Influencing People

We are wired to be influenced through social means. Social influence, in fact, is so powerful that it often bypasses our cognition such that we don’t realize that we are being influenced. Here, I explore some mechanisms of social influence.

Social Proof

Social proof is an amazingly powerful influence tactic. It’s demonstrated best by the test of social influence and conformity designed by Solomon Asch.

Asch highlighted two forms of pressure towards conformity. The first is Normative Pressure–the avoidance of discomfort in disagreeing with the group. The second, more worrying condition, is Informative Pressure–the changing of one’s judgement in the belief that the majority has to be correct and, therefore, the self has to be wrong.

Informative pressure leads to strong social influence.

Alex Laskey built company called O-Power entirely based on the power of social proof.

Some other mechanisms to activate social proof:

  • Benchmarking
  • Showing endorsements of high status others
  • Calling for a vote when you have majority on your side


Symbols and signs of authority easily influence people into compliance. Titles, signaling your expertise, the way you dress, business attire, etc. elicits compliance with authority.

Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment showed how susceptible all of us are to influence by authority.

Recall, Framing, and Anchoring

Recall: We are highly influenced by very vivid imagery, by prominent events, and more recent events.

Framing: The same idea can be framed as a gain to influence the audience towards risk averse behaviors, or framed as a loss to influence the group towards more risk taking behaviors.

Anchoring: Negotiations and discussions can be anchored to either on high or low values– be it a budget estimate, a cost estimate, price, or an offer to a customer.

Sticky Messages

In their book “Made to Stick“, the Heath brothers talk about six principles of sticky messages.

  1. Simplicity: How do we find the essential core of our ideas?
    • To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion. We
      must relentlessly prioritize.
    • Saying something short is not the mission—sound bites are not the ideal. Proverbs are the ideal. We must create ideas that are both simple and profound.
  2. Unexpectedness: How do we get our audience to pay attention to our ideas, and how do we maintain their interest when we need time to get the ideas across?
    • We need to violate people’s expectations. We need to violate people’s expectations. We need to be counterintuitive. We must generate interest
      and curiosity.
    • How do you keep students engaged during the forty-eighth history class of the year? We can engage people’s curiosity over a long period of time by systematically “opening gaps” in their knowledge—and then filling those gaps.
  3. Concreteness: How do we make our ideas clear?
    • We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information.
    • Mission statements, synergies, strategies, visions—they are often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless. Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images—ice-filled bathtubs, apples with razors—because our brains are wired to remember concrete data.
  4. Credibility: How do we make people believe our ideas?
    • Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials.
    • In the sole U.S. presidential debate in 1980 between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, Reagan could have cited innumerable statistics demonstrating the sluggishness of the economy. Instead, he asked a simple question that allowed voters to test for themselves: “Before you vote, ask yourself if you are better off
      today than you were four years ago.”
  5. Emotions: How do we get people to care about our ideas?
    • We make them feel something.
    • In the case of movie popcorn, we make them feel disgusted by its unhealthiness. The statistic “37 grams” doesn’t elicit any emotions.
  6. Stories: How do we get people to act on our ideas?
    • We tell stories.
    • Hearing stories acts as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.

Hans Rosling, in his famous TED talk, demonstrated these principles in the first 3 minutes of his talk.

Non-Verbal Influence

Top: High-power poses. Bottom: Low-power poses. Source: Carney, Cuddy, Yap 2010

Carney, Cuddy, and Yap, in their 2010 paper “Power Posing”, showed that “a person can, by assuming two simple 1-min poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful”.

There are several non-verbal mechanisms to influence others:

  • Eye-contact
  • Mirroring behavior
  • Relaxed facial expressions (vs. nervous)
  • Hand gestures:
    • Illustrational (pointing to illustrate)
    • Positive (palms up or perpendicular vs. down)
  • Firm handshake
  • Physical proximity (less than 3 feet)

May of the above gestures are highly culture-specific.

Time of Day

There is some evidence that early mornings or the time after meal breaks are the best times to engage an audience.

Danziger et al studied more than 1,000 parole decisions made by eight experienced judges in Israel over 50 days in a ten-month period. After a snack or lunch break, 65 percent of cases were granted parole. The rate of favorable rulings then fell gradually, sometimes as low as zero, within each decision session and would return to 65 percent after a break.


For more information, check out the excellent Coursera course called Influencing People, by Professors Scott DeRue and Maxim Sytch of Michigan University.


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