Sales Resistance Tactics from "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion"

Widely available cookies taste just as good as scarce ones.

I recently read Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini (1984, revised 2006), a pop nonfiction book in which a social psychologist explores compliance and manipulation, combining his field knowledge with undercover applied tactics gleaned from attending a number of sales trainings. How do advertisers and salespeople, governments, authority figures, and con artists get you to behave in certain ways? Cialdini explains several methods, including how to notice you are being manipulated, and how to say no.

One thing I liked about this book is how Cialdini acknowledges that the "weaknesses" being exploited are, in most cases, strengths. Our social lives are greatly improved by the assumption that "one good turn deserves another." In fact, the social norm of reciprocation is a foundation for a lot of human society! Other "rules of thumb" may allow us to navigate through the world without stopping to analyze our every move, which would eventually paralyze us. We shouldn't be throwing out these rules of thumb altogether. But we need to recognize when they are being exploited for others' gain.

I enjoyed the book, and it helped me recognized a number of ways in which I have been manipulated. I thought it would be helpful for me to create a one-pager in which I outline each tactic Cialdini explored, with particular emphasis on how they relate to buying behavior. It's important to me to notice ways in which I am being manipulated to buy more, so I can avoid them!

Here are the tactics Cialdini explored. (For more info on each one, do what I did and take the book out of your local library!) In some cases, I've augmented them with my own thoughts!!

1. Contrast

AKA anchoring. The tendency to compare two products or prices simply because they are presented together (not because they necessarily have anything to do with each other).

Sales Exploits
  • Old price/new price: "$55, reduced from $129" looks a lot better to us than straight-up "$55." Even if the "old price" is meaningless.

  • Add-ons: when purchasing something large, you're susceptible to "throw in" extras/accessories without the thought you would normally put into those smaller purchases, because they seem trivial compared to the main purchase (e.g. a $95 sweater "thrown in" with a $495 suit).

  • Set-up models: Salespeople may show you overly expensive or otherwise undesirable models first, so that you will see the one they actually want you to buy in a better light.

How to Resist
Ask yourself, "Is this comparison relevant?"

2. Reciprocation

One good turn deserves another. We feel obligated to pay people back when we feel they have done us a favor.

Sales Exploits
  • Free Samples: Accepting a free gift may make us feel obligated to make a purchase in return.

  • Concessions: In a negotiation, your opponent may make a large request they do not expect to be accepted, in order to use their "concession" to a smaller request as a bargaining chip (you feel obligated to accept the smaller request because they were so reasonable in giving up the larger request).

How to Resist
Mentally reframe the "favor" as a sales tactic. Remember, this is a business deal, not a social relationship. There is no social rule obligating you to buy something you do not want.

3. Consistency & Commitment

AKA avoiding cognitive dissonance. We want to see ourselves as consistent types of people. We avoid appearing or admitting to being inconsistent at all costs. The subtle genius of these techniques is that they cause us to change the way we actually see ourselves.

Sales Exploits
  • Foot in the Door: The salesperson makes a trivial request. You comply, because why not? Later, they make a similar but larger request which you might normally refuse; but by now, to refuse would seem inconsistent with previous behavior. Your self concept has since changed to, "I'm the kind of person that does that."

    Example: You agree to let the canvasser into your home to use the bathroom. You sign the petition, because if you let them inside, you must trust them. You donate money, because if you signed the petition, you must care about the cause.

  • Public Testimonial: Many companies will offer a small prize for an essay or video contest e.g. "Why I Love Kraft Mac & Cheese." Having committed yourself publicly, you convince yourself that you believe what you wrote. (The key is that the contest prize must be fairly trivial, so you can't say to yourself, "Of course, I just did it for the money.")

  • Extra Effort: A company may make you go to extra effort for the "opportunity" to buy something. Having made the effort, you must become a staunch supporter of the product, because why did you go to the effort otherwise?

    I remember almost falling for this with the OnePlus One phone a year or two ago. You couldn't order it unless you were invited by an existing customer. Just to open up my options, I began to trawl customer message boards, increasingly obsessed with securing an invite. By the time I'd snagged one, I'd proven to myself that I must really want that phone! (Luckily, at the last moment, I balked at the $400 price tag and then realized I didn't even need a new phone.)

How to Resist
Distinguish between laudable consistency (commitment your values), and foolish consistency (bullheaded commitment to something random). Notice that stomach-clenching, trapped feeling: this is your signal you have overcommitted yourself to something you don't really believe. Notice, also, your first emotional reaction to a request, before you have a chance to overthink it. Consistency tactics rely on your cool, logical brain taking over to resolve the cognitive dissonance, but your "heart of hearts" (first emotional reaction) probably holds a better clue to your true feelings about the request.

This tactic isn't in the book, but I feel like it's also helpful to give yourself a script for making an exit the moment things cross a line for you. "Foot in the door" type techniques rely on your inability to see a way out. My mom had a great one: "I don't do business over the phone." This inarguable line cut short any number of telemarketing calls. Creating strict guidelines ahead of time for the circumstances under which you will do certain things (like give out your credit card number or you phone number) can help to put the brakes on at the crucial moment, even if your hackles aren't raised until you're well into a seemingly inescapable chain of commitment.

Also, try not to worry too much about seeming consistent, I guess? Remember Moriarty's mantra: "I'm sooooo changeable."

4. Social Proof

We look to others (especially those similar to us) to decide how to act.

Sales Exploits
  • Appeal to Popularity: "We're the #1 toothpaste nationwide!"

  • Man on the Street: Commercials feature "average people" (actors pretending to be unrehearsed, ordinary consumers Just Like You)

  • Seeds: Bartenders seed their tip jars with a few dollars to make it look like throwing paper money in the jar is the normal, popular thing to do.

How to Resist
Be wary of counterfeit social proof; just who are the people you are following? Are they real? Are they acting the way normal people would, or paid shills?

5. Liking

We want to do favors for people we personally like… such as buying things from them.

Sales Exploits
  • Tupperware Parties: Some companies arrange for people to sell directly to their friends, capitalizing on an existing relationship.

  • Likeable Salespeople: Salespeople may just get us to like them, through any combination to techniques (mirroring, giving compliments, appearing to cooperate with you against someone else, just being cute).

  • Association: We like people/products when they're associated with nice things. Beware celebrity endorsements, and the sales pitch that comes with a meal.

How to Resist
Separate the salesperson from the deal: without this particular salesperson, is it still a good deal? Remember that it's the product you're buying, not the person.

6. Authority

We tend to trust authority figures (doctors, people in fancy business suits, etc.)

Sales Exploits
  • Appeal to Authority: Commercials often feature an authority figure, or even someone who simply resembles an authority figure (man in a white coat, actor who played a doctor on TV)

  • False Impartiality: Salespeople or other representatives may point out some shortcoming in the product in an effort to seem impartial and therefore trustworthy. Of course, this can be done in a way such that shortcoming is unimportant or actually a strength (like in a job interview).

How to Resist
Ask "Is this authority truly an expert?" And "Are their credentials relevant?" If so: "Do they have a profit motive?" We cannot expect even legitimate authorities to be completely honest if they stand to gain from pushing a particular agenda.

7. Scarcity

People just go nuts for the chance to possess something that they believe is a scarce resource. This is definitely one that I personally fall for a lot!

Sales Exploits
  • Limited Number: Customer is informed that the product is expected to sell out, and will not be restocked. (This may be true or false.)

  • Limited Time: There is a deadline on a particular offer (today only! last hour of sale!)

  • Competition: Seller fosters genuine or apparent competition ("Another couple is interested in the apartment")

How to Resist
Unlike Consistency tactics, Scarcity relies on our "hot" (fast/emotional) brain taking over, so we can combat by engaging the "cool" (logical/rational/slow) thinking systems. Use "hot" state as a cue to trigger a slow-down-and-think breath. A purchasing process shouldn't feel so emotional and manic.

Ask yourself, "What do I want from this product?" The actual qualities of the product (useful, well-made, aesthetically pleasing, delicious, etc.) are not affected by how scarce or common it is. "Limited edition" cookies don't taste better.


Okay, so this one pager turned out to be more than one page, but you can keep this business-card-size version in your wallet for handy reference!

Contrast | Is the comparison relevant?
Reciprocation | It's a business deal, not a social call
Consistency | Funny feeling in your stomach pit? Don't commit
Social Proof | Are these people even real?
Liking | You're buying the product, not the person
Authority | Is the authority's expertise legitimate & relevant?
Scarcity | Quality is not affected by availability


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