Robert Cialdini (Psychologist Biography)

Robert Cialdini is an American social psychologist who specializes in the science of influence. His research is focused on uncovering why people say “yes” to certain requests and how to apply these findings ethically in the business world. Cialdini’s work has led to global praise and recognition and he is widely considered to be one of the world’s foremost experts in compliance, negotiation, and persuasion. He is often referred to as the “godfather of influence.”

Robert Cialdini

Robert Cialdini's Early Years

Robert Beno Cialdini was born on April 7, 1945 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is of Italian descent and was raised in what he describes as an “entirely Italian family.” Interestingly, Cialdini’s Italian family lived in a neighborhood that was primarily Polish, which was located in Milwaukee—a city that was historically German.

Although not much has been documented about Cialdini’s early years, he has revealed that his childhood experiences ignited his interest in social psychology and behavioral science. From a young age he learned that different groups in his community had to be approached in a slightly different way if he wanted to gain their approval. Cialdini noticed that each group had its own code of conduct and characteristic tendencies. He recognized that if he wanted to maximize the chances that a member of a particular group would comply with a request, he needed to take into account the dominant social norms of that specific group.

Educational Background

Cialdini enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in 1963. Although he studied psychology in college, his focus at the time was animal behavior. Cialdini published his first research article on earthworm pheromones in the peer-review journal Science. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1967.

Cialdini had every intention to continue his studies in animal behavior after receiving his first degree. His goal was to go to graduate school and become an ethologist. However, Cialdini “had a mad crush” on another student named Marilyn Repinski, so he decided to take the same social psychology course she did just so that he could get a seat next to her. By the end of the semester, Cialdini says he was more interested in social psychology than Miss Repinski.

As his love for social psychology grew, Cialdini quickly realized that he had made a mistake by choosing to study animal behavior in graduate school. So he began searching for graduate programs that were still accepting applications from individuals who wanted to study human behavior. Cialdini eventually moved to the University of North Carolina for graduate studies in social psychology. He earned his PhD in social psychology in 1970 under the guidance of Chet Insko.

After graduating from the University of North Carolina, Cialdini spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University, where he received advanced training in social psychology. In 1971, he accepted a position as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University (ASU) and remained in that role for four years. In 1975, Cialdini was promoted to associate professor before being appointed as a professor of psychology in 1979.

Cialdini was appointed as a Visiting Scholar at Ohio State University (1973-1974), the University of California at San Diego (1979), the University of California at Santa Cruz (1986), the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California (1987-1988), and the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University (1991-1994; 2001). Cialdini retired from Arizona State University in 2008 and is currently the Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at ASU.

Robert Cialdini’s Six Principles of Persuasion and Influence

Social scientists have been investigating the underlying reasons people agree to the requests of others for decades. While there is still much to learn, what these researchers have discovered is that there is a science to persuasion, and many of the findings are quite surprising. For example, many people think that intelligent humans tend to consider all the facts before they make decisions. However, Cialdini’s research shows that the busier people get, the more they use shortcuts to guide their decision-making.

Cialdini identified six shortcuts or universal principles that people often use to guide their thinking and behavior. These principles are:

  • Reciprocity
  • Scarcity
  • Authority
  • Consistency
  • Liking
  • Consensus

Cialdini believes that if you understand and apply these six universal principles, it is much easier for you to persuade someone else to agree to your request.

The Principle of Reciprocity 

Cialdini’s first principle of persuasion is the Principle of Reciprocity. It states that people have a drive to reciprocate because they feel obligated to repay debts or return favors that they received first. This means men and women are much more likely to say “yes” to people they owe. For example, if your friend lends you some money when you are short on cash, you may feel obligated to repay the favor when your friend is low on funds.

The principle of reciprocity is often employed in the food industry by providing tasty free samples to potential customers. Customers who receive a free sample may feel obligated to buy the food item to return the kindness they were shown. Perry Abbenante—vice president of marketing at Snack Factory—says that 25% of customers who try a free food sample end up buying the actual product.

To highlight the principle of reciprocity, Cialdini referred to a series of studies conducted in restaurants where researchers tracked the correlation between mints offered to customers to the size of the tip the waiter received after the customers finished their meal. While most people may think that a waiter leaving a mint has no influence on whether or not they will leave it tip, the research findings suggested otherwise.

The studies showed that when diners were given a single mint at the end of their meal, tips increased by 3%. When two mints were offered, tips increased by a surprising 14%. If the waiter offered one mint, started to walk away from the table, then came back and said “for you nice people here is an extra mint,” tips increased by a whopping 23%. According to Cialdini, “the key to using the Principle of Reciprocity is to be the first to give and to ensure that what you give is personalized and unexpected.”

The Principle of Scarcity

The second principle of persuasion is scarcity. This principle refers to the fact that people have a stronger desire for things that are in short supply or are harder to get. To highlight his point, Cialdini mentioned how sales increased overnight for  British Airways in 2003 when they announced they would no longer be offering the twice daily London-New York Concorde flight. It is important to note that nothing changed about the cost or quality of the service. It had simply become a scarce resource so people wanted it more.

The more likely it is that a person will miss out on a good opportunity, service, or product, the more valuable it may seem to him or her. To maximize the effect of the Principle of Scarcity in your proposals, Cialdini recommends letting people know exactly what they stand to lose if they fail to consider your offer.

The Principle of Authority

Cialdini’s third principle of persuasion is authority. This principle highlights the idea that people tend to listen to the advice and recommendations of experts or authority figures. Cialdini stated that physiotherapists are better able to influence their clients to exercise when they display their credentials on the walls of their office. People are also more likely to give change for a parking meter if the person requesting the money is wearing a uniform.

The Principle of Authority may also be utilized in the introductions companies use when speaking to clients. One real estate company made sure that their reception staff always mentioned the decades of experience their sales team had in selling properties before they allowed the client to speak with the sales representative. This type of introduction resulted in a 20% increase in the number of appointments and a 15% rise in the number of signed contracts.

The Principle of Consistency

The next principle of persuasion is consistency. This principle plays on the fact that people like to be consistent with the things they previously said or did. For the most part, people feel obligated to honor their commitments.

To demonstrate this principle, Cialdini shared an experience where most of the homeowners in one neighborhood were unwilling to put up an ugly wooden sign on their front lawn to support a Drive Safely campaign. However, in a similar neighborhood nearby, four times as many homeowners agreed to display the ugly wooden sign on their front lawn. Why were these people more willing to comply? Ten days earlier, they were asked to display a small postcard in their front window to support the Drive Safely campaign. That minor action led to a 400% increase in the number of people who were willing to say “yes” to the bigger but still consistent request of displaying the ugly wooden sign.

The Principle of Liking

The fifth principle of persuasion claims that an individual is more likely to say “yes” if he or she likes the person who is making the request. In general, we like people who are attractive, who work with us toward shared goals, who have similar interests, and who give us compliments. This is the reason a salesman will try to pay you compliments and make you feel as if you are his friend before he tries to sell you anything. He wants you to make a purchasing decision based on the positive emotions you feel rather than focus on the merits of his service or product.

To highlight how effective the Principle of Liking can be, Cialdini shared a report on negotiation studies that were carried out at two business schools. One group of students was told to “get straight down to business” when negotiating with clients. The second group was instructed to exchange some personal information and identify common interests they had with the client before they began negotiating. The report indicated that 55% of students in the first group were able to come to an agreement with the client. However, 90% of students were able to come to a successful outcome in the second group. To use the Principle of Liking effectively, Cialdini recommends that you give genuine compliments and  highlight things you have in common with the client before you begin discussing business.

The Principle of Consensus or Social Proof

Cialdini’s sixth principle of persuasion is consensus or social proof. It suggests that people will often observe and imitate the actions of others if they are not sure what to do in a particular situation. This principle is related to the common beliefs that there is wisdom in crowds and safety in numbers.

How can this principle be applied? Consider this real-life example: Hotels often give guests a card that encourages them to reuse their towels. Many of these cards emphasize the environmental benefits of conserving water. This strategy results in approximately 35% compliance. However, the results could be improved by employing the Principle of Consensus.

As approximately 75% of guests tend to reuse their towels, some hotels share this statistic with all their guests to take advantage of the Principle of Consensus. The card explains that 75% of the people who stay at the hotel reuse their towels and each guest is encouraged to do the same. When this new strategy is employed, towel reuse increases by an additional 26%.

Applications of Cialdini’s Principles of Persuasion

Cialdini’s principles of persuasion provide people with small adjustments they can make to greatly increase their ability to influence others. While it is true that these principles can be used in a negative way, Cialdini encourages ethical applications of his research. His work has been used in a wide variety of fields such as:

  • Marketing - to persuade potential customers to buy a specific product or service
  • Business - to help agents negotiate better deals for their company
  • Healthcare - to influence patients to stick to certain exercise or dieting plans
  • Counseling - to help clients adjust their perspective about a negative past experience
  • Education - to increase the likelihood that students obey and respect authority figures such as teachers
  • Parenting - to help children stick with wholesome activities or goals they previously committed to
  • Food Service - to increase tips by offering sweets, compliments, or other small gifts to diners before presenting them with their bill
  • Real Estate - to increase conversions by emphasizing the expertise of the company’s real estate agents when they are introduced to clients
  • Politics - to convince voters to take a specific side on an important social issue
  • Online Dating - to pair men and women with dates who have shared goals and interests as they are likely to be a good match
  • Revenue Services - to increase the number of people who pay their taxes on time by telling them that most people pay their taxes before the deadline.

As an advocate for ethical business practice, Cialdini does not encourage companies to change the facts. Rather, he urges them to change the way people perceive the facts. Of course, some people may be disgusted or annoyed by the idea that they are being manipulated by the people and companies around them. Cialdini claims that the best defence against these universal principles of persuasion is to understand them and be aware of when they are being used.

Criticisms and Limitations of Cialdini’s Principles of Persuasion

Cialdini has received widespread praise for the simplicity, relevance, and effectiveness of his work. However, there are people who have criticized his research. They argue that while it is true that the small changes Cialdini suggests may have big effects in certain settings, these tweaks may not be applicable in other contexts. For example, if you tell potential customers that many people use your online store you may improve your online business; if you tell potential customers that many people use your local supermarket they may stay away because they think it will be too crowded for them to shop.

Another criticism of Cialdini’s work is that it may give people the impression that they have access to shortcuts that will quickly transform them into experts of persuasion. That assumption is simply not true. The reality is that persuasion can be extremely complicated and is often very difficult to do well.

Cialdini himself acknowledges that there are limits to the persuasion tactics he recommends. He notes that persuasion tactics are unlikely to be enough to turn around a failing company with a poor business strategy. Some critics also point to the fact that society is constantly evolving. This means these persuasion principles may only work until people get wise to them or sick of them. While it is clear that progress has been made in the scientific study of influence, some individuals believe much more testing is necessary before offering general principles of persuasion.

Robert Cialdini's Books, Awards, and Accomplishments

Robert Cialdini has authored or co-authored five books. His writings have had a major impact around the world. Cialdini is a Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and USA Today best-selling author. His books are listed below:

  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, 1984
  • Influence: Science and Practice (5th ed.), 2008
  • Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive, 2008
  • The Small BIG: Small Changes that Spark a Big Influence, 2014
  • Pre-suasion, 2016

Cialdini’s books have sold more than five million copies worldwide and are available in 41 languages. His book Influence was included in Fortune Magazine’s list of “75 Smartest Business Books” and CEO Read’s list of “100 Best Business Books of All Time.” According to Wilhelmina Wosinska—one of Cialdini’s colleagues—his textbook Influence: Science and Practice (originally published in 1984) has been taught in Poland for so many years that her students think Cialdini is dead.

Cialdini received honorary doctoral degrees from the following universities:

  • Georgetown University
  • University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Wroclaw, Poland
  • University of Basel in Switzerland
  • Cialdini’s other awards and accomplishments include:
  • Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of North Carolina, 1996
  • President of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 1996-1997
  • Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award of the Society for Consumer Psychology, 2000
  • Donald T. Campbell Award for Distinguished Contributions in Social Psychology from the Society  for Personality and Social Psychology, 2003
  • Distinguished Service to the field of Personality and Social Psychology Award from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 2008
  • Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, 2009
  • Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2018
  • Elected to the National Academy of Sciences, 2019

Personal Life

Robert Cialdini is married to Bobette Gorden. Close friends sometimes refer to the couple as “Bob and Bobette.” They have one son, Christopher Cialdini.

Cialdini still continues to conduct research, write books, and give lectures around the world. He is the president and CEO of the company INFLUENCE AT WORK, which serves as “a professional resource to improve organizational and personal performance by understanding and using the psychology of influence.” Some of Cialdini’s clients include Google, NATO, Microsoft, Harvard University, Coca Cola, Cisco Systems, Bayer, and the United States Department of Justice. He has also worked for the Barack Obama presidential campaign in 2012 and the Hilary Clinton presidential campaign in 2016.

References

Cialdini, Robert Beno. (2002). In N. Sheehy, A. J. Chapman, & W. A. Conroy (Eds.),  Biographical dictionary of psychology. New York: Routledge.

Clayton, M. (2016). Robert Cialdini: Influence and pre-suasion. Retrieved from https://www.pocketbook.co.uk/blog/2016/12/20/robert-cialdini-influence-and-pre-suasion/ 

D’Ardenne, K. (2018). ASU Department of Psychology leaps forward with gift from emeritus professor. Retrieved from https://asunow.asu.edu/20180430-asu-department-psychology-leaps-forward-gift-emeritus-professor

Everett, H. (2018). The psychology of free: Does giving free samples increase sales?  Retrieved form https://upserve.com/restaurant-insider/does-giving-free-samples-increase-sales/ 

Influence at Work. (2020). Retrieved fromm https://www.influenceatwork.com/ 

Roux, C. (2013). Research heroes: Robert B. Cialdini. Retrieved from https://indecisionblog.com/2013/05/20/research-heroes-robert-b-cialdini/

Society for Personality and Social Psychology. (n.d.). Robert B. Cialdini. Retrieved from http://spsp.org/about/foundation/heritage-fund-initiative/cialdini

About the author 

Theodore

Theodore created PracticalPsychology while in college and has transformed the educational online space of psychology. His goal is to help people improve their lives by understanding how their brains work. 1,700,000 Youtube subscribers and a growing team of psychologists, the dream continues strong!

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