The science of getting a ‘yes!’

Getting people to agree to and act on what we say can be a tough battle in these times when people have instant access to information, and are encouraged to be more critical of what they see, hear, even feel. For many of us, this is a daily challenge in our personal and professional lives—from convincing your child to help in household chores to rallying your team towards a more ambitious sales goal.

The good news is, being persuasive can be learned, and there’s a book that will teach you 50 ways—all based on over 60 years of research into the psychology of persuasion—to learn exactly how.

yes_50scientificallywaystobepersuasive_goldstein_martin_cialdiniThat book is Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive, co-authored by Robert Cialdini, the world’s most cited social psychologist. The persuasion techniques in the book are practical examples of the six universal principles of social influence:

  • commitment (we want to act consistently with our choices)
  • reciprocity (we feel obligated to return favors)
  • authority (we look to experts to show us the way)
  • scarcity (the less available the resource, the more we want it)
  • liking (the more we like people, the more we want to say yes)
  • social proof (we look to what others do to guide our behavior).


Here are some techniques from the book:

When does offering people more make them want less?

Behavioral scientist Sheena Iyenger analyzed company-sponsored retirement programs for nearly 800,000 workers to know how participation rates varied as a function of how many choices are offered. Results show that the more choices offered the less likely employees were to enroll in the program: when only two funds were offered, participation rate was roughly 75 percent, but when close to a hundred funds were offered, participation rate dropped to 60 percent.

When so many choices are available, people often find the decision-making process frustrating, which may sometimes result in non-decision.

Does fear persuade or does it paralyze?

Health researcher Howard Leventhal asked students to read a public health pamphlet on the dangers of tetanus infection. One set contained only the dangers of tetanus infection (high-fear message), while another set contained the dangers plus an action plan to get a tetanus injection (high-fear message + how to avoid danger). The high-fear message motivated the participants to get a tetanus injection only if it included a plan identifying the steps how and where to get the tetanus injection.

The more clearly people see behavioral means for ridding themselves of fear, the less they will resort to denial.

How can one small step help your influence take a giant leap?

Social psychologists Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser asked homeowners in a posh neighborhood to hang on their fence the small, almost inconspicuous sign “Drive carefully.” Many agreed, as it was a small request to advocate the right thing to do. Two weeks later, the homeowners were asked to replace the small sign with a bigger sign, and a high 76 percent of homeowners complied. This is a stark contrast to only 17 percent of homeowners in a different neighborhood who were only asked to hang the large sign.

Getting people to first agree to a small idea makes it easier to get them to agree to a bigger idea. In sales, paving the way for full-line distribution can start with a small order—the person is no longer prospect; he or she is already a customer.

When is it right to admit that you were wrong?

After several studies in controlled and natural settings, social scientist Fiona Lee posits that people’s usual response to an embarrassing error is to blame someone else or some external factors to divert attention from the source of the problem. Doing so, she argues, creates two bigger problems.

First, it does nothing to prove to skeptics that you have any control over the problem or the ability to fix the problem. Second, even if you manage to distract attention from your mistake in the short term, the spotlight will eventually find its way back to you in the long-term, highlighting not only your mistake, but also your deceptive impulses.

 If you’ve made a mistake, an error in judgment, or a bad decision, admit the mistake, immediately followed by an action plan demonstrating that you can take control of the situation and rectify it. Doing so puts yourself in a position of greater influence by being perceived as not only capable, but also honest.

What persuasion principle have you used often in your work?

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