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Things you can learn from Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini

If you are interested in public speaking, I wrote another article that specifically applies Pre-Suasion to public speaking on my other site. 

One of the best new books of 2016 was Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, by Robert Cialdini. After publishing Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion back in 1984, Cialdini was thrust into the public spotlight for his enormous contribution to the public knowledge of persuasion tactics. Pre-Suasion is his latest work, and it features the latest and greatest research in human behavior.

It’s full of practical knowledge that can be applied in many areas of life. I’ve already written an article about how to apply the book to public speaking, but I wanted to take a look at more general applications for the knowledge in Pre-Suasion.

Chapter 1 is an introductory chapter that mostly covers history of the previous book and the new research, so we’ll jump straight to chapter 2.

Chapter 2

  • When you ask someone a question such as “Are you a flexible person?” they use what’s called the positive test strategy to figure out the answer. What they do subconsciously is search their brain for instances where they were easy going–if they find a couple of examples, they’ll think “oh yes, that’s true, I am flexible!” They don’t try to weigh the amount of times they were flexible vs. the amount of times they were inflexible. Practical applications: if you want someone to answer a certain way, phrase it so that the positive test strategy works in your favor. If you are trying to get as honest an answer as possible, however, you want to phrase your question “Would you consider yourself flexible, or inflexible?” Beware of surveys that ask questions that lead you down a specific path. 
  • You can use these rigged questions to change people’s behavior, too. Asking someone if they consider themselves helpful before asking for their help is one such strategy. Another such question is “Do you consider yourself an adventurous person?” Almost everyone says yes to this, and they will tend to act more adventurous after saying so. Practical application: you can increase compliance for a request by preceding it with the right question. 
  • People aren’t just bad at multi-tasking—it’s literally impossible. You do not multi-task, you simply alternate quickly between thoughts. The time it takes to switch thoughts is called an “attentional blink”. During this time, you are not able to process anything. This is why if you listen to music with lyrics while reading, you often will forget what you just read. Practical application: don’t bother saying something important to someone while they are otherwise occupied. Also, don’t try to multitask in ways that will harm your overall productivity. For example, listen to classical music with no lyrics when you need to be able to think. 

Chapter 3

  • Pre-Suasion talks about an effect known as “focus theory”. In a nutshell, things that you focus on seem more important than they really are. The media is able to use this to their advantage. They don’t necessarily have to be openly biased—all they have to do is choose carefully what to talk about. It will make that issue more important in the minds of their audience. For example, if the media talks a lot about how honesty is important in a presidential candidate, then the candidate that people think is the most dishonest will experience a drop in favorability. Via agenda setting, it is easy for anyone to manipulate opinions without saying a biased word. Practical application: if you want people to care about an issue, simply talk about it more. It will make it seem more important than it really is. On the other hand, beware of agenda setting, it is a very subtle way for others to manipulate you. 
  • A study found that a furniture store sold more couches when the background of the website had fluffy white clouds. Why? Because the clouds make people think of comfort and softness, which increases their liking for the couches. While I imagine that a furniture website with a picture of the sky as its background would look odd, it’s incredible to think that it actually affected people’s purchase decisions. Practical application: if you’re trying to sell a product, try to think of associations that you could leverage to improve favorability for your product. Grey poupon used this to their advantage by showing their mustard next to a luxurious car. 
  • You know those banner ads that never convince you to buy anything? No one actually clicks those, right? It’s true—almost no one clicks them or even notices them consciously. But a study found that repeated exposure to these banner ads increased people’s favorability to the product, even if they did not recall the banner ad whatsoever. Banner ads actually do work, at a subconscious level. Practical application: pair banner ads with other forms of marketing to increase liking of your ads. 
  • Young children have a harder time learning in rooms with heavily decorated walls. The environment robs their attention from the subject at hand. This may be caused by the very same effect that makes you more productive with a clean desk than a messy one. Practical application: those heavily decorated walls need to go, we’re doing our kids a disservice. Besides that, consider the effects that your environment may be having on you. Author Robert Cialdini mentioned that he wrote better when he was at home, because when he wrote at a research office, he wrote in overly-complex academic language. 
  • If you ask people to think about the qualities of a brand or product, they will end up liking it more than they used to. This effect goes away if you ask them to think about the benefits of multiple different products or brands. This is why “what do you like about our product?” emails almost always result in positive reviews. Practical application: if you ask customers for feedback on your products, do not ask them to compare your product to competitors, and ask them positive questions about it. (If you want more accurate results for research purposes, then do ask about competitors.)
  • Groupthink can result in bad decisions in companies. A devil’s advocate is incredibly important to keep ideas in check. Practical application: Whenever making an important decision, ask the following two questions. “What future events could make this plan go wrong?” and “What would happen to us if it did go wrong?”

Chapter 4

  • If you offer people money to get in line ahead of them, they will often let you. Compliance goes up with the sum of money, to a certain extent. This is actually not necessarily because of the financial incentive—rather, it’s because they assume that you must have a really good reason for it. Surprisingly, the percentage of people who actually take the money does not change even if you offer more. Many will simply allow you to cut, without taking your cash incentive. Practical application: please don’t abuse this. 🙂
  • People interpret situations differently depending on what they focus on. This is related to the idea of agenda setting in the media. What is focal is also considered important and causal. Researchers found that if you watch an argument from behind one of the participant’s shoulders, you tend to think that the person whose face you see is the reason for the argument. That is because you are focusing on them, so they seem important and causal. One implication that Robert Cialdini talks about in Pre-Suasion is that if you watch a police interrogation video with the camera focused on the suspect’s face, you will usually deem any confessions by the suspect as voluntary. If the camera is focused on the officer, however, you will tend to think that the police coerced the confession out of the suspect. Practical application: be careful how you approach a situation that requires judgment. What you focus on may end up being less important than you think it is. Let’s say you’re in a business meeting. You are discussing whether or not to move forward with a marketing campaign. One person brings up the cost of the campaign, and the group ends up talking about the cost for half an hour. Because of the focal causality effect, you are now likely to make the decision solely based on cost, and ignore other important factors. 

Chapter 5

  • Fear can be incredibly motivating, but only if you offer a simple solution for the person to fix the problem you are presenting them with. For example, anti-smoking ads that used fear where ineffective unless they contained clear, attainable steps that the audience could take to quit smoking. Easy steps are key—providing something like a website to visit or a one minute task to complete will have better results than telling someone to do something complicated or difficult to fix the issue at hand. Practical application: if you are using fear to motivate, always provide simple next steps for the person to follow. 
  • Have you noticed that people want to both fit in and stand out? As it turns out, people’s desires change depending on whether they are afraid or aroused. If they are afraid, they favor ads that talk about not being left out. If they are focused on sexuality, they prefer ads about standing out from the crowd and “being one of the few”. Putting an ad for something that makes you stand out from the crowd right after a horror movie is likely to draw poor results. On the other hand, an ad for a product to make you “fit in” right after a show that focuses on relationships will also perform poorly. As insignificant as it may seem, the studies that Cialdini provides to prove his point have stunning results. Practical application: there is very little to draw from this unless you are in advertising or marketing. But if you are, you’re welcome—it’s surprising and useful information. 

Chapter 6

  • When trying to engage someone, say the word “you” more often. If you’re in person, using their name occasionally has an even stronger effect. Studies have found that people prefer product pitches that use the word “you” a lot over those that don’t. Eg. “You won’t believe what this product can do for you” vs. “People can’t believe what this product does for them”. Although in that example, social proof may make the second statement effective as well. Practical application: you should say you more often 😉 
  • There are many tips for people trying to avoid procrastination, but the Zeigarnik effect is one of the least well-known of them. Essentially, your brain tries to get closure on unfinished things. If you start a task and don’t finish it, your brain will start pulling you back to it and make you feel a bit stressed until you finally finish it. I won’t spoil the details of this effect, you can find out more about the Zeigarnik effect here, or read Pre-Suasion. Practical application: if you need to write a paper, just open up the word document and write a few sentences. It will be much easier to finish now that your brain is propelling you forward to complete what you’ve started. If you need to write a very long paper, then don’t write down the last sentence you think of before you switch tasks or go to sleep. Wait until next session to write it, because your brain will nag you to put it down on paper which will help you to get started. 
  • Use mystery to activate the brain’s need for closure if you need to keep an audience engaged. Robert provides a framework for using mystery properly: pose the mystery, deepen the mystery, hone in on the proper explanation by considering alternate but incorrect explanations, provide a clue to the proper explanation, resolve the mystery, and finally draw the implication for the phenomenon under study. Practical application: if you are giving a speech and want your audience to be engaged throughout, pose a mystery and don’t unravel it until near the end of your speech. 

Chapter 7

  • The analogies that you use to explain things can be pivotal to persuasion. The book mentions a remarkable case: people’s preferred solution to crime in a city can be changed by one single word. If the crime was described as “a virus” in the city, people tended to prefer solutions that deal with removing unhealthy conditions that cause crime. If the crime was portrayed as a ravaging beast, people preferred solutions that had to do with catching criminals. In essence, people apply attributes of the analogy to the real world situation. Practical application: Choose your analogies wisely. Try to choose an analogy that gives the topic attributes that help prove your point. If you want people to be persuaded to be tougher on criminals, for example, you would use the “ravaging beast” analogy instead of the virus analogy. 
  • If people think you are similar to them, they will like you more. Practical application: try to find similarities between you and the person you’re talking to when you first meet. Search around until you find something in common—almost anything works. If you find a common interest, that means you not only have conversation material, but the person is more likely to find you agreeable as well. 
  • Catchphrases are more powerful than we give them credit for. People like things that are easy to process, or “fluent”. For example, researchers found that more people agreed with the statement “Caution and measure win you treasure” than “caution and measure win you riches”. Practical application: Learn to write catchphrases and use them! Click on that link to read a post I made on my other blog about how to come up with catchphrases.
  • People with hard to pronounce names are favored less, all else held equal. This is quite unfortunate, because I believe it probably contributes to racism and makes it harder for people with foreign last names to get hired. Practical application: There’s no practical application I can think of for this one, other than this: whenever you come across a difficult name, recognize that it may bias you against this person, and try to overcome that.
  • Speak with simple, easy to understand words and phrases. Again, people like things that are easy to process. If you use big words or complicated phrases, people will have to pause and think harder. This will result in attentional blinks, which we’ve talked about before. Practical application: use the smallest word that could get an idea across. 

Chapter 8

  • Studies have found that if you are optimistic going into a test, you are more likely to succeed. In addition, if you focus on stereotypes that people have about your abilities, you are more likely to get a low score. For example, if women focus on the stereotype that they are not as good at math, they do significantly worse than women who don’t focus on that stereotype. Practical application: study enough to feel confident in the material, then be as positive as possible. The next bullet point has even better information. 
  • A study was done that found ways to increase the average score of women on a test. 1. Have women take tests in all-female rooms, otherwise they compare themselves to guys. (I would have thought the opposite, but sometimes life is counterintuitive). 2. The test proctors should be female math and science teachers, to further help break down stereotypes. 3. “Ask the women to pick a personal value of importance to them (such as maintaining friends or helping others) and to write down why they find that value important….In one university physics class, female students who engaged in such a self-affirmation exercise just twice—once at the outset and once in the middle of the semester—scored better on the course’s math-intensive examinations by a full letter grade.” I included that entire quote from the book because it is incredible. Practical application: if you’re a test-taker, you can’t influence numbers 1 or 2. However, you could certainly try the self-affirmation exercise. If you are male, you might still get benefit out of it for different reasons. 

Chapter 9

  • Video games do influence how we feel and how we act. Playing violent video games increased antisocial, violent behavior in young children in one study. Meanwhile, playing games where you help others (even if it’s violent) increases helpfulness and self-sacrifice levels. Practical application: while I personally have played violent video games and do not feel their effects, it would be naive to suggest that it does absolutely nothing to your mind. It is something to consider if you have children. 
  • Showing groups of people photos of others working together resulted in more unity and enjoyment of working together. Practical application: perhaps you should have photos of groups of people working together around a group office space! Even better, take a group picture together and hang that up on the wall as a reminder of your unity. 
  • Productivity tip: write an if/when/then plan. “If I see a cookie, then I will walk away and drink a cup of water.” Or “When it’s 9:00 PM and I haven’t finished my to-do list, I will start on the most important item immediately”. Doing this can increase people’s chances of actually doing the behavior they commit to by huge percentages. Practical application: Make several if/when/then plans such as “When it’s 12:00, I will take a break and practice [x] for 10 minutes.”
  • When people are in a good mood, the people and items around them seem better. For example, men who randomly asked women out on dates were much more successful on sunny days than cloudy days. Practical application: make people happy by making them laugh. Alternatively, give them a gift like a cup of coffee.
  • When you’re sleep deprived, you are less able to block out emotional appeals. That’s how many false confessions during police interrogations happen—the interrogation lasts for hours and the suspect gives in under an altered mental state. Practical application: try not to make decisions when you’re tired. If you have a tendency to buy stuff from advertisements, avoid exposure to ads when you’re exhausted.
  • Similarly, when you are pressed for time, you tend to make decisions based on heuristics rather than on analysis. Practical application: avoid making important decisions when there’s a time crunch. If the decision has to be made quickly, see if you can get some external advice or take time to write down some of the pros and cons. 

Chapter 10

  • Mimicking someone’s vocal style makes you more likeable to them. Waiters and waitresses that mimicked the vocal style of their customers got significantly higher tips on average. This is due to the similarity principle stated earlier. Practical application: try to match the speed and pitch of the person you are speaking with to increase your rapport. But have some self-respect and don’t mimic their accent.
  • Flattery works on us even when we are aware of the possible ulterior motive. This is why a lot of comedians say stereotypical things like “You guys are a great audience” or “Look at this beautiful audience”.  Practical application: give people genuine compliments.
  • The #1 way to get people to like you is to show that you genuinely like them. Practical application: Try to put yourself in other people’s shoes and see where they’re coming from. That will help you like them. In general, if you show people that you like them and care about them, they’ll like you in return.
  • When working professionals were told that the great majority of people try to overcome their stereotypes they became more resistant to stereotypes of women in their own work-related conduct. Practical application: Spread the word of success in an organization. If the majority of people are doing the right thing, make sure everyone knows about it. Peer pressure is incredibly powerful. 
  • Examples are often more powerful than statistics or theory. Researchers found that people donated more to a cause if it contained a story of one person they could help, instead of aggregate statistics that make the problem look big. In addition, if you have an example of something happening, that is more powerful than bringing up an expert saying that it “could happen”. Even one example proves to the audience that this thing is possible. Practical application: Use at least one example or story when persuading. Try to find an anecdote, not just a statistic, to back up your point. 
  • Evidence from experts appeals to people’s sense of authority. If you read a quote on a topic from a Ph.D., you instantly give credibility to your side. Most people know this, but it’s relevant and I want to be comprehensive. Practical application: find someone high up that agrees with you. 
  • Small concessions make people trust you more. Don’t come across as a disingenuous person who won’t say a single bad thing about their cause. For example, if you were in a job interview, you could say “It’s true that I don’t have a lot of past experience, but I’ve made up for it with [x] project that I did, which shows that I have what it takes.” Keys to this technique: concede something that the person already knows about. Then say “but”, “yet”, or “however” and follow it up with a really good, positive thing that outweighs that negative. Practical application: make small concessions as you make your points. Make those concessions before whoever you’re talking to has a chance to disagree. 
  • If you set a limit on how many of one item can be purchased, it may result in more purchases. For example, if you were to discount toothpaste and put a sign that says “limit per person”, people will think the item is highly desirable and scarce, so they will want it more. Practical application: how can you make your offering seem more scarce? Perhaps discounting it and setting a limit number of purchases would do the trick. 
  • Pause for confirmation when asking people if they are going to show up to a meeting or commit to something. Instead of saying “See you at 6!” ask “Will you be there at 6?” and wait for them to answer. When they verbally confirm, they are more likely to actually follow through. Practical application: don’t assume people’s answer, pause until they verbally confirm. 

Chapter 11

  • Invoke feelings of family to make people trust you more. Warren Buffett, in a letter to his investors, said “I will tell you what I would say to my family today if they asked me about Berkshire’s future.” This family frame invokes trust. Practical application: treat your coworkers like family when appropriate. Nothing is stronger than a familial bond. 
  • People who don’t look like us are less favorable to us. Studies found that people preferred pictures of faces that had been edited to look a bit like them. I can’t help but think that some of racism is caused by this bias. Practical application: while you can’t change your face, perhaps changing your style of dress or your hairstyle can improve your favorability with specific people. For example, under or overdressing for an interview may make it difficult for your interviewer to connect with you. 
  • People like others from their same town or area. Practical application: if you are meeting someone important, try to find out if you are from the same state or area. This can improve your connection with that person. 

Chapter 12

  • Mirroring behavior is extremely powerful for getting people to like each other. In one study, researchers had subjects watch a video of black individuals taking a sip of water and putting the glass back on the table. After watching this video, half of the subjects were instructed to imitate the movements. In a post-study test designed to uncover hidden racism, the subjects that had imitated the movements exhibited none of the racial bias that the other subjects did. Other impressive studies found similarly powerful effects with mirroring. Practical application: when you are talking to someone, mirror their body language subtly to connect with them better. This is particularly useful in job interviews. If one person is laid back while the other one is tense, they are less likely to connect and like each other. 
  • What’s the fastest way to fall in love? According to some experts, all you have to do is ask each other a series of questions that progress from regular to more revealing and personal. Some participants of a study that were asked to do this ended up getting married as a result. Practical application: don’t jump straight to personal questions when you meet someone. Work your way up to them with regular small talk. This applies to friendships just as much as it does to romantic relationships. 
  • Why do people love Ikea? After all, they have to assemble all their own furniture. What a drag! As it so happens, the very process of putting together the furniture increases people’s attachment to it. Much like parents are much more attached to their own children than to family members. Practical application: can you get customers involved in the process of creating your product? Co-creation increases their attachment to it. This is why mass customization is so important for some businesses. Another application is to get your boss involved in your projects at work. Studies found that if a boss was more involved in projects, they rated their employee’s usefulness as higher. 
  • Cooperative learning techniques are some of the most effective. Having students take turns teaching some of the materials to the other students helps all students involved. Practical application: if you’re in a group that is learning something together, take turns presenting to each other. For example, if you are in a marketing department, set up a monthly workshop where you all get together and teach each other some aspect of marketing. 
  • The word advice has an important difference from the words feedback or opinion. When customers are asked to give advice, it feels like a cooperative co-creation process and their favorability for the company increases. When customers are asked to give feedback or their opinions, it sounds more like top-down criticism. Practical application: don’t ask your customers for feedback when you survey them, ask them for advice. 

Chapter 13 – Ethics

Warning from the author: if your organization uses the techniques listed in this book in an unethical way, it will eventually come back to haunt you. Studies have found that organizations that use unethical practices have poor employee performance, high employee turnover, and prevalent employee fraud and malfeasance.

As it turns out, unethical practices increase employee stress. High stress levels lead to poor performance. This same stress leads to higher employee turnover, as well. The most honest employees will be pushed away from the company quickly, leaving more dishonest ones in their place.

Use these psychological principles to improve others and yourself, not to sell them things they don’t need. And rest assured—at the end of the day, no amount of psychological tactics can get you to buy something you are absolutely not interested in.

Chapter 14

  • A hospital found that they could increase the rate at which patients show up for appointments by requiring the patient to write down the appointment details, rather than the receptionist doing it for them. The act of writing the details down made the appointment more important in the patients’ minds. Practical application: require people to sign things when you need their commitment. Don’t just accept a verbal response. 
  • Easily the most shocking study found in this book is as follows: before the 2008 presidential election, some Americans were surveyed anonymously online. Half of the people took a survey with a small American flag on the top left corner, while the other half took a survey without the flag. The surveys were otherwise identical. The mere exposure to this flag made the group’s answers more politically conservative. Remarkably, a higher percentage of those people also ended up voting for John McCain over Barack Obama. Eight months after the election, these individuals still held more politically conservative beliefs! It’s hard to imagine that such a small detail could make a big difference. Robert explains in Pre-Suasion that the reason it was so long-lasting is that these individuals committed to their new frame of mind by answering questions in the survey. This small commitment made them more likely to vote for McCain. And changing one’s vote is most definitely a form of commitment. Practical application: if you want to use a survey to improve customer opinions of your product, consider using imagery that makes your product seem favorable (such as the clouds juxtaposed with furniture, mentioned earlier). Another thing you can do is ask them a question such as “do you think it’s important for a couch to be comfortable?” Almost everyone will say yes, and this will get them thinking about comfort as a criteria. Asking the right questions just may lead the customer into a newfound preference for couches: ultra comfy. Apply this as you desire to whatever field you’re in.


That was quite a bit to take in, I’m sure. Pre-Suasion is a book packed with incredibly useful information. The main value in this post lies in the practical applications, not necessarily the summary. While I tried to include everything of note from the book, there is a difference between reading a quick and dirty summary and actually reading about the studies that prove these principles.

If you want even greater understanding of these concepts, I’d encourage you to give the book a look. I actually purchased it, because I wanted to be able to mark it up and keep it for reference. Full disclosure: I am not being paid or encouraged to write this post by anyone, and these links are not sponsor links. I wrote this because I wanted to.


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