The Dark Side: A Review of Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Robert B. Cialdini et al

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Luke: …Is the Dark Side stronger?
Yoda: No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.
Luke: But how am I to know the good side from the bad?
Yoda: You will know… when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.

In his first book, Robert Cialdini, psychology-professor-turned-marketing-guru wrote of his desire to learn “How to Say No” to itinerant marketers, aggressive solicitors and various other ne’er-do-wells. As a result, (and as I explain in my review of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion), Cialdini goes out of his way to show readers why we say “yes” when don’t want to and how to say “no” when we should. Furthermore, in his follow-up book (see my review of Influence: Science and Practice) Cialdini extends his discussion of the six principals of persuasion to specifically include what he calls a “Defense” strategy readers can use to avoid saying “Yes.”

But now the Dark Side beckons.

My interest in Cialdini stems from my curiosity of behavioral psychology as it applies to behavioral economics (and, in turn, how that applies to behavioral finance). More pointedly, it was my fascination with (first) game theory and (ultimately) decision-making that led me back to behavioral studies. I figured if I could better understand how other people make decisions, I could make better decisions for myself, my family and my clients. To date, this theory seems to have worked well.

My introduction to Cialdini began with his middle book Influence: Science and Practice. What intrigued me most was the author’s point of view. He wrote the book with the specific intention of helping those long abused by the darker elements of persuasion. I liked that. I also liked that, although written like a text book, I could quickly translate the academic studies into a practical strategy for ethical marketing in my business and the non-profits I serve. I wanted to get people to say “yes,” but I didn’t want to trick them into saying “yes.” By understanding how others trick people, I learned what to avoid in order to obtain an honest “yes.”

I earlier called Robert Cialdini “the Charles Atlas of persuasion.”  With Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, Cialdini might now be called the Darth Vader of persuasion. (But maybe not, since Noah J. Goldstein and Steve J. Martin are listed as co-authors.) This new (2008) book delivers exactly what the title promises. In fact, it does so with nearly antiseptic precision. While the relatively quick read does not have the bibliographical citations of Cialdini’s earlier works, (it’s purely business, not academic), it does offer passing references to his principals.

But the tone of this book differs drastically from the first two. Whereas in the original books, Cialdini exposes mental short-cuts you should avoid, in Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive he shows how to use those very same short-cuts to your (possibly unfair) advantage.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Some of these techniques don’t have an ethical burden. In Tactic #46 “Are Trimeth Labs Boosting Your Influence?” Cialdini reveals the power of caffeine. It turns out you’re more persuasive if both you and your audience drink coffee (or similar caffeine-laden beverages). There’s a caveat, of course – you still need sound reasoning. Caffeine, while making folks more agreeable to good arguments, has no impact on the agreeability of bad arguments.

But not all examples are this pure. In Tactic #1 “How Can Inconveniencing Your Audience Increase Your Persuasiveness?” Cialdini and friends show how subtle changes in copy can induce the power of “Social Proof” (one of the six principals of persuasion outlined in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion). That first book tells you how to dodge this trick. Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive recommends you employ this trick. They must have really good cookies on the Dark Side.

Of course, the authors address this whole Dark Side thing in Tactic #15 “How Can You Become a Jedi Master of Persuasion?” In the final paragraph of this chapter, they write:

Just remember, as tempting as it might be to move over to the Dark Side with this strategy, like all other influence strategies, this one must be used only earnestly… Of course, we know you wouldn’t even think of using this strategy in an insincere manner.

With apologies to Monty Python, the “wink, wink, nod, nod, say no more” almost jumps out at me upon reading the conclusion of this statement.

The irony of alluding to the Jedi in Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, forces us to paraphrase Yoda: “A Jedi uses influence for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”

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