Easily Fooled: The Secrets of Influence and Persuasion

We all like to think that our thoughts are our own. That we are independent thinkers who are not easily fooled.

But have you ever stopped to consider why you have certain thoughts or do certain things. Buy certain products. Are those thoughts and actions uniquely yours or have they come from somewhere else. Can there be hidden influences that shape your thoughts and decisions. Can we be easily fooled without even thinking about it?

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I’ve written before about how our opinions, our thoughts about someone or something, can be changed by simple things like a hot beverage, a specific word, or the opinions of random strangers.

Those were only a few examples. The level of influence we can be under and the sheer power of persuasion is a vast, often unseen, force.

Persuasion techniques are used on us every day. Mostly in the field of advertising and marketing. And whilst not all of the techniques work on everybody, or all the time, we are bombarded with them on such a daily and excessive level that it is no surprise some permeate our minds and cause us to act accordingly.

Dwarves, Rabbits, And The Power Of Priming And Schemas.

Think of a lucky dwarf. Yes, a lucky dwarf. Whatever you consider that to be. What your mind would imagine a lucky dwarf is. Got it. Good.

Now pick a number between 1 and 10.

Was the first number that flashed in your mind 7? I know mine was. I know the majority of people in work I tried this on all said 7. Did you?

Or what if I told you a story about the time at Easter when my son had told me he didn’t believe in the Easter Bunny. That big magical rabbit. That he would rather roll oranges than eggs. Oranges?!

Now what if I asked you to name a vegetable you could grow in a garden?

Would you say carrot? Again I tried this out. Again, carrot was the majority answer.

How can that be? Are 7 and Carrot just the most common answer or is something else going on?

Ok, so I know the above examples are a bit frivolous. Mere trickery to show how easily fooled we can be. Tricks I learned after listening to a book written by a former ‘mind reader’ who has an interest in persuasion techniques. But they are a clear example of what is called priming a schema.

In psychology, priming (according to Wikipedia) is ‘a technique whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention’. Or as the ‘mind reader’, Nick Kolenda, puts it: ‘priming is the means by which you activate a schema or mindset’.

A schema describes a pattern of thought or behaviour that organises categories of information and how they are related to each other. Stereotypes are schemas. Schemas can be useful because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting the huge amount of information that is available in our environment. You can prime a schema by exposing people to certain words or ideas related to a particular schema.

The reason why you thought of the number 7 is because 7 is associated with being a lucky number and the most common dwarfs we know are from Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs. The reason who you may have said carrot is because I mentioned a bunny and oranges. What orange vegetable do you commonly associates with rabbits?

Priming plays a big role in a lot of areas like advertising, marketing and even politics, where people are trying to sway an opinion to suit their needs.

Easily Fooled By Influence and Persuasion Techniques

There are many influence and persuasion techniques that are used on us every day. They tend to work as we can’t be always consciously thinking about what we are doing. There is so much stimulus around us that we take shortcuts by having automatic responses to things. It is through these unthinking moments we can be easily fooled.

In his bestselling book, ‘Influence: The Psychology Of Persuasion’, Robert Cialdini takes an in-depth look at the most commonly used methods of persuasion. While you may not yet think you know what they are, as soon as they are explained you may find yourself recognising them and the times they were used on you. You may see the times you really have been easily fooled.


The rule of reciprocation is a powerful rule as it has been with us for a long time. At a simple level it is about the need to repay a favour. If someone does something for you, you naturally feel obliged to do something for them. It’s a behaviour we all have.

Every human society subscribes to this all-pervasive rule and as Cialdini says ‘it may well be that a developed system of indebtedness flowing from the rule for reciprocation is a unique property of human culture’.

Cialdini asserts that ‘human societies derive a truly significant competitive advantage from the reciprocity rule, and consequently they make sure their members are trained to comply with and believe in it’.

We’ve been taught to live by this rule and are aware of the ‘social sanctions and derision applied to anyone who violates it.’

Because there is general dislike for those who only take, and do not give in return, people ‘will often go to great lengths to avoid being considered one of their number.’ Because of this it makes us an easy target for those who wish to use the rule against us.

A study that highlights this rule involved someone doing a small, unsolicited favour, for a test subject. The favour was simply buying a Coke for the other person in the study. The test was done a few times with some people receiving the Coke and some not. Shortly after the person who bought the Coke, or not, asked the test subject to buy some raffle tickets. The results showed that those who received the Coke bought twice as many raffle tickets.

Tellingly, it did not matter if the test subjects liked the person buying the Coke or not. They still felt an obligation to repay the favour. This indicates that ‘the rule for reciprocity was so strong that it simply overwhelmed the influence of a factor…that normally affects the decision to comply’. That is, whether we like, or dislike, the person doing the favour.

In the blogging world it could be the reason why we are commonly told that if you want people to read your work, you should read their’s first. Leave a like and comment. The natural impulse, the rule of reciprocation, comes into play and the person whose post you read, and interacted with, may be more inclined to check out your work in return.

Some people use this rule to full effect. But if you stopped to think. If someone has thousands of followers and says they follow everyone who follows them back. Do they really have the time to read everyone’s work. Or are they just using the reciprocity rule to their advantage.

Consistency and Commitment

Another psychological trait that is used against us is our need to be consistent and committed. Using the example of people betting on horses, Cialdini illustrates that just after placing a bet people are more confident of their horse’s chances of winning than before the bet was placed. Even though nothing has changed in regards to the horse or racetrack.

The reason is ‘our nearly obsessive desire to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have already done’ and that ‘once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment’. It is those pressures that will make us respond in ways to justify the decision we have made.

This is because in society ‘consistency is valued’ while ‘inconsistency is commonly thought to be an undesirable personality trait’. If your beliefs, words and actions, don’t match you are viewed in a negative light. Whereas ‘a high degree of consistency is normally associated with personal and intellectual strength’.

If someone can get you to make a commitment they will have put you in a position where you will then have to act according to that commitment and be consistent.

Commitment strategies are ‘intended to get us to take some action or make some statement that will trap us into later compliance through consistency pressures’.

There is an additional tactic used which starts with this first action. The ‘foot-in-the-door’ technique gets you to comply with a small favour or request to gain your later compliance with a much larger request.

An example of the ‘foot-in-the-door’ technique saw researchers calling to houses to get people to sign a petition that favoured keeping their country beautiful. Two weeks later a different researcher went to the same houses to ask the residents to allow a big ‘drive carefully’ sign to be erected in their garden. Over half agreed even though the two things appeared unrelated.

It was found that the act of signing the petition had helped change the view the people had of themselves. They now saw themselves as ‘public-spirited citizens who acted on their civic principles.’

When asked to perform the other public service by erecting the drive carefully sign they basically ‘complied in order to be consistent with their newly formed self-images.’

Because of this Cialdini advises to be ‘very careful about agreeing to trivial requests’ as ‘such an agreement can not only increase our compliance with very similar, much larger requests, it can also make us more willing to perform a variety of larger favours that are only remotely connected to the little one we did earlier’.

The power of this is such that Cialdini is ‘rarely willing to sign a petition anymore, even for a position I support’ as ‘such an action has the potential to influence not only my future behaviour but also my self-image in ways I may not want. ‘And once a person’s self-image is altered, all sorts of subtle advantages become available to someone who wants to exploit that new image’.

Social Proof

One way people tend to determine what is correct is by finding out what other people think is correct. This principle applies especially to the way we decide what constitutes correct behaviour because in a given situation we will accept the majority behaviour as being the correct one.

Experiments have found that the use of canned laughter causes an audience to laugh longer and more often and find the joke funnier. Even if that particular joke isn’t very funny. In fact, evidence indicates that canned laughter is even more effective for making us laugh at a bad joke.

Cialdini states that ‘we have become so accustomed to taking the humorous reactions of others as evidence of what deserves laughter that we, too, can be made to respond to the sound and not to the substance of the real thing’.

Evangelical preachers are known to use the social proof technique by having certain people set up to come forward during their meetings to give witness and donations. Like a bartender who puts tips of folded cash into their jar at the start of a shift to make it look like they are both deserving of tips and that other people tip notes instead of coins.

Social proof is the reason advertisers ‘love to inform us when a product is the “fastest-growing” or “largest-selling” because they don’t have to convince us directly that the product is good, they need only say that many others think so, which seems proof enough’.

Have you ever noticed that in televised charity events so much time is spent highlighting the amount of money raised and listing the people who have already donated money. They are communicating a clear message. ‘Look at all the people who have decided to give. It must be the correct thing to do’.

When I used to work as someone who would call to peoples houses to ask them to sign up and donate monthly to a particular charity it was well known that on the night of a big televised charity telethon people were more inclined to commit to the charity.

It didn’t matter that I was there for a different charity. The people in their homes had been primed by watching the televised event and were willing to help with any charity.

The Social Proof attests to the power of testimonials in increasing someones likelihood of buying something. Look at any product you are buying and you will most likely find a testimonial.


According to the scarcity rule we desire and value more something that is less-available. You may even have noticed this in any failed past relationships where, after the break-up, the person will say they’ll do anything to get back with you. That impulse of wanting what you can’t have. Of valuing more the thing that is lost.

The experiment that shows the value of the scarcity principle involved a jar of cookies. Participants were given a chocolate-chip cookie from a jar and were then asked to rate it for taste and quality. For half of the people talking part the jar contained 10 cookies. For the other half it only contained 2.

Unsurprisingly, the cookie from the jar of 2 was rated more highly than the cookie from the jar of 10. All the cookies were exactly the same. It was just because the jar that had the abundance of cookies saw them being rated less favourably.

Cialdini says that ‘compliance practitioners’ reliance on scarcity as a weapon of influence is frequent, wide-ranging; systematic, and diverse’. Adding that whenever this is the case ‘we can feel assured that the principle involved has notable power in directing human action.’


Something that sometimes works alongside the scarcity principal is the use of deadlines. As well as being told that there isn’t many product items available, or that the number of people allowed on a course are few, you may also be hit with the deadline. That the opportunity will expire in a relatively short time-frame.

Deadlines are just another way of getting you to hurry your decision for fear of missing out. The application of scarcity and the deadline increases the likelihood of you giving in to temptation.

Knowledge Is Your Best Defence

In Cialdini’s other book, written with Noah Goldstein and Steve Martin, ‘Yes! 50 Secrets From The Science Of Persuasion’, he covers a lot more of the little things that influence us into making decisions.

Some appear quite simple, like how we can be more amenable to people who have the same name or birth date as us. How a written post-it note on a survey letter can increase the amount of respondents. How a higher price can cause us to value something more due to our perception of ‘you get what you pay for’. How a waiter or waitress repeating back an order exactly as was said can increase the likelihood of getting a tip.

There are a lot of persuasion methods and techniques out there. Techniques used because we are easily fooled by them. They are mostly used by advertisers and marketers in their quest to get you to buy their product or take an action they want you to take.

A lot of us are easily fooled and fall for these techniques on a regular basis whilst at the same time thinking it is ourselves who have really made the decision without any hidden or secret influence. While these tactics are usually applied we won’t always fall for them. But they do work. Hence why they are used so often.

The best defence against such underhanded tactics to is be aware of them. Actually think about what is going on rather than leaving things to the automatic processes of your mind.

So the next time someone does you a favour, or only has a limited amount of something, or says you only have a limited time to apply for their course, or buy whatever product they are selling. Think twice. Think about what they want from you. Consider the tactics they might be employing. And make your decision based on what your really think and not just on an impulse you may feel. Maybe next time you won’t be so easily fooled.


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