Persuasion Psychology: What It Is and How It Works

persuasion psychology

Persuasion is all around you. While you may not realize it, many of the conversations and interactions you have in a day are a form of persuasion.

The more you understand about the ins and outs of persuasion, the more effective you’ll be as a chief persuader. Honing this skill will positively influence your business, your friendships, your finances, your career, and your relationships—just about every instance that involves empathizing and communicating with another person.

Persuasion psychology taps into different tactics and strategies that successfully persuade a human being to do something—like buy a product from your store. This guide covers the six principles of persuasion, different theories, and how putting those principles and theories into action can change human behavior.

What does persuasion mean?

Persuasion is used to describe a process where a person, brand, or other factors influence another person’s behavior or attitudes. Bear in mind that persuasion doesn’t happen under duress; it’s more a form of negotiating or influencing.

As you can imagine, persuasion is a fundamental part of effective marketing, which is the lifeblood of a growing business. After all, the process of making a sale is just a case of persuading potential customers they need your products.

In his paper The Dynamics of Persuasion: Communication and Attitudes in the 21st Century Richard Perloff made some interesting points about why persuasion is extremely important today:

  • The number of persuasive communications has grown exponentially.
  • Persuasive messages travel faster than ever before.
  • Persuasive communication is more complex than ever.

So, let’s dive into the five elements of persuasion.

  1. Source: Credibility and quality are crucial in the art of persuasion. No amount of strategic persuasion is going to convince a shopper to buy from you if they don’t trust you. But, if you are highly trusted, transparent, and accurate, it’s easier for your customers to like you—and guess what? It’s far easier to persuade people who like you.
  2. Message: What you say has the power to make or break a sale. What you write in your emails, ads, and other content will have a huge impact on whether someone wants to buy from you or not. The best kind of persuasive writing combines facts and emotions to build credibility and invoke a feeling.
  3. Medium: What channel you use to reach consumers will determine whether your message lands well. Choose your platforms carefully, whether it’s email, social media, or something else.
  4. Public: Successful persuasion means knowing who your audience is. It’s impossible to persuade someone to buy something if you don’t know why they need it.
  5. Effect: Ultimately, what are you trying to persuade shoppers to do? Without an end goal, it’s difficult to tell whether your efforts have worked.

Six principles of persuasion

There are plenty of business books that document persuasion attempts, profile the most influential leaders, and promote ethical influence training in a revolutionary way, but Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University is the most famous.

Robert Cialdini spent his entire career researching persuasion and how to influence people, which culminated in these six universal principles:

1. Reciprocity

You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Research suggests that someone is more likely to do something for you if you do something for them first. In ecommerce, this could be offering a 10% discount on a customer’s first purchase to sweeten the deal or sharing a valuable blog post in exchange for an email address.

2. Commitment and consistency

Humans are creatures of habit. Commitment and consistency are based on the idea that humans behave consistently and their future behavior reflects their past actions. If someone does a small favor for another, they’re more likely to do a bigger favor in the future.

In action, this might look like asking shoppers to do something small, like sharing a blog or referring a friend in the hopes that they might do something bigger (buy from you) in the future. These small actions can get your foot in the door and convince people to purchase later down the line.

3. Social proof

The pack mentality of humans is powerful. Research shows that social proof is one of the six universal principles of persuasion, because people tend to buy something if it comes highly recommended—especially if that recommendation comes from a friend or peer. Talk about how many products you’ve sold, share customer reviews, and share case studies to leverage social proof and inspire positive thoughts about your brand.

4. Authority

People buy from authority figures and brands they trust. Showing you can walk the walk as well as talk the talk is a key persuasion tactic. For example, highlighting awards you’ve won, showcasing big partnerships, or running campaigns with well-known influencers can all imply authority. Milgram’s experiments involving shock therapy and evidence-based research suggests just how important authority is in trust and decision-making.

5. Liking

People are far more likely to buy from a friend than a total stranger—especially if the product is personally relevant. This idea of “liking” a brand is crucial, particularly when the competition is so fierce. Establish common ground with shoppers and boost sales by creating a likable personality and showing you understand their interests.

6. Scarcity

No one wants to feel like they’re missing out. Scarcity taps into shoppers’ in-built FOMO through limited-time offers, limited stock, and exclusive deals.

Three theories of persuasion psychology

1. Social judgment theory

Social judgment theory was the brainchild of Muzafer Sherif and Carl Hovland in the 1960s and attempted to identify how receptive someone would be to a message (or a persuasion). They found that people’s attitudes, beliefs, and human behavior hung on a continuum spanning from “latitude of rejection” (disagree), “latitude of noncommitment” (ambivalent), and “latitude of acceptance” (agree).

The premise is simple: People are more likely to be receptive to persuasion (or marketing messages) if they already agree with what they are being persuaded on.

As a result, Sherif and Hovland concluded that successful persuasion hinges on knowing how much a consumer already agrees or disagrees with your viewpoint. If their viewpoint is too different, it’s going to be incredibly hard to inspire a total attitude change.

2. Cognitive dissonance theory

This theory can be traced back to a classic book by Leon Festinger in 1957. It upholds the idea that a consumer can be swayed on their viewpoint and change their attitude entirely with the right social influence (especially if they hold two opposing views at the same time).

For it to work, Frymier and Nadler identified three necessary conditions:

  • Aversive consequences: Strong enough consequences or punishment for not changing–like missing out on a great deal.
  • Freedom of choice: Consumers cannot feel like they’re being coerced or forced into a decision. It has to feel like their idea.
  • Insufficient external justification: There are too many reasons outside that a shopper shouldn’t buy something that is out of their control.

3. The elaboration likelihood model

This model was designed by Petty and Cacioppo in 1986 and provides insight into how much cognitive energy someone spends on analyzing the content of a message. There are two routes someone can take:

Central route: When someone uses high elaboration to analyze a message
Peripheral route (or peripheral cues): When someone reads the message but doesn’t analyze it

Ideally, everyone would travel the central route, but that’s not always the case. If someone doesn’t understand the message, they can’t analyze it, which is why simplicity is crucial. Someone might also travel the peripheral route because they’ve chosen not to analyze the message. Effective persuasion means giving people a reason to analyze your communications.

Small business examples of persuasion

1. KeySmart: Continued consistency

Persistence is often the key to sales and marketing success. Research suggests it takes six to eight touches to even qualify a lead. Don’t consider “no” or even the absence of a response (e.g., an abandoned cart) a failure on your part. Instead, consider it the start of persuasion.

KeySmart, the compact solution to your bulky key ring, understands this principle well. If you add items to your cart and abandon that cart, you might soon find a message like this in your Facebook Messenger inbox:

Here’s the interesting thing: Saying “no” can make people feel safe, like they’re in the driver’s seat. This is especially true when their counterpart is pushing for a “yes.” It’s easy to get defensive.

The silver lining to triggering a no is that you’re sure to learn something—no usually provides insight into objections and hesitations. A no draws a line in the sand and defines desires more clearly.

Don’t be afraid of a no—instead, use it to understand your customers and their objections so you can tackle them quickly and effectively.

2. Whiskey River Soap Co.: Using a persuasive message

Two of the most powerful words in any form of persuasion are “that’s right.” If you can get customers to use those two words, you’ve transformed the conversation. Hearing “that’s right” is even better than hearing “yes.”

Why? Because that positive regard opens the proverbial door to changing thoughts, actions, and even a person’s self-image or profound personal change. The more your customer feels understood, the more likely it is they will take the action you want them to take.

Whiskey River Soap Co. sells soaps, candles, and a variety of other household items that are incredibly relatable.

This message is particularly effective because it ends on a question and the question even ends with “right?” However, the concept is at work either way. Here’s another example:

If you’re an introvert or the middle child, you can probably relate and, in your head, you’re probably thinking “that’s right.”

That positive regard actually makes it more likely you’ll be willing to buy the candle.

3. Busted Tees: Adding urgency to deals

An approaching deadline adds urgency to the negotiation process. A prime example of this is the placement of items near the checkout at a grocery store.

You’re standing there waiting to pay for your items when you notice a buffet of chocolate bars. You didn’t initially come here with a chocolate bar on your shopping list, but given your last chance to grab one, it seems tempting.

Urgency, even when as subtle and self-induced as the above, is effective. In an original helpful report, CXL Institute found that adding “Free next business day delivery if you order before 4 PM (UK)” to its client’s product pages increased revenue by 27.1%.

There’s no need to be aggressive—even a gentle nudge that reminds buyers a decision reaps benefits now can be effective

BustedTees often applies this technique whenever it runs a big promotion:

The reason the right kind of urgency works so well is because people would rather avoid a loss than realize a gain—it’s more important to not lose than it is to win. This is known as loss aversion, a cognitive bias.

When you show customers they will miss out on a significant discount or lose out on free next-business-day delivery if they wait too long, you trigger loss aversion and remind them that a decision made today can secure them a deal that won’t be available tomorrow.

There’s a real possibility that a shopper will act, not necessarily because they want your product right away, but because they want it eventually and don’t want to lose the opportunity to snag a deal.

Persuasion psychology in practice

We’re all human. Whether you’re tasked with persuading for the FBI, for a Wall Street firm, or for your mom and pop store, these shared experiences are an entry point for empathizing with others.

You might not feel like a chief persuader, but the truth is you have to be persuasive every day—especially if you want to convince new shoppers to buy from you.

The kind of persuasion you do might not be face-to-face, and lives probably won’t hang in the balance, but it’s persuasion all the same. Ultimately, refining your persuasion skills will make you more influential not just in marketing, but in all aspects of life.

Persuasion psychology FAQ

What are 3 types of persuasion?

The three types of persuasion are social judgment theory, cognitive dissonance theory, and the likelihood of elaboration model. These models highlight how persuasion plays a key part in decision-making.

What are the 6 principles of persuasion?

The six principles of persuasion are:

  1. Reciprocity
  2. Commitment and consistency
  3. Social proof
  4. Authority
  5. Liking
  6. Scarcity

What is a persuasion example?

A good example of persuasion is using scarcity to promote a limited-time offer or limited stock. Shoppers feel compelled to make the most of the deal, even if they weren’t planning on buying the product at that moment.

What are the 4 elements of persuasion?

  1. Source: The credibility of the brand sharing the message
  2. Message: The words used to persuade
  3. Medium: The channel used to share a persuasive message
  4. Public: The audience who is being persuaded