Simple: based on our own mind and our predictable behavior. It’s not easy, but not so hard also.
1. Our shortcuts in judgment can be used against us.
Why we use psychological shortcuts ?
We simply must, because the world is a complex place where it’s impossible for us to ponder the details of every decision we make. Most of the time they serve us well.
Who tricks us?
So-called compliance professionals, like advertisers, salesmen, con artists and so on, can fool us into using our shortcuts against our own interests. They usually do this to get us to comply with their demands, for example, to buy a product.
What’s the trick ?
Commonly abused is the “price indicates quality” – shortcut:
people usually assume expensive items are of higher quality than cheap
Often this shortcut is partially accurate, but a wily salesman might well use it against us. For example, souvenir shops often sell unpopular gems by raising rather than lowering their prices.
Because dealing with the complexities of life means having to rely on shortcuts, we must identify and defend ourselves against the manipulators who would trick us into wrongly using those shortcuts.
2. Humans have an overpowering need to reciprocate favors.
The rule of reciprocation states that we feel a duty to repay others
in kind for whatever they have provided to us.
This tendency forms the foundation of all societies, for it allowed our ancestors to share resources, safe in the knowledge that they would be reciprocated later.
If someone does us a favor and we do not return it, we feel a psychological burden. This is partially because, as a society, we are disdainful of those who do not reciprocate favors. We label them as moochers or ingrates, and fear being labeled as such ourselves.
Several experiments have shown that people are so keen to rid themselves of this burden of debt that they will perform much larger favors in return for small ones.
For example, when a researcher, “Joe”, bought test subjects a ten-cent
Coke as an unbidden favor and then later asked them to buy raffle
tickets, on average they reciprocated by purchasing 50 cents’ worth of
tickets. This was twice the amount compared to if no Coke was provided
by Joe first. Obviously the possibility for abuse exists here, because
in the research situation all the truly free choices were Joe’s. He
not only forced a debt onto the subjects by buying them a Coke, but
also chose their method of reciprocation.
The Krishna organization used this tactic to great effect when they gifted flowers to passersby on the street. Though generally annoyed, people often made donations to the organization to satisfy their need to reciprocate the flower.
To fight back against attempts to take advantage of the rule of reciprocation, you cannot reject all favors, as you would rapidly become a cranky hermit. Instead, identify offers for what they fundamentally are, whether genuine favors or abusive manipulation tactics, and only then reciprocate in kind.
3. Rejection-then-retreat tactic
Rejection-then-retreat is a devious tactic because it evokes reciprocation and the principle of contrast.
Just as we desire to pay back favors, so too do we feel obliged to match concessions in negotiations. If a boy scout first asks you to buy a five-dollar raffle ticket, but then retreats to requesting you only buy a one-dollar sweet, you are likely to buy the sweet to match his “concession,” whether you’re hungry or not.
This is known as the rejection-then-retreat strategy, and it is astonishingly powerful in gaining compliance. In addition to our desire to reciprocate concessions, it also evokes the contrast principle:
when two items are presented to us one after the other, the difference
of the second to the first is magnified.
Thus, the sweet in the boy scout example seems disproportionately cheap after the raffle ticket.
The rejection-then-retreat strategy has even brought down
presidents, such as in the infamous Watergate scandal: In 1972, the
re-election of President Richard Nixon seemed inevitable, yet somehow
a man called G. Gordon Liddy managed to convince the Committee to
Re-elect the President (CRP) that they should give him 250,000 dollars
to burglarize the offices of Democratic National Committee.
This was a preposterously risky undertaking, but Liddy used the
rejection-then-retreat strategy. He started by suggesting a
one-million-dollar scheme involving kidnapping, mugging and
prostitutes. Though his later second and third proposals were still
scandalous and incredibly ill-conceived, the CRP felt they had to
“give Liddy something” for his concessions from his first scheme.
Also, compared to the initial outrageous one-million dollar proposal,
the 250,000-dollar scheme involving “mere” burglary no longer sounded
that bad. The resulting scandal, after the burglars were caught,
eventually forced Nixon to resign.
4. When opportunities become scarce, we desire them more.
A powerful influence in our decision-making is scarcity:
opportunities are seen as more valuable if their availability is
This seems to be caused by the fact that people hate losing opportunities, which is well-known by advertisers and is evident in their use of “For a limited time only!” “Last chance!” “Sale ends in two days!”
A study showed that when participants were told of a limited-time sale
on meat, they bought three times more than if there was no time limit.
Interestingly, this effect was compounded when people were told that
only a select few knew about the sale. The scarcity of both the offer
and the information itself made shoppers buy six times more meat than
customers unaware of the time limit!
Scarcity becomes a powerful influence under two conditions:
First, we tend to want something more if its availability has decreased recently rather than if it has been low all along. This is why revolutions tend to happen when living conditions deteriorate sharply rather than when they are consistently low. The sudden drop increases people’s desire for something better, so they take action.
Second, competition always sets our hearts racing. Whether in auctions, romances or real-estate deals, the thought of losing something to a rival often turns us from reluctant to overzealous. This is why, for example, real estate agents often mention to buyers that several other bidders are also interested in a given house, whether true or not.
To counter the eagerness that arises from scarcity,
we should always consider whether we want the item in question because of its use to us (for example, its taste or function),
or merely because of an irrational wish to possess it. When scarcity is being used against us, the answer will often be the latter.
5. Banned items and information are seen as more desirable.
There may be some truth to the old saying that people want what they can’t have.
When Dade County in Florida declared laundry detergents containing
phosphate to be illegal, not only did residents begin smuggling and
hoarding masses of the product, but they also started to see
phosphate-based detergents as better than before.
This “Romeo and Juliet” effect stems from the fact that humans hate losing opportunities. Thus when something is banned or forbidden, it is likely to seem all the more desirable. Parents often observe this rebellious phenomenon in their children: any toy will become far more attractive if a child is expressly forbidden to play with it.
Similarly, courtroom research indicates that juries can also be affected by “censored” information. It has long been known that when juries know that an insurance company will pay the bill, they tend to award larger damages to plaintiffs. Interestingly though, they award even higher damages if they are expressly told by the judge to ignore the fact that the defendant has insurance. The “forbidden” information seems more relevant to them and makes them overreact, just like a forbidden toy seems immensely desirable to any child.
6. We are near-obsessed with being and appearing consistent in our words and actions.
When people on a beach witnessed a staged theft of a radio from a
neighboring towel, only 20 percent reacted; but if the owner of the
towel first asked people to “please watch my things,” 95 percent of
them became near-vigilantes, chasing down the thief and forcefully
grabbing back the radio. Their desire to be consistent with what they
had said even trumped their concern for personal safety.
But what dictates consistency? The answer is simple: commitment.
Research shows that once we commit to something with words or actions, we wish to be consistent with it; and public commitment is the most powerful driver of all. A juror in a court of law, for example, is very unlikely to change her opinion once she has openly stated it.
We even modify our own self-image to be consistent with our earlier actions.
For example, Chinese interrogators got American prisoners to
collaborate after the Korean War by asking them to make very small
concessions such as writing and signing innocuous statements like
“America is not perfect.” When these statements were read across the
prison camp, the prisoner was often labeled a “collaborator” by his
Astonishingly, the prisoner then started to see himself as a
collaborator as well, consequently becoming more helpful to the
Chinese. He effectively adjusted his self-image to be consistent with
what he had done. Having the commitment in writing was also an
important element in this process; there is something inescapably
powerful in written words signed by oneself.
“Foot in the door” technique
- takes advantage of how even small commitments affect our self-image and is very popular with salesmen who frequently secure large purchases by **getting customers to first make small commitments that change their self-image before a larger deal is offered.**
7. Making a choice to fight for something generates inner change.
From tribes in Africa to college fraternities in America, when a new member is being inducted into a group, initiation rituals commonly involve pain and degradation, sometimes even resulting in death. Efforts to curb the brutal practices always meet with dogged resistance. Why?
Quite simply, the groups know that
if people go through a lot of trouble to attain something, they tend
to value it more once they attain it.
The effort needed makes members more committed to the group.
Groups like college fraternities have also resisted efforts to transform their initiations into some form of (mildly disgusting) community service, like changing bed pans at hospitals. This is simply because they want members to make the inner choice to participate in the degradation and not make excuses like, “This was for the good of the community,” which would allow them to use an external justification for their behavior. Research has shown that such inner choices are more likely to produce lasting inner change compared to choices made due to external pressure.
Compliance professionals try to generate such inner change in us, for example, with the low-ball trick:
A car dealer might make such an astoundingly cheap offer on a car that
we immediately decide to buy it. The dealer knows full-well that,
during the test drive, we will then independently construct several
other reasons to buy the car besides the price, like “good mileage,”
and “nice color.”
At the last minute, the initial great offer is retracted because of a
“bank error,” and a more expensive price is given. Usually, we still
end up buying the car because of inner change: the reasons we came up
with during the test drive.
8. When uncertain, we look for social proof.
The principle of social proof states that:
we often determine what to do by looking at what others are doing.
This tendency is used to manipulate us, for example, when TV shows use artificial laughter to make jokes seem funnier, or when church ushers “salt” collection baskets with a few bills before the service to make it seem like everyone is making donations.
Social proof is especially strong when uncertainty reigns, which was unfortunately the case when a young woman, Kitty Genovese, was stabbed to death outside her apartment building in New York in 1964. The truly shocking aspect was that the attack lasted over half an hour, with 38 people watching and listening from their apartments, but no-one intervened or even bothered to call the police.
This so-called bystander inaction was mostly due to two factors.
a) First, when many people are involved, it diminishes the personal responsibility felt by each participant.
b) Second, an urban environment contains a lot of uncertainty: unknown things and unknown people abound. When people are uncertain, they look to see what others are doing. In the Genovese case, people were trying to inconspicuously peep out of their windows, which seemed to indicate to others that inaction was the right approach.
Considering these facts, if you find yourself in an emergency amid a crowd, you should single out an individual from the group and direct a clear help request at him. This way, the person won’t need to look for guidance from the others and will almost certainly help.
9. Observing people similar to us can greatly influence our choices.
We often emulate others in our choices, and this tendency is strongest when the person observed is similar to ourselves. Just consider how susceptible teenagers are to the opinions and fashion choices of their peers.
Regular people trick
This is why marketers often use advertisements featuring (mostly faked) interviews of “regular people on the street” who endorse a product. We tend to think that these people are similar to ourselves, and hence their endorsement is a strong indicator that the product is indeed good.
The Werther effect
Our tendency to emulate others also produces a rather grim statistic: after a suicide is highly publicized in the media, the number of people who die in airplane- and car-crashes increases dramatically for the next week. At first glance, a rather baffling phenomenon.
It seems that after reading about a suicide in the paper, some people resolve to take their own lives to emulate the victim. For several reasons, some decide to make their deaths seem accidental, and some of them will opt to do so while driving or (frighteningly) flying. Hence there is an increase in unexplained crashes. Sadly, these are not people who would have committed suicides anyway: research has shown that every front-page suicide story effectively kills 58 people who would have otherwise gone on living.
This is known as the Werther effect, named after an eighteenth-century book that sparked a wave of suicides across Europe, apparently in emulation of the protagonist. On average, this effect seems to be the strongest for people similar to the person whose suicide was publicized: when young people read another youngster has committed suicide, they start plowing their cars off bridges and into embankments, while older people react to news of suicides by other seniors.
10. We comply with people we like, and it is easy for some people to make us like them.
As a rule, we are usually more compliant toward people we like, and wily compliance professionals know which factors make us like a person.
A) One such factor is physical attractiveness. It produces a so-called halo effect, meaning that we tend to see attractive people as smart, kind and honest. Worryingly, we even tend to vote for more attractive candidates in political elections!
B) We’re also suckers for flattery and tend to like people who are similar to ourselves in some way. This is why salespeople frequently compliment us and claim some connection to us or our background: “That’s a nice tie, blue is my favorite too!”
C) An especially powerful factor in liking someone is cooperating for some shared goal (“being on the same team”). The infamous good cop/bad cop interrogation method employs this factor to a great extent: after a suspect is verbally abused by the bad cop, the kind and understanding good cop stands up for the suspect, seeming like a friend and trusted confidante and thus often eliciting a confession.
D) Finally, the things we associate with people are very important for likability. Weathermen, for example, have gotten death threats for accurately predicting poor weather, simply because they are associated with it. On the other hand, if we hear about something while eating delicious food, we tend to associate the matter in question with the positive feelings elicited by the food.
To protect ourselves against likeability manipulation, we must ask ourselves whether we have come to like someone or something unusually strongly in a short time. If so, this could be due to some form of manipulation.
11. People are easily swayed by authority but also by the mere symbols of authority.
Humans are trained from birth to obey proper authorities. We often do so even without thinking, as Stanley Milgram demonstrated:
He found that volunteers would administer what they thought were
potentially lethal electrical shocks to others simply because they
were told to do so by an authority figure.
Or consider the nurse who got written instructions from a doctor to treat a person with an ache in his right ear: “Administer the medicine in R ear.” She proceeded to put the drops in the patient’s anus, and neither she nor the patient stopped to question how this would help his earache. Authority negates independent thinking.
If we have no reliable evidence of another person’s authority, we use simple symbols to estimate it. Titles, for example, are very powerful devices. Faced with someone like a professor, we not only become automatically more respectful and accepting of their opinions, but we also tend to see them as physically taller!
Clothes and props are also powerful authority symbols. For example, in Milgram’s experiment, it was the authority figure’s white lab coat and clip board that convinced participants to “torture” their fellow test subjects. Con artists exploit the power of these symbols to their full extent by donning uniforms, suits and even priest’s robes if need be.
Authority figures like judges are often worth listening to, but how do we avoid people abusing our trust in them? Quite simply, we should ask ourselves two questions when confronted by an authority figure:
a) First, is this person really an authority or merely masquerading as one? b) Second, how honest can we expect this authority to be in this situation? In other words, do they have their own interests at heart?
What mechanisms within us can be easily manipulated?
- Humans have an overpowering need to reciprocate favors.
- Rejection-then-retreat is a devious tactic because it evokes reciprocation and the principle of contrast.
- When opportunities become scarce, we desire them more.
- Banned items and information are seen as more desirable.
- We are near-obsessed with being and appearing consistent in our words and actions.
- Making a choice to fight for something generates inner change.
- When uncertain, we look for social proof.
What kind of people do we tend to comply with?
- Observing people similar to us can greatly influence our choices.
- We comply with people we like, and it is easy for some people to make us like them.
- People are easily swayed by authority, but also by the mere symbols of authority.