Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini

Cover of Pre-Suasion
by Robert Cialdini

Reviewed by Christopher Richards

A dangerous book

Which messages cause people to comply? Robert Cialdini’s new book addresses this question. Pre-Suasion is a revolutionary way to influence and persuade. Pre-suasion operates by creating favorable conditions a few moments before trying to influence. This is a powerful book, and not without its ethical concerns.

I’ll get to that in a minute.

A conjurer intentionally misdirects an audience’s attention. Dr. Cialdini explains how attention works, how it can get diverted, and how it can be maintained. There is such a thing as a geography of persuasion. Cues in the environment subliminally influence our future actions. Control those cues and you’re much more likely to persuade.

Pre-Suasion is filled with examples of how this works.

This is a book to spend time with. It’s an easy-to-read 233 pages. Supporting notes, references, and an index bring the total page count to 411.

Thirty years after Influence

Dr. Cialdini’s book, Influence, was published over thirty years ago, and has now sold over three million copies. At that time, he made the case for how readers can become aware of how they are being manipulated, rather than advocating use of the book for unethical practices.

Pre-Suasion poses more of a problem. An uncomfortable truth is that many people will cheat if they think they won’t get caught.

Dr. Cialdini cites a pair of global surveys that revealed how “uncomfortably large numbers” of senior business leaders know of the value of their company’s reputation, yet if they feel they can get away with it, they will behave unethically.

Dr. Cialdini writes, “It’s therefore a legitimate concern that publication of the information might enlighten certain unethical organizations about how to trick people into assent more effectively.”

This makes Pre-Suasion a dangerous book.

Robert Cialdini
Robert Cialdini

Dr. Cialdini attempts to soften this harsh reality by showing data on how dishonesty undermines organizational profits.

There are no easy answers here.

Hard to put down

I didn’t expect this to be such a page-turner. Dr. Cialdini has written a lively and engaging book. It’s a tour through social psychology. There is new research here on “persuasion science.” It’s a more accessible read than Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, and more comprehensive than Richard Thaler and Cass Suntein’s Nudge. If you like these books, you’ll find Pre-Suasion a worthwhile read.

Yet much of the material here is well-trodden ground for social psychologists. What made it hard to put down are the personal stories. They are always relevant, and often funny.

He tells of a pyramid scheme operation where he was given the sales pitch during a long bus trip: an environment controlled to produce foggy decision making.

Readers get a feel for learning from a real human being, rather than encountering dry and abstract research. Dr. Cialdini tells of his struggle to write for a general audience in academic surroundings. The cues around him kept him coming back to an academic style. When he switched to his home office, the images and objects around him influenced his writing to be better suited to a general audience. For example, on the topic of email spam, this was probably not written in his university office:

I, for instance have been flattered to learn through repeated Internet messages that many Ukrainian virgin prostitutes want to meet me; if that can’t be arranged, they can get me an outstanding deal on reconditioned printer cartridges.

The objective is to direct attention. Publicizing data on pollution has more effect than fining companies. Corporations can easily pay fines, but have trouble with attention focused on their wrongdoing and the resulting social perception.

This book will tell you how the influence process functions, but not necessarily how to harness it for your particular self-persuasive geography.

What do you want to happen?

Before reading this book I wasn’t looking out for environmental cues. If you want somebody to feel warmth toward you, first (pre-suasively) let them hold a warm drink for a while.

If you want to impress someone on the seriousness of your communication, get them to hold a heavy object. This way they have to make an effort to hold it. That effort is associated the effort they need to focus on your message. We talk of “paying” attention. And this is an often unrecognized fact: attention requires energy.

Pre-Suasion and commitment

Getting a person to actively engage can reap large rewards. Even the smallest of voluntary acts can make a difference. Commitment to a new behavior comes about not just through reminders (talk is cheap), but active engagement.

In one instance, Dr. Cialdini, writes of how dental offices improved patient appointment commitments. Instead of the dental office employee filling out reminder cards, they asked patients to do it. This simple voluntary act made future commitment easier to keep.

This book offers an in-depth learning experience. I’ll be returning to it often. The research is impressive. The book delivers the promise of learnable skills. Pre-Suasion depends upon developing an awareness of human associations, clarity of what you want, formulating your question, and asking it at the right time.

Disclaimer: Christopher Richards is a business book ghostwriter and has no affiliation with the author of this book.