Four Things Worth Talking About in Robert Cialdini’s “Pre-Suasion”

“Four Things Worth Talking About…” is a series of blog posts where we turn the tired, traditional book review on its head and instead focus on the four most powerful anecdotes, lessons, or observations contained in the book. Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade is the third book reviewed for this series.


Robert Cialdini is a professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University. His 1984 book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion identified six key principles of influence: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity.

In his newest book, Pre-Suasion, Cialdini discovers that what we say or do before making an appeal can significantly affect its persuasive success. Not only does Pre-Suasion help readers make a more compelling case; it also helps consumers heighten their awareness to tactics which may turn their subconscious against their best interests. 

Four Things Worth Talking About:

1 Beware of requests that follow a “single-chute” question.

Requests for participation are far more successful when the target is “primed” by promoting a certain mindset ahead of time. For example, a scientific study found that when stopped on the street, only 33 percent of individuals would share their email address to get a free sample of a new soft drink. However, when the scientists first asked, “Do you consider yourself to be somebody who is adventurous and likes to try new things?” more than 75 percent gave their email addresses. Virtually every person answered that she considered herself to be adventurous, which isn’t terribly surprising. But that simple, single-chute question helped reframe the request and made individuals more likely to agree. Similar results can be attained by asking questions like, “Do you consider yourself to be a helpful person?”

2 Being interrogated by the police? Move your chair.

Repeated studies have shown that our interpretation of a conversation between two people can be dramatically altered, depending on our vantage point. Surprisingly, humans are less likely to be sympathetic to Person A, if they’re looking over Person B’s shoulder at Person A’s face. This may seem harmless when you’re people-watching at a restaurant; but it can have life-changing consequences in a courtroom. Cialdini reports that jurors are more likely to believe a suspect is guilty if they are watching a police interrogation shot with the typical over-the-shoulder camera perspective of the interrogator. However, when the camera angle shifts to the side to show both the suspect’s and interrogator’s faces, the suspect becomes more believable. So, Cialdini recommends, if you ever find yourself in an interrogation room, immediately locate the camera and shift your chair so that you and the interrogator are equally visible.

3 Manage your environment.

Your surroundings can have a profound effect on your mindset and your decision-making. Three notable examples from Pre-Suasion:

  • The leader of a company’s employee engagement program found that she developed the most successful initiatives when she worked in a glass-walled conference room that gave her a view of a steady stream of real employees who walked by throughout the day. Others were able to replicate her success by printing out pictures of real employees and posting them on the walls of their offices. This is great advice to keep in mind the next time you’re preparing a speech or writing for a new audience.
  • A school improved the math test scores of its female students by implementing a number of small changes that were designed to prevent those students from focusing on the long-held, but mistaken, belief that boys are better than girls at math. First, the school separated the boys and girls into different rooms. Next, it shifted a form that included gender and biographical information from the beginning of the test to the end. Finally, the school ensured that the proctors for the girls’ exam included some female math and science teachers.
  • Have you ever been at a meeting or a conference and missed virtually everything a speaker said because you’re going onstage or speaking immediately afterwards? Researchers call this the “next in line” effect – you’re simply too focused on rehearsing what you’ll say to pay attention. This is important to keep in mind when you decide where to sit in a meeting, especially if there’s a specific person in the room you want to be sure pays attention to your comments.

4 The power of reciprocity.

Humans are more likely to do things for people we believe we “owe.” This is why we’re more likely to purchase a product after taste-testing it at Costco. One candy store found that visitors were 42 percent more likely to make a purchase if they were given a gift piece of chocolate as they entered. You can amplify the power of reciprocity by ensuring that it’s meaningful, unexpected, and customized. A study conducted in a restaurant found that when a waitress gave diners a single piece of chocolate, her tips rose 3.3 percent. When the waitress gave diners two pieces of chocolate each, her tips rose 14.1 percent. But the biggest impact came when the waitress gave each diner one piece of chocolate, walked away from the table, and then unexpectedly turned around and gave each diner a second piece of chocolate. In that case, her tips rose 21.3 percent.

Interrogators used this tactic to earn the trust of — and gain critical information from — Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard after 9/11.

Learn More:

I highly recommend Cialdini’s book for anyone in the strategic communications field — it’s a powerful tool to help you understand how everything you do and say before you make a request can impact its success. It’s also a valuable tool for consumers so that they can better prepare themselves to recognize when they are being manipulated.

Learn more about Pre-Suasion.