Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Mad Men and the dangerous fruit of persuasion

The cast of Mad Men. Copyright American Movie Classics Company LLC. Source: amctv.com.

With the season five premiere of AMC’s Mad Men coming this weekend, we thought we’d use this opportunity to introduce you to one of the most highly respected scientists in the field of Persuasion. As a matter of fact, many people consider Dr. Robert Cialdini as the “Godfather of influence”. What better way to do that then provide you with the foreword he wrote to a just-released book, Six Degrees of Social Influence: Science, Application, and the Psychology of Robert Cialdini. Enjoy his words below and enjoy the premiere.

By Robert Cialdini, Ph. D

The capacity to persuade — to capture the audience, convince the undecided, convince the opposition — has always been a prized skill. But, thanks to relatively recent developments, it is no longer only an elusive art, the province of those with an intuitive grasp of how to time an argument or turn a phrase just so. For most of us, this is welcome news. After all, one problem with an art form is that only artists can truly manage it. But, what about the rest of us? Must we resign ourselves to fumbling away open opportunities to move others in our direction because we so frequently fail to say the right thing or, worse, say the right thing at the wrong time? Fortunately, no. As is evident in the pages of this book, the delicate art of personal persuasion has been transformed into a solid social science.

There is now a substantial body of systematic research into how people can be moved to agree with a request. It is worth noting that the persuasive practices covered in this work rarely concern the merits of the request itself. Instead, they concern the ways in which the merits are presented. There is no question that having a strong case is crucial to success. But having a worthy argument or set of arguments is not enough, because other worthy (yet competing) arguments are likely to exist as well. So, although making a good case is important, it’s the person who can make a good case well who will gain the lion’s share of assent. For the optimal persuasive effect, our focus should be on methods for communicating our case in the most effective manner.

Dangerous Fruit

Before encountering that information, though, a brief foray into the past is in order. The renowned scholar of social influence, William McGuire, determined that in the four millennia of recorded Western history, there have been only four scattered centuries in which the study of persuasion flourished as a craft. The first was the Periclean Age of ancient Athens; the second occurred during the years of the Roman Republic; the next appeared in the time of the European Renaissance; the last was the 20th century, which witnessed the advent of large scale advertising, information, and mass media campaigns (McGuire, 1985). Although this bit of background seems benign, it possesses an alarming side: Each of the three previous centuries of systematic persuasion study ended similarly when political authorities had the masters of persuasion killed.

A moment’s reflection suggests why this should be. Information about the persuasion process was dangerous because it created a base of power entirely separate from those that the authorities of the times controlled. Persuasion is a way to move people that doesn’t require coercion, intimidation, or brute strength. Eloquent communicators win the day by commissioning forces that heads of state have no monopoly over, such as cleverly crafted language, properly placed information, and, most importantly, psychological insight. To eliminate those few individuals who truly understood how to engage the process.

One aspect of this history appears relevant to the achievement of modern influence goals. Because of a variety of factors that have emerged in commercial, educational, and social contexts (e.g., matrix-based organizational structures, egalitarian empowerment practices, globalization), hierarchically-organized command approaches to change are rapidly becoming outmoded. Increasingly in work settings, for example, individuals come together on a project from different arenas within the same organization. The heterogeneous make-up of these teams makes unclear who is in charge of whom. Similarly, members of one organization often partner with those of different, cooperating organizations on joint projects. Here, again, issues of line authority are inapplicable or obscured. Finally, savvy managers, educators, and government officials have always recognized the morale costs of playing the Because-I’m-the-Boss card. In each of these instances, where reliance on hierarchical lines of command seems inappropriate, impractical, or imprudent, some other form of influence is preferred. That is why a thoroughgoing knowledge of the process of persuasion can be so valuable. As the rulers of old recognized, persuasion moves people by means that don’t depend on formal power structures. Quite simply, it can provide influence without authority.

Recall, however, that each of the first three centuries of systematic persuasion study ended in the same unsettling manner – with a purge of the reigning persuasion experts. Should the recent completion of the last such century alarm those who master the material in this book, out of the justified fear that they might be included in an impending fourth era of annihilation? Not this time.

The Flowering of Science

Something revolutionary has happened to the study of persuasion during the past half-century. In the bargain, the change has rendered ridiculous the idea that persuasion expertise can be eradicated by eradicating the persuasion experts. Alongside the art of persuasion has grown a formidable science of the process. For well over 50 years, researchers have been applying a rigorous scientific approach to the question of which messages most successfully lead people to concede, comply or change. Under controlled conditions, they have documented the sometimes astonishing impact of making a request in one fashion versus making the identical request in a slightly different fashion. Besides the sheer size of the effects these researchers have uncovered, there is another noteworthy aspect of their results – they are repeatable.

Scientists have long employed a set of systematic procedures for discovering and replicating findings, including persuasion findings. As a consequence, the study of persuasion no longer exists only as an ethereal art. It is now a science that can reproduce its results. What is more, whoever engages in the scientific process can reproduce its results. Brilliant, inspired individuals are no longer necessary to diving the truth about persuasion, for a compelling new reason: The power of discovery doesn’t reside, Socrates-style, inside the minds of a few persuasive geniuses anymore but inside th scientific process. As a consequence, knowledge about persuasion can’t be eliminated by eliminating, Socrates-style, those who posses it — because somebody else can come along, use the same scientific procedures, and get the knowledge back again. So, (whew) we’re all safe from threatened power holders, who should now be more interested in acquiring the information than abolishing it.

We have a right to feel more than just relieved. We are entitled to feel encouraged, even emboldened, by the fact that similar procedures can produce similar persuasion results. If that is indeed the case, it means that persuasion is governed by natural laws. The upshot is a pair of considerable advantages for any prospective persuader. First, if persuasion is lawful, it is learnable. Whether born with an inspired talent for influence or not, whether preternaturally insightful about the process or not, whether a gifted artisan of the language or not, it is possible to learn how to be more influential. By applying a set of principles that govern the persuasion process, communicators can move effectively move acquaintances, neighbors, coworkers, and even superiors (who, I’ve recently learned, include grandchildren) in desired directions. Second, if persuasion is lawful, it is teachable. Therefore, vital communicators can be trained inside our organizations to apply those same principles to secure crucial commitments, concessions, and consensuses.

Six Degrees of Social Influence: Science, Application, and the Psychology of Robert Cialdini explores new developments and the widespread impact of Cialdini’s work in research areas ranging from persuasion strategy and social engineering to help-seeking and decision-making.

Dr. Robert Cialdini has spent his entire career researching the science of influence earning him an international reputation as an expert in the fields of persuasion, compliance, and negotiation. His books including, Influence: Science & Practice, are the results of years of study into the reasons why people comply with requests in business settings. Worldwide, Influence has sold over 2 million copies. Influence has been published in twenty-six languages. His most recent co-authored book, Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive, has been on the New York Times, USA Today & Wall Street Journal Best Seller Lists. In the field of influence and persuasion, Dr. Cialdini is the most cited living social psychologist in the world today. Dr. Cialdini received his Ph.D from the University of North Carolina and post doctoral training from Columbia University. He has held Visiting Scholar Appointments at Ohio State University, the University of California, the Annenberg School of Communications, and the Graduate School of Business of Stanford University. Currently, Dr Cialdini is Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University. Dr. Cialdini is President of Influence at Work, an international consulting, strategic planning and training organization based on the Six Principles of Influence. Dr. Cialdini’s clients include such organizations as Google, Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Bayer, Coca Cola, KPMG, AstraZeneca, Ericsson, Kodak, Merrill Lynch, Nationwide Insurance, Pfizer, AAA, Northern Trust, IBM, Prudential, The Mayo Clinic, GlaxoSmithKline, Harvard University – Kennedy School, The Weather Channel, the United States Department of Justice, and NATO.

Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only business and economics articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.
View more about this book on the

Recent Comments

  1. Oroboros

    Good blog, but I don’t see anything close to a concrete account of seduction, other than a historical and sociological view.

    I think seduction is a sophisticated art and the ultimate form of power and persuasion. Seduction is one form of persuasion that gets around consciousness by arousing the unconscious. We are all soaked with a variety of external stimuli that demands attention, constantly shoving blatant advertisement in our faces, and we are surrounded by exceedingly political or manipulative people. Thus we are hardly ever charmed or fooled, and consequently we become more cynical and jaded. If we try to persuade someone and appeal to their consciousness by stating what we want and put all cards on the table, then we become merely just another irritant to be ignored.

    Everyone is a narcissist. As a child our narcissism was physical, because we were absorbed with our own image and bodies as if it was a separate thing. As we got older our narcissism mutated into psychology by becoming more entrenched in our tastes, opinions and experiences – which builds a wall around us. The funny thing is, in order to persuade someone to pull down this wall, we must mirror that wall and become more like that person. It takes conforming to that person’s moods or adapting to their tastes and play along with whatever they send your way. Then their natural defensiveness breaks down, and their self-esteem is no longer threatened by your strangeness or alien habits.

    People do love themselves, but more precisely they love to see their ideas and tastes mirrored in another person. That alone validates them; and their insecurities disappear. The mirror image hypnotizes and relaxes. After the inner wall falls down, that person gives you control of the dynamic. She/he is open to your infection of moods/desires. This is the deepest and most dangerous form of persuasion.

Comments are closed.