book review

book review

The Power of Persuasion: A Critical Review of “Influence”

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1. Introduction

There have been countless attempts to duplicate or define the basis of influence. The wide-ranging studies of psychiatrists, social psychologists, educators, and political scientists have shed some light on the process but we are still in the dark. What is clear is that influence is a pervasive process in our daily lives. The image of the slick salesperson trying to pawn off a shoddy product that is brought to mind when one thinks of influence, while certainly exists, is but a mere shadow of what truly is the art of influence. Influence can be more thoroughly understood in situations such as the ones encountered by Festinger and Carlsmith in their now famous study. Subjects were asked to perform a boring and monotonous task, and then asked to turn to the next participant and persuade them the very exciting. Many persuasion attempts were recorded and studied, but the most interesting aspect of this case was the change in attitude of the subjects. Those in the control group were left with no external or internal justification for their behavior and thus exhibited little attitude change. Those in the experimental group, however, exhibited greater attitude change thus demonstrating the power of influence. In this example, it shows how small to moderate sums of influence are constantly affecting our attitudes or decision-making processes as well as providing the direct purpose of studies of influence, that being to change one’s attitudes or behaviors.

2. Analysis of Key Concepts

Given that any method of investigation or theoretical framework must justify its relevance to the social agent, cause changes to their situation or provide new understandings, the critical analysis of social inquiry questions the very relevancy of psychological studies of compliance and the experimental methods involved. However for the purposes of this essay I will take it that research into behavior change is a valued exercise in social psychology given its many significant applications.

The neo-positivistic viewpoint is also related to a behavioristic conception of human action; decision and compliance being seen as simple cause and effect linkages rather than complex evaluative processes. Such an ontology would direct the psychologist towards the statistical analysis of direct correlations between environmental factors and compliance, or to the manipulation of these factors to observe changes in compliance rate. We can see how such methods are approved by funding bodies with policy interests. But social action theory distinguishes between the mere effects of situations and actions, and the reproduction of the situation or action based on the agent’s agreement with its definition. An instance of compliance interpreted under a behavioristic framework can only tell us how the situation led to the agreement, not that there was a change in the agreement to the detriment of the agent. Durkheim’s distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity, or between repressive and restitutive law, exemplifies the need for a method studying compliance which is able to evaluate the terms of agreement on the part of the agent. Unlike a behaviorist, the sociologist must assume that these terms are not always present to the actor himself and devise a method to uncover them.

Critical scholars set themselves against neo-positivist theories of science, which tend to define science on the basis of its methods rather than its intellectual or social value. The neo-positivist assumes that the methods of natural science can be applied directly to human action and interaction. Critical scholars reject this epistemic foundationalism, not only because many of the methods of the natural sciences are inapplicable to social investigation, but also because they assume that human action and interaction can be understood within the same framework as the behavior of particles and organisms. They argue that inquiry must be continuous with the object of study, so that social inquiry in which human agents are directly or indirectly involved in self-reflection is best approached by practical and hermeneutic methods. This point is important in judgement of the work of a psychologist studying compliance through an experiment; the success of the experiment has no relevance to the meaning of compliance in certain social situations. The only method for this psychologist to truly investigate his subject is to perform an experiment which tests compliance in a set social situation, which is often much like an experiment in itself.

3. Evaluation of Supporting Evidence

In discussing the subject matter of influence, the author has adopted a two-fold approach. At times dealing with the content of the work itself, while at others discussing the field, and how the content of influence relates to that state. As a result of this division, the book is not as incisive as it could have been; the author has compromised his own standards. Given the aims of the work, and the title itself, Influence presents a series of findings, and attempts to relate these findings to the existing body of knowledge in psychology. The author has been led from topic to topic by his experience in that area, and his interest in a particular phenomenon. The result is a work that is primarily a series of essays, loosely organized around a theme. In several places, the author has confessed pangs of conscience about this approach, knowing that his topic calls for rigorous experiment and hypothesis testing, but feeling that the phenomena were so self-evident, or so impractical to test in an ethical manner given the findings of Milgram, Asch and Zimbardo, that he should simply describe the study, and support it with anecdote.

4. Critique of Author’s Arguments

A particularly valuable asset to the critics, concerning the persuasion arsenal, is available in Chapter 7 of “Influence”. This section provides abundant material for small concession seeking tactics, and covers two separate strategies, the “rejection then retreat” tactic and the “reciprocal concessions tactic” both of which are highly effective and highly practiced tactics. The first tactic is defined to occur whenever an individual first makes a request which is so large that it is rejected, and then following up by making a smaller request. What has happened here is that the fear of being a bad person and inconsistency cause the individual who initially denied the second request to comply. This is due to his feeling that he has to justify the request by showing good cause, and the change in request size is viewed as evidence that the original request was a bad decision. The tactic is supported by a study which showed that an individual who was asked to volunteer at a juvenile detention center for two hours every two weeks, but turned down the offer, was more likely to accept an offer to chaperon juvenile delinquents on a one day trip. This is compared to another individual who was simply asked to chaperon the delinquents on the same one day trip. The second request of the latter individual was not liked to a bad prior decision, and it was for the same cause as the initial request, and thus was seen as consistent with the denier’s attitude, and was accepted by only twenty five percent of those who refused the initial request. This study was a field experiment that utilized real organizations and volunteers. This direct and indirect involvement of real groups and the use of randomized assignments of different test conditions make it worthy of a high rating on the persuasiveness/unobtrusiveness tradeoff.

5. Conclusion and Recommendation

The entire theme of this book is to bolster someone’s ability to be more successful in getting people to say “yes.” The book itself is a marketing tool – a finely honed weapon to gain influence. The hoards of empirical studies, while fascinating, are the means to a suspended end. Let’s be honest, the topic of this book is how to be more effective manipulators and the studies are how to best do it. Never once does Dr. Cialdini pass up the chance to show how these influence techniques can be used to foster some sort of positive change. I really can’t blame him for trying to have his cake and eat it too, but I personally would have liked to see a more unbiased approach in the presentation of some of these methods. The cream of the jest is in the final “6. Unity” chapter and this is where the author most effectively wields his own influence. A virtual pied piper, he leads the reader headlong into doing something about the dire state of influence in our society. From cigarettes to provoking wars, all facets of influence are getting more effective and the unwitting targets have remained the same. It is this hyperbolic foray that I really respect, though it has a dangerous finish and most unpredictable outcome.

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