With the Answers Already in Hand

The Journal of Marketing Research wrote that, for marketers, Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion was “among the most important books written in the last 10 years.”

9780688128166_p0_v1_s550x406I won’t waste anyone’s time researching whether that blurb was offered in 1984 when the book was originally published or whether it graced the 1994 or 2007 reprints because the point is this: these “weapons of automatic influence” always work. If anything, they have gotten better.

For twelve years I’ve taught and studied rhetoric, and yet Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric still sits on my desk unread. I’ve tried. It’s dry. Besides, its value is mostly historical. The stuff it documents–the questions of character, emotion, and reason–are already obvious to anyone who has ever given more than a passing thought to the messages they’re confronted with everyday.


The one tool Cialdini provides to counter manipulators and profiteers’ “weapons” is thought.


The advice is simple, and aside from a few dated examples that are interesting if only for their archaic or anthropological worth, this reminder is really all the book has to offer. He reminds us that we constantly shortcut our thinking in favor of automatic, stereotyped behavior, much of it socially conditioned. Knowing that we do not have to honor our conditioned response to maintain consistency or offer reciprocity results from critical thinking or experience. (Or both)

What strikes me as most profound is the book’s epilogue. It discusses the “blitz” of modern life but not the internet, suggesting that he wrote it for the original edition with only cursory updates for the reprints. He begins by reiterating our need for shortcuts. He claims that they are crucial for dealing with the flood of information we contend with; we need to be able to trust that they will not be subject to manipulation or exploitation.

“We cannot allow that without a fight,” he concludes. “The stakes have gotten too high.”

I suppose the irony is that, in being a bestseller popular among business and marketing folks who strive to persuade and are sometimes (often?) heedless of the cost, books like these have contributed to the erosion of this trust. Not enough readers took up the fight against the exploiters then, and now the weapons are everywhere. Still, as a call to arms for truth, there is a certain hope in remembering that all it takes is a little thinking.

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