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The Small B!g

Steve Martin , Noah Goldstein and Robert Cialdini

Small Changes That Spark Big Influence

(London Times)

Imagine you're Kate Bush. You're planning your first live shows for 35 years and you really, really don't want to be singing to a sea of smartphones.

Do you a) tell your security people to bundle smartphone users out of the Hammersmith Apollo before they so much as press record; b) go on social media for a furious rant about copyright and the death of manners; or c) write a gentle, flattering appeal to your fans in which you say you want to interact with them, not their screens.

The answer is of course c). It's the one Bush chose and, barring the antics of an uncooperative Lily Allen, it has worked quite well. In fact, it's almost as if she's been chatting, as I have, with Professor Robert Cialdini of the University of Arizona about the fine art of persuading people to come around to your way of thinking.

Want a result? Cialdini's your man. For 30 years he has been the world's top source of hard facts on persuasion, which is why last week I asked him a question similar to the one Bush asked of her fans. How can I persuade my children to stop staring at screens and practise the damn violin? Also: how can I persuade the builder who has promised to extend my kitchen to show up and actually do it? How can I stay on good terms with my neighbours in the process? You get the idea. Important questions to which Cialdini has some intriguing answers which I hope will change my life (see below), because if his don't no one's will.

In 1984, when Cialdini wrote a book called Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, it quickly became a set text for a swarm of behavioural scientists determined to tell us why we do what we do. Later he wrote Yes! and now he has cowritten The Small B!g, about small changes you can make to your behaviour to bring about big changes in others. The titles may sound as if they belong in the buy-and-bin aisle for people periodically assailed by the urge to be different and get rich, but the work is solid. It's based on serious research and on six basic principles of persuasion that Cialdini has identified himself.

These principles include 'authority' (we like to say yes to experts), 'liking' (we like to say yes to people we like) and 'consistency' (we like to stay true to what we claim to stand for). It turns out Bush deployed all three in her message to her fans.

Another Cialdini finding, his most depressing, is that despite our huge brains we're still herd animals. We do things because others do. We litter and vandalise, help and hurt, buy and sell, give and take when we feel comfortable doing so, and we feel at ease when we're in a crowd. Cialdini calls this the power of 'social proof'.

It doesn't always work, but it often does and it resonates with readers. Influence has sold two million copies, including one to the billionaire Charlie Munger, vice chairman of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway group. Munger was so impressed that he sent Cialdini a share in the company that is now worth more than $200,000 - that's the share, one share; the company is worth $336 billion.

So, can persuasion techniques honed for American business be used in your average dysfunctional British family? You be the judge.

How, I asked . . .

. . . can I get my kids to put down the iPad and do something useful?

Incentivise them, he says, but not how you think. Instead of offering one big reward, offer two smaller ones from different categories. What the research shows is that . . . [your kids] will undertake the task to a significantly greater degree because they don’t want to lose one of the rewards.

So cinnamon bun AND loom bands. Cash AND cinema ticket. What's so clever about that?

The key word is 'lose'. Suddenly, in the deal you're making with your children, they are no longer salivating about gaining something but worrying about losing something, and loss aversion can be a more powerful impetus to action than simple greed. That's with us from very early childhood. It's also scarcity, the desire to have those things we can't have. Those are two very primitive kinds of tendencies and we don't have to worry that our kids aren't susceptible to them the way they might not be susceptible to linear, rational argument. [Verdict: too soon to say, but the kids do seem to like me more.]

. . .can I get my builder to show up and finish the job?

Simple. Get him to write down exactly when he's coming. An NHS study on people who waste huge amounts of taxpayers' money by failing to attend doctors' appointments found that patients who wrote down the details themselves were 18 per cent more likely to turn up than those who didn't.

The idea is to engage a very human tendency to live up to what we write down. It's based on the consistency principle and it assumes Bob the builder sees himself as a man of his word. He doesn't want to let himself down, never mind you. A variation on the theme emerged from the 2010 US mid-term elections, when researchers found that people who said they were going to vote were much more likely to actually do so if they were asked where they would be coming from and what they would be doing beforehand.

If people can schedule in their own minds a set of events that will bring them to the voting booth - or the builder to your home - they are more likely to follow through on it. [Verdict: open. Builder still dragging feet, maybe because he uses an iPad not a pencil.)

. . . can I keep my neighbour happy through all the banging and drilling?

'Give them something unexpected and as personalised as possible as a gift,' Cialdini says. 'Tomatoes from your garden. A pie baked with fruit from your trees. Or walk over and give them a book you think they might like . . . It's very difficult after one has received an unexpected gift to feel hostile towards the benefactor.'

[Verdict: on one level this is blazingly obvious. On another, it's uncanny. Our neighbour recently came round with a tomato plant. Maybe she's planning something.]

Cialdini also says: host your next meeting with the neighbour at your home for the scientifically-proven 'home field advantage', and compliment him on his reputation for being a good neighbour. It doesn't matter if he doesn't happen to be one - the consistency principle applies to what you'd like to be, not just to what you are. Anwar Sadat used it in his negotiations with Israel, and Henry Kissinger later called Sadat the best negotiator he'd ever met.

. . . can I get a promotion at work, or at least a pay rise, or at least a little bit more respect?

Sure. First, dress to impress, but not too much. If you want to reinvent yourself as being seen as more credible and authoritative, you would dress up every day. If it's to be seen as more likeable and one of the group you would dress similarly to those in your department. Most of us will want to do both, so our recommendation is to dress similarly, but one step up from the norm.

Next, going into an interview or performance review, feel powerful. Typically we feel nervous, anxious, debilitated by the impending situation. We can compensate by recalling a time when we were successful, when we were powerful. Bring that level of confidence into the session [because] it's what interviewers are looking for - people with a sense of their own potency.

And finally, let them big you up. Say, 'you know what, I'm curious about something. Why did you invite me here?' And let them describe your strengths to themselves. Cialdini's clients, and he has many, tell him that when they try this on interviewers the interviewers often spend most of the meeting justifying their decision to invite the client in the first place. This is the consistency principle again. [Verdict: Being bigged up beats bigging yourself up, especially if you're British. And if you've never felt powerful.]

. . . can I tweak my emails to get people to respond to them quicker and more enthusiastically?

Absolutely. Email is the most bloodless channel of communication we've ever devised. So anything that adds even a hint of humanity brings results. Cialdini recommends cutting and pasting a cartoon. Bit forced? Then volunteer some personal information. Anything at all. One study on smoothing commercial negotiations found that 30 per cent of those conducted with unadorned emails deadlocked. Of those spiced up with chat about something else - children, hobbies, birthdays, being a first-born or an only child - only 6 per cent ground to a halt.

Much of this feels like common sense, but what gives Cialdini his following is that all of it is underpinned by science and some of it is counter-intuitive. For instance, first impressions count, but so do last ones, even more. That's why Warren Buffett always starts his famous newsletters to shareholders with bad news and saves the best till last.

Scientifically-based persuasion is an ethical minefield. 'Tis but a short slip from a desperate parent's double incentive to a cynical salesman's fake interest in brass rubbing. Cialdini admits as much. The best reassurance he can offer, though, is an odd one: if 'only' two million people have read his book on influence, that leaves several billion who haven't, so the risk of being manipulated by his six principles of persuasion is limited. So use them yourself, dear reader, but next time you find a mint on your pillow bear in mind that Mr Marriott didn't put it there out of the kindness of his heart.

More books on Mind

How to get people to do what you want

* Negotiate on home turf

* Deploy the heart - just hearing the word love or seeing a heart will activate more giving behaviour in people.

* Believe they'll say yes - we underestimate the likelihood that someone will agree to a request, and if this bias is left uncorrected, it could hamper the accomplishment of your goals.

* Negotiate first - always make the first offer in a negotiation situation rather than letting your counterpart strike first; you'll anchor them to your terms.

* Give a precise figure - open negotiations with a very precise amount. Your counterpart will believe you've invested time in coming to that figure and must have very good reasons to support it.

* Don't give surprise gifts - people appreciate treats or gifts that they've told you they want more than surprises you love and think they will too.

* Express sincere gratitude - an effusive thanks for efforts made on your behalf doubles the chances that you-ll be helped by that person again.

* Offer favours first - but ensure that you indicate it is part of a natural reciprocal arrangement.

* Do it differently - ensure that what you offer first is unexpected. For example, proactively offer to help a colleague on an important work assignment, or handwrite a note rather than sending an email.

* Leave the costs to last - people's evaluation of a deal is more positive if the benefits are listed first and the cost is listed second.

* Give 'social proof' - encourage people to engage in a desirable behaviour by highlighting to them how many others are already doing so.

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