We generally over-estimate our independence of thought and action. Do we really have the free-will that we think we have? Ponder for a moment. Right from the time you wake up till you go to bed, you encounter people who influence you into their way of thinking and behaving. It is impossible to keep a track of the number of ‘influence attacks’ targeted at you. Family members, colleagues, friends, acquaintances, salesmen, advertisements, political parties—you name it and they are there, all set to persuade you. More difficult to believe is the fact that you are indeed influenced by all these without realising it.
Faces of persuasion
Persuasion means influencing people to adopt a certain attitude or way of thinking or to perform a particular action. The direct ways to influence people involve logical arguments, reasoning, requests, commands and even force and authority! However, there are also several ‘subtle’ [yet obvious] influence techniques that are often used on us without our knowledge.
The practice of propaganda is a fine example.
Propaganda involves presenting information [which is generally subjective and biased] in an emotional way to effect a change in attitude and behaviour. It is presented so forcefully that it seems to be the absolute truth without any scope of questioning its reliability.
Hitler’s government used propaganda to “brainwash” people to seek support for its policies. This technique is commonly used in cults, religious movements and political parties. People are swayed towards a particular mode of thought without even knowing it.
On introspection, we can definitely come out with examples where others have tried to influence us in subtle ways.
Favour for favour
“A college friend used to quite persistently lend her class notes [easy to make] to a friend and me. We unsuspectingly accepted this ‘favour’. Later when we had to submit our final assignments [which required a lot of independent research], she sought our help, which we reluctantly offered. We realised that we had not asked for her help in the first place and yet were feeling guilty about wanting to refuse to help her,” remembers Prachi Shah, a student.
Another way of persuading people to get your work done is to first get them to agree to a small favour then follow it with a request for a larger favour. American psychologists Freedman and Fraser call this the “Foot-in-the-door” technique.
An example of that would be, if you ask someone directions to an address, and they tell you, they are more likely to accompany you to the place if you request them.
Sometimes people tend to make you feel good about yourself, before asking a favour of you. Deepika Aggarwal, a special needs teacher, recalls how once some salesmen came to her house and asked for water. “I was courteous. They praised me and called me quite ‘considerate’. Then they asked me to buy coupons of their product. I felt so bad to say no [though I did refuse eventually],” she recalls.
Homemaker Falguni Mehta recounts similar experiences. “I’ve always had friends and relatives praise me for my bargaining skills. I realised that I ended up unwillingly going out for shopping with them several times.” When people make you feel good about yourself, it’s difficult to turn down their demands. Psychologists Graham Vaughan and Michael Hogg call this ‘ingratiation’, which is a type of impression management.
Some people do not give you a chance to say no or to exercise your will, especially if they are in a position of power. Your agreement to their demand is often assumed. What can you do when your boss asks you, “Wouldn’t you love to come along to the meeting after work?” knowing quite well you’ll end up going anyway, even if it’s the last thing you want to do.
Some other persuasion techniques are seduction [charming someone by appealing to their senses], the power of which we are all too familiar with. Then, there is tradition. How many times have you done something unwillingly and unquestioningly just because it is the ‘tradition’?
Brainwashing is used extensively by people who have a strong emotional influence over us. Deception or presenting wrong information to others to get them act on something is quite widespread [look at all the ads around us!]. Then, there are emotional appeals—best illustrated in movies—commonly used to exert influence.
Psychological research is filled with different techniques and many books have been written on the topic. There is a whole new market of pop-psychology books that teach us how to influence people.
But don’t get paranoid about the whole thing, it is quite natural for people to use these techniques. After all, everyone’s intentions are not bad! Yet, it is valuable to understand this phenomenon rather than live under the illusion that we control our behaviour completely.
How it affects us
When our free-will is thus attacked, particularly intentionally, we experience negative feelings that affect our self-esteem.
It leads to feelings of helplessness and resentment. We don’t question other’s intentions and that’s why we give in to influence attacks.
And then suffer from hidden anger and guilt pangs when we end up doing things that we otherwise— devoid of influence—would not have done.
Turning the tables
How do we handle such situations then? The first step is to become aware of the techniques that operate in our lives in a subtle manner. As Smith and Mackie put it in their book Social Psychology, “People often seek to resist persuasion, and one of their best weapons is awareness”.
Then, try and identify what technique or type of influence is being used on you. Is someone getting you to do things by flattery? Or by threatening you? Or silently making use of your inability to speak up? You don’t need to be a psychologist to do that. It’s mere common sense.
Now, develop your own action plan for the situation depending on the situation, people you are dealing with and your position in the issue. The best thing to do is to make the influencer aware that you have identified his tactic [he may doing it unintentionally] and that you are not going to give in. This does the trick most of the times.