Robert Cialdini Applies Influence to Politics

Question: Do you see these principles of influence at work in politics?

Cialdini:    I do.  Let’s take the two conventions that we’ve just experienced, the Democratic and Republican Convention.  Both were trying to send a message and, I think, a subtle message, not specifically enunciated but subtext below the surface message, each trying to activate a particular principle of influence that we all respond to.  For the Democrats, it was the principle of consensus, the fact that the final night speech was held in a stadium of 80,000 people, the message was, “Look at all of the people who are on board with us.  It must be the right thing to do.”  That message, very clear.  If everybody’s doing something, it’s a shortcut indication of what’s the valid thing to do.  Right?  For the Republicans, the message of John McCain, all of the people who were building up to his speech and all of the first half of his speech was, “Look what this man has already given to us.  Look at the service that he has provided.  Look at the pain that he has experienced as a patriot, as a captive, all those years.  He’s entitled to our support for what he’s done already.”  There’s a rule, the rule for reciprocation in all of human cultures that say, “We have to give back to those who have given to us.  We have to give back to those who have given to us.  [Otherwise], we’re not good people if we fail to do that.”  So the subtext message of the Republican Convention, I think, is, “Look at what our man has done for you.  You’re obligated to pay attention to his message, at least to do that much for him, if not to support him for what he’s done.”  The Democratic message was, “Look at all the people who are supporting us.  It must be the right thing for you too.” 

Question: Do the same principles of influence apply across cultures?

Cialdini:    There’s good news about the extent to which these principles apply in all cultures and there’s bad news too, for those of us who want to use them effectively.  The good news is, all 6 of these principles, the fundamental principles of influence, apply in all human cultures.  The bad news is the priorities associated with them are different in cultures.  There was a great study done at Stanford University in connection with Citibank that has offices all over the world.  These researchers went to Citibank employees in four prototypical cultures, and they said to these employees, “If one of your colleagues came to you with a request for help on a project that require taking time, energy, even staffing away from your own project, under what circumstances would you feel most obligated to say yes?”  And in the US, the answer came, “I would ask myself, has this requestor done anything for me lately?  If so, I have to say yes.”  That’s the rule for reciprocation.  In the Far East, the answer was different.  It was, “Is this requestor connected to my group, especially the senior person in my group?”  This was deference to authority. Out of fealty to one’s boss, you have to say yes to this person if he or she is connected to your boss.  In the Mediterranean cultures, Spain, the answer was, “Is this person connected to my friends?”  It wasn’t fealty to your boss, it was loyalty to your friendship network that spur the obligation, “I have to say yes to this person.”  And in Germany and the Scandinavian countries, the answer was different, “According to the official regulations and rules of this organization, am I supposed to say yes?”  So this was commitment and consistency to a mission statement, to a set of organizing principles, and people want to be consistent with that.  The key is to recognize…  Look, it’s not that in Germany, they don’t care about friendship.  Of course they do.  It’s not that in New York they don’t care about authority.  Of course they do.  But the priorities, the weight associated with each of these principles, will shift from culture to culture. 

Question: Has technology improved the means of influence?

Cialdini:    You know, it’s doing both.  It’s expediting the way by segmenting the market more, you know, in a more detailed way, but it’s also causing us to lose some humanity.  There was a great study that was done.  MBA students at Northwestern University and Stanford University engaged in bargaining a negotiation over Internet, e-mail, the most bloodless of all communication mechanism, and they were surprised to see that when they engaged in this negotiation by e-mail, in 30% of the instances, there was no successful resolution.  The negotiation was stymied.  Everybody lost.  They did a follow up where instead of just having them negotiate by e-mail first they had them send some information back and forth about one another’s personal hobbies and where they went to school as undergraduates, where they grew up, if they’ve been married, do they have any kids, these kinds of things.  In other words, they personalized the exchange before they got to business, the way we do in a face to face interaction.  And now, the same negotiation properties, the same simulation that they were working on, they only got 6% stymied negotiation.  So you drop from 30 to 6% by simply bringing the flesh and blood back into the exchange that the e-mail process took out.  So we can, we can use technology for very good purposes.  Sometimes it undercuts us, but we can restore the value of the human exchange by bringing that back into the technology we use.

Robert Cialdini discusses influence in politics and across cultures, and how technology has changed the field.

Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.


Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.

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