Robert Cialdini’s six principles of influence affect your confidence.
His book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, details how these principles encourage people to take certain actions or have particular thoughts. The book’s popularity owes to the subtlety of the principles; a skillful marketer or politician can apply the principles almost invisibly, or in such a way that it becomes impossible to refuse their influence (even if the ‘victim’ has full awareness of the trick at hand). This article will briefly summarise those principles, then extend on them in the context of confidence, and conclude with some practical advice on how to deal with them.
Here’s a list of the six principles of influence, and a short description about the human desire they manipulate:
- Reciprocity – The desire to return favours and value.
- Commitment – The desire to remain consistent with past choices.
- Social Proof – The desire to conform and seek popularity.
- Authority – The desire to obey experts and commanding figures.
- Liking – The desire to help those we like or love.
- Scarcity – The desire to possess rare (and presumably valuable) resources.
There’s nothing intrinsically harmful about manipulating these desires; they can be as easily used to gather donations for a charity as to trap people in abusive relationships. With that said, knowing these principles off by heart puts you in a better position to control their influence over you, just as it gets a lot easier to reject a marketer’s charm when you know the tricks they’ve used to win you over!
This isn’t a post about sales, though. Let’s get into the consequences of these principles for your confidence.
The urge to return value leads to the creation and awareness of disparities between our current value exchanges, and our ideal value exchanges. These disparities undermine our confidence when we associate them with a personal lack of value.
Everybody has a subconscious preference for certain types of value exchanges. These might include splitting the bill equally at dinner, sharing jokes around a campfire, or cooking for your partner while they clean up afterwards. This preference is a consequence of our worldview, formed in turn by our knowledge and beliefs; if you think people are generally happier when they believe responsibility is allotted fairly, for example, you may advocate the bill-splitting at dinner approach. On the other hand, if you tend more towards the view that responsibility should be allocated according to capacity, you may favour a wealthy party buying dinner for their poor friends.
Our desire for reciprocity is a heuristic we use to generally get fair value exchanges. Instead of having an individual rule for each scenario (if someone gives me a lollipop, I get them a treat in return…), we bundle it all up into a general rule (if someone gives me value, I give them value back). This is generally a wonderful heuristic to use, saving us mental energy and serving as a valuable reminder of kindness that helps build and maintain relationships. In turn, these benefits bolster your confidence.
Sometimes, however, reciprocity backfires by recommending value exchanges that undermine our confidence. For example, if you strongly support equal bill-splitting in principle, what happens when you realise the menu at your friend’s favourite restaurant is twice as expensive as you’d thought, and you can’t really afford to pay for your meal?
One option is to pay for your $60 steak anyway. This now leaves you in a tricky financial position that can undermine your confidence. You already knew this would happen, but your mind forced you into this situation anyway, with the urge for reciprocity probably disguised as social pressure or custom. For the next week, you regret your purchase and feel trapped by your own principles.
The other option is to ask your wealthy friend to pay for you. Obviously, this could backfire by offending them. Even if they’re happy to pay, though, you might still feel extremely uncomfortable about asking for a favour. Your mind, driven by tunnel vision on reciprocity, practically screams at you to avoid “being in their debt”, and scrambles in futile for a way to make it up to them.
Either way, reciprocity has screwed with your self-esteem.
It can make you feel like people are out of your league; they possess so much more value than you that you could never exchange value with them fairly. It can make you hyper-conscious of value exchanges others are participating in; the urge to love and be loved by someone is an expression of a desire for more active value exchange in your life. It can even make you hate people for having a different perception of reciprocity to yours. If you were the one to pay for that steak dinner, and your friend took it completely for granted, you might feel insulted that their ideal value exchange seems to vary so wildly from yours. In short, the urge for reciprocity is trouble.
You can see this phenomenon on a societal scale, too; most people need to feel like they contribute (or will contribute) at least as much value to society as it gives them. For example, being stuck in a dead end job or on welfare often breeds apathy and depression. Many in unfortunate situations eventually adopt the belief that “society never did anything for me, anyway” – even if this happens to be true, it’s also a coping belief trying to sate an urge for reciprocity.
The urge to remain consistent with past expressions of self (actions, statements, persona, etc.) prevents us from abandoning those expressions when they undermine our confidence, or fail to maximise our confidence.
Humanity generally regards intelligence as its distinguishing characteristic from other species. Our unique capacity for the collection, interpretation, and transformation of information into a useful form holds our civilizations together and is essential for maximising our own happiness on an individual scale. Having consistent data that can be used for prediction and forecasting is essential to making good decisions and finding the best way to traverse our personal self-esteem landscape. This makes consistency and commitment generally desirable character traits. Total predictability is boring, but we generally prefer to have a clear conceptualization of our identity (personality, actions, etc.) and the identities of others.
A lot of the time, this consistency pressure (you may see it commonly expressed through peer pressure) is used well. We expect parents to be consistently kind to their children, and governments to enforce the law predictably, and
One obvious drawback is that we become easily dependent on the consistency of others. If you value a supportive friend or physically attractive partner, it can be a shock to have them suddenly turn their back on you or put on weight after marriage. The problem isn’t the change in their identity itself; you already knew that jerks and overweight people exist and probably cope just find. Rather, the real issue is that you depended on them to maintain a certain identity and when reality departed from your expectations and heuristics, your worldview was left uncertain and fragile.
Similarly, others pressure us to maintain an identity that has value to them, one form of value being consistency. If you try to expand or modify your identity, and people subconsciously evaluate this change as threatening or unwelcome, they will seek leverage against you to keep you in your place. This can take the form of genuine resentment of success (tall poppy syndrome), but not necessarily; in high school, there were a few blokes who stayed athletic themselves but laughed at me when I started working out myself. (Don’t let this discourage you – an overwhelming percentage of the feedback I received was positive.) The problem wasn’t that my identity was inherently negative, but rather that it was inconsistent and forced them to reevaluate their interactions with me.
The toughest pressure to diagnose and treat is purely internal. We (consciously or subconsciously) mark out an identity for ourselves and find reasons and rationalisations to maintain it. If you view yourself as antisocial, a house party invitation might be instinctively met with “not really my thing” or “I couldn’t talk to anyone there”… not because these reasons are objectively true (even if they are), but because you recognise the inconsistency with your self-image and talk yourself out of taking the risk of personal growth. You may even bow to consistency pressures for no apparent reason; before I became comfortable with my sexuality, I rejected a few dates that I probably would have enjoyed simply because it was a foreign concept to my identity.
Consistency pressure locks you into unfavourable value exchanges, from a dead-end job to a burden of a relationship. It makes it uncomfortable to tell the truth, and push your personal boundaries. It creates tension when you try to live up to multiple, exclusive conceptualisations of your identity at once (say you identify as a professional athlete while all your friends see you as a partygoer, and have to decide whether to train or drink).
The urge for consistency is a heuristic that largely benefits civilization by designating certain roles and functions and ensuring people stick to them. When these roles break down or are inherently undesirable, however (e.g. you want to break out of your role as “unattractive man who girls just use for drinks”), consistency pressure works against you to keep you in a situation that hurts your confidence.
3. Social Proof
The urge to be loved, respected, and accepted by others can make us sacrifice our confidence and autonomy in exchange for social proof .
Barring a handful of extremely isolated nomads, all of humanity relies on a society’s approval for their confidence. We depend on basic provisions (water, food, electricity), infrastructure (buildings, roads), and frameworks (justice systems, family units) facilitated by governments constructed by society. It’s tough – not impossible, just tough – to be happy with a grumbling stomach or no sense of safety while you sleep. We also use our surrounding culture, norms, beliefs, history, and people to define our identity and build self-esteem. Finally, society is responsible for most obvious value exchanges that affect your confidence, such as receiving a compliment that makes your day.
The more we depend on society’s value to us and recognise that dependency, the more we instinctively try to appease society in return. Specifically, we try to sync our values with society’s values, and assume that what is popular must be intrinsically more valuable. Where values seem mutually exclusive (a two party political system is a good example) we identify the subgroup of society that gives us more value and prioritise the values of that subgroup. Consciously, we reason that what is popular is not always right… but subconsciously, we know that what is popular may be worth adopting anyway to gain the approval of society so we can continue to receive value from it. The fact that it is popular is proof enough to guarantee indirect value to you; it has “social proof”.
Sometimes the conformance is obvious. The classic example is peer pressure, which forces us into undesirable situations by asking us to sacrifice our short-term happiness for the long-term approval of the herd. More frequently, though, we don’t even realise social proof is acting on us and substituting for objective analysis.
What possessions do you think would make you happy? A certain sports car, or hyped pair of shoes, or a specific iPhone model?
Think about what value those possessions would objectively offer you over other substitutes. Unless you’re a professional driver, most sports cars would probably feel and perform fairly similarly in your mind. Most decent pairs of shoes will be just as comfortable as your new Yeezy sneakers. (This is why fashion is bunk.) Pretty much anything you can do on an iPhone will have an equivalent on another smartphone.
There might be good reasons to like that sort of item (a sports car is tangibly a more comfortable drive than a broken down $1k hatchback) but chances are your specific choice was influenced by popularity in some way. Perhaps the car won a lot of awards, or your social circle loves Kanye West, or everybody is talking about the new iPhone (now taller, thinner, and still functionally identical).
Usually, this is completely benign. It doesn’t really matter whether you get an iPhone or Galaxy or an old Nokia brick like me. It’s only when you attach your confidence to social proof that you get hurt, because the first step of the social proof heuristic (doing something popular) doesn’t always lead to the second (receiving value from society and being happier).
Sometimes, the heuristic backfires completely, and you sacrifice happiness trying to meet society’s expectations even though it gives you nothing in return. You forget that appeasing society should either be a means to an end (to make yourself happy) or a principled endeavour (because you genuinely care about humanity). Instead, it becomes an obligation – something you have to do and you’re not quite sure why but keep doing it anyway.
Attachment to social proof makes you sit at home, insecure about going out because you don’t have a nice enough pair of jeans. It’s what makes it sting when people tell you that you’re a loser with no friends or could never attract a guy. Social proof is why people compare their 150 friend count on Facebook to someone else’s casual 1,500 and feel unloved… or makes the person with 1,500 friends addicted to social proof and feel like they never have enough.
Naturally, this also influences the formation of our identity. We’re more likely to adopt an identity if we think it will be popular among society or a subgroup that gives us value. Considerations of popularity weasel their way into your mind and try to nudge you in a more conformist direction.
The urge to obey authority figures can establish a harmful hierarchy and undermine your confidence in your own authority.
The world is too vast, complex, and dangerous to acquire knowledge entirely on our own. Instead, we supplement our personal experience with inferences (if a fire burned you before, you can hypothesise that lava might do the same) and knowledge given to us by other people. Unfortunately, not all knowledge is trustworthy and could very well harm you more than simple ignorance.
Accordingly, we decide which information to absorb into our worldview by evaluating the authority of the information’s source. Relevant skills, accomplishments, and indicative behaviours all make us more likely to trust and obey an authority source. This is generally beneficial; if you hadn’t accepted your parents’ and teachers’ advice when young and impressionable, you might be dead or in jail or on drugs right now. Without authority, civilization and hierarchies break down completely.
As these traits can be faked or otherwise displayed illegitimately (think of how confidently a homeopath will preach their pseudoscience), apparent authority varies in actual legitimacy; a scam artist often possesses as much confidence and certainty as a certified doctor, but only one is likely to give you helpful advice.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter; we can receive ordinarily bad advice that is transformed into good advice through sheer faith in the authority’s benevolence. If a fashion expert tells you to wear ratty and dirty jeans, you might pull it off with such confidence that people genuinely regard it as a cool style, rather than homeless fashion. The placebo effect can be extremely potent.
However, our inability to 100% reliably distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate authority (or determine when a generally reliable authority has gotten it wrong this time) will also occasionally hurt us.
I used to ask girls for dating advice, figuring they must be the eminent authorities on the matter. They told me “just be yourself”, so I put my personality fully on the line… and because I was needy and charmless at the time, I got crushed for it (sometimes by the same girls who insisted their advice would work on them). It took me a long time to figure out that most people aren’t legitimate authorities on their own desires, and I’d have to find my own way. In the meantime, I continued to take their advice (emphasising their authority) even at the expense of my own confidence (even though authority wasn’t leading to tangible benefits). The heuristic had backfired.
Similarly, these girls weren’t authorities on me. It didn’t make any sense to advocate “just be yourself” when they had no idea if my ‘true’ self (which I tended to hide out of insecurity) was actually attractive or worthwhile. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a strong identity at the time and allowed other people to define me. If a popular kid told me I was one of the class nerds, I automatically believed them, because they clearly had more knowledge of social interactions and roles than I did. (Social proof can also be a form of authority.) Needless to say, this stopped me breaking out of the “nerd” role when it began to hurt my confidence.
We get insecure about a lack of authority, offended when people treat us like non-authorities, and jealous when other authorities are receiving more attention than us. If you want authority, and don’t have it, you will be necessarily less happy.
You can become an authority and leverage your authority more effectively… but you won’t always be regarded as one. Get used to it. Knowing you are an authority, and trusting in your own decisions and faculties, is immensely rewarding… but this also has its limits. Sometimes you will be acutely aware that you are out of your league and totally incompetent.
The incompetence itself can hurt you, but it’s often the secondary harm. Instead, your mind retreats inwards and starts judging you for lacking the authority and competency to avoid the error in the first place. If you underdress for a formal event, you might get criticised a few times… but the bulk of your discomfort probably comes from your own internal pressure and feelings of alienation. It’s the absence of authority and social proof, not your jeans and sneakers at a cocktail party, that are fundamentally responsible.
Even when you genuinely possess authority, you can still feel authority pressures. Imposter syndrome is one example; we get too caught up with the need to be better and obey those better than us, that we lose sight of our intrinsic value and ability to be happy just as we are. Our mind is trying to achieve confidence by emphasising authority, but actually sacrificing confidence for authority.
The urge to be liked, and to give value to people we like, can sometimes harm our confidence.
People don’t like each other arbitrarily. Our affection for someone is a function of the value they provide (or could provide) to us, weighed against the value they take away. You might like someone because they can make you laugh, or resent them because your partner loves their sense of humour too and you feel jealous. Just like our interactions with society, we become partially dependent on value given to us by others and try to give them value in return.
This is generally called “friendship” or “love”, and the benefits of these close bonds are obvious. We can also like people who do not necessarily like us back and try to leech value off them in a parasitic relationship; lots of people want to be part of the “popular” crowd in their social circles, not because they actually enjoy the company, but because they’re after social proof. When the popular group leads or asks the parasites to do something, the parasites comply because they like them (or rather, their value) so much.
One downside of is that we can find ourselves doing things we don’t really want to do, simply because we like someone. (You might get dragged along to a party you hate, for example.) Sometimes it’s worth the confidence hit, and sometimes not. Rarely, you might find yourself sabotaging both your self-esteem and the friendship. (Perhaps your best friend asks you to do something which will make them lose respect for you.)
A particularly pernicious situation involves a direct sacrifice of confidence and personal development for your friends. Lots of people don’t want you to see you succeed in life out of personal bitterness or fear, and will try to leverage your affection for them into a different course of action. Other times, you will deliberately limit yourself because you don’t want to upset someone you like. Having just exited a four year relationship, I’ve come to realise that I’d been subconsciously limiting some aspects of my personal development to keep the relationship stable. (Which, by the way, is an awful idea.)
We generally enjoy being liked and liking other people because it indicates that we have multiple sources of value to draw from to build and maintain our confidence. Outcasts can become insecure about a scarcity of interpersonal bonds in the life, and form incredibly strong affections (or romantic “crushes”) to compensate; their subconscious is urging them to give these people value to mitigate the risk of the other person leaving and taking away a huge proportion of value from the outcast’s life. Sadly, others pick up on the lopsided value exchange and (usually correctly) deduce that the outcast has relatively little value to offer them in return… which pushes them away even further.
Love and affection are fundamental human emotions, and you probably don’t want to stamp them out. Rather, you should temper your emotions with a little thought. If you assess their expression to be worthwhile (i.e. you’re enjoying the close bond and the effects it has on you), then let them roam free. However, if you catch them leading you into unwelcome situations and your bonds with other people are becoming toxic, it may be time to cut them off or push yourself away.
The urge to possess scarce sources of value, and be one yourself, can hurt our confidence when these strategies fail.
Cialdini’s last principle of influence is scarcity. In our attempts to “lock down” as much value as possible, we find ourselves naturally trying to secure the rarest sources of value. This might be the most athletic prospect for your basketball team, or friendship with the most popular guy in school, or a limited edition preorder of a videogame.
This seems like a clever value-maximisation strategy at first. Once you’ve secured that rare source of value (e.g. the hot girl at the bar), you can always pursue more common sources (e.g. taking her to dance). There is also often the possibility that you can trade in that source of value for another, taking advantage of someone else’s scarcity urges to secure a favourable deal.
The downside is that scarce sources of value are – by definition – hard to attain. When you fail to satisfy your scarcity pressures, your mind does not easily move on to the next best strategy. Instead, you find yourself mulling over the lost opportunity and becoming jealous of the value that someone else now possesses. Your mind is telling you to compete and refusing to recognise that it may no longer be a possibility. When the hottest girl at the bar hooks up with someone else instead, most people don’t simply shift focus to the second hottest girl; rather, they sulk over their ‘loss’ and go home to tell all their friends how close they got.
Possibly the biggest harm of this pressure is that it completely distracts you from any possibility of generating your own value. When you get locked into a “scarcity mindset”, you find yourself identifying and selecting between external sources of value. (There might be limited attractive guys at a party, so which one do you have the best odds with?) It never occurs to you to question the assumption that you need to leech value in the first place.
When you stop trying to contribute your own value, you quickly become replaceable. If ten girls are spending their entire night trying to capture the cute guy hosting the house party, what would set you apart should you join in? Can you really offer better affection or conversation than any given one of them? Probably not. You forgot to make yourself a scarce resource, and the odds of you having a good night or feeling valuable decrease dramatically. Everybody likes to feel unique in some way; it’s the mind’s incentive to possess scarce value that we can trade for other benefits to improve our lives.
Scarcity pressures are also not static. As more people compete for the same source of value, that source becomes even more difficult to attain, which in turn incentivises even more people to compete. Multiple iterations of this cycle can completely disconnect the scarcity pressure you feel to attain a source of value from its actual value. You spend more time trying to acquire it than it’s actually worth, which directly harms your confidence or at least incurs an opportunity cost.
Most people will lie to you about the scarcity of value. They will convince you it can only come from them, or something they’re pitching to you. More specifically, they will try to convince you that they possess a unique kind of value, so no substitute will be adequate.
In truth, there are plenty of substitutes for most possible sources of value. You can’t replace your urge for food, but it doesn’t intrinsically matter much to you whether you eat at a $50 buffet or grab a $5 feed from McDonald’s. You can’t eliminate your urge for affection, but a $20k/yr health worker will cuddle you just as well as the $200k/yr investment banker. Any apparent difference is purely a function of scarcity pressure. In a modern society with most basic comforts provided to you or easily accessible, rare resources are usually only marginally more valuable than the commonplace.
Most people stop at one layer of cognition; they think, and that’s it. When you start using metacognition and thinking about how you think, you gain an immense amount of control over your own behaviour and outcomes.* Simply by knowing how these heuristics operate in your mind, you possess a little more self-insight that I hope will serve you well.
By now, you’ve probably noticed the common theme in my discussion of these urges. I treat them as heuristics – rules of thumb that will usually serve us well, but can also backfire and ruin your confidence. Now that these principles are relatively well-known (particularly among marketers and the socially savvy), they can also be deliberately used against you.
My recommendation is to read Cialdini’s book, memorise his list of principles thoroughly, and try to spot their application and interactions in real life. Whenever someone asks you for a favour, a small alarm bell should ring indicating you might be expected to reciprocate eventually. If you find yourself falling in love with someone, remember your affection for them will influence your behaviour in future. Should you spot the “hottest girl at the bar”, smile at your scarcity mindset and try to spot the second hottest.
Don’t get caught in analysis paralysis – you shouldn’t be constantly thinking about these concepts. You should just set up small “triggers” that alert you when a particularly prominent example of the heuristic is playing out.
Being conscious of these heuristics allows you to consciously analyse their likely effects. A significant portion of the time, you’ll find yourself allowing them to continue operating. So what if an advertisement uses social proof to sell you a specific brand of chewing gum? You feel like it now, and you can probably afford it, so there’s little point – except as a mental or disciplinary exercise – in resisting your newfound temptation.
Sometimes, though, the heuristics will fail. You might realise you’ve spent your entire night trying to flirt with someone across the room, and haven’t actually had any fun… or been the “clown” of your social circle to amuse the people you like, though it crushes you inside… or spent $500 on a new pair of Gucci loafers and don’t have the money to go out and show them off to attain your desired social proof. These are the times where you refuse to keep buying into the heuristic.
This can be incredibly difficult; your internal and external pressures won’t disappear simply because you choose them to (at least, not without years of practice and metacognition). You will have to learn to see the world as a collection of value sources and leeches, and objectively reevaluate your strategy for attaining value. The key is to make sure you fill your life with value through other means, rather than simply “opting out”. You need to distract yourself from these internal pressures by focusing on something else – ideally value you can generate yourself.
You stop trying to attract someone, and set up a game of beer pong instead. You stand up for yourself to your friends, taking happiness from their grudging and eventual respect rather than their laughter. You return the Guccis and spend the money on a self-improvement book which will give you a lot more happiness in the long term.
Finally, you can use these principles to optimise your own value creation. Work on your social skills, so you’re more likable. Identify your scarce strengths and leverage them. Learn useful skills so you become an authority. The more value you possess, the more people will want to be around you, hoping you’ll give them some… and the more freely you will be able to dish it out, engaging their urge for reciprocity to give value back to you.
Confidence is fundamentally about needing less, either through self-improvement (attaining what you need) or self-acceptance (becoming less needy). These principles make you constantly need more, and behave differently to preserve the value you currently possess and think you need.
You would be wise to keep them on a tight leash.
* An even further layer of abstraction (meta-metacognition) is probably useful, but I haven’t experimented much with it yet. Feel free to start thinking about how you think about how you think – for example, how did you relate to this article? Were you sifting through past memories and seeing how these heuristics played out, or envisioning hypothetical situations instead? If you only chose one of these options, it might be worth mining the other option for additional insight or epiphany.