Friday, May 3, 2013

Influence, Chapter 5

Chapter 5: Liking.

You will not be surprised to hear that liking people increases our willingness to comply with their wishes.  But the strength of the effect is perhaps surprising.  And the ways likeability can be manufactured, say by a salesperson or other compliance professional, are worth a chapter for sure.

Physical Attractiveness
Yep.  Good-looking, well-groomed people are strongly favorably treated in politics, in job interviews, in the courtroom, and just about everywhere else.

I'll see you in court! 
In a Pennsylvania study, researchers rated the physical attractiveness of seventy-four separate male defendants at the start of their criminal trials...The attractive defendants were twice as likely to avoid jail as the unattractive ones.  In another study...a defendant who was better-looking than his victim was assessed an average amount of $5,623 [in damages]; but when the victim was the more attractive of the two, the average compensation was $10,051.
Maybe attractiveness is correlated with other underlying traits that partially explain this, I dunno. But strong attractiveness effects are also easy to identify in experiments.

Improper schooling!
Research on elementary-school children shows that adults view aggressive acts as less naughty when performed by an attractive child and that teachers presume good-looking children to be more intelligent...
Whoa! Well, there's probably something going on here too.  Although...I mean nobody likes to talk about it, but...shouldn't more attractive people actually tend to be smarter? Beauty and intelligence are both positive attributes.  In the marriage market, beautiful people should tend to match with people who are higher in both attributes.  Their children should be more beautiful and more intelligent than average.

I also wonder whose job it was to rate elementary school kids on "attractiveness." (Grad students! Grad students!)

Vote for the ugly ones!
Unsurprisingly, attractive politicians do better in the polls.  As an aside, a consequence of selection for physical attractiveness in politics is that uglier politicians should on average be better along other dimensions that are valued in politics (speaking ability, bargaining power, sanity...).  This follows from a point Jeff Ely has made a few times (see for instance  (To check your understanding: why do I expect more attractive politicians to be worse in other ways, while I expect more attractive people to be more intelligent?)

In fairness, likeability is genuinely important for a politician's effectiveness; however, if we tend to overweigh attractiveness, you should respond by downgrading attractive politicians.  The next time you're on the fence in the voting booth, maybe you should pick the uglier one!


We like people who dress like us, talk like us, have similar background and interests.

This one was an eye-opener for me.  Yes, car salesmen are trained to mirror posture, mood, verbal style.  But apparently they are also trained to manufacture a persona that coincides with whatever they can learn about their potential customer.

This includes looking for evidence about a buyer from the car that he drives into the lot.  If there is camping gear in the back (or the car betrays other signs of an outdoorsy lifestyle), the salesman can mention that he loves to get away from the city whenever possible.  If the license plate is out of state, he might ask where the person is from and report that he (or his wife) was born there.  If there are political bumper stickers or a Jesus fish or...well, you get the idea.  A car can say a lot about a person before the salesman has even made first contact.

Up until now, I wouldn't say that I have trusted salespeople, exactly.  But their trustworthiness just got seriously downgraded, which is saying something.

Here is some good advice:
Because a veneer of similarity can be so easily would be wise these days to be careful around salespeople who just seem to be just like you.
Or more generally, in light of all the discussion in this chapter, be wary of salespeople who you just seem to like for some reason.  In fact, I will coin my own pithy moral:
Be wary of the salesman you seem to (be)  like.


According to Cialdini, we are "phenomenal suckers for flattery," even when we know the flatterer has something to gain by flattery, even when the flattery is completely inaccurate(!)

Praise makes us feel liked.  And we reciprocate with a powerful urge to like the praise-giver back.

This is a great time to mention that at Economonomics, we genuinely love our small but thoughtful and intelligent readership!  And remember, comments are both the best complements and the best compliments to a post you have enjoyed!

(Every comment is a complement and a compliment, whether it contains compliments or not.  In fact if you did leave a few words of praise, that would be a complementary complimentary compliment.)

Contact and Cooperation

Being in cooperation with someone, even being forced to cooperate, strongly influences us to like that person.  They become allies.  We begin to trust them, and to internalize their goals and desires in our own utility functions.

I infer from the tone that Good Cop/Bad Cop was unfamiliar to readers in 1984 (when Influence was originally published).  These days, it's such a staple of crime drama that even the interrogated characters know about it.  In any case, the point is that after the Bad Cop rips into the subject, the Good Cop comes in and adopts the air of a trustworthy ally who thinks his colleague is taking things too far.

Similarly, a salesman will pretend to "battle with his boss."  The salesman seems to be on your side, trying to get you a good deal.  It's an incredibly effective tactic.

Conditioning and Association

Advertisements are full of beautiful people.  This is partly to get our attention, but partly also to make us like the product by association.  Mere association with something positive increases our opinion of the product, even when the associated feature has nothing to do with the product itself.

This isn't hard to believe or understand.  As a general heuristic, positive things tend to be associated with each other.

Heads we win, tails they lose!
Apparently we also take measures to associate ourselves with positive things while avoiding the negatives.  Cialdini did a neat experiment in which he asked students at Arizona State to describe the outcome of football games.  When the team lost, fans tended to say things like, "They lost the game."  But when the team won, it became, "We won!"  This is perhaps best exemplified by this gem of a response from one student:
They threw away our chance for a national championship!
Oh, sports fans.  Cialdini also describes an interesting extension where students took a general knowledge test before being asked to describe the game.  The test was rigged so that some succeeded and others failed badly.  The people whose pride had just taken a blow were much more likely to associate themselves with a victorious team, or distance themselves from a losing team.  In other words, association with success is used as a substitute for success.


Time to disassociate! (Or, How to Lose Credibility and Alienate Readers)
So far, I think we've been having a pretty good time with this chapter.  But the author is about to go horribly, horribly astray.

I'm flipping through the chapters as I write these reviews.  And this is the unfortunate part of the review where I just flipped to a page covered in angry margin notes.
In the aftermath of the [1980 Olympics victory of the US hockey team] over the Soviet team, scalpers were getting a hundred dollars a pair for ticket stubs...Although the desire to bask in reflected glory exists to a degree in all of us, there seems to be something special about people who would wait in the snow to spend fifty dollars apiece for the shreds of tickets to a game they had not attended, presumably to "prove" to friends back home that they had been present at the big victory...
Lying to friends...really?  And he goes on...
Unless I miss my guess, they are not merely great sports aficionados; they are individuals with a hidden personality flaw---a poor self-concept.  Deep inside is a sense of low personal worth that directs them to seek prestige not from the generation or promotion of their own attainments, but from...associations with others of attainment. 
Oh lord. This is what happens when you take a psych theory too far.  There can be a very large difference between an effect discovered in the lab, and the net effect of all the forces that characterize real world behavior.

People collect stuff.  
Which level would you like me to defend this on?  How about this: it's fun to collect stuff.  No?  Okay then, how about this: There is a thriving resale market for sports memorabilia. You don't even have to enjoy it!  According to Antiques Roadshow, those $50 dollar Miracle on Ice ticket stubs are worth over $500 today.   Furthermore, an unused ticket is worth over $2,500 today.

Yes, the unused ticket is worth more. Even though, unfortunately for Cialdini's theory, it cannot be used to prove to your friend that you were at the game.  Quite to the contrary, I suppose an unused ticket would prove that you wasted a ticket instead of sending your friend to the Miracle on Ice.  (And yes, you would be seen as a total jerk, because sports fans are not known for their keen ability to distinguish between ex ante and ex post reasoning).

Now one might ask, where does this value come from then?  Even if it's smart to buy a $50 stub for resale purposes alone, doesn't someone have to value it for its own sake?  Isn't it possible that the $500 resale price is largely underpinned by the motives Cialdini describes?

The bizarre truth is, it is perfectly possible for ticket stubs to be valuable even if no one actually values the stubs for their own sake!  What? Intrinsically worthless pieces of paper going for $500?


How about I'll agree not to put a whole annoying page of dots, and you can pretend you didn't already see the punchline in your peripheral vision?


Technically this bill is worth considerably more than $500 nowadays, but you get the idea.
Yep.  That's basically what money is.  It has value today because people expect it to still have value tomorrow.

My point is not to argue that Miracle on Ice ticket stubs don't have intrinsic value to people; to the contrary, I'm sure they do.  But good luck figuring out which part of the $500 is "intrinsic" value, and which part is value based on the fact that people expect them to have value tomorrow.  Which implies, especially: good luck arguing that a particularly high price for ticket stubs is evidence of deep emotional insecurity.

Even if he's right (he's still wrong)
I'm actually not done demolishing Cialdini's argument.  For the final pass, let's suppose Cialdini is completely correct that sports fans and memorabilia collectors really are largely driven by a desire to associate with the triumphs of others. A hidden personality flaw, he says!  Low personal worth, he says!

Holy absolute versus marginal fail, Batman!
Just because you really enjoy a good steak doesn't mean you are really unhappy without steak.  If we collect a bunch of steak lovers do we expect them to be secretly unhappy whenever they aren't eating steak?  No.  Similarly, you can have a great life and still really enjoy the vicarious successes of other people's lives.

Slightly more technical: In a lab, you can vary people's baseline utility while effectively holding constant the expected marginal value (conditional on baseline utility) of associating with success in sports.  But in the real world, people select into sports according to marginal values, not baseline utilities. Sports fans are people who get particularly high marginal value from associating with sports.  This doesn't imply they have low baseline utilities, even though in the lab the people with the highest marginal values were the people with the lowest baseline utilities.

Are you not entertained?
Now, let me shift gears a bit and make a broader point about entertainment.  I'm not much of a sports fan but I would bet the real, dominant reason for sports fanaticism has got to be less about associating with success of others, and more about mentally experiencing the drama and success oneself.  There's a fine line between these, but sports are best understood as an immersive experience analogous to a good book or movie.  Good drama immerses you and invests you in the outcome.

The real appeal of sports, or for that matter most entertainment, is that the drama in sports and movies and books is so much more dramatic than your own drama.  Have you ever gone up against a league of the world's best athletes and vanquished them in a glorious display of skill and strength and other traits that you value?  Have you ever launched an against-all-odds rebellion against the evil Empire and blown up the Death Star using mystical Force powers?

Stories are made less compelling by the fact that they aren't "real," but more compelling by the fact that awesomer things happen in them than in reality.  

Sports are so popular because they are social, immersive, and considerably more "real" than most other forms of mass entertainment.  Movies and novels are successful because the author is totally unconstrained by reality and thus free to choose the optimally dramatic sequence of events.  Video games are successful because they pull you into the action and give you an actual role in victory.  (And the future will be full of progressively more immersive entertainment experiences).

Summing it up
The point of all this is, I think the immersive entertainment effect has got to be orders of magnitude stronger than the associative effect.  You have to add them together to ascertain a sports fan's motives, and when you do, the associative effect gets swamped.  Yes, we especially like to associate ourselves with teams when they are successful. But somehow the Cubs still have fans.

If you've made it this far, I salute you.  Or rather, I salute you, dear reader who has made it this far.  I hope you have been entertained.  Incredibly, that only covers the first half of my angry margin notes on page 203...but we can talk about stage mothers and rock-music groupies another time.


  1. Here's a complementary complimentary compliment! Nice post, especially the part where you disassociate.

    Related to the point that we're suckers for flattery, I don't believe it - at least to the extent that you pushed it in this post. There's a fine line between genuine praise and hollow flattery, and genuine praise can be a powerful tool in gaining trust (because it signals that you took the time to understand the other person)... on the other hand, hollow flattery will make you look like a tool. That's the lesson I draw from Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People."

    If someone gives me a hollow compliment that I know is entirely untrue (for example, being called "Doctor" when I don't yet have a Ph.D), I tend to downgrade what they say from then on, rather than reward the little bit of praise they tried to hurl my way. Hollow, false praise is uncomfortable for the receiver... and how people respond when they're uncomfortable is highly variable (some might reward it out of awkwardness, I suppose, but this isn't being a "sucker for flattery"). Maybe I'm unusual in not liking hollow praise, but Carnegie suggests that I'm not.

    Now, maybe there's a way to set up an experiment where it looks like hollow flattery has a big positive effect on liking the praise-giver, but for an effect like that, I would be seriously concerned that the subjects were primed to think that compliments should be rewarded within the experiment.

    1. Tony, here's a concession:

      "Although there are limits to our gullibility -- especially when we can be sure that the flatterer is trying to manipulate us -- we tend, as a rule, to believe praise and to like those who provide it, oftentimes when it is clearly false."

      However, this section was pretty brief (only a page and half) and didn't contain much in the way of details.

    2. I need a lot more detail to be convinced of the "as a rule" part of this statement. On reflection, I either need more detail, or a different definition of "false." And, I'm not sure we should call this "gullibility."

      To start off, I am not clear on what he means by "false praise." Is "false praise" the same thing as insincerity? Or, is it "praise that is factually wrong"? My previous comment dealt with the latter case -- discomfort/awkwardness might lead to erratic behavior.

      In the former case, I can understand how obvious externally-perceived insincerity might often be rewarded by the praise-receiver liking the praise-giver more. If they insincerely point out something that is truly praiseworthy, why not give them points for correctness? This doesn't mean that the praise giver has earned ultimate trust, but relative to someone who said nothing (or worse said something wrong/offensive), pointing out something that is praiseworthy in a positive light just seems likable.

      On a deeper level, it is worth exploring what is the right counterfactual. All else equal, if someone says something nice to me rather than not, is it rational to like them more, view them more favorably, etc.? In a suitably rich environment, maybe. I'm thinking of "The Evolution of Cooperation" by Robert Axelrod -- "nice" strategies that punish deviations from being nice tend to do well in strategy tournaments. Obviously, there's a difference between "nice" and "gullible," but the strategies that tend to do well are those that are "nice with limits."

      So, coming full circle, maybe it isn't such a bad rule to believe praise and like those who provide it -- at least until they do something to ruin their likability.

    3. Tony,

      I think I need a lot more detail as well, to understand what he is really claiming here and to what extent it is true or false.

      As for "false praise," he means factually false praise. I guess the idea is that people still respond positively to a statement like, "I see you have discerning taste in cars" even when they don't actually know a thing about cars.

      False praise could indicate insincerity, which is what you're reacting negatively to. But in a context where it is plausibly just an honest mistake, it can convey positive information even though it happens to be false -- for instance, it says that you *look* like a well-informed person, and it also says that the speaker has a positive opinion of you. In which case maybe it makes sense to like them a bit more.

      My chief concern whenever I hear about results like this is that psychologists are TERRIBLE at keeping track of the *information* conveyed by actions. It is not necessarily perverse to respond positively to a false compliment, if the *information it conveys* is positive. It can go either way. Economists are quite accustomed to separating out the "message" from the "information conveyed by the message." But psychologists jump too quickly from "The message is false" to "The message doesn't convey actual positive information about you" to "You must just like receiving compliments, even false ones!"