Digital marketing

Marketing principles: The psychology of persuasion

- August 19, 2006 3 MIN READ

Why do people behave the way they do? An understanding of the psychology of persuasion not only gives us a fascinating insight into people in general, it can also help us to develop marketing principles and have empathy with potential buyers.

Robert B. Cialdini’s landmark book Influence Science and Practice brings into conscious understanding why we feel so influenced to act in certain situations.

This is obviously extremely useful information if you are trying to encourage your customers to buy, it’s also equally valid if you just want your partner to fix the leaking tap in the laundry or make your favourite chocolate cake.

It is also extremely valuable if you want to avoid buyer remorse or you just want to be aware of the potential for manipulation that lies dormant in these principles. If you know that there is a strong unconscious drive that is activated by these laws then at least you can guard against their unscrupulous use against you. By all means use them in your marketing – but please, do so with integrity.

According to Cialdini, as evidenced by numerous and varied research studies, there are six basic principles of psychology that direct human behaviour:

  • Reciprocation
  • Consistency
  • Social Proof
  • Liking
  • Authority
  • Scarcity


Essentially the law of reciprocity is the innate desire to address the balance. It is the force that finds you shopping for a Christmas gift for someone you don’t even like simply because you know that they will buy you something! It works in all relationships and across all cultures. If you have a friendship and you always seem to give more to that friendship than you receive, sooner or later the friendship will dissolve because there was no reciprocity in the relationship.

This principle is used widely in marketing in the form of “free gifts” and membership offers. By offering a sample of your product or service to a potential customer “without obligation” you are giving them something of value (either real or perceived) that activates the law of reciprocity. This imbalance makes the sale easier because of the customers desire to square the books!

Want more articles like this? Check out the  business marketing section.

Commitment & Consistency

The strongest force in the human personality is the need to remain consistent with the identity we project to the world. This means we have an obsessive desire to be (or appear to be) consistent with what we have already done. Once we make a choice or take a stand we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. It is this force that causes people to hang on to falling stocks or stay in an abusive relationship. This internal driver is powerful enough to cause us to stay in situations or act in certain ways that are quite clearly not in our best interest. And often we will know that but continue anyway!

Why is this important in marketing? It is one of the factors that explains why it is six times harder to gain a new customer than it is to keep an existing one. Once someone makes a choice to do business with you, they have taken a stand for you within their organisation. They want it to work just as badly as you do because they want that decision to be proven to be a good one, they want to be “right” and to have that decision validated and acknowledged. Even to the point that they will “cover” for your inadequacies so as not to reflect badly on them as the decision maker that hired you in the first place!

Social Proof

This principle relates to the comfort and acceptance generated by the herd. People are reassured of “right action” if they can see, or know that they are not alone. If you are doing what I am doing then it must be okay.

Again marketers and sales people have found ways to activate this feeling of security that comes with knowing you are choosing to do what other people, you consider as your peers, are also doing. It is why testimonials are used in marketing initiative across the globe. If I want to buy a car and I think of myself as the same sort of person as you (income level, values, ideals, social situation etc) and you recommend a specific car because of X, Y & Z reasons, I am much more likely to buy that car.

In part two on the psychology of persuasion, we will examine the remaining three principles: liking, authority and scarcity.