UG8: Influencing Techniques

“Never underestimate the influence others have on you: for good and for bad.”


Largely as a result of our cognitive biases and our emotional instincts we are prone to being influenced by a range of techniques which exploit for example our sense of belonging and our need to feel good about ourselves. Understanding these techniques will help you counter being influenced into doing things that are not in your own best interests.
'Influencing is not necessarily bad'
The fact that we can be influenced by others and that we can influence others is simply a part of our being human. Much of what we learn is through the influence of others, and much of our motivation comes from the influence of others. Society would not function if we did not accept influencing as a normal part of how we interact with others. There is however a sliding scale towards influences which are bad for us leading towards extremes of being ‘scammed’ or exploited where the techniques applied are no longer legitimate.
People are highly prone to obeying or tending to accept the word of those in, or perceived to be in, authority, or to otherwise be an expert on the matter in hand. We tend to have confidence in those who exude confidence.

However be aware that authority can be faked and the pretense of authority is commonly used to manipulate or scam. And those in authority, and experts, may also be mistaken or wrong, even in their field of expertise: some fields of expertise are rife with experts of differing opinions.

Just because someone insists they are right, that in itself does not make it so.
‘Social Proof and affinity’
People feel more comfortable doing things that they know other people do, particularly other people that they believe are like they are. If something can be made to appear popular then it increases its chances of becoming so.

However not everything is as popular as it appears, and information is often manipulated to make something appear more popular than it really is. And just because something is popular that doesn’t necessarily make it right or good.

It may be that your personality or character predisposes you to going along with the crowd. If you can, at least try to recognize this trait in yourself, and remind yourself that there are risks in going along with everyone else just as there are risks in not doing so. Thousands of people fall for certain scams. You really shouldn’t take a lot in comfort in knowing you are not alone in having done so.
People are readily influenced by perceived scarcity and the potential for ‘losing out’.

Creating the impression of a seeming scarcity is often a pretense seeking to deliberately influence us. It is used to push us into making quick decisions for example, which tend to be poorer decisions. And even where scarcity is real, is it something you really want or need?
We have a tendency to reciprocate when someone does something for us.

Good social relationships involve a considerable degree of reciprocity and mutual aid. However it is often used by those who don’t know us well to seek to get something out of us, something of more value than whatever it is they do for us. Look to differentiate where you can someone genuinely doing something for you, without an expectation of something in return, from a cynical attempt to manipulate.
We seek to be consistent in our behaviors. Thus, if we can get someone to do us a small favor, they are then more likely to then do us a greater favor.

In practice, whilst we do have certain personalities and behavioral tendencies, our outward behavior is also strongly influenced by the particular circumstances: as such you are not pre-ordained to behave in a particular manner, and don’t feel obliged to be dictated by your past behavior.
People are more strongly influenced by people they like. A principle way of striking a rapport with a stranger is to find something in common, some overlap between their life and yours. Other ways of instilling likeability include being friendly, smiling, adopting an open body language, and paying compliments.

Some people are naturally friendly. However in a setting where someone is trying to sell you something, some product or an idea, ensure you look to judge whatever they are selling on its merits, not because you feel some affinity with the salesman. Good salesmen are highly adept at making you feel that they like you, and making you feel that you like them.
Other people are more likely to believe something that is familiar; and constant repetition, particularly over a long period of time, makes something familiar. A surprisingly effective influencing technique is thus to simply keep repeating the message you want others to believe.

Many advertisements rely on simple repetition to implant a positive image of their product, as do populist leaders. The fact that the repeated message is in essence a lie, or at least only a partial truth, doesn’t matter. Many people come to believe the message simply as a result of its constant repetition. You need to consciously remind yourself from time to time that just because something is familiar that doesn’t make it right.

We can and should take advantage of the influencing power of repetition to influence ourselves. We can in part overwrite negative thought patterns by repeating to ourselves, through regular use of mantras or rereading, key ideas we want to insert into our subconscious.
We are more likely to notice and thus take an interest in something that is different or stands out in some way.

Whilst something different draws our attention we still need to make a judgement about it. Something that is different is not necessarily better or worse. Since distinctiveness is deliberately bringing us out of our instinctive mindset then whilst it is drawing our attention to it is not necessarily leading to us favoring whatever it is.
People are significant influenced by the way choices are presented to them. Carefully chosen words can trigger all sorts of mental associations which can then be exploited. People tend towards middle range options and products and can be guided towards higher priced items by the deliberate placing of even higher priced options or of similarly priced items of blatantly less value.

It can be hard to shake off the impact of framing. The use of an explicit or implicit analogy or metaphor for example will lead to us thinking about something in a particular way, or by having someone put a number value in our head we are drawn to the vicinity of that number. Even when we know someone is seeking to influence us through framing it is almost impossible to then simply remove the influence of the framing from our thoughts. To do so, we need to distance ourselves from any immediate decisions we are being pressed for, give time for the particular frame to dissipate and to allow ourselves to bring alternative frames or more objective information to bear.
'Appeal to Ego'
We are all prone to being put in a more receptive frame of mind through the use of flattery, complements or praise. We all have inflated opinions of ourselves, believing ourselves to be better in many ways than other people seem to appreciate us as being. So when someone flatters us, seems to show an appreciation that others don’t, then we are immediately positively disposed towards them, want more of it, and are disposed towards doing something for them which ‘justifies’ the high opinion they seemingly have of us.

Whilst some people are relatively immune to flattery, others are highly prone and readily susceptible to being scammed by anyone that shows them a bit of appreciation. Most of us are somewhere between. Remind yourself that the person appealing to your ego is trying to sell you something. By all means feel good if someone is trying to make you feel good, but don’t get drawn into buying something you don’t want or need, or into overpaying for it, simply because you feel good about the person selling it to you.
‘Selective Observations’
People fool themselves, and are deliberately fooled by others, by only focusing on information that is supportive of a given argument and dismissing or not being made aware of that which counters it.

Whenever you are presented by information that supports an argument, particularly by those who have a vested interest in the argument, never simply accept it at face value. Is the information presented only a deliberately selected subset? Is the information being presented in a way that misleads? What counter arguments might someone with an alternative viewpoint present?
‘Where there’s smoke there’s fire’
By creating an association in people’s minds they can be influenced to think in a certain way. We are influenced by ‘false news’ even when we know it might be false.

In response to examples of this, if you have the opportunity, call it out. But rather than focus on the particular example, repetition of which simple strengthens the association, look to reflect it back upon the person using it, such as ‘Now you mention it, not saying you did, but wouldn’t it be terrible if you did Y. Projection is a common defense mechanism you know.’
‘(Financial) Incentives’
The fact that financial incentives are so very widely used suggests there is a strong belief in their effectiveness. Whether or not this is truly the case however is a debatable point. Whilst undoubtedly there are specific circumstances where a financial incentive will drive someone to put in extra effort in many organizations the ‘bonus’ arrangements have simply become part of the expected renumeration package in a way that it is questionable whether or not it is truly driving people to improved performance.

There are also significant downsides to the use of financial incentives: they can significantly weaken intrinsic motivation; they can lead to demotivation when expected incentives are not gained; and they can readily, and frequently do, lead to perverse behaviours targeted at achieving the incentives but in a way that is damaging to the wider and long term health of the organisation. Incentives have a habit of giving you what you asked for but not what you really wanted.
‘A taster for others (1)’
An idea expressed in rhyme is more convincing and more likely to be believed.

People will pay more for products that are well presented, and will consider the products better quality.

When people are tired they are more likely to believe empty persuasive messages such as commercials.

Anything we do that requires a lot of effort or time will increase its value so far as we are concerned.

Advertisements aim to create a sense of anxiety that is relieved through purchase of their product.

'A taster for others (2)’
Priming significantly impacts our behavior. If you are asked to think about old age you will behave more like an old person. People primed to think about money will be more selfish with their money.

People can be nudged into making certain choices through what is set up as the default options for them.

Since people believe they are above average, by telling people about average behavior you are encouraging them to surpass it to maintain the positive view they have of themselves.

We are susceptible to suggestion. If someone questions you about something you’ve seen, your belief about what you saw can be significantly influenced by their implied suggestions.

We are more prone to being influenced when distracted and having our minds partially on something else.
'Being scammed’
Scamming is an extreme form of being influenced into doing things which are against your interests. At the more extreme end of scamming is a pretence of authority or of friendship to get you to give away bank details or otherwise take some action that inadvertently leads to you giving money to the scammer. Scammers also play on our greed and a belief that we can get something for nothing or at least for a very small outlay/’investment’.

Another form of scamming is getting us to believe in and pay for products that are either useless or are at least of far lower value than they purport to be. The ‘snake oil’ salesmen of yesteryear are very much alive and kicking as modern day influencers or pedlars of alternative medicines. At one end of the spectrum we are being merely conned out of a bit of money, but at the other end of the spectrum people die because they believe in alternative medicines to the exclusion of conventional medicine.
'Countering influences’
Some of the specific ways we can seek to avoid being unduly influenced into doing things which are against our longer-term interests include:

Do not make important decisions on the spur of the moment. Always give yourself time to reflect.

When in the presence of a salesman trying to sell you something, remind yourself that this is a salesman trying to sell you something.

Be wary of getting drawn into ‘add-ons’.

Imagine that it is not you that is being influenced, but someone you know, moreover imagine that it is someone who is easily influenced. Would you be readily advising them to go along with the influence, or might you have some doubts?

Remind yourself that offers that seem too good to be true almost certainly are.

Never give confidential information to anyone, by any means, who is not someone you have known for some time and have absolute trust.