The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review


Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
Robert B. Cialdini, Ph. D. (Quill/William Morrow, New York, NY, Revised Edition 1993). 320 pages.

Robert Cialdini is a professor at Arizona State University and, at least once upon a time, a self-described sucker for buying things he doesn't really want. Influence is a book arising out of his studies on the art and science of persuading people to do things.

Cialdini cites numerous psychological studies where various factors are tested for their ability to influence people to make decisions. Not only do the discussions of these studies make for interesting reading, they are highly instructive about the power of influence. Cialdini utilizes real-world experience in the realm of what he calls "compliance professionals"-- people whose job it is to get others do to things. This includes marketers and salesmen, but also political, business and spiritual leaders.

Cialdini identifies six major tools of persuasion:

  1. Reciprocation
  2. Commitment and Consistency
  3. Social Proof (i.e. what other people are doing)
  4. Liking (i.e. attractiveness, similarity or familiarity with the seller)
  5. Authority
  6. Scarcity (i.e. sense of urgency; the law of supply and demand)

The core of Cialdini's thesis is that each of these principles of persuasion work because most of the time they are reasonable. He says that often the world is complicated and rather than apply critical thinking to each and every thing we come across every day, we use these various rules (there are hundreds of variations on these basic themes) to make our lives simpler and guide our decision-making.

Compliance professionals may use these rules ethically or unethically, and Cialdini discusses the difference between these. For example, if an elected official comes out with a statement concerning the seriousness of some health or safety risk, we are likely to accept what is said at face value because of his or her position of authority. But unscrupulous people may manipulate this principle in various ways. Besides fraud or outright deception (e.g. impersonating a police officer), people may wear uniforms or nametags and utilize other trappings of those with authority, such as lame certifications or titles, printed materials or the like. Or, people with legitimate authority may overstep the bounds of that authority. Such compliance professionals know that once people accept the "authority" aspect, they are more likely to get what they want from people because people tend to comply with authority.

One of the many studies I got a kick out of reading about was his discussion of toy marketing around Christmas. People in the toy business like the Christmas spike in sales, but they'd also like to make it last more throughout the year. Cialdini cites an incident where he discovers that toy makers market a certain toy to create a demand, but then deliberately under-produce the toy prior to Christmas. Parents promise their kids this toy for Christmas but can't find it in stores. So, they buy a bunch of other toys (that the kid doesn't even really want!) to make up for it, and then (surprise!) in January or February the elusive, much desired toy is now available. People go off to finally buy this elusive toy out of a desire to be consistent with what they promised their kids-- and toy companies sold a bunch of toys in December that nobody really wanted in addition to the much-coveted toy. Like many other techniques used by compliance professionals, this is a hybrid using both the consistency and scarcity principles to manipulate people.

In each chapter, Cialdini also discusses ways to say "no" to these forms of influence. The problem with saying "no" is that the rules usually work and are good for us, and we tend to follow them automatically. So we've got to be alert to when the rules are being manipulated or the stimulus is fake. In a nutshell, we are less likely to be duped by some technique if we separate the idea being pushed from all of the other trappings. For example, do we really want the afore-mentioned "second best toys" in the first place, or do we get duped into getting them because we've been manipulated?

So how does a this book matter to the Barnabas Ministry? What does it have to do with churches? Well, church leaders can be classified as "compliance professionals." In some sense, they want people to do things. Like other forms of influence, this isn't always bad.

But some church leaders are unscrupulous. These use the church for their own benefit or gain. They manipulate people to get what they want.  Less evil people may deeply desire some good end result but utilize any of these methods to achieve it. This book is highly useful for identifying strategies that unscrupulous church leaders may use to manipulate others.

In fact, I have seen each of Cialdini's six keys to influence used unscrupulously and manipulatively in church settings:
  1. Reciprocation: People give something in order to get something. Unscrupulous church leaders give or invest time or "vision" for others to get something else in return.
  2. Commitment and Consistency: Unscrupulous church leaders may manipulate people's desire for consistency to get them to do things. For example, they might say, "You said you really wanted to impact people. Well, doing xyz is how you do it." Or, "You've persevered this long, we're really changing, you should stay committed to the group." Or, "You're not a quitter, are you?"
  3. Social Proof: People are told to do things because "everybody else in the group is doing it." This is a manipulation of the Scriptural concept of unity, and it makes people do things they wouldn't otherwise do. The situation with Jim Jones in Guyana is discussed in the book as a tragic example of this principle in a church setting.
  4. Liking: Some church leaders work very hard at being liked somehow (e.g. "being relatable") so you will do what they say. In unhealthy churches, a significant part of the training that leaders receive is about how to be liked, and being likable is an important trait looked for in prospective leaders.
  5. Authority: Church leaders may hand out all sorts of titles to people to give a sense of authority behind what people are told to do. Church leaders may twist and distort the Scriptural concept of "obeying authority" into obeying in all sorts of areas that are out of the realm of spiritual leadership for the purpose of controlling the people.
  6. Scarcity: Unscrupulous leaders love to create a false sense of urgency with arbitrary goals and deadlines. They may make certain positions of leadership more desirable because there are a limited number of positions, serving to make those who hold them elite. They may make various leadership qualification processes arbitrarily rigorous to enhance their value to those who succeed.

In the discussion of "social proof" Cialdini discusses a phenomenon called "pluralistic ignorance" that I also recognized from my experiences in an unhealthy church. The idea is that if some people see something but don't do anything about it, then this inaction creates a social proof for others to ignore the problem as well. Nobody does anything about the problem because "nobody else" is doing anything about the problem.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is a readable, useful book in not only a social context but also in a spiritual context. I especially recommend it to those wanting to understand how people get them to do things that they end up wishing they hadn't done.

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