Earlier this September saw Professor Robert Cialdini (Arizona State University) and Steve Martin (Director of Influence at Work) speak at the LSE in London.
Cialdini authored the bestseller ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion‘ – and the two have just published a new book called ‘The Small Big‘.
Interviewed by The Times Executive Editor Daniel Finkelstein, the conversation illuminated many of the big developments in behavioural science and some of their fascinating findings about what can change behaviour.
Below are four highlights from their talk and finally a useful tip on why it’s best to order first in a restaurant….
1. On the branding of social psychology: Cialdini is getting used to being branded according to fashion….When Cialdini first started working in this field, he was known as a social psychologist and, for the most part, had little standing and recognition among businesses and government.
That, he says has changed. When he first began working with the Obama campaign pre-2008 he participated in two seminars where, on the guest list he was labelled a ‘behavioural economist’. He questioned this, and the government official said:
“We couldn’t have justified bringing you here unless you were labelled as a behavioural economist.”
Move on 5 to 6 more years, and many have recognised that behavioural economics is to a large extent a clever brand name. Cialdini says that now he is once more recognised as a social psychologist! But he says:
“I feel indebted to behavioural economics for bringing social psychology to a non-academic audience.”
2. On the recognition of behavioural science by economists: The area is now taken seriously by economists. Two decades ago, any experiments he had run which clearly illustrated the effect of the concepts and cognitive biases we all know, these were generally considered anecdotal by economists and were not believed until ‘they had been run through their models” he says. But now there is a shared paradigm between the two disciplines.
Steve observed that there was a certain irony in two ‘persuasion scientists’ successfully selling a paradigm…!
3. On the importance of real world interventions: He has observed the shift from lab based experiments to a realisation of the need to test outside the lab. He considers the lab to be an important initial testing ground, where, in a controlled environment academics can carefully test different effects, from anchors, to our tendency to conform. But then they need to be taken out and tested in the real world – for two reasons:
- To check and see if that effect is still visible and as marked as it was in the lab in a real world setting where the environment and context is less controllable
- To make the effect more convincing and real for people. It hard to believe and relate to the dry, superficial tasks participants are set in lab experiments – “read these words, complete this computer task, count how many dots you see” etc. Testing for and seeing the same effects in the real world is something that observers can relate to much better.
This was something he realised very early on in his career. He said
“When writing Influence, I thought it was important to get out of the lab and into the real world or fundraisers, sales people, business people etc.”
So he entered and enrolled on as many training programmes as he could, learning first hand how people were being trained on the ground to sell things, for example, cars. He then took those anecdotes offered by experienced sales people back to the lab to test. Some were right, others were wrong.
Finally, he had this tip: In a restaurant, always order first in the group! This way you get to choose exactly what you want whereas others ordering after you may need to change their planned order if it turns out to be the same as yours! They will want to differentiate rather than seemingly copy.
Eating out (in the West at least) is all about standing out not conforming. I am sure you have all experienced that conundrum when someone orders what you were planning to have and then having to decide whether to ‘be boring’ and have the same or go for something else.
We tend to follow others only when we face uncertainty and fear – which in most restaurants is something unlikely!