to remember when we are hearing ideas from others.
Tails of Iron (Game)
A game I finished recently. Great for those looking for a minimalist souls-like experience. Loved the art style.
A Million Miles Away - From Belle (2021) (Song)
Joy’s Beauty and the Beast obsession led me to find this anime. Currently listening to this song on loop. Love the tension build up and release, especially at 6:00 and 7:06. Brings me back to some of my favourite moments playing in school band concerts.
“The best way to starve a dog is to ask 2 persons to feed it”
Not sure where this quote is from but I thought it makes lots of sense.
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Take care and have a good week!