Appropriate Backlash

Over the weekend I read Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini, a recommendation of Tyler Cowen‘s.  The book laid out some principles which people use to influence others behavior, and illustrated the principles with colorful examples.  It was a quick and entertaining read, but I was miffed by Cialdini’s conclusion.  He writes that we should militate against those that would use the psychological methods described in his book to influence us:

The enemy is the advertiser who seeks to create an image of popularity for a brand of toothpaste by, say, constructing a series of staged “unrehearsed-interview”…Here [we] are all being exploited.  In an earlier chapter, I recommended against the purchase of any product featured [in such a commercial] and I urged that we send the product manufacturers letters detailing the reason and suggesting that they dismiss their advertising agency.  I would recommend extending this aggressive stance…We should refuse to watch TV programs that use canned laughter.  If we see a bartender beginning a shift by salting his tip jar with a bill or two of his own, he should get none from us…In short, we should be willing to use boycott, threat, confrontation, censure, tirade, nearly anything, to retaliate.

Cialdini’s vitrionic response seemed to me a bit over the top.  Canned laughter may induce us to laugh more than we otherwise would have, but we still choose to laugh.  If we tip a bartender because it looks like other people have tipped him we still decide whether to tip or not ourselves.  It would be great if the toothpaste salesman gave us a completely dry list of the advantages and disadvantages of his brand vis-a-vis the other products available, but the real world we can’t be surprised when a salesman advocates for his particular brand.  As long as we understand the mechanism which which he is trying to influence us, we are free to choose to buy or not to buy it based upon our own judgement.

The appropriate response to a “psychological” sales pitch is to recognize it as such, and thereby render it ineffective.  Once we understand how seeding a tip jar may influence our decision to tip a bartender or not, we can make sure that we only tip for truly good service and not based on the amount of money already given.  There is no reason to aggitate further against businesses who use those type of pitches than to express your personal preferences by either buying or not buying their products.  If Cialdini wants businesses to stop using the methods described in his book, he should just try to educate consumers about how they may be persuaded.  By writing such a popular book, he has already gone a long way to do just that.

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One Response to “Appropriate Backlash”

  1. Isak Says:

    Good point.

    To the extent that these manipulators raise the costs of irrationality and the results from this spill over to other areas, they could actually be making the world better off too.

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