|Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion|
The most interesting elements of Influence for me were those areas which overlapped with other areas of study I have previously read, such as in Emotional Intelligence or Thinking, Fast and Slow. As you can imagine, there are is plenty of overlap. Recognizing when we're being influenced is important, yes, but I think Cialdini's examination extends much farther than basic influence. We could be reacting to what he calls "fixed-action patterns," which I thought was a fascinating idea. Just like a mother turkey responds to the "cheep, cheep" of a baby chick, are we responding—like someone playing a tape recorder—to certain stimulus without any genuine regard for our behavior? Do we know it's happening? The essential premise of Cialdini's book isn't simply about how or why we're influenced to behave in certain ways, but about how those fixed-action patterns are exploited by others—some nefarious actors, some not so much—to coerce our compliance.
The most troubling aspects of the book—in my opinion—are those related to how we respond to authority. Milgram's experiments are referenced, of course, as academics are wont to do. But it's other examples and anecdotes that trouble me more, such as Jim Jones and the People's Temple. Although religious devotion is often cited in connection with irrational deference to authority, the phenomenon is widespread and pervasive. The submissiveness of nurses to doctor's directions was extremely disconcerting. In fact, the power structures and influences throughout the health care industry are uniquely vexing. One area of authority I wish Cialdini or any other scholar would explore is that deference given to academics and "experts." I listened to a recent conversation which differentiated between "science" and "expertise" (see EconTalk interview with Bill James), and I think the subject deserves much, much more attention.
I wasn't particularly moved by some of the author's final conclusions and pleas. He asserts that human beings have not and cannot evolve as quickly as technology does, which has made us far more susceptible to various tools of influence. We're overloaded with information; we need decision-making shortcuts more than ever; therefore, those shortcuts are being more manipulated than ever before. Perhaps. In addition, his final plea to the reader I found shrill and jarring. He wrote: "In short, we should be willing to use boycott, threat, confrontation, censure, tirade, nearly anything, to retaliate. I don’t consider myself pugnacious by nature, but I actively advocate such belligerent actions because in a way I am at war with the exploiters—we all are" (Emphasis added). Certainly there are bad players, but I hardly feel the slimy used car salesman or Tupperware parties (or LipSense for that matter since my wife has been involved in those types of social sales gatherings) are the type of social cancers which requires "nearly anything" to resist them. The author may have been feeling hyperbolic as he completed his book, but I didn't find his final exhortation to be persuasive or influential.
Influence is a well-written and engaging book. It's not only riddled with research but also does a nice job of sharing relevant and interesting personal stories and anecdotes. The specter of the replication crisis unavoidably casts a shadow over some of the sources and studies used. I have no idea which studies are suspect and which ones have been reproduced, but it's a valid question nonetheless. In the end, Influence was a fun and informative book.
Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Emotional Intelligence
Reflections: Thinking, Fast and Slow
Reflections: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture