Home Mental Health & Well-Being The Psychology of Persuasion: How We Influence Each Other

The Psychology of Persuasion: How We Influence Each Other

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If you are alive and can read or listen to this, you have influenced and been influenced by others. How does the influence process work? Why are some people super-influential and others are not? What are the steps, processes and techniques of influence? How can you be more influential?

The influence process is a complex, multi-level process involving psychology, communication, and social dynamics. At its core, the influence process is about changing or shaping attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours. We are also the subject of our own persuasion attempts; usually, to get ourselves to do something that we know is good for us, but we are less than motivated to do.

If we understand a person’s motives, we are best placed to persuade them. The reciprocal is true; if they understand our motives.

Motives that can be harnessed to maximise influence

  • Drive reduction theory. Motivation arises from the need to reduce physiological imbalances or drives (e.g., hunger, thirst). Those imbalances produce behaviours aimed at restoring balance.
  • Instinct theory.  It suggests that certain motivations are innate and instinctual, driven by biological predispositions. The best example is the advertising maxim: sex sells. 
  • Hierarchy of needs. It tells us that as our basic physiological needs are addressed, we move on to more social and then individualistic needs. Understanding on which need someone is currently focused can be used to persuade them.
  • Self-determination theory. Each of us has intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external) motivators. We are motivated to achieve internal and external rewards. The person who can provide a means to obtain those rewards has greater influence.
  • Expectancy-value theory. A person’s motivation to engage in a task is influenced by their expectation of success (self-efficacy) and the perceived value or importance of the task’s outcomes.
  • Arousal theory. People seek an optimal level of arousal or stimulation. Performance and motivation are highest when arousal levels are moderate. Generally, persuasion is less effective with people who are over or under-stimulated. However, if a means of addressing the over or under-stimulation is the persuasive message, it is more likely to succeed if the person is in one of those states. 
  • Incentive theory. Motivation is driven by external rewards or incentives. People are motivated to engage in behaviours that offer positive outcomes or rewards.
  • Goal-setting theory. Setting specific and challenging goals can enhance motivation. Goals provide direction, clarity, and a sense of achievement upon their attainment. Once a person’s objectives are known they can be influenced by reference to those objectives.
  • Two-factor theory. People are de-motivated if their ‘hygiene factors’ (external factors like salary and work conditions) are not present. Once those are provided, other potential rewards can act to enhance motivation.  
  • Self-efficacy theory. A person’s belief in their own abilities (self-efficacy) is central to their motivation and behaviour. When people ‘believe I can’ and the reward is right, their motivation is higher.
  • Expectancy theory. Motivation is influenced by expectancy (the belief that effort will lead to performance), instrumentality (the belief that performance will lead to rewards), and valence (the value attached to the rewards). If someone is not persuaded, the chances are one or more of those factors is missing.
  • Attribution theory. How a person attributes cause and effect influences their motivation by affecting perceptions of control and effort. If a person believes that a particular cause of their problem can be addressed by the solution being sold, they are more likely to buy.
  • Flow theory. People are driven to experience an elevated level of focus and contentment known as “flow states” or “being in the zone.” Several of the models overlap with, or build on, each other. That applies to the models and theories of persuasion, too. Each offers you insights that may help your persuasive efforts, or, helps you recognise when you are being persuaded. Advanced persuaders seem able to determine which method is most likely to work for each person or audience. Here are just some of the most widely studied models. 
  • Social influence and conformity theories. People will go to extraordinary lengths to “fit in,” even if that means changing what and who they are, and how they behave. 
  • Social judgement theory. People have a range of opinions on any given issue, and messages falling within this range are more likely to be persuasive. 
  • Narrative persuasion theory. stories sell. People remember stories and the more engaging the story the more it can be harnessed as a tool of persuasion. 
  • Elaboration likelihood and continuum models. Suggests that persuasion occurs on a continuum ranging from shallow processing (relying on surface cues) to deep processing (critically evaluating arguments), with the level of elaboration affecting the degree of persuasion. 
  • Dual-process models. Suggests that we process information either by habits and patterns called heuristics, or, we reason analytically and systematically. Choosing which of the two is most likely to be effective is a skill used by advanced influencers. 
  • Attitude change model. Suggest that persuasion depends on factors like the credibility of the source, the persuasiveness of the message, and the characteristics of the audience.
  • Cognitive dissonance theory. People experience discomfort when their beliefs or attitudes conflict with their behaviour. Influencers give people a way to reduce this dissonance, by changing their attitudes to align with their actions.

Effective persuasion often involves a combination of these models and theories, depending on the specific context and the characteristics of the audience and message. 

Practical steps

Regardless of which theory best explains persuasion, what are the techniques most commonly and effectively used? Influence can be thought of in three parts: audience, influencer, and message. 

Audience factors

Understand your audience. The most skilled influencers, seek to understand and satisfy the motivations of their influence target. Why would it be wise for you to do that, too? To enable you to tailor your message to the specific values, beliefs, and needs of your audience. 

A one-size-fits-all approach is rarely effective. Audience analysis is time well invested. Cognitive biases, emotions, and heuristics all play a role in how people process information and make decisions. For instance, confirmation bias leads people to seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs. If your messages do that, they will be more likely to be accepted. 

Influencer factors 

Build relationships. Invest time in building genuine, long-lasting relationships. People are more likely to be influenced by those they feel a connection to, trust and like. 

Enhance your communication skills. Work on your communication skills, including active listening, empathy, and persuasive language. 

Speak the language of your audience. That means if the person speaks using the language of logic, evidence and reason, the influencer would be wise to do the same. If the person communicates with reference to pictures, images, visual descriptions, that is the language a skilled persuader would use. 

Mirror body language. When people feel connected, they tend to display the same body language. People also feel more connected when someone adopts their body language. 

Empathy. Empathetic people are attuned to the emotions and needs of others. They can connect on a deeper emotional level, making their influence more potent. 

Confidence. Confidence in the persuader can instil confidence in the audience. People are more likely to be persuaded by people who are confident and assertive. Believe in yourself and your message. Caution: overconfidence can be a turn-off. Balance is crucial. 

Reciprocity. Offer value or assistance to others before making requests. People are more likely to reciprocate when they feel they owe you a favour. 

Build credibility, authority, and trust. People are more likely to trust and be influenced by those they perceive as authorities or experts in a given domain. Make sure that you have the knowledge and experience to build the credibility to make your message more persuasive. 

Consistency. Being consistent in our words and actions builds trust and reliability, making it easier for others to follow our lead.

Charisma. When a person exhibits all the behaviours covered above, they are more likely to be thought of as charismatic. Charismatic people exude charm and magnetism. They captivate and inspire through their presence and communication style. That makes them more influential.

Message Factors

Emotional appeal. Emotions play a significant role in decision-making. People are more likely to be persuaded when they are feeling positive emotions, such as happiness or excitement. Persuasion that evokes strong emotions, such as fear, joy, or empathy, can have a profound impact, too. Emotional appeals make the message more relatable and memorable. Craft messages that evoke emotions related to your cause or idea. Stories and personal anecdotes can be especially powerful. 

Social proof. The principle of social proof suggests that people tend to follow the actions of others, especially those perceived to be similar to themselves. When individuals see that a behaviour or idea is popular or endorsed by those they respect, they are more likely to adopt it. 

Authority. Appealing to authority figures or citing credible sources can enhance the persuasiveness of your message. People have a tendency to obey or follow those who are perceived as experts or authorities. 

Inviting consistency and commitment. People are more likely to stick to decisions they have previously made. For example, if we ask someone to sign a petition, they are more likely to do it if we first ask them to make a small commitment, such as agreeing to learn more about the issue. 

Logical argumentation. Providing a well-structured and logical argument with supporting evidence is essential. This includes facts, statistics, examples, and expert opinions. Expert influencers can assess who is most receptive to which type of message. For instance, they would never try logical arguments with emotional decision-makers. 

Two-sided argument. Acknowledging and addressing counterarguments can enhance credibility and make the persuasive message more persuasive. This approach is most effective with people who are balanced, measured and reasonable. 

Compliance elicitation techniques. Such as the metaphorical ‘Foot-in-the-Door’ technique (starting with a small request then asking for a larger one), and the “Door-in-the-Face” technique (making a large request, knowing it will be rejected, followed by a smaller one which will be accepted as an emotional compensation gesture), can be influential.  

Rhetorical devices. Such as metaphors, analogies, and storytelling can make a message more engaging and memorable. Politicians and sales people use such techniques, as do educators and other influencers. We even use them to remind ourselves of key messages: “A stitch in time, saves nine.”

Scarcity. If people think that a product is in high demand or that there are only a few remaining, they are more likely to want to buy it. Of course, some people have heard that story so often that it has the opposite effect. 

Clarity and simplicity. A clear and simple message is more likely to be understood and remembered. Complex or convoluted arguments can hinder persuasion. The more points a person makes in their attempted influence, the less likely it is to succeed. 

Repetition. Repeating key points or messages can reinforce the persuasive message and make them more memorable.

Visual. Visual aids, such as charts, graphs, and images, can help clarify complex information and make the message more compelling.

Timing. Presenting a persuasive message at the right moment, when the audience is receptive, can increase its effectiveness.

Psychological triggers. Like cognitive biases (e.g., confirmation bias, anchoring bias) can be used to tailor persuasive messages to be more effective.

Feedback and adaptation. Super-influentials are receptive to feedback and willing to adapt their message to the audience’s characteristics, situations, reactions and responses. 

Ethical considerations. Persuasion should always be ethical and based on honesty and integrity. Manipulative or deceptive tactics can destroy credibility and end all influence. 

Influence is a central part of human life. Understanding the psychology behind persuasion, the behaviours of super-influentials, and the steps and techniques of influence can empower you to become a more effective influencer. 

Whether your goal is to persuade others professionally, inspire change in your community, or improve your relationships, developing the skills of influence is wise.

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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