Tag: Reciprocation bias

Secrets from the Science of Persuasion

A great animation describing the fundamental principles of persuasion based on the research of Dr. Robert Cialdini, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University.

Dr. Cialdini, if you’re not familiar, is the author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and the co-author of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Business Week International Bestseller Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive.

Learning about the six universals that guide human behavior could be the best 12 minutes of your day.

  1. Reciprocity
  2. Commitment
  3. Social Proof
  4. Liking
  5. Authority
  6. Scarcity

An Incredible Offer — But Wait…There’s More

You’ll never look at infomercials the same after reading this post.

Robert Cialdini calls But Wait…There’s More “A wholly fascinating account of a wholly fascinating industry.” If you’re interested in how late night TV infomercials use every psychology trick in the book, you need to read this.

Infomercials are powerful. A thirty-second commercial for Tide doesn’t ask you to do anything. The goal is for you to think about Tide and to associate it with something happy and clean so you’ll pick it up the next time you need washing detergent.

An infomercial, however, requires you take immediate action. One moment you’re sitting on the couch eating potato chips, the next you’ve decided there is really nothing you’d rather have than an ab-machine. How does that happen?

Everything about an infomercial is tested — Whether it’s the price, the number of freebies, the background music, or even the color of the model’s hair — with the sole goal of selling more product. Nothing is left to chance.

Along the way infomercial marketers have picked up an amazing amount of knowledge about how we behave as shoppers and what motivates us to make a purchase.

What can you learn from Ron Popeil, the master infomercial seller?

All the time-tested strategies were on display: he offered bonuses or freebies as incentives, and heightened tensions by warning people that he only had a certain number of units on hand (“supplies are limited!”). He assigned numbers to his customers—”You’re number eight, you’re number nine,” and so on—which gave them the impression that you had to get in line to take advantage of the great deal he was offering up. He employed the classic countdown technique, where he systematically lowered the price as he neared the end of the pitch. and when he was at the very end and started accepting cash, he avoided selling the item to the last batch of eager customers, instead launching into a fresh pitch. To get new people to come over and watch a demonstration, it requires that other people be standing in rapt attention. “Wait, there’s something else i want to show you before you take this home with you,” he might say.

Why does that steak knife cut through a shoe?

Perceived value also comes into play when a demonstrator slices a knife through an old shoe or cement block or uses a pair of shears to cut through a penny. Why would you need your steak knife to cut through a hammer, you ask? You wouldn’t. But in addition to proving to you that the knife is indestructible, it’s raising the perceived value of the product. Somewhere in the recesses of your subconscious, your brain is telling you that if for whatever reason you wanted to cut through a boot, you can rest assured that you have the knife that’s up to the task.

On marketing late at night

One of the early discoveries of infomercials was that they perform better when they were marketed late at night. “Airtime was cheaper, too,” but “viewers defenses started to topple as they grew sleepy.” Boredom also played a role. “When he placed sixty-second commercials during a hit show, the responses were unimpressive. When the programming was lousy, many more people purchased products.”


“He threw in giveaway after giveaway. He suggested that he would only offer the Dehydrator at such a reasonable price point to people who promised to “tell a friend” about the incredible offer—a classic tactic designed to make the audience feel indebted to him for his act of generosity, which, naturally, they could reciprocate by making a purchase.”

What do infomercials sell?

…What all of these half-hour infomercials have in common, of course, is that they all offer some sort of cure. Late-night pitches aren’t in the business of offering us dresses, trash cans, CD players,or cans of roach spray. They’re in the business of presenting serious problems—and providing us with quick, easy, painless solutions. That blender isn’t just designed to make smoothies. It’s going to save you precious minutes everyday and give you more time with your loved ones. Don’t you want to be a decent human being and spend more time with your family?

There’s a good reason products advertised on infomercials are tied to our emotional well-being, our self-image, and our relationships with others. It gives us a powerful reason to pick up the phone and place an order.


One of the biggest problems with long-form shows is getting people to stop their channel changing long enough to tune in … A half-hour show requires you to bypass that episode of Cops, rerun of Seinfeld, … and actively watch someone try to sell you something you probably don’t need. That’s why many infomercials have some sort of hook, something that momentarily distracts views and gets them to move their finger off the up/down dial on their remote control.

Sex usually works. What buying real estate has to do with women with big boobs is unclear, but moneymaking products have long features cleavage-bearing babes.


Research has demonstrated that subtle repetition is highly effective. In fact, studies have shown that because infomercials expose viewers to the sales message for an extended period of time and do not repeat the same message but go back and rehash the same material while making small changes to the script, the repetition is actually much more powerful.

On manufacturing pricing complexity

Infomercials thrive on complicating purchasing decisions for consumers by bundling items with free offers, bonuses, and rewards. A “but wait, there’s more!” suddenly muddles our perceptions and makes it harder to judge the offer that’s just been presented to us.

What about shipping and handling?

Cleverly, shipping and handling costs are often concealed from viewers until they call. … by the time you learn the amount, you’ve already made the mental decision to buy the toaster oven, you called the 800 number, and you’ve just spent five minutes on the phone placing your order. Are you going to hang up because the shipping was a few $ more than you anticipated?

What’s the deal with the host?

What’s most important is that the host communicates authority. It doesn’t have to be real authority, mind you. Just as TV doctors are used to pitch health-related products, it’s merely the perception of authority that matters most. Clothes matter. … A host with an accent isn’t accidental: Americans perceive English accents as more authoritative … Once you find a host for a show, the time-tested formula often requires the presence of a lackey, someone to play off against the pitchman. This is yet another form of social proof.

Wording matters

And every word counts: Greg Renker pointed out that his infomercials always say “when you call,” not “if you call.” The nuance matters. It suggests the viewer will call—it’s merely a matter of time. … Ever hear the line “if the lines are busy, please call back?” … the mere suggestion of a rush of callers sends people scurrying to the phone.

When you think about it, every element of an infomercial is designed to manipulate you into taking action.

But Wait… There’s More. Much More. For the next 15 minutes, Amazon.com is offering an irresistible special price on But Wait … There’s More!. Buy it. Read it.

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Still curious? Try How Infomercials Persuade.


The Ben Franklin Effect

Ben Franklin discovered that a person who has done someone a favor is more likely to do that person another favor than they would be had they received a favor. Or, as Franklin put it: “He that has once done you a Kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.” This simple technique can be used to gain your favor or create a sense of indebt to others.

Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, beliefs, attitudes, or opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent.

Dissonance produces an uncomfortable mental state the mind needs to resolve. In resolving dissonance our minds trend towards self-justification which makes it hard to admit mistakes.

Dissonance is a very powerful effect. In the case of the Ben Franklin effect, the dissonance is caused by the subjects’ negative attitude to the other person contrasted with the knowledge they did that person a favor. The easiest way to rationalize why we did someone a favor is to say “that person is not so bad after all.”

In his autobiography, Franklin explains how he curried favor by manipulating a rival legislator when he served in the Pennsylvania legislature in the 18th century:

“Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.”

Still curious? Read more about The Reciprocation Bias.

The Best Persuasion Technique for Job-Seekers

The Monitor spoke with Robert Cialdini, who wrote the now infamous Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, about his work and its influence.

At one point in the interview, Cialdini talks about the best way job-seekers can use persuasion to help them land a job.

Consistency is a good weapon of influence in job-hunting — the idea being that if you make a public statement, there are strong pressures to stay consistent with that, both internal and external. Let’s say you’ve got a job interview, and you know that you’re among a variety of candidates. Say something like, “I’m very pleased to be here, and I look forward to giving you all the information you’d need to know about me, but before we begin, would you mind telling me why it is that you selected me to interview.” And let them speak. Let them, in a public, active way, describe your plusses. And they will spend much of the rest of the meeting validating what they are on record as having valuing about you, because people want to stay consistent with what they’ve previously claimed. And you’re entitled to that. Why be in the dark?

In his seminal book on the topic, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Cialdini went undercover to learn the tricks mastered by used-car dealers and Fortune 500 executives alike, bringing persuasion research to psychology’s forefront. Cialdini also co-authored a how-to guide, Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive.

Machiavelli’s Mistake: Why Good Laws Are No Substitute For Good Citizens

A summary of Samuel Bowles’ lecture series entitled “Machiavelli’s Mistake” at the Santa Fe Institute.

1. Moral Sentiments and Material Interests

The classical thinkers from Aristotle to Aquinas, Rousseau, and Burke recognized the cultivation of civic virtue not only as the test of good governance, but also as its essential foundation. Machiavelli and Hobbes broke with this Aristotelian tradition.

Readers of Machiavelli’s Discourses learned that “all men are wicked … hunger makes them industrious, laws make them good.” Adam Smith’s invisible hand provided a decentralized model for how this constitutional alchemy might be accomplished. Good institutions thus came to displace good citizens as the sine qua non of good government. Prices would do the work of morals.

This classical economists approach – now the canonical model of policy-making in economics– now does not ignore moral behavior, but instead assumes it to be unaffected by incentive-based policies designed to harness self-interest. Along with civic virtue, explicit incentives and constraints could thus contribute additively to good government. The classical writers did not worry that laws designed to induce “wicked” citizens to act as if they were good might induce even the good to act as if they were wicked.

They should have worried. Experimental and other evidence show that while most individuals are far from wicked, treating people as if they were often crowds out the common generous, ethical, and reciprocal behaviors upon which the functioning of modern liberal democratic societies depend.

2. Is liberalism a parasite on tradition?

The parasitic liberalism thesis holds that markets and other institutions endorsed by liberals depend on family-based, religious and other traditional social norms that are endangered by these very institutions. Liberal society thus fails Rawls’ test of “stability:” it does not “generate its own supportive moral attitudes.” Experimental evidence presented in Lecture I, provides support for the idea. I represent the thesis in a model of the dynamics of institutional and cultural change, indicating the conditions under which the cultural dynamic of liberal society leads to economic dysfunction, instability and eventually collapse. I then provide surprising cross-cultural evidence that is inconsistent with the implications of the model.

Liberal societies are distinctive in their civic cultures, exhibiting levels of generosity, fairmindedness, and civic involvement that distinguish them from non-liberal societies. The parasitic liberalism thesis fails not because it misunderstands the cultural consequences of markets, but rather because it overrates the benign contribution of tradition to the moral underpinnings of liberal institutions, and underrates the contribution of the liberal state and other non-market aspects of the liberal social order to the flourishing of these civic virtues.

3. Machiavelli ‘s Mistake: Do good fences make good (enough) neighbours?

Two empirical puzzles show that some incentives work almost exactly as conventional economic theory predicts while others backfire. Under what conditions, then, can prices do the work of morals. Unraveling these puzzles and answering this question requires an understanding of the causal mechanisms by which material incentives crowd out moral motives. Experimental and other evidence suggests that explicit incentives and social motivations may be less than additive due to individual desires for autonomy, self esteem and fairness, which may be compromised by incentives. The material incentives favored by economists can also crowd out institutions that provide at least second best governance of social dilemmas.

How should a sophisticated hypothetical social engineer – that is, one who is aware of the motivational and institutional crowding out problem – design policies and institutions? Three results are demonstrated. First the optimal use of incentives may be either greater or less in the presence of motivational crowding out compared to a case where it is absent. Second, cultural market failures are pervasive, and result in overuse of markets even under ideal conditions for (Coasean) bargaining in the design of property rights and other institutions. Finally, a new second best theorem is proposed: the better definition of property rights and other policies considered by economists to improve incentives may degrade economic performance when they crowd out ethical motivations and alternative governance institutions.