A psychologist has honed a subliminal tactic to get what you want before you’ve asked for it

“You’re like family to me.”
“You’re like family to me.”
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
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Robert Cialdini made his name on counseling everyday people about how to avoid being manipulated by advertisers, politicians, and lobbyists. Now, the Arizona State University psychology professor is advising people on how to become the manipulator.

Cialdini’s new book, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, is directed at people who want to be more influential, in business or among colleagues and friends. He focuses on a particularly vulnerable window of human interaction: the moment before you ask for what you want.

The former Stanford business school professor of marketing, business, and psychology first picked up on the moment while watching top salespeople do their thing. “The highest achievers spent more time crafting what they did and said before making a request,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “They set about their mission as skilled gardeners who know that even the finest seeds will not take root in stony soil or bear fullest fruit in poorly prepared ground.”

These sales experts also emphasized the larger scope of a person’s needs, rather than focusing solely on the merits of the product or service being sold. “They recognized that the psychological frame in which an appeal is first placed can carry equal or even greater weight,” he writes.

Caldini’s book is peppered with dozens of social science, psychology, and behavioral studies to bolster his argument (which some do better than others) as well as many anecdotal examples. For the aspiring influencer, here are the main takeaways:

Prime your audience with positive words and images

Cialdini’s musings lean on a well-known, much studied psychological strategy known as priming. The idea is that people are unconsciously cued by images and other stimuli in their environment. Sometimes an association is made through conversation, but it can also be introduced through images or environmental cues.

In a 2012 French study, notes Cialdini, a social psychologist tested the subliminal effects of seeing flowers during a romantic pursuit. Young men who stood near a florist and asked women for their phone numbers near a bakery or outside a shoe shop were more successful at securing a phone number from women they stopped. Twenty-five percent of the 600 women stopped in front of a florist gave out their number, versus 10% at the shoe store and 14% outside the bakery.

Set yourself up to be owed a favor

It’s hard to say no to someone who just did you a favor. Cialdini says people are more easily persuaded when they feel a sense of indebtedness. He argues for giving something meaningful to someone (or being helpful) just before asking for what you want.

As evidence, he cites a 2012 study from the Netherlands, in which Dutch residents who received an advance letter to take part in a long survey were more likely to agree when the proposed payment was sent to them before they made the decision, rather than after. The findings jibe with other experiments (pdf) on pre-paid fees for surveys. Retailers that hand out free samples tap into a similar psychology.

Ask for advice

According to marketing gurus, consumers like to be asked for their advice, because it gives them a sense of participation and ownership. But wording here is important, notes Cialdini. Companies that ask consumers for ”advice” link their identity with a product, whereas asking their ”opinion” prompts consumers to become introspective.

In a 2010 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, business school students tested the value of asking consumers for advice by showing survey takers a description of a business plan for a new (fictional) fast-casual restaurant. Cialdini writes:

After reading the description, all the survey participants were asked for feedback. But some were asked for any “advice” they might have regarding the restaurant, whereas others were asked either for any “opinions” or “expectations” they might have. Finally, they indicated how likely they’d be to patronize a Splash! restaurant. Those participants who provided advice reported wanting to eat at a Splash! significantly more than participants who provided either of the other sorts of feedback.

Build a sense of “we”

Implicit egotism is the idea that we are attracted to people who are like us—whether they have the same name, or share a birthday, or come from the same geographic region.

Salespeople use this notion to influence potential clients, Cialdini says, but some brands go further, instilling a sense of unity between a company or service and its consumers that isn’t just about being alike, but is rather about being “of” the same people—i.e. the difference between two people with the same first name versus two people who are part of the same family. The second, arguably stronger bond is the aim of community-based marketing tactics by Nike, Starbucks, and Google. And as with all his examples, the tactic works best when used preemptively.

Cialdini points to a letter from Warren Buffett to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders on the company’s 50th Anniversary, which he used to win over readers. In it, Buffett pre-empted a sales pitch for his company (a rundown of Berkshire Hathaway’s strategic outlook, finances, and future CEO) by tying the reader to his family: “I will tell you what I would say to my family today if they asked me about Berkshire’s future,” Buffett wrote. Cialdini argues that Buffett had “pre-suasively done something that made me judge [his company] as even more convincing: he had claimed that he was going to advise me about them as he would a family member.”

Whether a subliminal association, a cognitive bias, or something else—Cialdini argues that every example of successful convincing shares a place in time relative to the decision in question.

This “privileged moment,” he says, leads to a whole network of related behaviors and associations. “Frequently the factor most likely to determine a person’s choice in a situation is not the one that counsels most wisely there; it is one that has been elevated in attention (and, thereby, in privilege) at the time of the decision,” he writes.