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The psychological trick behind getting people to say yes

September 22, 2016 at 6:15 PM EDT
Asking for someone’s phone number in front of a flower shop will be more successful because the flowers prime us to think about romance. Small, subliminal cues change our willingness to be sold on a product, on ideas or even a date. Economics correspondent Paul Solman speaks with psychology professor Robert Cialdini about his book, “Pre-Suasion,” the crucial step before persuasion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: the power of persuasion and how there are ways to influence the thinking of potential consumers.

Paul Solman bring us his latest Making Sense, which airs Thursdays.

PAUL SOLMAN: I have heard it said that the most valuable thing in today’s world, postindustrial world, is the human being’s attention and how to get it.

Is that true?

ROBERT CIALDINI, Author, “Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade”: I believe that.

PAUL SOLMAN: Psychology professor Robert Cialdini, marketing maven, art enthusiast, palm reader.

ROBERT CIALDINI, I used to be a palm reader, and I learned the trick that they use to make people say they’re right almost always.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, what was the trick?

In the ’80s, Cialdini wrote an attention-getting classic, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” intended to arm consumers against manipulative marketers. But those who made the book famous were the persuaders themselves, who make a living beckoning us every step we take.

ROBERT CIALDINI: Those ads, those signs, that’s old-school persuasion, directing people’s minds to the content.

PAUL SOLMAN: In recent years, however, Cialdini has made a new discovery about how to spin friends and influence people.

ROBERT CIALDINI: What I’m talking about is pre-suasion, directing their minds to the moment before they experience the content.

PAUL SOLMAN: Yes, pre-suasion, the title of his new book.

ROBERT CIALDINI: Pre-suasion is the practice of getting people sympathetic to your message before they experience it.

PAUL SOLMAN: Before they even hear it even.

ROBERT CIALDINI: It is what you say immediately before you deliver your message that leverages your success tremendously.

PAUL SOLMAN: Or, if you are the message, that plays you like a puppet.

ROBERT CIALDINI: The best salesman I ever saw told people, I left something in the car. Can I get your key to let myself back in?

I have an acquaintance who claims he got three great jobs by saying something before he began the job interview in each instance. And I have a friend who’s a consultant who says, he never gets pushback on the price he offers for his services if he says one thing first.

PAUL SOLMAN: And pre-suasion demonstrably works, as we will try to demonstrate throughout this story, by prepping the mind for the message subliminally.

ROBERT CIALDINI: There’s this interesting study. A guy goes to a shopping mall in France. And he tries to get women’s phone numbers as they pass various shops, so he could call for a date. One of them is at a shoe store. And another was a bakery.

But in neither of those cases was he very successful. He only got a number 13 percent of the time. But there was one kind of shop that doubled his success rate when women were passing it, a flower shop. Why? Because flowers put women in the mind-set of romance.

PAUL SOLMAN: Not consciously, pre-suasively by exploiting a rule of thumb passed down to us by evolution.

ROBERT CIALDINI: If we are paying attention to something, it’s important. That’s how we decide to pay attention. But a communicator can reroute our attention to something that isn’t important, but make it seem important as a consequence.

PAUL SOLMAN: As a consequence of the very fact that we’re subconsciously paying attention to it.

ROBERT CIALDINI: There is a study that shows that people who were asked their political opinions, when there was a picture of the American flag in the corner of the questionnaire, reported more favorable attitudes toward Republican Party positions, because the flag is typically associated in people’s minds with a Republican belief set.

PAUL SOLMAN: As are churches. And studies show that pre-suasive cues can subconsciously affect actual voting.

ROBERT CIALDINI: If people vote at a polling place inside a church, they vote more Republican. If they vote at a polling place inside a school, they vote more Democrat.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, marketers, or at least some of them, have studied pre-suasion’s potency. One online furniture store tested images of fluffy clouds vs. cold hard cash on its home page.

ROBERT CIALDINI: Those who saw the background depiction of clouds searched the site for more comfortable furniture. Those who went to the site that had money in the background became cost-conscious and preferred to purchase less expensive furniture.

PAUL SOLMAN: Isn’t it obvious that our consciousness is being affected by, what, our perceptive apparatus?

ROBERT CIALDINI: Almost no one recognizes that the clouds or the coins had any impact on their behavior, and yet it did at significant levels.

It’s the cue that drives you in the direction of what seems more important now because you’re focused on it.

PAUL SOLMAN: Which is why we flashed the thinker at the top of this story, to pre-suade you to ponder the puzzles we posed at the outset, but never answered.

What was the trick of salesman, the job seeker, the pricey consultant?

ROBERT CIALDINI: In each instance, they did something first.

PAUL SOLMAN: Starting with the salesman who claimed he’d forgotten something in his car.

ROBERT CIALDINI: He created a sense of trust, because who do you let back into your house by giving them your key, except someone you trust?

PAUL SOLMAN: And that made people more likely to buy what he was selling?

ROBERT CIALDINI: Yes, because he had created a mind-set in them that they were dealing with a trustworthy character.

PAUL SOLMAN: And the guy who got the jobs?

ROBERT CIALDINI: Before every interview, he asked the interviewers, why did you bring me in today? What was it about my qualifications that made you attracted to my candidacy?

PAUL SOLMAN: And what does that do?

ROBERT CIALDINI: It caused people to start focusing on the positive aspects of his case before they even began discussing it.

PAUL SOLMAN: And the consultant who never got pushback on his fees?

ROBERT CIALDINI: He would show prospects his proposal and his $75,000 fee. And he would say, as you can tell, I won’t be able to charge you $1 million for this.

PAUL SOLMAN: And what does that do?

ROBERT CIALDINI: Compared to $1 million, $75,000 now seems trivial.

PAUL SOLMAN: And why did Cialdini urge us to lead this story with puzzles?

ROBERT CIALDINI: One way to get pre-suasive attention to your case is to begin with a mystery story. Mysteries cause people to want to understand, to get closure, which caused them, I hope, to want to stay with the programming and listen until the end.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, read my palm.

ROBERT CIALDINI: Paul, I can see that you are a stubborn man.

PAUL SOLMAN: I’m somewhat stubborn.

ROBERT CIALDINI: What I have done is to send you down a memory track where you would encounter times where you were stubborn. And you would look at me and say, that’s right.

PAUL SOLMAN: And that’s the whole deal?


Suppose I looked at your palm and saw the same thing, but said, you’re a very flexible man. Now I have sent you down a memory track where you would encounter times where you were flexible, and you would say to me, that’s right. That’s who I am.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, I might not be quite that histrionic, but I think I would say, yes, I’m flexible.

ROBERT CIALDINI: And I have even done that with a person at a party, read his palm, told him he was stubborn at the beginning, told him that he was a flexible guy at the end, and he said “You’re right” both times.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, hey, Making Sense is supposed to be the “NewsHour”‘s weekly economics segment.

So, economics, as it’s taught and practiced, is based on the notion of rational maximization.


PAUL SOLMAN: This is not rational maximization.

ROBERT CIALDINI: No. What new psychology suggests, it’s the factor that is top of consciousness at the moment before you make that economic decision that will win the day.

PAUL SOLMAN: And so, from Midtown Manhattan, reporting stubbornly, yet flexibly, this is economics correspondent Paul Solman.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we know.