Un‑Influence‑able Kids in an Age of Influencers
In an age when ‘influencer’ is an actual career, it’s difficult to know how to instill a healthy skepticism in children. Most parenting tips (some published here) suggest pointing out suspect claims and fake images when we see them — though, as we recently discovered, that’s easier said than done.
But one way to make kids savvier consumers of anything — from a friend’s Instagram account, to breaking news, to a brand’s commercial — is to give them a behind-the-scenes peak at influence strategies.
“Persuasion is no longer just an art, it’s an out-and-out science,” said Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, speaking recently at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. “Indeed, a vast body of scientific evidence now exists on how, when and why people say yes to influence attempts.”
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Considered by many to be the expert in understanding social influence, Cialdini has conducted decades of research to formulate six universal principles of influence — when and how people yield to persuasion. Understanding these principles provides not only insight into our own psyches, but also a bulwark against persuasion that may not have our best interests at heart.
The six principles of influence
This is a simple quid-pro-quo relationship where people feel the need to return a favor. This is the theory behind the “free sample” marketing campaigns or the “special gift for our customers.” But it might also be the tacit exchange of Likes on social media or of party invitations.
When people decide, commit or promise, they tend to stick to their word — even if it means compromising on their values, said Cialdini. If that commitment ends up being out of line with internal beliefs, people tend to rationalize or change their beliefs to be in alignment with that choice, he explained.
An example of this might be the social media influencer’s request for followers — already committed to supporting that account — to follow another, similar account.
Humans also have an innate pack mentality; if so many other people are taking a certain action or buying a certain product, they can’t all be wrong — can they? This can work well in some ways; Cialdini cites a study that found hotel guests were 29% more likely to reuse their towels if they were told most guests choose to reuse their towels. The percentage went up to 39% when guests heard the majority of other guests who had stayed in the same room had reused towels during their stays. But it’s also the principle behind peer pressure — and teens are particularly primed for this kind of influence, as their brains reorient toward socializing outside the family sphere during adolescence.
Authority is another very powerful principle in play when it comes to yielding to influence: If someone is an expert in a field (or, perhaps, just really, really passionate and outspoken or famous), people often believe he or she is more likely to be effectively persuasive, according to Cialdini.
“When it comes to world economics, who are you more likely to listen to for advice: a Nobel laureate in the field or some random commenter on Facebook?” he asked.
And when it comes to buying a face wash, who are you more likely to listen to — the gorgeous actress with blemish-free skin, or the chemist who invented it?
People are also more likely to listen to others who are complimentary and similar to them. This is known as the principle of liking, according to Cialdini. If the action or product you’re interested in fits into what you already think of as ‘good,’ then it’s more appealing. It’s the principle behind all of Amazon Kindle’s ‘People who read this book also read’ section.
Finally, people are more likely to want what they think they can’t have. This principle works through the concept of anticipated regret, where people look to the future and regret the possibility that the option might be taken away from them, says Cialdini. Brands’ exclusive offers are examples of this principle, as is the whole designer goods industry.
And finally, several of these influencing tactics can work together — just take the hilarious Dumpster fire of Fyre Festival; before it turned into a nightmare, it was the most hotly anticipated — and bought into — pop culture event for its attendees.
Cialdini notes that influencing others is not the same as manipulating them, if these principles are used ethically. When they don’t, their efforts tend to backfire. (Just ask the debunked and dredged pseudo-expert, Food Babe.)
By taking time to become familiar with and understand when these principles are being used, individuals can spot the influence attempt, Cialdini says. Does the person trying to influence really have authority? When someone says something is rare or scarce, is he telling the truth? Knowing the principles of influence may not make kids un-influence-able, but it may make them better able to recognize when they’re being persuaded — allowing the chance to make up their own mind.