Let’s face it, the Right knows how to makes a sales pitch. While it clearly doesn’t work on every one, it works on enough people to give them control of all three branches of government. People like Frank Luntz constantly tweak and review the “sales pitch” of the right wing. In order to better understand how the right wing does this, it helps to take a look at the research that exists on persuasion and influence.

Persuasion and influence are used every day in all of our lives. If we are not selling products or services, we are selling ourselves and our ideas or our politics. Someone is selling and someone is sold in every interpersonal communication. Either you sell yourself, product, service, or ideas, or the person you are communicating with sells you on the idea that they are not buying. In the last three national elections, the Republicans sold their message, and Democrats didn’t. Despite all of these huge problems for Bush and his right wing lackies, the Democrat cannot sit back and hope the right wing self destructs. The message of the left has to be sold effectively, not morphed into right wing lite as people like Joe Lieberman would have us beleive.

Dr. Robert Cialdini is the Regent’s Professor of Psychology at Arizona University. Cialdini admits in the opening of the second edition of his book “Influence:The Psychology of Persuasion” to being a “patsy” when dealing with sales people or, as he terms it, “compliance professionals”. This admission lead Cialdini to study influence and persuasion as he became a social pychologist. This fascinating book covers in great detail the Six Principles of Influence and Persuasion he discovered in over three years of research. In my opinion, this type of information is critical to understanding how the left can do a better job of selling their message.

Cialdini lists the following Six Principles of Influence and Persuasion:

  1. Reciprocation
  2. Commitment and Consistency
  3. Social Proof
  4. Liking
  5. Authority
  6. Scarcity

Cialdini provides numerous examples of each from both his own experiments and research and anedotal evidence from readers of his books.

1) Reciprocation – “This rule says we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us.” This principle of persuasion creates “uninvited debts” and a web of indebtedness. Cialdini cites culutral anthopologists and sociologists to demonstrate that this is a universal principle that is not culural specific. Examples range from the Ethiopian Red Cross donating money to Mexico after an earthquake based on a similar gift from Mexico 30 years prior to the success of the Krishnas found after they began to give a flower before soliciting for donations.

How does the right use reciprocity? How do they create their “web of indebtedness” with voters? I think the primary way is pandering to fundamentalist Christians. In my opinion, Bush, Cheney, and the rest could care less about these issues. They call a Special Session of Congress and get the President off vacation for the Schiavo fiasco to create this “web of indebtedness” by fundamentalist Christians. I am am sure many of you can come up with other examples.

2) Commitment and Consistency – According to Cialdini consistency is generally associated with integrity and intellect. Once a person has committed to an idea, product, or service, they will look for justification to validate that commitment, often while ignoring contrary evidence. Cialdini tells the story of surprising success the Chinese had with American POW’s during the Korean War. A significant part of the success is attributed to the seemingly minor commitments the Chinese would get their prisoners to make. Even small commitments can lead to a big change in attitudes.

How do Luntz and Rove use commitment and consistency? The first thing that pops in my mind is the loyalty oaths that were often used at Bush campaign rallies. Crowd control is an obvious reason for using these “loyalty oaths” but perhaps the commitment of putting your commitment to Bush in writing is an additional benefit sought by Rove? Another thing that comes to mind is the naming of the “Patriot Act”. Obviously, this name was chosen to set the frame of the bill, a frame that is difficult for any politician to come out against. Another way yo look at that is that the great majority of Americans have already made the commitment to be “patriotic”. Using this name takes advantage of that commitment. I am sure there are numerous other examples.

3) Social Proof – Social proof and consensus is often used today in advertising, especially on television. Testimonials and customer quotes are common fair in commercials. The entertainment divisions use social proof to influence as well. Despite the fact that every knows that laugh tracks are canned laughter, programs that use laugh tracks are consistently rated “funnier” than shows that do not (even the same show).

The right wing megaphone, Faux News, is a big part of the social proof and consensus of the right wing message. The slew of right wing newspapers, columnists, and think tanks all add to this echo chamber. I think part of the point of this is to create the illusion of “consensus” amongst those in the know of right wing positions. One of the most frustrating things about arguing with a right wing zealot is their clear assumption that “everyone” agrees with the right. That is social proof at work.

4) Liking – Obviously you have a much better chance of being persuasive with someone who likes you. Cialdini states that physical appreance, similarity, compliments, and contact and cooperation all are part of using liking in the art of persuasion.

Despite the disgust Bush inflames amonst many, he obviously appeals in some way to many voters, and strangely enough, to the press. Apparently Bush is very personable and likable in person. This constantly amazes me, but happens nonetheless. Rove clearly plays this up at every opportunity. Of course, since this is by far the most obvious and used persuasion technique, every poitician looks for way to be more likable.

5) Authority – This is no surprise either. People in positions of authority or with clear expertise in a field have more credibility and are more persuasive than others. Cialdini points out just how little authority is required with his description of Stanley Milgram’s Obedience experitments at Yale in the early 60’s. On the instructions of an experimenter in a white lab coat, numerous people were asked to administer a series of shocks to a person in another room each time the incorrectly answered (or failed to answer) a question about word pairs. The shocks went up to 450 volts. The subjects were told afterwords that no electric shocks were actually used, and that the groans of pain and cries of agony were all recorded. Psychiatrists were asked to predict how many subjects would actually go up to 450 volts. One tenth of one percent were predicted to go all the way to 450 volts. That actual number was approxiamately 65%. Further, every subject went to at least 300 volts. The power and authority of an actor in a white lab coat apparently was enough to overcome the subjects vehement objections to administering powerful shocks to other people in two out of three cases.

Authority is probably the most used tactic by Bush, Cheney, et al. since 911. Bush pushes this farther than any other President. Ultimately, this is the fall back to all the other techniques used. If liking or social proof doesn’t fly, the President’s authority is always the fallback position. We see this in both the NSA spying scandal and the ports deal. I have seen a short film on Milgram’s “Obedience” experiment. Watching it helped me understand much more the power of authority over many people.

6) Scarcity – “Only three days left” or “Just 3 models available at this price” are common tactics used by marketers and sales people to spur potential customers to action. Anything that is limited, available only for a short period, or rare increases in value. Whether it is antiques, a special edition sports car, or a dollar bill with no serial number, the rare and unusual are valuable in many cases simply becuase they are rare and usually unattainable.

I would like to hear from commenters on this one. The first thing that comes to my mind is how unavailable Bush is to the press. We assume its to limit the opportunity for him to make a huge gaff, and I am sure that is an important motivation. Is a side effect of this “scarcity” that the press values talking to him much more than another polictician who is often available?

(Full Disclosure: I originally wrote an article on Cialdini’s book for a site on persuasion and sales
That article is focused on sales and  marketing, not politics)

As I read Cialdini’s book and wrote a review of it, I found myself constantly thinking about how these techniques are used against us every day by the right wing noise machine. That lead me to revamp the review to take a closer look at how Cialdini’s principles are used by the right against us. I hope this post leads to a discussion of these techniques used by Rove, Luntz, and others to sell the message of the right. The Democrats must also understand how these principles of influence are used, and use them ethically where appropriate to sell their own message. If the right continues it success at selling their message despite all their recent troubles, I do not see an end in site to their domination of our government and society.

For those that want further detail, here are some links that may interest you:

Wikipedia on Cialdini

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion on Amazon

Wikipedia on Milgram’s experiments

A book by Milgram on Amazon

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