May 26, 2021
Persuasive politics: Cialdini’s principles of persuasion at work

So much of the work we do in politics borrows strategies from other disciplines. We look to the knowledge gathered in communications, public health and administration, psychology, marketing, business, and other areas in order to harness it for political outreach. Social psychology, and the work of Dr. Robert Cialdini and colleagues in particular, has had an outsized influence on modern-day political strategies. For years, Cialdini worked in various sales positions to determine the most persuasive techniques. Eventually, he distilled them down to 6 traditional principles of persuasion, as well as a recently added 7th principle. Here, we review the principles and talk about how they are used in politics.

Authority.

People take the endorsements of authorities seriously. As authorities are assumed to have specialized knowledge and power, we give a lot of weight to the word of experts. Commercials for toothpaste cite the opinions of dentists; dog food ads talk about the recommendations of veterinarians. In politics, candidates often try to establish themselves as authorities on subjects, like people who are doctors may say they are uniquely qualified to make healthcare laws. It also applies to endorsements from respected issues organizations, many of which release voter guides, e.g., Planned Parenthood, NARAL. Since they are considered authorities on their issue, the endorsement of a candidate is assumed to be as good as one’s own research. Further, endorsements from people like Barack Obama or Kamala Harris carry great weight, as they are seen as authorities on politics.

Liking.

Unsurprisingly, we find people we like particularly persuasive. We are especially likely to comply with asks from friends and family, even when the tasks are unpleasant, like helping someone move. But liking can also be built up artificially in order to gain favor among consumers or constituents, depending on your goals. It’s been found that people like familiar things in their environments more than unfamiliar things, so politicians may plaster their faces in advertisements, yard signs, and t-shirts/swag all over in order to become familiar to people and gain that liking through familiarity. Candidates also do direct voter outreach through canvassing and put their image on campaign materials in order to familiarize themselves to voters. We also tend to like people who are physically attractive, people who like us, and people we cooperate with in some way. Politicians often try to amplify messages about their likeability to try to gain this favor among constituents. It has also been found that candidates who are more physically attractive are more likely to be positively evaluated (Budesheim & DePaola, 1994), perhaps due to the link between attractiveness and liking. Further, politicians try to harness our liking of celebrities by gaining celebrity endorsements. Endorsements by beloved celebrities like Oprah can be even better than endorsements by issues organizations as celebrity reach is wide and their constituencies are often devoted.

Commitment and consistency.

People want to see themselves, as well as be seen, as consistent. Once people have made commitments to others, they are both internally and externally motivated to behave consistently with the commitment they made. This is commonly used in politics in a tactic called ‘commit to vote,’ where people sign a postcard committing to vote in an upcoming election, and then they are mailed that postcard as a reminder of their commitment to vote shortly before the election. It’s also used on websites like vote.org where folks sign a virtual pledge to vote that they are later sent via email or text message to remind them of their commitment.

Scarcity.

Scarcity is very motivating for people, because humans have always competed for the use of limited resources. The more limited, the more competition to access the resources. This primal motivation plays out regularly in consumer contexts with things like limited edition products and numbered art prints, but it also occurs in a couple ways in politics. Political rhetoric often harnesses language about scarcity of limited, desirable resources. This is especially popular on the right where discussions of liberal policies are often framed in terms of loss of resources or status. Candidates use things like limited ticket fundraisers or in-person meet and greets to convince donors to donate large sums of money just to access these elite opportunities. Campaigns also harness scarcity in their language around deadlines, using phrasing like “time is running out” in order to increase a sense of urgency around things like fundraising deadlines.

Reciprocity.

Reciprocity is the natural give and take of social behavior. When people give us things, we feel indebted to return the favor in some way. And people don’t like feeling indebted, so they often take the next available opportunity to relieve themselves of their favor-returning burden. Politicians and marketers harness this tendency regularly, often through free merchandise, or “swag.” Getting free campaign swag makes people feel like they are indebted to the politician in some way and they are more likely to seek a way to get themselves out of debt, like donating to that politician, putting out a yard sign, or even voting for them.

Social proof.

Historically, we have learned a lot about the environment from other people, so we tend to pay a lot of attention to what other people are doing when we are uncertain. Social proof is the existence of a prevailing social approval for a specific behavior, which is motivating because humans are social creatures. Politicians can harness this by talking about the number of grassroots supporters/donors they have as a way of suggesting that social support is really on their side. It’s also used in social pressure tactics (e.g., mailers sent on a candidate’s behalf), where messaging suggests that voting is seen as a positive behavior by the majority of people and that others know if you vote or not. Social proof can also be provided when popular celebrities publicly discuss their own voting behavior.

Unity.

Unity is the idea of shared identities, or a sense of “we-ness.” We tend to prefer people who are in our “ingroups,” which is just a fancy word for groups of people who share our identities (e.g., national identity, gender identity, regional identity, identity as member of one’s family, etc). Evolutionarily, it has always been advantageous for us to help people in our ingroups, as they are the people we count on to help us. Many share this relationship with family members, which is one of the reasons why they are so influential, whether we like them or not. But anyone can activate the principle of unity by invoking an identity they share with you. Politicians do this a lot, referring to “my fellow Americans” and using other phrasing that emphasizes things like our regional and demographic identities: “midwesterners,” “middle-class,” “women.” Unity is also likely the principle that underlies the success of relational organizing. We are more likely to listen to people we already know and consider part of our ingroups.

Now that you know more about these principles, you will see them playing out in pretty much every advertisement you encounter. But you will also start to see them in the way politicians talk, present themselves, ask for money, and ask for your vote. We just scratched the surface here, so we really encourage folks who are interested to read one of Dr. Cialdini’s books (listed in the references section).

References:

Budesheim, T. L., & DePaola, S. J. (1994). Beauty or the beast? The effects of appearance, personality, and issue information on evaluations of political candidates. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20(4), 339-348.

Cialdini, R. B. (2006). Influence: the psychology of persuasion, revised edition. New York: William Morrow.

Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice (Vol. 4). Boston, MA: Pearson education.

Cialdini, R. (2016). Pre-suasion: A revolutionary way to influence and persuade. Simon and Schuster.

Goldstein, N. J., Martin, S. J., & Cialdini, R. (2008). Yes!: 50 scientifically proven ways to be persuasive. Simon and Schuster.