An Interview with Dr. Robert Cialdini

By Sharon Livingston , PhD
The Livingston Group for Marketing •
 As seen in "QRCA Views'
Winter 2007 Edition

Recently, I had the pleasure and honor to interview Dr. Robert Cialdini, a W.P. Carey Distinguished Professor of Marketing and Regents’ Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, where he has also been named Distinguished Graduate Research Professor. Dr. Cialdini is the author of Influence, Science and Practice, which has sold over one million copies. It’s an exciting set of principles and suggestions for how we can help our clients take our research insights and convert them into powerful motivators for their customers. I have successfully utilized his ideas in working with my own clients. Let’s hear what Dr. Cialdini has to say, in his own words.

Dr. Cialdini, what can you tell us about Influence and how you came to this study?

Since QRCA specializes in qualitative research, I think you’ll appreciate my approach. I decided to try to determine what are the most powerful features of the influence process — the drivers that cause people to say yes to requests — by actually studying from the inside. I enrolled in training programs of as many influence professions as I could get access to. I took training in how to sell automobiles, and I learned how to sell vacuum cleaners, portrait photography, insurance and so on. I embarked on my mission to study influence, by presenting myself as a trainee and going through the training programs, as someone who would be interested in learning what they knew, and then I recorded this kind of information. I did the same thing with a couple of ad agencies and even charity organizations. I interviewed police bunko squad officers and asked what the con artists of our society do. I interviewed armed-forces recruiters. What do they do to get those 18- or 19-year-old kids to sign on the dotted line? I even interviewed cults to see what cults do.

Oh, my goodness…

And all the time, I was looking for common parallels and the practices, all of the things that the professions of our society dedicate to getting others to say yes to them. What I found was the basis for the first book I wrote, called Influence.

Tell us a little about that!

What I found was, even though there are hundreds of individual tactics these organizations use to get us to say yes, the great majority of them could be categorized into terms of just six overarching principles of persuasion. These appeared to be universals. If one or another of those principles was incorporated into a request, it significantly increased the probability of getting a yes to that request.

That is so interesting. Can you give a couple of examples?

Sure. I can tell you what those six principles are. Each one is a chapter in Influence. The first one is called Reciprocation, the idea that people want to give back to us what we have first given to them. It gives us great power in a situation by being able to determine the tone of the interaction by doing it first. If we want a positive attitude, we give a positive attitude first. If we want free communication, we begin by giving free communication, and so on. It gives us the ability to get the sort of interaction that we are hoping for in exchange. I am sure that many of your readers do focus groups and can testify how they begin their interaction. The tone that they set for it is the thing that they get back most frequently. But you can even find it in things as simple as appeals from the Disabled American Veterans association. When they send out their direct mail requests for contributions to their organization, they get about an 18 percent hit on their rate. But, if they include a little packet of personalized address labels in the envelope, their hit rate of contributions goes up to 36 percent because people have received something. Now they feel obligated to give back. That is the principle of reciprocation. It is the sort of thing that governs so much of our behavior, and it is the first of the pillars of influence we talk about.

I really identify with that in terms of how I run a focus group myself. I start out by openly sharing something about myself that has nothing to do with the topic at hand, to avoid biasing them. I model the kind of behavior that I want by revealing something personal about me so they want to give that back.

I think that is totally insightful, and there is a lot of evidence that disclosure is a reciprocal thing. We disclose to people who disclose to us, who start the interaction by disclosing. It sets the tone and produces the kind of free information that you are looking for.

Great! What is the second one?

The second one is what we call Social Proof, which is the idea that when uncertain, people want to look around to see what others are doing and thinking before they take action. They look to people who are just like them for evidence of what they should do in situations. So, the proof of what they should be doing is not something that is empirical or logical — it is social. What everybody around me is doing tells me what I should do. For example, we just finished an experiment in hotel rooms. I am sure that most of your readers who have traveled recently encountered a card in their hotel room that asked them to recycle their towels. Well, the question is, “What should the card say to get people to recycle?” What hotels typically do is to say, “Do this for the environment” or “Do this for future generations” or “Cooperate with us toward this cause.” We put those cards in various hotels rooms around the Phoenix area where I live, and we found they all produce about the same level of compliance. But then we put a fourth card in the room that we had never seen any hotel use. It employs the principle of social proof, the idea that if a lot of other people are doing it, then it is the right thing to do. Our fourth card said, “The majority of the guests who stay at this hotel do recycle their towel at least once during their stay.” And, that’s true. The result? We got a 34 percent increase just by saying something that was true, except the message was very below the surface. Just by bringing out something that is true about what those around us are doing, increases the likelihood that our audience will do the same thing. That is why, for example, when a restaurant owner puts on the menu, “This is our most popular dish,” it becomes more popular. That is social proof.

We see a lot of testimonials on the internet and in other kinds of advertising. They’re a form of social proof, right?

They are very important as a form of social proof. What do the people around me think about this product? How are they reacting? How are they handling a particular situation? In fact, have you have ever seen infomercials, those late-night television commercials where you call in and buy a product? Infomercial producers have found that they get a spike in call-ins at two points during their commercial. The first spike comes just as the item is sold out or no longer available. This refers to the principle of Scarcity, when things are dwindling and we want things that we can’t have. The second spike occurs immediately after viewers have heard a testimonial from a caller who said, “This worked for me.” These testimonials are the social proof causing people to buy. And that works well with the manufactured feeling of scarcity — that time is running out, only a few left — also motivating people to buy in that one context of the infomercial. What is interesting is that the consummate form of scarcity is loss. In fact, research shows that the fear of loss is more motivating than the possibility of gain. If people are honestly told what they stand to lose by failing to follow the suggestions that you are offering them, in addition to what they stand to gain if they do, you get a better response from the threat of loss. People do not want to lose something that they think would be valuable. That is a much stronger motive than the wish to gain something. Let me give you an example. People were asked if they would like an energy audit of their home. The company checked all of the weather stripping and insulation, and at the end of the evaluation, they said, “If you will insulate your home fully, you will be able to gain 50 cents a day, every day.” That was for half of the homeowners. The other half of the group was told, “If you fail to insulate your home fully, you will lose 50 cents a day.” Believe it or not, 150 more people insulated their homes when the language was changed to reflect loss, and it was the same 50 cents. The idea of losing it every day was more powerful than the idea of gaining it. So, I like to advise people to think honestly about those things that your audience or prospect or client would lose by failing to following your recommendations and to mention that as well as what they stand to gain. That way, you fire both barrels, at the same time.

I had read your book about four years ago and had been working on a project on macular degeneration, which is a very serious condition. I learned that patients were willing to adjust to what they still had because the idea of losing any more was far more important than the wish to make it better. I remembered what you wrote about loss being a bigger motivator. I was wowed at the absolute demonstration of that right here.

Yes, in fact, doctors have found that telling their patients who smoke that if they stop they will gain three years of life, isn’t nearly as affective as telling them that if they don’t stop, they will lose three years of life. It makes total sense. It is so amazing. And it is a simple thing — changing the language a little bit can make a big difference.

What is the next principle?

The next one is the principle of Commitment and Consistency, the idea that people want to be consistent with what they already committed to, what they have said or done, or came to believe in the past.

I love this one, actually!

This is where QRCA members are experts at unlocking the true values and internal commitments of the people they talk to in interview settings. If we can do our detective work ahead of time, so we know what people are truly committed to inside — what their internal values are, what things they really want to prioritize — we are poised for the next step. Once we get their commitment to a particular idea — and by commitment, I mean making a public statement to the interviewer, “Yes, I feel, think, believe this or that” — then we go into the second phase. This second step is to say, “I’m going to recommend the following agenda for you, the following idea, the following arrangement for us because it is consistent with what you have already told me.” When they see that link, they want to be consistent because, as a rule, people want to be consistent in their lives.

You had great stories in your book about that. Can you share a couple of them?

Well, for example, a study was conducted in Palo Alto, CA, where researchers asked people to sign a petition favoring safe driving. This was done in the course of the first week of the study. A week later, the researchers came back and asked these same people to put up a billboard on their lawns that would favor safe driving, and they got a tripling in the percentage of people who were willing to do that, compared to those who were just asked to put up a billboard without first signing a petition a week earlier. So, having gone on record making a commitment inclines people to want to be consistent with subsequent similar kinds of behavior, even if it is much larger.

Didn’t you go further with “Beautify California”?

That was another version in which people signed a petition saying that they were interested in beautifying California. A week later, a researcher came to their door, asking them to put up a billboard favoring safe driving. Now there didn’t seem to be a connection there, but these people also increased their willingness because now they were being consistent with the idea of being a public servant. So, by first signing that petition, they saw themselves as community-oriented and more public spirited. A week later somebody came along and asked them to help in terms of driver safety, and they were willing to do that, too!

I giggled reading that, I have to say! So, which one is next?

Our next principle is Authority, the one that says people want to follow the lead of legitimate experts, true authorities in an arena. Here is one I always giggle about. They put a man on a street corner and had him cross the street against the light, against the traffic and against the law. Half of the time he was dressed in jeans, an open-neck shirt and running shoes, and the other half of the time he was dressed in a business suit, pressed shirt, tie and shiny shoes. Then they counted how many people followed along behind him. An amazing 350 percent more people followed him when he was wearing a suit.

I love it!

The aura of authority. People ask me, “So, what does this mean about the way we should dress when we are dealing with clients? Should we dress up or dress like the client?” My answer is really a two-stage one. When you first meet them, when you are not one of them, it is important that you dress professionally, so that they give you the authority that you truly deserve on the basis of credentials that you have not been able to share with them yet. Once you have done that and you have been consulting with them for a while and are one of the team, then it is fine to dress according to their standards and levels. At the outset, though, you want to be sure that you honestly display the authority of your credentials, and you can do that with clothing.

I think that is a super point that is very relevant to our readers. That is very helpful. Thank you.

Good! The last of the six principles is the Liking principle, which is the one that says we prefer to say yes to those we know and like, and I don’t think any of your readers will be surprised to hear that. But there is a little twist to it. There are two things that really cause people to like us. One is similarity; we like the people who are like us, especially in values and attitudes and opinions and so on. Secondly, we like the people who like us and say so by giving us compliments.


What I learned in a lot of the training programs I infiltrated was that the trainers were telling us to do this unethically, to invent a similarity. “Oh really? My wife is from Minnesota!” That kind of thing or compliment. They told us to give phony compliments because people like getting complimented and that would cause people to like us as a consequence. I guess that is true, but it is not something that we would want to do because of the unethical character of it. More importantly, it loses the most important secret of the liking process for influence. In every training program, I was told that the first rule of sales is to get your prospect or customer to like you, and I think that is wrong. That is the second rule of sales. The first rule is to come to like your customer or your prospect or your client.

I totally agree with you!

And when they see that — that you genuinely like them — they know they are in good hands. Again, by doing our detective work, we find real similarity, which causes us to like them. We recognize we are as human as they are, and we feel a camaraderie. We connect with a genuinely admirable quality we can mention to that person. Getting to know someone better, we most often come to like that person more. When the client sees that, he is willing to listen to us in a way he wouldn’t have been willing before, because he knows he will be protected. We will go out of our way to serve the people we really like. People sense the liking, and they are able to exhale a breath and say, “Okay. I am in the hands of an expert who likes me.” I don’t know what could be better than that.

What I have seen in my own experience is that, when I can fall in love with a consumer, I can work magic with them. They tell me what is on their mind, what their needs are, what their wants are, what their pain points are. If I don’t have respect for them or I can’t find that similarity, I am not as effective.

I know. So, the task shifts from putting the effort into getting that person to like you, to putting the effort into coming to like that person. You have to do your homework, spending time in social interactions with that person in informal communications, to get that information to cause you to like him or her. When you do, that person will listen to you, and that person will be right to listen to you because you will make sure that the people you like are well served.

In a qualitative interviewing situation, a disclosure from the leader helps set the stage for open sharing and to set a safe environment to say, “This is a place where we will get to know each other and the most personal will be the most universal. We won’t be able to help but like each other.”

There are always difficult people in every focus group. If we can find something about that person that we can like, that will change that person to be more cooperative, more likable and more collaborative.

Right. That’s great! I think there is a lot about liking that has to do with being attractive. I think people get confused with that, like with drug reps… they take them from beauty contests and cheerleaders and that kind of thing. I think that if someone is attractive, that adds to the liking, but it goes far beyond that.

Yes, it is that first reaction, but beyond that, once we interact with somebody for a while, we want somebody attractive on the inside.

Exactly. So, if you think about what we have been discussing and you think about the qualitative research industry, do you have any pointers for the people who conduct qualitative research? You have already given some really good ones, but are there other ideas you might want to add?

Well, as a general rule what we found is, and we have even coined a term for it: instead of persuasion, presuasion. It’s what you do first. It really is. It’s what you do first that makes your recommendation, your suggestions, your offer, more palatable to people. What you could do is to use each of these principles to set a context. Create a psychological climate in which people want to say yes to you because you have given them something of value, you have come to like them, you located their internal commitments and so on, and then align your suggestions with all of those things. I don’t know how many of your readers are gardeners but I have a gardener metaphor. It doesn’t matter how good the seed you want to plant is, how good your information is, how good your services are. If you have not cultivated the earth first, it just won’t bear fruit. But, if you have first tilled the soil and gotten a climate that is positive, then that valuable thing that you offer, that seed, will indeed flourish.

That is a wonderful way of thinking about it. I want to let people know that you run incredible workshops in addition to the book, Influence…the Psychology of Persuasion, which they can read. It is Influence at Work; is that correct?

Yes, Influence at Work is the name of our website, at, and there are opportunities to do workshops with us on the topic of influence.

You have them all around the country?

We do, and we have a couple different versions that are available.

And, now you have a new book coming up!

I do have a new book, called YES. It is evidence-research based, and it offers 50 little nuggets about how to become more persuasive. I put each one in a little chapter and give you a bit of instruction on to how you can become more persuasive. For example, one has to do with a little piece of office equipment — something that is probably on your desk — that can significantly increase the likelihood that people will say yes to a mailed request you send them. We found that if you were to send somebody a marketing survey and ask them to fill out the survey, about 20 percent of the people agree. If you wrote a little note on the corner of the survey that said, “We would really appreciate if you completed this survey and send it back to us,” it goes up to 34 percent. But, if you wrote that very same thing on a stick-on note, you would get 48 percent compliance.


Why? Because people saw the stick-on note as a more personalized request. So, the message is… the more personalized you can make your request, the more people will say yes to you. And this little mechanism of the stick-on note is an easy vehicle for personalizing.

Fantastic. I love stuff like that. When is that book coming out?

It comes out in the United Kingdom in November, and in the United States probably in February.

That is something really nice to look forward to. Thank you so much, Dr. Cialdini.

Contact Information

Phone: 646-600-6566

email: The Livingston Group for Marketing

The Livingston Group for Marketing, Inc.
347 W 57th St., Suite 25C, NY, NY 10019

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