Cialdini Answers: Are Six Principles Still Enough?


Robert CialdiniWhat question would you ask Dr. Robert Cialdini? He may not have invented the concept of persuasion psychology, but his 1984 book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, used extensive behavior research to add much needed structure to the field.

Two million copies later, Influence is still the biggest influence (sorry!) on would-be persuasion practitioners.

But, it’s been 30 years since Cialdini first proposed his now famous Six Principles of Persuasion – reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity… I’ve always wondered whether, after three decades of additional research by legions of social scientists, not to mention widespread use of neuroimaging tools like fMRI, Cialdini would expand his list.

So, when I had a chance to record a podcast with Cialdini to discuss his new book, The small BIG: small changes that spark big influence, I asked him that question. Here’s how it went:

RD: Let me ask you a quick question about your six principles of persuasion, which are part of the every text now. Do you feel those are all inclusive? Have you wanted to say, “Boy, I really should have added number seven and number eight,” or do you feel that most other principles can be put into one of the six basic ones?

Dr. Cialdini: Yes, I do feel that is the case, that most of the other approaches … not all of them, because there are hundreds and thousands of different practices, but the majority of the most effective ones seem to fall into one or another of those categories. That’s not to say that each of those categories is equally likely to be effective in all situations. Depending on the situation, the principle at work will change in its potency.

In a situation in which you have something that’s brand new and just out on the market, well, you wouldn’t want to use the principle of social proof, because if it’s brand new, there aren’t a lot of people who have already tried it. You can’t point to that. But you might want to use the principle of scarcity there to say, “There is very limited supply of this because it’s so new,” and you get the chance to get in before competitors have had that chance.

So, there you have it… a slightly qualified “yes” to, “Are six principles of persuasion still enough?”

Listen to the whole conversation (with some great persuasion examples from Cialdini!) here: Ep #30: Small Changes, BIG Influence with Dr. Robert Cialdini. If you aren’t the podcast-listener type, there’s a full transcript you can read (or download as a PDF).

What would your question be for Robert Cialdini? Let us know in a comment. You never know, I, or a Neuromarketing reader, might get a chance to ask him!

UPDATE: In his book Pre-Suasion, issued two years after this conversation, Cialdini DID introduce a new principle, Unity. See: What is Unity, Cialdini’s 7th Principle and the podcast, Unity: Robert Cialdini’s Surprising 7th Principle.

Review: The small BIG

Mini Book Review: The small BIG: Small Changes That Spark Big Influence by Steve J. Martin, Noah Goldstein and Robert Cialdini

The Small Big lives up to its name. It’s a quick read, but the ideas it contains will have a big impact on your business.

The premise of the book is that small changes in wording, presentation, etc., can have an outsized impact on the behavior of others. The authors lead with an example of a minor wording change in a UK tax reminder letter that produced billions in additional revenue collections.

This, of course, is every marketer’s dream – tweak a few words, and see sales skyrocket. The Small Big provides 52 research-based examples that can serve as starting points for improving business outcomes.

Experienced performance marketers and conversion experts won’t need to be convinced that small changes can have a big influence on results, since they run experiments (in the form of A/B or multivariate tests) every day. But, they will benefit from the big assortment of proven winners in the new book.

Like the previous book by this trio, Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, The Small Big is composed of short chapters, each of which starts with scientific research finding (or real world data, occasionally) and then offers one or more practical applications. If you’ve read my book, Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing, you’ll know I’m partial to that approach. It’s a format that doesn’t require start-to-finish reading, but rather allows the reader to go directly to the most relevant topics.

If you buy one persuasion book this year, make it The Small Big. Its combination of sound science, practical application, and overall accessibility make it a business tool you’ll keep close at hand and refer to often.

Around the Web

Ivana Taylor of Small Business Trends called it a “fun, educational and entertaining read.” Linda VandeVrede of Valley Book Blog says if you are “looking for small, ethical ways in which to influence human behavior — this is the guide for you.”

My own longer review at Forbes is here: The Small Big: Powerful Persuasion From Robert Cialdini.

Kindle: The small BIG: small changes that spark big influence
Hardcover: The small BIG: small changes that spark big influence

  1. John says

    i have to check his book out.. thank you for sharing this!

  2. Robin Jenings says

    I’ve heard some good reviews about the Small BIG- I’ll have to add it to my Xmas reading list.

  3. ArnW says

    This book proves that there’s nothing new under the sun, except of course the packaging of the idea that “pre-suasion… Puts the other person in a cooperative state of mind, which makes them more favorable.” I’ve read the book, and the only thing it’s missing is an appreciation of “why” the techniques it proposes are successful. So in the spirit of the work I offer the following brief list of “environmental factors” that condition the reception of ideas whatever the setting — private company, public organization, nonprofit.

    1. We’re all heroes of our own stories.
    2. People are more subtle and less sincere than they seem.
    3. The will to believe is exceeded only by the power to deny.
    4. When people ask for advice, they’re actually seeking approval.
    5. Misery loves company.
    6. Pity is fear and arrogance posing as generosity.
    7. To portray is to betray.

    The last item is the most important. See, an online “experiement” with surprising results. Oh, it’s also free.

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