What Is Persuasion?

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What Is Persuasion?

Persuasion is a process in which one person or entity tries to influence another person or group of people to change their beliefs or behaviors. It is distinct from coercion, in that the people receiving the message have a choice about whether to act on it. ("Coercive persuasion" refers to indoctrination or brainwashing, such as may occur in a cult.)

Persuasion can be a powerful force that affects the decisions and actions that people take. Persuasive messages are symbolic (using words, images, and sounds) and may be transmitted verbally or nonverbally, via media or face-to-face communication. Persuasion may be overt or subtle. Understanding how it works can help you become more aware of how you are influenced by persuasive messages.

6 Principles of Persuasion

Psychologists recognize six characteristics of persuasion, originally identified by Robert Cialdini, PhD, in 1984. These principles describe what makes persuasive messages influential and successful. Some persuasive efforts may use several of these tactics simultaneously.

Reciprocity

As humans, we tend to want to repay others when they have done something for us. You might easily persuade a friend to do a favor for you if you have already done one for them. In a business context, reciprocity could mean being willing to provide your email address in order to receive a discount on your purchase.

Scarcity

You might be persuaded to change your behavior if you are convinced that you will lose access to something, or that there isn't enough of it to go around. You can see this principle in action when an airline alerts you that there are only a few seats left on a flight you're considering, or a retailer advertises a limited-time sale.

Authority

If you believe that a person or other entity has expert knowledge, you may be more likely to be persuaded by their message. An advertiser or political candidate might use an authority figure, such as a physician, historian, or scientist, to support their argument.

Consistency or Commitment

People have a tendency to continue their previous behavior or stick with a decision they have made. In an interview, Cialdini gave a example of this involving a restaurant that struggled with no-shows.

When a patron made a reservation, if the receptionist asked them to call if they needed to cancel (and got an affirmative reply), they were much less likely to miss their reservation. The patrons were effectively making a promise, and were committed to keeping it.

Social Proof

This is the "safety in numbers" principle. If we see that our friends or peers have made a purchase, supported a political candidate, or otherwise agreed with a persuasive message, we may be more likely to agree with it too.

Liking

If you know and like the person (or even business, political party, or government agency) trying to persuade you of something, you will be more inclined to agree with their argument. This is similar to the "social proof" principle, but is more about the quality of the relationship, where social proof is about quantity.

Signs of Persuasion

Political campaigns, mass media, social media, and advertising all use the power of persuasion to influence us. Sometimes we like to believe that we are immune to persuasion, that we can see through the sales pitch, comprehend the truth in a situation, and come to conclusions all on our own.

This might be true in some scenarios, when an attempt at persuasion is clear: You know that a salesperson's job is to sell you something, and that a campaign ad is designed to persuade you to vote for a candidate. A social media influencer's sponsored content may be clearly labeled as such.

But persuasive messages can also be subtle. Look for elements of the six principles of persuasion to identify an attempt to persuade you. This might mean phrases such as "limited availability" (scarcity), "doctors say" (authority), or "customers agree" (social proof),

Uses

Advertisements that urge viewers to buy a particular product are a form of persuasion. So are political debates, where candidates try to sway voters to their side. Persuasion is a powerful force in daily life and has a major influence on society and a whole.

Negative examples of persuasion often come to mind—as in an ad trying to get you to buy something you don't need, peer pressure that causes you to make a poor decision, or even deliberate misinformation. But persuasion can also be used in a positive way: Think of public service or health campaigns that urge people to recycle, quit smoking, or practice social distancing to help protect themselves and their community.

How to Respond to Persuasion

Being informed about persuasion and persuasive techniques can help you recognize persuasion and respond to it. It can also help you use it to influence the behavior of others.

Evaluate Information Carefully

When you are trying to make a decision (about something big, like who to vote for, or small, like what movie to watch), gather information to help you make a wise choice. But be thoughtful and even skeptical about that information. Who is providing it, and what is their motivation? Do they stand to gain in some way from your choice? Be sure you trust your sources.

Learn How to Resist Persuasion

Being aware of persuasive techniques and of the trustworthiness of information used to make choices can help you resist persuasion. It's also important to be willing to change your mind. Feeling burdened by sunk costs—or the perception that you've already invested too much in a decision to be able to back out—could lead you to be persuaded to go against your better judgment.

People who are impulsive may be more susceptible to persuasion than others. Similarly, people who lack self-control also tend to be susceptible to persuasion. So taking steps to improve your self-control can help you resist persuasion.

Know How to Use Persuasion

You can use your knowledge of persuasion to convince others to align with your point of view. For example, if you want your partner to visit a new restaurant with you, you could remind them that a friend whose opinion they trust recommended the place (liking), that it has dozens of positive reviews from other diners (social proof), or that they chose the restaurant last time (reciprocity).

Your knowledge and understanding of your audience (in this case, your partner) can help you decide which persuasive techniques will be most effective. For instance, maybe your partner doesn't care about what other diners think, but they do hate to miss out on something unusual. In that case, you might try a scarcity tactic: "This specialty dish is only available on Sundays, and only to the first ten diners."

Research shows that projecting confidence via your tone of voice makes you more persuasive. Even if you don't feel confident in your argument, sounding as if you do helps you succeed.

A Word From Verywell

Persuasion can be both a positive and negative force. Learning more about how persuasion works can help you better understand how you might be influenced by the messages you see and hear. It can also give you the tools you need to make persuasive arguments of your own.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. Modic D, Anderson R, Palomäki J. We will make you like our research: The development of a susceptibility-to-persuasion scale. Braunstein LA, ed. PLoS ONE. 2018;13(3):e0194119. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0194119

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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.