Lessons for activists on how to be more persuasive and effective, drawing on the book Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini.
“Pre-suasion” is what happens when people are influenced, unconsciously, to be receptive to particular messages.
Activists need to communicate to each other, to potential supporters, and to opponents. In all cases, it makes sense to be as persuasive as possible in order to attract new members, change public opinion, and convince opponents to reconsider their views, for example. To communicate more effectively, it’s possible to learn from the great amount of research on persuasion. One reason is to become more convincing. Another is to be better able to defend against others’ persuasive efforts.
In this article, we present ideas from the book Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini, seeking to extract possible applications and lessons for activists on how to be more persuasive and effective in efforts to achieve social change.
Despite the importance of communication and persuasion, and the vast body of research on these topics, few activist traditions have fully engaged with the field, at least not in a way sufficient to draw on the most useful insights that can inform practice. This applies to Marxism, feminism, pacifism and most other traditions.
Persuasion is big business. Corporations spend vast amounts of money on advertising, including on research into how to make advertising more persuasive (Andrews et al., 2013; Armstrong, 2010). Governments spend large sums on public relations. In the digital arena, companies hire the most talented graduates and pay them to design videogames, social networking apps, and websites that are as attractive as possible. Their effectiveness is seen in the number of people who have behavioral addictions to their electronic devices (Alter, 2017).
Few activists have the resources needed to hire teams of professionals to improve their communication operations. They might have committed supporters who help design websites, write media releases, and produce attractive posters. For research, though, they usually depend on what is done for other purposes — and most research on persuasion is oriented to corporations and governments. Nevertheless, there is much to learn from this research.
Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology and marketing, wrote a book titled Influence, published in 1984. Unexpectedly, it became a bestseller. Cialdini wrote for a general audience, highlighting key ideas from research on persuasion using vivid examples. For example, one tool of persuasion is scarcity: when something is perceived to be in short supply, it becomes more desirable. This principle is regularly used by companies: “Limited edition”; “This offer ends tomorrow”.
Some of Cialdini’s principles can be used by activists, but applying them is not always easy. That’s probably why you have never met activists on the street saying, “The latest on environmental destruction: only a few leaflets remaining” or “Membership in our group: limited time introductory offer.”
On the other hand, there is much that activists can learn from research on and practical insights about communication and persuasion, from a range of perspectives (Elgin, 1989; Goldstein et al., 2007; Hausman, 2000; Heath & Heath, 2008; Jowett & O’Donnell, 1999; Michie, 1998; Pratkanis & Aronson, 1992; Reinsborough & Canning, 2009; Rosenberg, 1999; Rushkoff, 1999; Ryan, 1991; Thompson and Jenkins, 1993; Voss, 2016; Wu, 2016). If you know the psychological dynamics underlying tricks that others use to try to persuade or distract you, then you are in a better position to continue with your activism. At the very simplest level, this might be becoming aware of how you’re being distracted by Facebook posts and cat videos.
Although activists seldom have massive resources to pour into their communication efforts, nevertheless, even with a basic understanding of persuasion techniques it is possible to do much better. After all, activists are doing something different than convincing consumers to buy a particular brand of soap or car; they are doing something more fundamental and potentially significant and uplifting.
Having looked into this issue, we think it is worthwhile for activist groups to learn from communication research and to experiment for themselves with techniques available. To illustrate how this might be done, we chose a newer book by Robert Cialdini.
After writing Influence in the 1980s, Cialdini continued his investigations into persuasion and eventually discovered a process that he believes is more fundamental. He calls it “pre-suasion,” which is what happens when people are influenced, unconsciously, to be receptive to particular messages. Pre-suasion is the title of his book published in 2016.
Here, we begin by outlining the idea of pre-suasion. Then we show how it can be applied to various issues faced by activists, giving several examples, and including a table listing a variety of possibilities. Ultimately, our aim is not to convince you to adopt these particular options or even to accept the idea of pre-suasion, but rather to show the potential value of learning from research on communication and persuasion.
We have consciously chosen to use a more accessible and sometimes colloquial style. We are writing to illustrate how activists can themselves learn from research on communication and persuasion and have adopted an approach that seems compatible with that goal.
- Pre-Suasion Examples
- The Order of Evoked Associations Matters
- Broadening Membership
- If/When-Then Sentences
- Pre-Suasion, Ethics, and Activism
- Table 1: Some pre-suasive techniques with possible applications to activist circumstances
Download the Article
The Power of Persuasion: A presentation by Robert Cialdini for RSA.
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