Thursday, August 15, 2019

How Our Attention Gets Hijacked

We are easily manipulated into compliance with someone else’s demands.

Robert Cialdini, Regents’ Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, identified six principles that, when used deftly, can cause an individual to say “yes” to a request:

  • Reciprocation
  • Consistency
  • Social Proof
  • Liking
  • Authority
  • Scarcity

Think about the number of people taking up residence in your inbox right now. Take out the people you know – co-workers, clients, potential clients, and people contacting you for help. 

If your inbox is anything like mine, what is left is a collection of people who asked for my email in exchange for information – a PDF, or video access, maybe even a book (Reciprocation).

They then use this email to send me more email – sometimes multiple times a day (Consistency).

Occasionally, they will send a testimonial about their work and how awesome they are (Social Proof).

Most of them write in a friendly, conversational tone (Liking).

Many of them will have letters behind their names or may have held important jobs at prestigious organizations.  Barring that, they will share brand-name organizations and important individuals they have worked with (Authority).

These emails contain a call to action that expires at a random time to encourage me … strongly … to ACT NOW!!!! (Scarcity).

This dynamic occurs regularly in daily life.

  • Have you ever performed a favor that you don’t want to do to Reciprocate for something they did for you in the past?
  • Did you ever do a task because the requestor Consistently hounded you about it?
  • Have you ever found yourself chanting at a sporting event, rally, or all-hands meeting (Social Proof)?
  • Have you ever done something for someone simply because they asked, and you like them (Likability)?
  • Do you have a boss that leverages Authority to get you to participate in a project you have no interest in? 
  • Have you ever scrambled to get a report done because a client set a tight deadline (Scarcity), then that same person didn’t even look at your deliverable until 2 weeks later (if at all)?

Cialdini observed that these techniques tend to trigger automatic behavior patterns in people. These patterns, Cialdini noted, “tend to be learned rather than inborn, more flexible than the lock-step patterns of the lower animals, and responsive to a larger number of triggers.”[1]

We have these automatic patterns because we are looking for the shortcut. 

“You and I exist in an extraordinarily complicated environment, easily the most rapidly moving and complex that has ever existed on this planet. To deal with it, we NEED shortcuts (emphasis his). We can’t be expected to recognize and analyze all the aspects in each person, event, and situation we encounter in even one day. We haven’t the time, energy or capacity for it. Instead, we must very often use our stereotypes, our rules of thumb, to classify things according to a few key features and then to respond without thinking when one or another of these trigger features is present.”[2] 

Robert Cialdini, On Influence

Others who are clear on their intention can leverage this to their own benefit. The amount of information noise we grapple with makes us less likely to have both the desire and the ability to analyze information or requests very carefully.[3] 

Skillful manipulators know that we are working in an environment of information overload, and often help to CREATE that overload. That overload reduces our desire and ability to discern what is important to us and whether what is being asked of us is in our best interest.

The best way to fight back is to define for ourselves our values and vision.


[1] (Influence, Kindle loc 295)

[2] (Influence, Kindle loc 362-368)

[3] (citation: Epley, N. and Gilovich,T, (2006), The anchoring-and-adjustment heuristic: Why adjustments are insufficient, Psychological Science, 17, 311-318; Petty & Wegener, (1999), The elaboration likelihood model: Current status and controversies. In S. Chaiken & Y. Trope (Eds.), Dual process theories in social psychology, pp 41-72. New York: Guilford.  As cited in Influence)

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