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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2020

Eye on Psi Chi

SPRING 2020 | Volume 24 | Number 3

How Is Successful Persuasion Best Achieved?

Robert B. Cialdini, PhD
Arizona State University

The ability to influence the decisions and behaviors of others is incredibly useful. So, how is successful persuasion best achieved?

For more than 70 years, behavioral scientists have been studying how to reliably persuade others. This article first briefly reviews this body of research with regard to six proven and universal principles of persuasion. Second, it shares information about a newly recognized form of persuasion technology—pre-suasion, which involves what a persuader can say or do immediately before delivering a message in order to significantly increase its effectiveness.

Universal Principles of Persuasion

The pace of modern life is increasingly complex and ever-accelerating. This deprives people of sufficient time and ability to make carefully examined decisions. As a result, they must often resort to a shortcut (or heuristic) approach in which a choice is made on the basis of a single, usually reliable piece of information. Research has identified six principles of influence that operate as such shortcuts in the realm of persuasion (Cialdini, 2009):

  1. Reciprocity: People feel obligated to return gifts and favors they have received. In one study, shoppers at a candy store became 42% more likely to make a purchase if they’d first received a gift piece of chocolate upon entry (Lammers, 1991).
  2. Authority: People look to experts to show them the way. Individuals who are shown the opinion of a distinguished economist on an economic problem not only massively followed that opinion, they did so without evaluating other relevant evidence (Engelmann, Capra, Noussair, & Berns, 2009).
  3. Scarcity: People want more of what they can have less of. Brand promotions that had a purchase limit (“Only X per customer”) or time limit (“For today only”) more than doubled sales at a large grocer chain compared to promotions without a limit (Inman, Peter, & Raghubir, 1997).
  4. Liking: People like and want to say “yes” to those who are similar to them. Research has shown that the odds of a failed negotiation are significantly reduced when the negotiators uncover similarities (e.g., hobbies) they share (Moore, Kurtzberg, Thompson, & Morris, 1999).
  5. Consistency: People want to act consistently with what they have publicly said or done. Having people sign an honesty pledge at the top of an insurance form (instead of at the bottom) led to significantly less lying on the form (Shu, Mazar, Gino, Ariely, & Bazerman, 2012).
  6. Social proof: People look to others’ behavior to guide their own. British tax officials collected hundreds of millions of additional pounds by including a message on tax recovery letters stating that most people do pay their taxes on time (Martin, 2012).

Communicators who incorporate one or another of these principles into their messages can often elevate the success of the messages greatly.

The Psychology of Pre-Suasion

As we’ve seen, researchers have learned a great deal over the years about which elements to build into a message for greatest impact. But, recently, they have begun to realize that, by focusing so intently on the message itself, they’ve missed a crucial component of the process. Effective persuasion is also achieved through effective pre-suasion: the practice of arranging for people to agree with a message before they experience it.

On its face, pre-suasion may seem like some form of magic. After all, how can we arrange for people to agree with a message before they know what it is? But it’s not magic. It’s established science (Cialdini, 2016), which works by putting audience members in a mindset that fits with a forthcoming message, thereby intensifying the impact of the message when it is delivered. Here are some examples of the frames of mind that a savvy pre-suader might want to create in others before sending a persuasive message.

Helpfulness. In one study, researchers approached people and asked for help on a survey task for which they would not be paid, and only 29% agreed to participate. But then the researchers approached a second sample of people and preceded that request with a simple, pre-suasive question to which most agreed: “Do you consider yourself a helpful person?” When asked to help this time, 77.3% volunteered for the task because doing so fit with a recently installed mind-set regarding helpfulness (Bolkan & Anderson, 2009).

Trust. Gaining someone’s trust normally requires much time and effort. However, employing a clever pre-suasive strategy can help to acquire rapid trust. A communicator who references a weakness early-on is immediately seen as more honest than one who succumbs to the tendency to describe all of the favorable features of a proposal upfront and reserves mention of any drawbacks until the end of a presentation (or never). Once it’s perceived this trustworthiness is already in place, an audience is more likely to believe the major strengths of the case when they are advanced (Dolnik, Case, & Williams, 2003).

By employing this approach, Elizabeth I of England optimized the impact of one of the most celebrated speeches of her reign. At Tilbury in 1588, she addressed her soldiers who were massed against an expected sea invasion from Spain, and who were also concerned that she wasn’t up to the rigors of battle because she was a woman. She said, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman. But, I have the heart of a king; and a king of England too!” The cheers after this pronouncement were so loud and lasted so long that officers had to ride among the men and order them to restrain themselves so the Queen could continue.

Cooperation. Suppose that you developed a new plan and want to get a colleague’s support. Ask your coworker for advice concerning the idea, not for opinions or expectations regarding it. Evaluators who are asked to provide advice (instead of opinions or expectations) on a plan are put in a cooperative state of mind before they even experience the plan. This makes them more favorable to it when they then do encounter it. An old saying proclaims: “When we ask for advice, we are usually looking for an accomplice.” I would only add on the basis of scientific evidence that, if we get that advice, we usually also get that accomplice (Lui & Gal, 2011).

Reputableness. During the 1970s, Henry Kissinger was perhaps America's greatest international negotiator. When asked who he considered to be the best such negotiator he had encountered, he chose Egypt’s then-president Anwar Sadat due to a pre-suasive tactic that Sadat often employed in order to get more from a negotiation than was warranted by his political or military position at the time. Before beginning negotiations, he would assign an admirable trait to the opposing side such as Israelis’ “well-known tradition of fairness,” “sympathy for the underdog,” or “support for those in need”, which always fit with whatever it was that he wanted to accomplish. As Kissinger worded it, "Sadat first gave his opponents a reputation to live up to"—something they then did remarkably often (Kissinger, 1982).


In sum, influence is optimized by both persuasion and pre-suasion—by what we put into a message and by what we put into the moment before that message. To influence most effectively, we would be well advised to strive to employ each component effectively.


Bolkan, S. S., & Anderson, P. A. (2009). Image induction and social influence: Explication and initial tests. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 31, 317–324.

Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice. New York, NY: Pearson Education.

Cialdini, R. B. (2016). Pre-Suasion. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Dolnik, L., Case, T. I., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Stealing thunder as a courtroom tactic revisited: Processes and boundaries. Law and Human Behavior, 27, 267–287.

Engelmann, J. B., Capra, C. M., Noussair, C., & Berns, G. S. (2009). Expert financial advice neurobiologically ‘offloads’ financial decision-making under risk. PLoS ONE, 4(3).

Inman, J. J., Peter, A. C., & Raghubir, P. (1997). Framing the deal: The role of restrictions in accentuating deal value. Journal of Consumer Research, 24, 68–79.

Kissinger, H. (1982). Years of upheaval. Boston, MA: Little Brown.

Lammers, H. H. (1991). The effect of free samples on immediate consumer purchase. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 8, 31–37.

Lui, W., & Gal, D. (2011). Bringing us together or driving us apart: The effect of soliciting consumer input on consumers’ propensity to transact with an organization. Journal of Consumer Research, 38, 242–259.

Moore, D. A., Kurtzberg, T. R., Thompson, L. L., & Morris, M. W. (1999). Long and short routes to success in electronically mediated negotiations: Group affiliations and good vibrations. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 77, 22–43.

Martin, S. J. (2012). 98% of HBR readers love this article. Harvard Business Review, 90, 23–5.

Shu, L. L., Mazar, N., Gino, F., Ariely, D., & Bazerman, M. H. (2012). Signing at the beginning makes ethics salient and decreases dishonest self-reports in comparison to signing at the end. PNAS, 109(38), 15197–15200.

Robert B. Cialdini, PhD, is Regents’ Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University. He has been elected president of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award of the Society for Consumer Psychology, the Donald T. Campbell Award for Distinguished Contributions to Social Psychology, the (inaugural) Peitho Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Science of Social Influence, The Lifetime Contributions Award of the Western Psychological Association, and the Distinguished Scientist Award of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology.

Dr. Cialdini’s book, Influence, which was the result of a 3-year program of study into the reasons that people comply with requests in everyday settings, has sold more than four million copies while appearing in numerous editions and 40 languages. Dr. Cialdini attributes his interest in social influences to the fact that he was raised in an entirely Italian family, in a predominantly Polish neighborhood, in a historically German city (Milwaukee), in an otherwise rural state.

Copyright 2020 (Vol. 24, Iss. 3) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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