Mastering a Lethal Dose of Influence: Reciprocation


Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, Matt. 7:12.  I disliked even typing that sentence. It just seems so trite. It feels like The Golden Rule was artificially manufactured for social engineering. As if it keeps society from consuming itself.  There is just something that feels completely false about it. “We’re highly complex humans. Surely engaging in social practices we learned in kindergarten doesn’t apply to the adult world.” WRONG. Despite its biblical declaration,  The Golden Rule is hard coded into our brains from thousands of years of evolutionary reciprocation.

One of the first studies of persuasion and reciprocation as we know if came from Professor Dennis Regan of Cornell University. On the surface, the study’s purpose was to evaluate art. The real goal was to see if people could be persuaded through reciprocation.

Two people were present at each experiment. One was a lab assistant posing volunteer test subject. The other was a real volunteer test subject. Toward the end of the experiment, the lab assistant leaves the room to buy a coke. In half the experiments the lab assistant also buys a Coke for the other volunteer test subject.  Later the lab assistant(test subject in disguise) asks the volunteer test subject to buy some raffle tickets.  Regan found those test subjects that received a Coke from the lab assistant bought twice as many raffle tickets as those that weren’t given a coke.

Enslavement by Obligation

At the end of the experiment, the subjects receiving Cokes were secretly asked if they liked the lab assistant. Surprisingly, those that disliked the lab assistant bought just as many tickets as those who liked him. The obligation of returning a favor completely cut through feelings likability. Also interesting, all volunteer subjects that were offered a Coke accepted it, but not all drank it. So those feelings of obligation were felt by people who hadn’t even benefited from the lab assistant’s generosity.

Cialdini cites a similar example of the Hare Krishnas in the 1970s. A common scenario was for them to walk up to a business man in an airport and stealthy slip a dried up flower in his hand.  When he tries to give it back they decline saying “It’s our gift to you.” After a couple iterations back and forth, the business man shrugs his shoulders, flower in hand, and proceeds to exit. This is when the Krishnas askfor a donation. The business men often complied, gave a donation, and threw the flower away.20140706MONKSss-slide-JMZW-videoSixteenByNine1050-v2

You see new versions of this today in cities like San Francisco or New York. I’ve been approached by fake buddhist monks beaming with large smiles. They walk up and try to slip a tin coin or medallion into your hand. When you ask them whats going on you don’t get much of a response. If you take it, they ask for a donation $20.

So whats behind all this? Why are people buying more raffle tickets when they don’t even drink the Coke. Why are business men giving the Hare Krishnas donations for flowers they don’t want and later throw in the trash.  The answer is obligation. The minute you agree to accept something, whether or not you actually want it, you are obligated. That is how they hook you.  You are in a sense your own worst enemy. Once you accept something, you can’t not want to repay it (unless you’re a sociopath).

Watch Gary Vaynerchuk reveal reciprocation as the basis of his whole promo strategy.

Reciprocation Quicksand

Cialdini cites an example from The Hidden Persuaders where a grocery store sold a thousand pounds of cheese in a day.  The store did this by inviting customers to cut as many samples off a block of cheese as they wanted.  What struck me was the participatory aspect of this promo. I think this was successful because shoppers weren’t just given a fixed amount but were allowed to take at their own discretion.

Obligation Glue

So if obligation is the goal, how do you how do you ensure all your gifts are accepted. You have to demonstrate that your gift took a certain amount of effort, time, or money.   It would be rude to deny a gift someone worked hard on. It does have a range though. If a coworker gifts you a new car,  kind of creepy. Someone buys you a coffee or lifesavers, within the realm of normal for that relationship.

Gotta Take to Receive – Concessions

Cialdini found concessions from negotiation actually produced stronger obligations than just an initial gift. Not only was the sense of obligation stronger, opponents were more likely to engage in successive deals.   In a typical negotiation one party starts off high while the other party attempts to negotiate the price down. When the first party agrees to a lower initial price he/she has conceded ground in the negotiation. Essentially they gave up personal value to come to a deal. Cialdini calls this the Reject & Retreat Method.

The R & R Method produces an obligation for the winning party because:

  • They feel responsible for winning the negotiation…big dopamine stimulus
  • They feel satisfied that an agreement was reached.

One thing to note is that this can backfire if the initial offer is seen as unreasonable.

Reciprocation Persuasion Recipe

  • Give something upfront, within reasonable range
  • Have the opponent participate if possible
  • Make it look like your gift took a modicum of effort
  • Know the reserve price you want to negotiate to and make initial offer higher
  • Negotiate slowly back to reserve price
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Mastering A Lethal Dose of Influence: Scarcity

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Everyone knows the tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet: idealistic love, feuding families, and suicide.  This has become the parable for modern romance. But what if Romeo and Juliet weren’t really that in love. What if they, and every teenage bad-boy or bad-girl romance is really just an unconscious reaction to a millennia old hack for survival.  Robert Cialdini sees parental disapproval as a major factor driving teens together. When parents forbid teenage relationships, those parents threaten freedom and choice of their kids.  And when something is scarce, even “Love,” we cling to it.

Channels for Scarcity

There are two main ways scarcity can be employed.

Deadlines-False Time Constraints

You’ve seen these:

  • Newspaper Ad……“Sale only lasts for x days.”
  • Radio Ad…..“Going out of business sale, once it’s gone it’s gone.” Except the business is still there afterward.
  • In person car shopping…..“If you leave the parking lot, I can’t promise you these same price on a new car.”
  • Any infomercial.
  • I’ve even successfully used this tactic on landing pages for PPC. “Sign up by this date[logic=current day+2] and get a free X[minimal cost].

If we think our opportunities evaporate in the future, we attempt to reverse that by acting immediately.

Limited Quantity

This one is pretty simple. The less of something there is, the more valuable it is. This basic economic concept is built into our psychology. A great example is when Amazon or any other ecommerce site shows how many items are left.

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Are there really only two watches left on this sale item. A watch that they are trying to get rid of and only has one vendor on Amazon? Only Amazon and Oris know. Even if the stock # is accurate, are you more tempted to buy it now than if Oris had 100 in stock?

Ways to Juice-Up the Scarcity Effect

Combine Scarcity of  Items & Info

Psychologists Brock and Fromkin have developed  Commodity Theory of information. Basically the lesser known a particular piece of info, the more valuable it is. Cialdini illustrates this concept with an anecdote of his former student.

The student owned a meat supply business. After a conversation with Prof. Cialdini, the student injected scarcity theory into his sales strategy. Three groups a sales teams tried three different approaches. Group A used the same old sales pitch. Group B used the old pitch but mentioned an upcoming scarcity of meat for the market.   Group C used the old pitch but mentioned an upcoming scarcity.  Group C  also mentioned that they had a secret inside source for the scarcity info. After this trial period Group B sold twice as much as A. Group C sold six times as much as Group A.

Transitioned Scarcity and Competition

Stephen Worchel performed a study involving a chocolate cookies. There were four groups asked to rate the desirability of the cookies.

Group A= Had 10 cookies

Group B=Had 2 cookies

Group C=Had 10 cookies but then removed 8

Group D=Had 10 cookies but then removed 8 and was told others want them.

Group D rated their cookies the most desirable. What we can take away from this is that a transition of surplus to scarcity produces larger perceived value than a constant scarcity. When we introduce competition, that want surplus cookies, we see that value compounded.

I’ve seen transitioned scarcity occur even in SEO. One of the many upheavals in the SEO world was the (not provided) saga. Basically Google Analytics began phasing out organic keyword data in 2011.  We’ve been without precise keywords for a while. And yet, US searches, presumably to find a solution to the missing keywords, are trending higher than ever.

Utility vs Perception

An interesting note to the Worchel’s study was that all the groups rated the taste of the cookies the same. So desirability was elastic but its functional results were static. I think the moral to the story is using scarcity can affect short term productivity. But, if your product or service is of poor quality, you’ll never retain your customers. You can persuade them to buy the first cookie and take a bite. But if you cookie sucks, you’ve just lost a customer.

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Mastering A Lethal Dose of Influence: Authority

In an attempt to understand how ordinary Germans could support the Holocaust, Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment at Harvard in 1961. He brought two human subjects into a room, a “teacher” and a “student”. The subjects were separated into two roles, the “student” hooked up to electrodes, the “teacher” administering shocks. The results were pretty conclusive. When the “teacher” was instructed to shock the “student” he/she did so. The “student” complained of pain, that he had a heart condition, that he wanted to end the experiment.  Despite all these cues to halt, 2/3  of  the “teachers” kept shocking the “student” with the maximum voltage. Some “teachers” were sweating, some biting their nails, some digging finger nails into their hands, some biting their lips. The only reason the “teachers” acted against their better moral judgement was that official lab staff encouraged them to keep shocking the “student.”

Obedience to authority is something we’re taught as children and has been instrumental to human evolution.  You learn about authority as a child and obey your parents. They are wiser and confer safety and support. You obey your boss. She/he understands the business better and confers a stable income. We try to  obey laws issued by politicians. Doing so keeps us out of jail and from slipping into anarchy. We listen to doctors because they can heal us. So obedience to Authority has been ingrained into our mental DNA over thousands of years. With the many Authority roles in todays society, it’s cognitively taxing to question each instruction. Most of the time Authority figures are correct. That’s why most people don’t scrutinize decisions handed down by Authority figures and simply do what they’re told. It’s just easier. This is precisely where where we are susceptible to suggestion.

Back in the 1970s Robert Young starred in many advertisements for Sanka, a healthy alternative to coffee. The strategy behind using Young was that he happened to play a Doctor on TV, Marcus Welby. Could nationally recognized TV doctor recommending a health product actually work? I imagine Hugh Laurie was solicited many times to pitch products like Tylenol or Benadryl.

So what makes someone appear like an Authority on a subject? Robert Cialdini believes it is the following:

  • Clothing-If you’re wearing a police uniform, you probably know something about criminal law; unless you’re a male stripper.
  • Titles-Dr. , SVP, Distinguished Engineer, Master of Sport.  The more fancy shmancy your title the more authority you command.
  • Size-People with authority are usually thought of as being physically larger. And by the same token larger people usually get a subtle boost in authority. Conmen typically wear heighten platform shoes to give themselves more credibility.

My 10 Second Brain Storm

  • On  blogs posts, increase trust by adding a spiffy title to the byline.
  • Taking some PR photos at Conference? Stand next to your peers and stretch out. Stand on your toes. Capture the moment.
  • Utilize your own industry specific Dr. House images or symbols on digital campaigns.
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Mastering a Lethal Dose of Influence: Likability

Is it possible to feel so enraged with a soccer team’s loss,  you morph into the Incredible Hulk and extinguish the lives of those around you ? In Peru on May 24, 1964 more than 300 people lost their lives never suspecting the answer was Yes. Surely if they understood the potential risks of they never would’ve attended.

In 1964 the National Stadium in Lima more than 300 people died in a soccer riot.  The home-country team, Peru, was upset at losing to the visiting Argentinian team. A referee disallowed a controversial goal from Peru. One that would’ve meant a chance at the Olympics. Fans were so upset the fell into a blind rage destroying everything in their path.

Cialdini says sports fans are most susceptible to this irrational behavior when other parts of their life are insecure and downtrodden. That fans desperately needed a fix of positive feedback they couldn’t find outside of soccer.

Some background helps illustrate why Peruvian fans might’ve felt this way. During the early 1960s communist revolution, voter fraud, and military juntas were the norm in Peru.Robert Cialdini believes this reaction to losing came from an intertwined identity between the team and each fan.   Peruvian fans were so desperate to be liked as Olympic winners, their team,s loss drove them to a temporary insanity. If the political climate were more secure, would this soccer riot have happened the same way? Maybe, maybe not.

To understand the complete power in likability Cialdini partitions it into 5  areas.

Physical Attractiveness

This one is pretty straight forward. The more attractive you are the more likable you are. The more likable you are the more influential you are.  Cialdini even cites examples where attractive criminal were sentenced to less time in court cases than ugly criminals.  Short of going out and getting plastic surgery,  the Forbes Facelift a popular choice, the main point here is to groom yourself appropriately.


You see this trait repeated in the Social Proof summary. It’s a biggie.  Generally speaking we like people similar to us.  Notice in the last section about attractiveness that I didn’t talk about shaving, makeup, or hair products.  That’s because Physical Attractiveness often depends on similarity. For example, if you wanted to ingratiate yourself to a bunch of programmers it’s probably fine to have messy hair or a beard.

Musk Solyndra

In Zero to One (great book BTW) Peter Theil reveals that Founders Fund doesn’t usually back founders dressed in suits. He contrasts his buddy at Paypal with Solyndra CEO Brian Harrison: There is nothing wrong with a CEO  who can sell.  But if he actually looks like a salesman, he’s probably bad at sales and worse at tech.

When you groom yourself, know who you’re grooming yourself for. The standard suit and tie doesn’t work everywhere.

Similarity goes beyond looks though. Salesmen will regularly chat you up before they try to sell you. They are digging, trying to get to know you personally so they can imitate some detail from your past. “Oh you went to University of Washington, so did my brother. He was a Husky also. Bla bla bla…”

Similarity even extends to unspoken things like posture. When someone has a similar posture to us, we usually favor them. With all of these you have to be careful to not overdo it. One time in an interview I caught someone mirroring my posture. I slowly did the Macarena wondering how far he’d follow me. He stopped at the head.


Similarity can be supercharged with cooperation. Just the act of participating in an activity with someone makes you more likable. Think about “work friends.” These are people who you have very little in common with and would never hang out with in real life. If you have “work friends” chances are you fought a lot of battles in the inbox battlefield and cubicle farms.

A more notorious example comes from the good cop/bad cop technique developed by law enforcement. When police want to elicit a confession from a suspect one of them will pose as irrationally angry. The other will act calm and nurturing toward the suspect. This act sets a stage where the good cop and suspect battle the bad cop. If the technique is used correctly, the suspect will bond with the good cop seeing them as a savior. The ultimate goal is to get the suspect to reveal information or confession to the good cop. This technique is so effective, many innocent suspects have confessed to crimes they never committed.


Generally speaking we like people who compliment us. No duh you say. Well, did you know compliments  are effective even when they are false. They also work when there is no possibility the compliment can be true. “Hey Brenda saw someone that looked liked you at the Oscars. It must’ve been you. You know important people huh.”

Conditioning & Association

The last variable to likability is conditioning and association. Conditioning is basically making a a link between a feeling and an independent entity. Association is knowingly linking yourself to something popular in order to syphon off likable equity. Some common examples:

  • Car show salesmen planting attractive women next to the car they want to sell.(Conditioning)
  • TV weathermen receiving hate mail because they reported rain.(Conditioning)
  • Radio stations announcing their call letter right before they play a hit song.(Conditioning)
  • Political candidates asking Celebrities to campaign for them.(Conditioning)
  • Rock groupies that brag about who they had sex with.(Association)
  • Donald Trump spending enormous amounts of time talking about how he is winning the Republican Primaries. Every voter wants to elect a winner right. (Association)
  • “Name droppers.”(Association)
  • Profound euphoria/distress when a local sport team wins/loses.(Association)

saintsA less extreme example of the 1963 Peru soccer match can be found in the 1980 New Orlean Saints. The Saint’s record was so awful, fans started wearing paper bags on their head. They still wanted to watch their hometown lineup but didn’t want to the stigma of being associated with a losing team.

My 10 Second Brain Storm

  • Attractiveness -On your /About-Us page on your website add some photos of your staff. Don’t be afraid to do a little nip-tuck with photoshop. But don’t go overboard and look plastic. It’s worth the extra time. Little things==big impact.
  • Similarity–  If you have captured emails at any point of the sales funnel go to Facebook’s power editor, see what interests the have. You can use that to guide your TOFU-MOFU(top of the funnel-middle of the funnel) social media/blog strategies.
  • Cooperation-Contribute to charities or causes your customers value. But don’t just donate money. Engage them with a little back and forth. Promise to match their efforts. Send out some thank you letters. Celebrate the total amount raise. Make a T-shirt. This will have a direct effect on reducing churn. Makes for good PR as well.
  • Compliments–  Use it liberally on emails or landing pages. You could also segment your retargeting by page and compliment the person on whatever subject the page covered in your retargeting copy.
  • Conditioning & Association– Offer up something that stimulates dopamine with your brand.  White-label some coffee with your logo on it.  Coffee-buzz & your logo == brand advocate. If you aren’t big on caffeine white-label a batch of chocolate.
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Mastering a Lethal Dose of Influence: Social Proof


Jim Jones

How did Jim Jones convince more than 900 in people to poison themselves and “drink the kool-aid” laced with cyanide? Robert Cialdini believes the answer lies in Social Proof. Jones’s recipe for manipulation was made up of two principle ingredients:

  • Relocation of the cult to an isolated compound in Guyana.
  • Grooming a small group of dedicated followers to serve as  examples for the majority of the congregation.

While Social Proof is usually thought of in more benign terms, the Jonestown example illustrates the unchecked power of highly optimized social influence.

To understand how Social Proof really operates it helpful to observe some other examples in the wild.

Other Forms of Social Proof

Food Courts or Food Trucks


Ever seen a plethora of food options and one vendor dominating them? Does this one sided domination happen because hungry eaters know the vendors’ food is good or because they trust the line wouldn’t exist without good reason.

I try to do intermittent fasting so I’m often hungry and impatient by lunch time. When I go out for lunch, I’ll usually opt for food trucks with shorter lines over tastier food trucks with long lines. Often, when I’ve chosen the lonely food vendor with no line, others follow me. Am I the magical pied piper for hungry people? I don’t believe so. Something else is at work.

Facebook Ads

Facebook ads are a powerful tool for online marketing. One trait that separates them from a search or print  ad is social interaction. People targeted by the ads can comment, like, or share. I’ve seen some FB ads run for months with zero engagement. Eventually a brave soul is willing to make a comment on the ad for everyone to see. Then I’ll see another comment within the week. After that maybe a share. Then another comment. Is it coincidence all these people are engaging the ad within weeks?

Manufactured Approval


  • The Claque: Cialdini introduces the profession claqueurs. Formed in the 18the century, a claque are planted audience members the theatre hires to clap and the end of a performance. Yep, their job is to clap.  Are we really more apt to clap just because someone else is?
  • Laugh Tracks: This is the obvious fake background laughter you hear on mediocre comedy sitcoms.  Cialdini says it’s most effective with jokes that aren’t funny.  My first thought of a show doing this is  The Big Bang Theory (sorry BBT fans).  The fake laugh track practically interrupts the awful punchlines before the characters are even finished speaking. Watch the first video and compare it with the next. Are you tempted to laugh more at the 2nd one?

Suicides of Public Figures

Ok this one is a little dark. But suicides of famous people correlate with increased airplane crashes and fatal car accidents. Cialdini attributes this to the Werther effect.  Basically people already on the verge of suicide being persuaded over the tipping point by mass media.

You even see larger correlation coefficients by age and geography proximity.  Some 30 year old rock star from Florida kills themselves. We see increases in death from 30 year olds in Florida.

DNA of Social Proof

If you haven’t discovered the similarities between all these Social Proofs it’s ok. Essentially humans gauge others actions to decide our own. Cialdini thinks these Social Proofs are built on two basic variables, uncertainty and similarity.

In uncertain situations, humans look for external cues to make sense of a confusing world. Not sure if there’s a shark in the water. A bunch of people swimming in the ocean not being eaten probably means it safe. You can see how this mechanism has been fused into our evolution.

In the Jonestown example, Jim Jones was successful because there was no outside voice of sanity. Parishioners were in the middle of no where in the South American jungle. Church members couldn’t just walk out to a police officer, social worker, or family member and ask if killing themselves made sense. In absence of outside advice they had to rely on other parishioners who were equally confused or worse, promoting Jones’s insanity.

The other variable that makes up Social Proof is similarity. Similarity can be thought of as tribal affinity. Are the outside social cues we look for coming from someone that represents my clan or someone like me. If so, I better pay attention.

Take Aways

To fully leverage Social Proof in your marketing campaigns you need to ask the following questions:

  •  What fears or uncertainty does the target customer have about your product/industry?
  • Who or what do we present them with(understand your customer psychographics) as trusted guide?
  • Is this trusted guide authentic or half-assed(think plain text testimonials with no credible identity)?
  • How does this Social Proof drive them to the next step of the sales funnel?

So thats it. Nothing fancy. Just understand that we humans use Social Proof as a way to shortcut past the unknown. Be the shortcut, acquire a customer.

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