The uses (and abuses) of influence: part two

The uses (and abuses) of influence: part two

Robert Cialdini is the Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University and the president of the consulting firm Influence at Work. In this edited interview with HBR executive editor Sarah Cliffe, he drills deeper into everyday uses of persuasion inside businesses and describes new research on the ethics of influence. Read the first part of the interview here.

Q: So many businesses now are global – what kinds of difficulties do you run into cross-culturally with persuasion?

A: The good news is that the six principles of influence do seem to exist in all cultures. They’re part of the human condition. The bad news is that their weights change from culture to culture.

In our research, we’ve found that in more collectivist, communal cultures, certain kinds of persuasive appeals are more successful. Social proof is very powerful. If a lot of your peers are doing something, that’s a more powerful impetus for you than for people in more individualistic cultures, where one looks inside the self and doesn’t use the group as the standard for deciding.

For example, we did a study in the US and in Poland, which has a more communal orientation than the US. We asked individuals if they would be willing to participate in a marketing survey. We also asked them whether they had done that sort of thing in the past and whether they thought their friends had.

In the US the issue that best correlated with whether people would participate was whether they themselves had previously done so. That’s the principle of consistency in action. In Poland it was whether they perceived that their friends had done that sort of thing in the past.

Q: One of the clichés in Western management literature is that the command-and-control organisation is dead. When we print something like that in HBR, I’m never sure if it rings true globally.

A: There’s some evidence in that regard. Citibank asked its managers in various countries the following question: Suppose a fellow manager’s project is suffering, and he or she asks for help. Responding will take time and energy, maybe even resources and staffing. Under what circumstances would you feel most compelled to help?

In Hong Kong and in China the answer was: “I would ask myself, is the requester connected to a senior person in my group?” Out of fealty, you have to say yes to someone who is above you.

In Spain the answer was: “I would ask myself, is the requester connected to one of my friends?” There it’s not fealty; it’s loyalty. It’s the liking principle.

You have to know those shifts in emphasis across cultures in order to optimise your effectiveness.

Q: One thing that has changed since you did your original work on influence is the extent to which the internet and social media have taken over our lives. When you’re not in a face-to-face setting, how does influence change?

A: Social media have allowed us to access other sources of information than in the past, but I don’t think they’ve changed our responses to influence appeals. One thing we’re seeing, though, is that people are beginning to be influenced by their peers more than by experts.

If you look at TripAdvisor or Yelp, you find that it’s not travel writers or restaurant critics who are influencing others’ choices. It’s people just like you and me, who can now report on their experiences.

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