The Monitor spoke with Robert Cialdini about his work and its influence.
Have your findings from the towel study made their way into policy yet?
I think it’s a little too early. There’s only one place where we saw the implications actually taken into account. I was in the Netherlands at The Hague giving a talk to a government group about how to use psychology to improve government policy. I was talking about the towel studies, and one of the participants at the conference came up to me with a sign from his hotel. They used precisely the wording we used in the study. So somebody in that hotel’s management had read the journal article.
Have you experimented with any other wordings on hotel signage?
We recently looked at signage that was designed to stimulate a desire to give back what one had received in the situation, tapping the reciprocity principle. In this experiment, we used the standard sign that said, “Do this for the environment” — that was our control condition — and then we used one that said, “Look, if you will reuse your towels and linens, we will donate a percentage of the savings to an environmental cause.” That’s essentially an economic exchange, and it produced no more reuse of towels than the standard, “Do this for the environment” sign. But we had a third sign that said, “We already donated to an environmental cause in the name of our guests. Would you join us in this effort to cover our costs?” In a sense, the hotel went first, the hotel gave the guests something. That produced a significant increase in reuse of towels, in the range of a 21-percent increase.
How else has your research made an impact?
About two and a half years ago, we did a study where we were able to reduce household energy consumption by putting signs on people’s doorknobs that said that the majority of their neighbors were saving energy. We were approached by some people who had a start-up software company and wanted to contract with utilities — the power companies — to send their customers once-a-month messages showing where they stood relative to their neighbors in terms of energy consumption. And that company has been wildly successful. It’s been contracted by 34 utilities around the United States and they’re showing significant savings. It’s the most cost-efficient program that any of these utilities have.
…How can job-seekers harness persuasion to help them land a job? Consistency is a good weapon of influence in job-hunting — the idea being that if you make a public statement, there are strong pressures to stay consistent with that, both internal and external. Let’s say you’ve got a job interview, and you know that you’re among a variety of candidates. Say something like, “I’m very pleased to be here, and I look forward to giving you all the information you’d need to know about me, but before we begin, would you mind telling me why it is that you selected me to interview.” And let them speak. Let them, in a public, active way, describe your plusses. And they will spend much of the rest of the meeting validating what they are on record as having valuing about you, because people want to stay consistent with what they’ve previously claimed. And you’re entitled to that. Why be in the dark?
In his seminal book on the topic, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Cialdini went undercover to learn the tricks mastered by used-car dealers and Fortune 500 executives alike, bringing persuasion research to psychology’s forefront. Cialdini also co-authored a how to guide, Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive.