Universal Principles of Influence

Core Motivs of Social Influence

    The psychological frame we build around an appeal has as much or more weight on us getting through than the request by itself. Learning how to prepare the ground for what we'll present to take root is an important step toward our message or request sticking. Just like when we paint, if we want better results, we use a primer.

    Thanks to the success of Influence, many are now familiar with the tactics we can use to increase our odds—reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity. We tend to return a favor, when we commit to something we tend to want to do it to be congruent to our self-image, people imitate other people, we tend to obey authority figures and yield to the persuasion of people we like. If we think there isn't enough of something, we want to acquire it.

    Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has written a pre-quel his national bestseller. In Pre-Suasion, he shines a light on how effective persuasion can happen moments before we deliver a message—we prepare the ground by making sure our audience will be receptive.

    Cialdini calls the anchors or primers we use openers because they have the dual function of starting the process and clear the way for the persuasive part. A frequently asked question businesses typically ask is whether we should map certain principles to certain stages of the commercial relationships.

    Dr. Gregory Neidert has developed a “core motives model of social influence” to affect change based on the stages of one's relationship:

  • stage 1—the goal at this stage is to cultivate a positive association. Reciprocity and liking are a fit to establish mutual rapport. When we give first something that is meaningful, unexpected, and customized, highlight commonalities, and express our liking, we're off to a good start.
  • stage 2—is about reducing uncertainty. From the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kanheman, we know we're loss averse, so anything that confirms our wisdom in decision-making is helpful. Here social proof and authority are a good match. We go along when many others have picked an option and evidence from experts increases our confidence.
  • stage 3—we want to motivate action. It's not enough to know something, we need people to do something with what they learn. We know diet and exercise help with weight loss, but unless we apply this knowledge to act and start creating better habits, we're not going to benefit from it. Consistency and scarcity help here. When our friend reminds us of what we said, we are more likely to follow through. Plus what we would miss if we didn't.

    Here Cialdini identifies a new principle. The seventh universal principle of influence and that is unity.

    Social connections have power, personal relationships intensify willingness to help. The experience of unity is rooted in shared identity based on similar beliefs, backgrounds, upbringing, and genetic makeup. Categories where “the conduct of one member influences the self-esteem of the others.” 

    When we're together or act together in particular ways, we feel a sense of unity.

We're “family”

    The stronger form of kinship is that of our genetic commonality with parents, siblings, and so on. Groups that create this sense of belonging use terminology and images that recall the family—“brothers, sisterhood, forefathers, motherland, heritage, which lead to an increased willingness to sacrifice one's own interests for the welfare of the group.”

    In 2015, Warren Buffett released his annual letter on the 50 year anniversary at the helm of Berkshire#. To commemorate, the letter included remarks by both Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger. Both added their thoughts about the next 50 years. It begins:

A note to readers: Fifty years ago, today’s management took charge at Berkshire. For this Golden Anniversary, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger each wrote his views of what has happened at Berkshire during the past 50 years and what each expects during the next 50. Neither changed a word of his commentary after reading what the other had written. Warren’s thoughts begin on page 24 and Charlie’s on page 39. Shareholders, particularly new ones, may find it useful to read those letters before reading the report on 2014, which begins below.

    This introduction tells shareholders where he sets the frame for the report. In it, Buffett lays out the far-reaching consequences of the Berkshire Hathaway's proven business model and says the firm has already identified the right person to become CEO, when appropriate.

    In the letter itself, before he gets to the plans, he lists his blunders early on in the life of the company. Of his fortuitous encounter and working relationship with Charlie Munger, who started business life as a lawyer and then architect, he says:

From my perspective, though, Charlie’s most important architectural feat was the design of today’s Berkshire. The blueprint he gave me was simple: Forget what you know about buying fair businesses at wonderful prices; instead, buy wonderful businesses at fair prices.

Then he talks about what makes Berkshire Hathaway different and a choice for businesses:

Berkshire offers a third choice to the business owner who wishes to sell: a permanent home, in which the company’s people and culture will be retained (though, occasionally, management changes will be needed). Beyond that, any business we acquire dramatically increases its financial strength and ability to grow. Its days of dealing with banks and Wall Street analysts are also forever ended.

Some sellers don’t care about these matters. But, when sellers do, Berkshire does not have a lot of competition.

In both instances, Buffett says how we're in this together. But it's when he talks about the next fifty years that he spells out the word:

Now let’s take a look at the road ahead. Bear in mind that if I had attempted 50 years ago to gauge what was coming, certain of my predictions would have been far off the mark. With that warning, I will tell you what I would say to my family today if they asked me about Berkshire’s future.

    He's advising shareholders as he would if he were talking to a family member. The disclosures help establish trust and credibility.

    Another strong cue of commonality is physical proximity. There's no place like home, but we also favor people from the same locality, and region.

… and we act together

    “All for one, and one for all” creates a visceral reaction in people. When we respond to something together, in unison, the synchronous experience elicits a powerful response in us. Songs, marches, rituals, chants, prayers, and dances are all forms of unified action. The shared experience draws people together.

    Acting together, whether in walks or marches and runs, singing or chanting and praying, and dancing helps us feel a temporary sense of kinship. The consequences most important as the effects of common action are enhanced liking and greater support from others. Both important to pre-suasion.

    We tend to like people in our group more visible than people outside it. If we were able to transfer some of that positive body language to members of the out group we might have better chances in situations such as job interviews, sales calls, and first meetings.

    Doing things with someone else as part of a group also predisposes us to offer support to that person, even if we don't know them. For example, being part of a consistent group of people who take exercise classes in the same days and times for several weeks creates a sense of cohesion from the shared experience. If someone needs help, they're more likely to receive it from other members of the group.

    Synchronizing movements and body language are also ways to act together with another person. But they're not always practical. There is a universal way to achieve unity of action and that is with music:

Because of a unique collection of detectable regularities (rhythm, meter, intensity, pulse, and time), music possesses rare synchronizing power. Listeners can easily become aligned with one another along motor, sensory, vocal, and emotional dimensions—a state of affairs that leads to familiar markers of unity such as self-other merging, social cohesion, and supportive conduct.

    Music influence belongs to what Kahneman labeled System 1, which operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. We're carried away by harmony. This is why we still remember successful TV jingles years later.

    Other powerful ways of acting together include engaging in a reciprocal exchange, for example answering a series of questions in turn, co-creating something, and asking for advice.

    Getting together and acting together both help us prepare the ground for creating a sense of unity with others. Unity is the seventh principle of influence.


Influence and Pre-Suasion are useful references for understanding the universal principles of influence. We can find another application of fast thinking or System 1 thinking in improving simple rules and understanding why weather forecasters get paid even when they get it wrong.