Book Review - The Power of Persuasion How We’re Bought and Sold

Cultic Studies Review, 3, (2/3), 2004

The Power of Persuasion: How We’re Bought and Sold

Robert V. Levine

Reviewed by Frank MacHovec, Ph.D., 

Center for the Study of the Self, Gloucester, VA

The author is a social psychologist and department head whose “ultimate interest is how people are manipulated to do things they never thought they’d do” (p. 4).  He defines persuasion as “psychological dynamics that cause people to be changed in ways they wouldn’t if left alone” (4). Before writing the book he attended sales training seminars, “listened to hucksters selling everything from Tupperware and cosmetics to health and religion” and “took jobs selling cars and hawking cutlery door-to-door” (1).  He tells us his research led to three conclusions: (1) we are more susceptible than we would like to believe; (2) the most effective persuaders are the least obvious; (3) rules of persuasion are similar regardless of the source. If the book succeeds it would have the advantage of a psychology professor who applies objective research to the subjective realities learned firsthand in the marketplace.  As Shakespeare put it, that would be “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” Let’s review each of the ten chapters, then evaluate the author’s effort to help us “shift the balance of control to or side” (28).

Chapter 1 serves as a wake-up call to how easily we can be manipulated.  According to Levine the “psychology of persuasion” has three “directions:” characteristics of the source; mind-set of the target person; the psychological context.

We underestimate susceptibility to death or disease by smoking, drinking, overeating, and natural disaster and the likelihood of unwanted pregnancy, AIDS, and job satisfaction.  This “fundamental attribution error” is well researched and cited.  Statistics prove advertising sells, even by deceptively embedded products in movies and reverse psychology in ads such as “if TV is bad for you why is there one in every hospital room?”  Product placement can “bounce you through a store like a billiard ball” (28). All these are examples of the subject matter of the new field of consumer anthropology.

Chapter 2 is subtitled “Supersalesmen who don’t look like salesmen at all.” It describes seemingly informal in-home product demonstrations and “parties.” Three characteristics make for sales: perceived authority, honesty, and likability.  “Studies show” or “doctors prescribe” stated forthrightly implies authority. Slanted statistics and technical jargon can seem convincing but have little relevance. Offering choices or reasons but “coloring” one is an effective deceptive technique. Propaganda is effective when hidden as education or daily news. Testimonials by those you admire or like impress and sell but are only one person’s opinion. Peer pressure is used in the social pyramid of each-friend-refer-a-friend. Gallup found five occupations most seen as “honest” are pharmacists, clergy, medical doctors, college teachers, and police. The five seen as least honest are car sales, advertisers, insurance sales, lawyers, and real estate sales.

Chapter 3 describes the influence of a free gift and reciprocity.  Getting something for nothing has appeal. Gifts don’t have to be material.  Told you’re “just looking,” a salesperson follows anyway. As time passes the feeling of obligation increases, pay for the salesperson’s gift of time. The longer a door-to-door or phone persuader talks to you, the more likely you are to submit.  Examples are given of techniques used to increase a need to reciprocate: the good cop – bad cop interrogation method and the “love bomb” used by Moonies to shower a recruit with attention and recognition.  The chapter ends describing “creditors,” experts at manipulating gift-giving and reciprocity.

Chapter 4 focuses on the use of contrast and context.  Products are advertised in a context.  Often the context is a nature or action scene with distinctive colors. Animals, children, or target age people add to the appeal.  Reverse psychology avoids product features and sells a mood or attitude.  Key marketing concepts are “product differentiation, positioning, and finding a niche” (96).  A unique “ingredient X” and container and package color and shape differentiate products.  Being first to satisfy a need, real or imagined, finds a niche. Changing expectations (anchor point) enable sellers to increase prices by contrast: “Rumors about your basic monthly cable rate going up $10 is not going to happen. The great news is the rate is increasing only $2 a month” (101).  “The decoy” technique is showing something at a lower or higher price than requested. Quoting cost per day lessens the impact of the full amount, a technique often used by charities or phone companies.

Chapter 5 explores “stupid mental arithmetic” and how to avoid it.  Asking versus the actual selling price such as in real estate and cars is another example of movable anchor points.  We pay more on vacation than at home for the same items.  A dollar is not always a dollar. Listing high and selling low appeals, though both prices may be inflated. There is more happiness in winning two or more prizes than the same amount in one prize. Car rebates are taxable and cost us more than the same amount as a discount. We prefer payroll deductions to one “big check for the year” (119).  There is more pain from a loss than happiness from a gain.  We buy now, pay later because “we hate giving up what we possess” (122).

Chapter 6 explains the dangers of “mental shortcuts.” We resort to oversimplification when faced with too many choices, such as the dazzling array of foods in supermarkets.  We buy on impulse when stressed, drowning in data, uncertain, the purchase is seen as unimportant, “everybody’s doing it,” or you trust the seller.  Perceiving a purchase as “for a good cause” or “a good buy” increases sales as does slogans and repetitive ads.  Strong imagery with few facts favors mental shortcuts.  Clever ads are aimed at specific groups “by age, gender, race, ethnicity, education, social class, and many other characteristics” (157).  Direct mail catalogs can differ by zip code as it correlates to buyer income.

Chapter 7 describes the power of “escalating commitments.” The author attended a sales seminar and experienced deceptive techniques of “triggers to engage trust, framing with contrast, and toying with mental accounting” (162) and “a hidden agenda six hours into the program” (163).  Most car dealers require a lock-step sales process that begins with befriending by personal greeting, a handshake and first name basis. A high trade-in (“high ball”), low new car price (“low ball”), or “bait and switch” from striped to costlier model commits the buyer to the process. If detected the seller makes an excuse and turns you over to a colleague who makes a more realistic but not final adjustment.  Questions are worded as choices, avoiding “no” answers and reinforcing “yes” responses: “Do you prefer the economy of the 4-cylinder or the power of the 6?”  (167). “The walk” through the lot and cars of interest marks power transfer from buyer to seller.  Seller leads, buyer follows. A test drive puts you in the owner’s seat, an attachment technique. You may be asked: “Let me adjust your mirror” (169).  Time favors the sale, increasing buyer commitment.  The deposit and offer goes to “the manager” who counters much higher. This “bumping” ends somewhere in the middle, but usually at market price.  Devaluing the trade-in (a contrast technique) enables the dealer to recoup. Buyers are "manipulated into abiding by rules of fairness in a game they never agreed to play” (177). The chapter ends with Milgram’s classic experiment on obedience, where most volunteers obeyed orders to jolt subjects with what they thought were dangerous levels of current.  Such is the power of persuasion.

Chapter 8 explores the progression from persuasion to compliance on the job, in church or temple, by cults, sports teams, and even at home.  The process is similar to the car selling sequence, but with more serious aftereffects.  There can be “social proof” by manipulated peers that relaxes critical judgment. You are “spoon-fed” and told “only what can be accepted” (190).  “The least necessary force is applied every step of the way” (191). External pressure is covert and builds up inside the person. Often you are told you’re free to leave, “the illusion of choice,” but constraints are internalized. Patty Hearst and Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate are cited as examples. Guilt and shame preserve the norm. No smoking in restaurants is more effective by social pressure than law enforcement. There are fewer guns in schools when fellow students were rewarded for reporting them.  Zimbardo’s classic experiment is cited where a mock prison was set up of student guards and prisoners arbitrarily assigned.  Role play became reality.  Guards became abusive and prisoners agitated or depressed. The 2-week experiment ended in six days. Festinger’s concept of cognitive dissonance is described, when wrongful thinking persists despite clear factual evidence to the contrary. Distortion and denial can lead to delusion.

Chapter 9 describes Jonestown where 918 men, women, and children “lined up for their cup of cyanide-laced Kool-Aid then lay down in orderly rows to die” (209).  The vast majority did so willingly and “with enthusiasm.”  The leader, Jim Jones, is quoted in chilling detail reassuring the crowd.  It would have been as effective in less than the four pages given to it.  Beyond “the paranoia and the guns” is a “super salesman” who used “most every rule of persuasion in this book, masterfully induced trust and crafted his image as a miracle worker” (213).  The miracles were staged and psychic powers used data obtained beforehand.  The members involved rationalized it as “the end justifies the means.”  New member commitment escalated in small steps of time, money, possessions, and participation.  Conditions deteriorated over time to include public punishment and sexual abuse. Jones explained away concerns or questions in hours-long diatribes. In the last days there were middle of the night suicide drills where Jones would proclaim “it was a privilege to die for what you believe in” (223).  The tragedy was, as  Jones’ son Stephen commented, “he believed his own bullshit” (225).

Chapter 10 ends the book with “some unsolicited advice for using and defending against persuasion.”  It warns that awareness is not enough and the illusion of invulnerability is a difficult to overcome. It requires work, application, and reinforcement. “Stinging” is a way to experience being used but in a safe role play enactment. This has been an effective learning method to guard children against being abducted.  The inoculation method uses weakened persuasion methods to sensitize against real and stronger versions. Rehearsal puts defensive techniques into practice and more readily available. Critical thinking can be applied by “thinking like a scientist,” or reframing and challenging with conflicting information. Group decisions are prone to pressure to conform and “tend to be less than the sum of is parts” (237).  The Bay of Pigs fiasco is cited as an example. We are advised to be aware that “find a need and fill it” can be “create a fear then offer an antidote” (239).  We should be skeptical but not closed to “persuasion with integrity,” without deception or exploitation (241). The author concludes “persuasion and psychology are essential human activities” that ‘define our social being” and should be used wisely to “illuminate and not electrocute” (244).

Summing up, the distinguishing features of this book are its readability, clarity, timeliness, and use of many examples. There are chapter end notes from two to four pages and a 12-page two column index.  It is fairly well referenced but some relevant material is omitted. Homage is justifiably paid to Festinger and Zimbardo but omits Pavlov and Skinner on conditioning and Elizabeth Loftus’ research on how memory can be shaped.  Freud is given short shrift with a reference to his comment about “times when a cigar is just a cigar” omitting his work on the pleasure principle, immediate gratification, and defense mechanisms, as also Piaget on egocentrism, Erickson on trust, identity, shame and guilt, and Klein on object relations. However, these weaknesses are far overshadowed by the book’s strengths. Highly recommended as a concise sourcebook to learn the negative aspects of manipulation in sales, advertising, politics, and religion.