The Science Persuasion


April 2001

The Science Persuasion


Robert Cialdini, professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, presents a scientific discussion of six basic tendencies of human behavior that can be used as powerful persuasion tools. While we usually think of these tendencies in terms of sales and marketing, they can be valuable tools for managers as well. As a manager, you are continually trying to persuade your staff to behave the way you want. These tools can help you affect the behavior of your staff.

In his article, “The Science of Persuasion,” in the February 2001 issue of Scientific American, Cialdini titles the six tendencies: reciprocation, consistency, social validation, liking, authority, and scarcity. We recommend that you read the original article to understand in more detail these tendencies and the studies conducted. Here we give you management examples that were not discussed directly in the article.


People feel compelled to reciprocate favors. A favor might be a gift, gesture, or service. You have all received free mailing labels in a mail request for a donation, and although you may not want make a donation, you may feel more compelled to do so. As a manager, you can use this tendency to your advantage. Do small favors for your staff. Bring them something from a trip. Take some of your staff out to lunch. Do an errand for a staff member who may have difficulty doing it herself. It works best if your staff is aware that you have done the favor at your own expense rather than at company expense. Your staff will reciprocate more favorably to an individual than to an institution.


People want to behave in a consistent manner. Cialdini provides examples of increased contributions to a charity if people are first asked to sign a petition. To act consistently, people who signed the petition also felt obligated to make contributions. An effective management tool you can use is to get written or public commitment from your staff members about tasks and completion dates. You may develop some sort of commitment contract or get commitments from your staff during staff meetings. If you are able to get commitments from your staff members on projects that require little effort, you will be much more successful in getting buy-in for more work-intensive projects. By committing to the first project at little or no cost to themselves, they will feel obligated when the time for more work arrives. Meet with staff members prior to new projects, processes, or tools, and try to obtain support on a small issue before asking for larger work commitments, and you will be more successful.

Social Validation

People make decisions about how to behave by observing what others are doing. As a manager, you should use your own behavior and the behavior of senior members of your staff as examples for the rest of your staff. New employees watch others closely to get clues to behavior. For example, if your group is very busy, you will get people to work harder and do overtime if they observe that you and your senior staff also work hard and stay late. Rewarding staff members who achieve in a public fashion will encourage emulation by the rest of your staff. However, because awards that are perceived as undeserved by your staff may have opposite results, it is important to select team members who truly represent the qualities you would like others in the team to emulate.


People are easily persuaded by those they like. A good example of this tendency is the effectiveness of Tupperware parties. Salesmen commonly try to develop friendships with their customers, and the Tupperware business thrives on recruiting sales people who then will sell to their friends. Another trait related to likeability is perceived attractiveness. Studies have shown that the physically attractive are more likely to be better at soliciting contributions and getting elected to government office. As a manager, it is important that you are well liked by your staff. They will do more for you if they like you. You can make use of this trait by getting to know each of your employees personally and showing a genuine interest in their lives. Deserved compliments can also stimulate your staff into liking you.


People are more likely to be persuaded by authority. Advertisers use this tactic all the time. For example, “Doctors recommend….” The author gives an example where two different men crossed the street against the light. There was a 350 percent increase in people following a man crossing a street against the light if he wore a suit rather than casual clothing. Promote your authority by effectively representing the interests of your institution, wearing more formal clothing, and displaying items representing authority, such as a large office, awards, or an academic degree.


People place greater value on something that is scarce. Businesses use this trait to their advantage. Californians are willing to pay many times more for their electricity because they have been made to believe that it is scarce. How does scarcity relate to management? Job scarcity is related to job loyalty. If employees perceive that jobs are scarce, they will value the job they have more. Management can make use of this tendency by setting up job specializations in their organizations that are uncommon in the industry. The staff that holds these specialized jobs will find equivalent jobs elsewhere harder to find and therefore value their current job more.

As you can see, as a manager, you’re also a salesman. You’re not selling a product or service. Instead, you’re selling a commitment to an institution and a job. You can use many of the same techniques that your own sales force uses to sell your company’s products.