Leadership & Management

Change My Mind: Using “Pre-suasion” to Influence Others

In this episode, psychology expert Bob Cialdini reveals the inner workings of social influence and persuasion.

January 24, 2023

| by Matt Abrahams Robert Cialdini

Want to change someone’s mind? First, explains Robert Cialdini, you have to change their framing.

Cialdini, the Regent’s Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, persuasion begins before we even deliver our pitch or presentation. Through what he calls “pre-suasion,” communicators can prime audiences to receive messages in a specific way, simply by drawing their attention in specific directions.

“It involves… bringing people’s focus of attention onto something that is nested in the message… before that message is delivered, so they have been readied for the concept,” Cialdini says.

In this episode, Matt Abrahams and Cialdini talk about the motivating power of FOMO, getting better advice from others, and how your next wine purchase could be influenced by what music is playing in the shop.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: Regardless of if you’re pitching or presenting, teaching or sharing, at its core communication is often about influencing and motivating others. Yet we don’t often take time to think about how to hone and improve our persuasive practices. Today we will dive deeply into the intricacies of influence. I am Matt Abrahams and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The podcast. Today I am super excited to get a chance to chat with Robert Cialdini. Bob is the Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University.

His research and coaching focus on persuasion and social influence. He’s the author of two amazingly popular and impactful books, Influence and Pre-Suasion. And I have to admit Bob is one of my academic heroes. As an undergrad Bob was a guest lecturer in [Stanford professor] Phil Zimbardo’s popular class The Psychology of Mind Control. And after hearing Bob’s lecture I chose a graduate school program where I could do research into social influence. Welcome, Bob, and thanks for pointing me to a field of study that I have continued to be fascinated by.

Bob Cialdini: Well, I’m looking forward to our interaction, Matt, and I look forward to spending some time with you and your listeners.

Matt Abrahams: Great, let’s jump right in. To get started can you define and distinguish between persuasion and what you call pre-suasion, and what role does attention and motivation play in these concepts?

Bob Cialdini: Oh, good question. Let’s start with motivation first, which is the functional component of persuasion. Persuasion involves putting into a message factors that motivate people to say yes, such as the quality of an item or its attractive price or its fit with the recipient’s values or self-image or the fact that it’s the most popular choice among their peers, those kinds of things. If you put those into a message they motivate people toward assent. Attention on the other hand is the functional component of pre-suasion. It involves focusing people on, that is putting them in mind of one of those motivators before they encounter it in the communicator’s message.

Let’s take an example. There was study done with a furniture store that had specialty sofas. And for half of the visitors to the store our researchers arranged for them to go to a landing page that had as its background fluffy clouds. The other half of the visitors went to a different landing page, the content was identical but its background was small coins, pennies. Then the researchers gave the visitors options of various sofas to choose. What they found was that those who encountered fluffy clouds were more likely to choose for purchase comfortable furniture whereas those who were exposed to pennies were more likely to prefer for purchase inexpensive furniture.

So whichever motivator of behavior, in this case quality or price, was made salient, was brought to consciousness before they ever encountered the request to choose one or another of the kinds of sofas, directed the visitors to the one that was high in consciousness, was most accessible to them at the time. And there’s an interesting mediator of all of this, and that is that not only did these visitors choose more high-quality furniture or less expensive furniture depending on which landing page they saw, those people who saw clouds rated comfort as more important to them in deciding what to choose in a sofa whereas those who saw the pennies rated cost as more important to them in their decisions.

Matt Abrahams: This is absolutely fascinating to me. So what you can do in advance of actually even issuing your message can influence people by managing their attention. In some ways it’s priming and framing, isn’t it?

Bob Cialdini: It is. It’s what I call using an opener, bringing people’s focus of attention onto something that is nested in the message that is yet to come before that message is delivered so they have been readied for the concept. It has become more cognitively accessible and more important in their minds. Here’s an example that reinforced this idea. There was a study of a wine shop in which the proprietor played either German or French music on the music system as visitors came in.

Those who heard French music were more likely to buy a French vintage, those who heard German music were more likely to buy a bottle of German wine because things German or things French had been made more accessible in consciousness and made to seem more significant or had greater import for their decision because it was high in consciousness at the time.

Matt Abrahams: This to me really expands what we as communicators should be thinking about when we are crafting our influential messages. So I’m thinking things like the room in which we speak, how we organize it, the images we put on the slides that we might use. Are these the sort of things you’re thinking about that can really influence people before the message has arrived?

Bob Cialdini: Exactly. Let’s say you have a meeting of people who are on your team and you’re trying to break through with a problem that has just resisted your attempts to solve it. You need to think broadly about it, you need to think expansively about this topic rather than stay located in the frames of the approach you were taking. It turns out if you go into a room with high ceilings and big windows that expanse of the environment causes people to think more expansively and creatively, that’s great.

Matt Abrahams: I wonder now that we’re all virtual, or many of us are still virtual, if the background image we put behind us might be influential. I think there’s just so many things that we could play with now, and you’ve opened up a sandbox here that we can be thinking about these things. Wonderful, that’s great, pre-suasion is really, really fascinating to me and I appreciate you illuminating that for us. You know I shared that you had a big impact on my choice when I went to graduate school, but my interest in persuasion actually started when I was a young boy.

I vividly remember my father reading a newspaper back in the day when people actually read newspapers in paper. And he was laughing from behind the paper and I asked him what he was laughing at and he showed me a comic strip. And in the comic strip there was a picture of a father with his arm around his son pointing at a store that the father clearly owned and across the store was the sign “going out of business sale.” And the caption read, “Someday, son, this will all be yours.” And I was befuddled, I didn’t understand why my father found that so funny.

And he explained it to me that the store was perpetually going out of business, that it was a marketing ploy to get people to come in. And that was my first introduction to the idea of scarcity. And in your book “Influence” you identify scarcity as a technique among others, and I’m wondering if you can take a moment to explain how that technique works and how you’ve seen it used today.

Bob Cialdini: People want more of those things they can have less of, in that it’s scarce, rare, dwindling in availability it becomes more attractive. And one major reason is loss aversion. The prospects of losing something of value are twice as potent in motivating action than the prospects of gaining that very same resource. So in the case of loss, loss is the ultimate form of scarcity. It means you can’t have it anymore. So people want those things that are dwindling in availability or scarce. You know the acronym FOMO, fear of missing out, that’s essentially what I think is a major part of why scarcity works as powerfully as it does.

Matt Abrahams: So people can manufacture scarcity to motivate action in the direction that they want, and companies can as well. I mean, if you look at eBay most of the exciting action happens as those auctions are coming closer and closer to ending. Is that all correct?

Bob Cialdini: That’s exactly right.

Matt Abrahams: In addition to scarcity you highlight six other principles of persuasion: reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and unity. And we’ll provide some links in our show notes to help everybody explore those in more detail. But I’d like to ask you to talk more about unity, which is the newest of your principles and one that I think is particularly salient in our current cultural and political climate. What is the unity principle and how does it work exactly?

Bob Cialdini: People say yes to you if you can show them that you share with them an important personal or social identity, that is that you’re a member of one of their “we” groups, the groups that they use the term “we” to describe, to characterize. In other words that you’re not just like them, that is similar, but you’re of them, you’re one of them. And in the boundaries of those “we” groups all resistance to influence declines. Let me give you an example.

There was a study done on a university campus, researchers took a young woman who was about college age, dressed like a college student, asked her to set up a table for the United Way on a heavily trafficked area of campus and request people who were walking by to donate to the United Way. And because she looked similar to them she was getting some contributions. But if she added one sentence to her request she got four and a half times as many contributions. So what was the sentence, it was I’m a student here too, I’m one of you.

And people don’t say no, they don’t reject the people who are of them nearly as much as the people who are outside of those boundaries. And I’ll tell you, these categories, these personal or social identities, can be ethnic, shared ethnic or political or religious or community or workplace or even athletic team identities. I’ll give you a personal example. I grew up in the state of Wisconsin where the NFL football team there is the Green Bay Packers, so I grew up a Green Bay Packer fan.

And a while ago I saw an article in the newspaper that said that two musical artists, Justin Timberlake and Lil Wayne, were both avid Green Bay Packer fans, and that I immediately thought better of their music. More importantly, I wanted them to succeed more.

Matt Abrahams: I’d like to move on, and I have always loved your creative research methodologies that you’ve used. Can you explain for our listeners how studying hotel towel use and stealing from national parks helped you identify how social norms can be used to influence people?

Bob Cialdini: Let’s take the hotel study first. I remember being in a hotel room, this is several years ago, and seeing one of these cards that ask us to reuse our towels and linens. It’s a hanging card usually in the bathroom somewhere, on a doorknob or a towel rack, and it often has a picture of some endangered woodland species, snow owls or something like this, and asking us to reuse our towels for the sake of the environment.

And you know I’m a persuasion researcher, I’m a social influence researcher, and I’m always looking for places to study social influence. And I remember looking at this card and saying to myself you know how there are these signs you see that say “this space available for rent” or “this space available for lease” on buildings and so on, I looked at that card and I said to myself this space available for test. What could we say on the card, we can include all kinds of appeals besides do this for the environment and look to see which was most powerful.

And so we did this with various hotels. We had the cooperation of the managers and we went into hotel rooms and randomly assigned various kinds of cards that were the same except for the recommendation, please do this for, right, and the environment was one, please do this for future generations was another. But the one that made the most difference was “the majority of guests who stay in this hotel have reused their towels,” and that produced a significant increase in the willingness of people to reuse their towels.

But even more interesting we got a more significant effect if we said not just the majority of visitors to our hotel have reused their towels, the majority of visitors who’ve stayed in this room have reused their towels. We got significantly more now because the principle we’re talking about is the principle of social proof, that if a lot of other people are doing something it validates the behavior, it makes it more correct. But if those people are comparable to us, staying in the same room now that’s not unity, that’s just similarity here, they’re comparable they’re like us. Well, that makes their behavior even more diagnostic of what we should do.

Matt Abrahams: I have seen those signs in hotel rooms, in fact just recently, and every time I think of you and that research, every time I put my towel back up rather than put it on the floor to go out I think of that research. And how is this related to work you did in the Petrified Forest in Arizona?

Bob Cialdini: So the Petrified Forest that is in Arizona is a national treasure. There is a big sign that appears as you enter the forest that uses this principle of social proof in an entirely wrong-headed way. It says “so many people have been stealing petrified wood from the forest floor that it’s endangering the integrity of the forest.” I know what the generators, the producers of that sign were intending, but they made a serious mistake in telling people that all of their peers steal.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Bob Cialdini: So what we did was to go into the park at different pathways and put up a sign that essentially said so many people have been doing this it’s problematic for the forest, please don’t be one of them. And on the sign there was a picture of three people stealing wood, picking up wood from the forest. That sign nearly tripled theft.

Matt Abrahams: You were teaching them how to steal.

Bob Cialdini: That’s right, that it was a legitimate thing to do, it was okay, everybody does this. We had another sign that instead of normalizing theft marginalized it. That sign said “if even one person steals from the forest it undermines the integrity of the park” and we showed a single person picking up petrified wood. That sign halved theft compared to a control group.

Matt Abrahams: I find both those studies very fascinating, and they highlight how we can leverage social proof and norms to increase the likelihood of our persuasive success. It leads me to my next question because in essence the manipulations you were doing in both of those studies was changing wording and images. I’m curious to learn your thoughts about the role of language and wording and how they play out in persuasion. Does word choice really matter?

Bob Cialdini: Yeah, let’s begin with language. It works for persuasion. Let’s say you have an idea that you would like to move up the ladder in your organization because you think it’s a terrific initiative that would help all concerned. But to do that you need to get the buy-in of your colleagues before you up the ladder. And what you often will do is show them a summary of your idea or a blueprint and ask for their opinion on it to get their input. Getting their input is very important and it’s the right thing to do.

The wrong thing to do is to ask for their opinion because when you ask for opinion you get a critic. You get someone who steps back from you and goes inside, introspects to examine the pros and cons and the critique that he or she can deliver for your idea. If instead you activate the principle of unity by changing one word, instead of asking for that person’s opinion you ask for that person’s advice on your idea. Now instead of getting a critic you get a partner, you get somebody who is in it with you, you get somebody who is a collaborator.

And research shows that if you use the word advice rather than opinion not only do you get more favorable evaluations of your idea, you get better input from them as to how to modify and improve your idea.

Matt Abrahams: Just by simply changing one word —

Bob Cialdini: One word.

Matt Abrahams: — you change the entire interaction and actually get more of what you were really looking for, that is fascinating.

Bob Cialdini: Exactly. And it all has to do with the associations to that word. The associations to opinion are critique. The associations to advice are partnership based.

Matt Abrahams: So we really do have to be mindful of the words we choose to help drive in the direction we are trying to achieve with our persuasion or our influence. So before we end, Bob, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone who joins me. Are you up for that?

Bob Cialdini: Sure.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Okay. If you were to capture the best communication advice you have ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation slide title what would it be?

Bob Cialdini: Don’t have a favorite go-to persuasive approach. Don’t think, oh, scarcity, I’m always going to use, don’t think, oh, I’m always going to use social proof, no, no. You use the one that’s in there. It’s a fool’s game to think that the same approach will be optimal across settings and circumstances and populations, no, it won’t. The way to be ethical and effective is to say is there truly scarcity here, then I get to use it. Is there true authority here, science-based information that I have, bring that to the surface. Is there true popularity of social proof involved, mention that inside your message.

Matt Abrahams: So there’s several components or what I heard you say. One is be aware of your circumstance and adjust to it, so understand which of these tools is available to you ethically in the moment. And then don’t rigidly lock in to just one way of doing it. So part of it is awareness and then part of it is making use of what is available to you there. So let me move on to my second question. Who is a communicator that you admire and why?

Bob Cialdini: Right now I’d say Greta Thunberg. She has overcome certain cognitive and affective abnormalities, Asperger’s, depression, to become a powerful communicator for the environment. And she lives her commitment to it leading by example.

Matt Abrahams: And her messages are very clear and moving as well.

Bob Cialdini: Right. She really understands what gets through by stripping away the message to its purest form.

Matt Abrahams: And my final question, what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Bob Cialdini: Credibility, ethics, and application.

Matt Abrahams: Credibility, ethics, and application. Can you give us a sentence or two on each of those because those seem so foundational and important?

Bob Cialdini: Credibility, you have to be seen as someone who knows what he or she is doing, has the background, experience, credentials to be somebody to listen to. Secondly, to maintain the ethics of the communication and the durability of the relationship, you can fool people, they won’t come back. Have you ever found yourself being tricked into something by someone, a product service communicator, politician, whatever, and then would you ever listen to that person again? No.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely not, and in fact I’d actively warn people against it.

Bob Cialdini: Yeah, so part of a successful communication recipe is not just in the moment, but in the long term, how do we maintain relationships in which people are willing to listen to us and follow our recommendations. And then finally application, we have to give people a reason to listen to us, that there’s something that they can now do with this piece of information that we’ve given them, or this product or service, that will be of benefit to them, will lead to positive outcomes for them. We have to show them that.

Matt Abrahams: Well, thank you, Bob. It has been a great pleasure to chat with you and to learn from you and receive your advice. And thank you again for the influence you’ve had personally on my academic career and for helping all of us to become better at understanding the elements that go into successful persuasion and pre-suasion. It has been a true pleasure to chat with you.

Bob Cialdini: I enjoyed it, Matt.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you. Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast from Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Ryan Campos, and me, Matt Abrahams. Our music was provided by Floyd Wonder. For more information and episodes find us on YouTube or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you and please make sure to subscribe and follow us on LinkedIn.

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