Companies & Industries

Harnessing the Science of Persuasion


Master the magic of persuasion—discover the surprising science behind it

The Idea in Brief

Do you have it—that magical power to capture your audience, sway undecideds, convert opponents? In an era of cross-functional teams and intercompany partnerships, masters of persuasion exert far greater influence than formal power structures.

But is persuasion really magic? Must we ordinary types struggling with leadership's greatest challenge—getting things done through others—despair of ever mastering this art?

Good news—from behavioral science: Persuasion works by appealing predictably to deeply rooted human needs. The rest of us can learn to secure consensus, cut deals, win concessions—by artfully applying six scientific principles of winning friends and influencing people.

The Idea in Practice

Persuasion Principles

Principle: LIKING: People like those like them, who like them.

Example: At Tupperware parties, guests' fondness for their host influences purchase decisions twice as much as regard for the products.

Business Application: To influence people, win friends, through: Similarity: Create early bonds with new peers, bosses, and direct reports by informally discovering common interests—you'll establish goodwill and trustworthiness. Praise: Charm and disarm. Make positive remarks about others—you'll generate more willing compliance.

Principle: RECIPROCITY: People repay in kind.

Example: When the Disabled American Veterans enclosed free personalized address labels in donation-request envelopes, response rate doubled.

Business Application: Give what you want to receive. Lend a staff member to a colleague who needs help; you'll get his help later.

Principle: SOCIAL PROOF: People follow the lead of similar others.

Example: More New York City residents tried returning a lost wallet after learning that other New Yorkers had tried.

Business Application: Use peer power to influence horizontally, not vertically; e.g., ask an esteemed "old timer" to support your new initiative if other veterans resist.

Principle: CONSISTENCY: People fulfill written, public, and voluntary commitments.

Example: 92% of residents of an apartment complex who signed a petition supporting a new recreation center later donated money to the cause.

Business Application: Make others' commitments active, public, and voluntary. If you supervise an employee who should submit reports on time, get that understanding in writing (a memo); make the commitment public (note colleagues' agreement with the memo); and link the commitment to the employee's values (the impact of timely reports on team spirit).

Principle: AUTHORITY: People defer to experts who provide shortcuts to decisions requiring specialized information.

Example: A single New York Times expert-opinion news story aired on TV generates a 4% shift in U.S. public opinion.

Business Application: Don't assume your expertise is self-evident. Instead, establish your expertise before doing business with new colleagues or partners; e.g., in conversations before an important meeting, describe how you solved a problem similar to the one on the agenda.

Principle: SCARCITY: People value what's scarce.

Example: Wholesale beef buyers' orders jumped 600% when they alone received information on a possible beef shortage.

Business Application: Use exclusive information to persuade. Influence and rivet key players' attention by saying, for example: "…Just got this information today. It won't be distributed until next week."

Provided by Harvard Business—Where Leaders Get Their Edge

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