Robert Cialdini Explains Social Psychology

Question: What work in social psychology has influenced what you do?Robert Cialdini:    My interest has always been in the influence process; how it is that people can be spurred to say yes to a request, even one that they might not be interested in in its merits. 

The way I got into it is actually something more personal.  I’ve always been a sucker, always been a patsy for the pitches of salespeople or fundraisers who’ve come to my door. So I’ve wound up in unwanted possession of tickets to the sanitation workers’ ball and magazine subscriptions that I didn’t really want, and I always wondered, How could that be?  I didn’t want these things, yet I wound up purchasing them.  There must be a psychology to the presentation that’s separate from the merits of the thing. 

So I began to study the influence process systematically, first in my role as a behavioral scientist.  But then, taking a broader look, I actually infiltrated the training programs of as many influence professions that I could get access to.  I tried to learn how to sell automobiles from a lot, vacuum cleaners door-to-door, portrait photography over the phone.  I was the guy from Mills.  I was that guy.

I didn’t stop there; I also looked at what the fundraisers were doing to get us to say yes, what advertising copywriters were doing, what lobbyists were doing.  Even recruiters: armed service recruiters, corporate recruiters, I even studied what cult recruiters do to get us to say yes. 

And through it all, I looked for those commonalities, which were the things that were being used in common, in parallel across all of the people who were interested in getting us to say yes to their requests.

Question: Who were the pioneers of your field?Robert Cialdini:    Certainly you always stand on the shoulders of giants.  And, for example, Stanley Milgram, who did the famous Milgram Obedience Research, who showed how people would respond to the directives of an authority figure to deliver nearly fatal levels of shock to an innocent other person, simply because they were commanded to do it by someone in a white coat carrying a clipboard and professing to be a scientist, professing to be someone who was an authority in the lab situation where they were working.  And people, very many of them, indeed 65%, were willing to deliver all the available shocks that were there in the situation for them to use, simply because they were directed to do so. 

That’s a very powerful psychological phenomenon. 

Other people, for example, Leon Festinger who studied something called Cognitive Dissonance Theory.  The desire of people to be consistent with what they’ve already said and done, even if it doesn’t make sense in the larger sense, but in that particular situation. In order for them to be consistent with what they’ve already said or done in public, they will do what seems to be irrational things.

Philip Zimbardo, who did the famous Stanford prison experiment in which he showed how putting Stanford undergraduates in the role of prisoner or guard caused them, just by virtue of the situation, to start taking on the characteristics and the behaviors of those problematic situations that we find in our prisons: prisoners ganging up on one another, guards abusing the prisoners, and so on.  This sort of thing emerged just because the situation was there, not because of the kind of people who were there.  You can put anybody in those situations and you get what surfaces to be very alarming. 

They reenacted it.

It can’t be done with real subjects any longer because it was so devastating to a lot of the people who participated. 

They saw themselves being pawns and being willing to deliver nearly deadly levels of electric shock to someone, simply because they were commanded to do so by somebody who they didn’t know.  That left some of these people sufficiently in doubt of their own self-confidence and ethics that it can’t be done anymore.  The American Psychological Association won’t allow that kind of research to be done.

Recorded: Sep 15, 2008.

Robert Cialdini talks about Social Psychology and what has influenced his work.

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