Prisoner’s Dilemma

Radiolab has a fantastic story about the prisoner’s dilemma called One Good Deed Deserves Another. It was being rebroadcast on the local public radio channel KQED today as part of the episode called The Good Show. Take a listen on their site.

Prisoner’s Dilemma is a classic game theory problem. In it, one tries to figure out whether it is better to cooperate or compete with an opponent when you don’t know (or don’t trust) what the opponent will do.

Try out a prisoner’s dilemma simulation here:

On a related note…

Four years ago, Radiolab took their show on the road. I caught a performance in Cupertino. It remains one of my favorite theater experiences ever! Here’s a recording from their Seattle performance.

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.


The Smart-Talk Trap

The Smart-Talk Trap by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton

Originally published in the May–June 1999 issue of Harvard Business Review


We found that a particular kind of talk is an especially insidious inhibitor of organizational action: “smart talk.” The elements of smart talk include sounding confident, articulate, and eloquent; having interesting information and ideas; and possessing a good vocabulary. But smart talk tends to have other, less benign components: first, it focuses on the negative, and second, it is unnecessarily complicated or abstract (or both). In other words, people engage in smart talk to spout criticisms and complexities. Unfortunately, such talk has an uncanny way of stopping action in its tracks.

Why Talk Prevails

Managers let talk substitute for action because that’s what they’ve been trained to do. Many executives in contemporary organizations have been to business school, and even those who don’t have M.B.A. degrees often attend executive education programs taught by business school faculty. What do they learn in those programs? That the ability to talk—and particularly to talk smart—pays.

On Complexity

Rare is the manager who stands before his or her peers to present a new strategy with a single slide and an idea that can be summarized in a sentence or two. Instead, managers congratulate themselves and one another when they come up with ideas that are so elaborate and convoluted they require two hours of multipart, multicolored slides and a liberal sprinkling of the latest buzzwords.

Organizations Who Shut the Smart-Talk Trap

1. They have leaders who know and do the work.

Companies that use talk productively—to guide and spur action—have leaders who make it a priority to learn and do the work.

2. They have a bias for plain language and simple concepts.

Companies that avoid the knowing-doing gap are often masters of the mundane. Executives devote their efforts to a few straightforward priorities that have clear implications for action. These organizations realize the value of direct language and understandable concepts. They consider “common sense” a compliment rather than an insult.

3. They frame questions by asking “how,” not just “why.”

4. They have strong mechanisms that close the loop.

5. They believe that experience is the best teacher.

Enlightened trial and error outperforms the planning of flawless intellects.