Are You a Sucker? How to Avoid Being Manipulated

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Influence" by Robert B. Cialdini. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Have you ever thought that someone was trying to trick you? Could you tell they were using persuasion tactics to convince you? Do you know how to avoid being manipulated?

Compliance practitioners are professional persuaders. They are able to manipulate you into agreeing even if you are trying to avoid manipulation. For each of the six principles of persuasion, there are key strategies to learn if you want to know how to avoid being manipulated.

Avoid Manipulation by Compliance Practitioners

While our fixed-action patterns are usually an asset for us in everyday life, they are easily manipulated and exploited by compliance practitioners. These are professional persuaders, people whose job it is to get you to say “yes” to whatever it is they’re offering. But don’t get tricked. You can avoid manipulation.

Most compliance practitioners use six psychological principles of persuasion:

  1. Reciprocity
  2. Commitment/Consistency
  3. Social proof
  4. Liking
  5. Authority 
  6. Scarcity

How to Avoid Being Manipulated by Reciprocity

Compliance practitioners know that you’re more likely to feel obliged to them if they present you some small gift or token gesture of kindness before they make their request. Or they’ll ask for an initially ludicrous request that you’ll reject, only to present you with a second, smaller request. This rejection-then-retreat tactic is designed to lull you into making a reciprocal concession by giving in to their second ask.

To avoid manipulation using this kind of reciprocity, you have to distinguish between people who are engaging in genuine acts of kindness and those who are simply trying to trick you into doing something for them. You are socially obligated to return a genuine favor with another favor: you’re not obligated to return a trick with a favor.

How to Avoid Being Manipulated by Commitment/Consistency

Consistency and commitment can also be exploited. Our desire for internal consistency can turn even a small commitment into larger and larger ones.

You can feel it intuitively when you’re being asked to do something you don’t want to do. The key to fighting back is spotting these situations quickly. Otherwise the compliance professional will corner you with your own commitment. You should then turn the table on the compliance practitioner. Tell them that you’re onto them and you know exactly what they’re trying to do. Don’t get tricked. Make decisions for a reason: don’t make reasons for a decision.

How to Avoid Being Manipulated by Social Proof

Social proof can also be faked or manufactured, however, or used for self-serving purposes by compliance practitioners. It’s why so many product advertisements talk about being the “fastest-growing” or “highest-selling”: the marketers want to convince you that there’s a groundswell of demand for the product from others. Don’t get tricked by these tactics.

To understand how to resist manipulation, you need to look closer at group behavior. Is there a reason to do something, beyond just the fact that everyone else is doing it? Don’t be like a pilot who flies by relying solely on her instruments. You also need to actually see the sky in front of you. Sometimes you do need to look critically at the world around you, take the time to assess situations, think for yourself, and apply your own individual judgment.

How to Avoid Being Manipulated by Liking

There’s nothing wrong with liking people, and usually someone’s charm or warmth indicates that they are trustworthy and reliable. But if you want to know how to resist manipulation, you need to evaluate each situation on the merits. If you feel that you are strongly liking someone after only being briefly acquainted with them, you need to pause and assess what is producing these feelings. Always separate your personal feelings for the person trying to sell you something from the thing you’re actually looking to buy. Judge your potential decision solely on the merits: don’t comply with a request just because you like the requester.

How to Avoid Being Manipulated by Authority

Authority can also be abused and exploited. In the famous Milgram experiment at Yale, ordinary people were shown to be highly vulnerable to pressure from an authority figure who instructed them to administer painful and dangerous electric shocks to fellow experiment participants. 

Don’t get tricked. To avoid getting suckered, don’t blindly obey authority. Always assess an authority figure’s credentials and the relevance of those credentials. A cop telling you to pull over is a legitimate authority figure whose training and expertise clearly compel you to comply in this situation. An actor who plays a doctor on a TV show, on the other hand, is not a legitimate authority from which to take medical advice in a pharmaceutical commercial. Their training is as an actor, not as a physician. You know how to resist manipulation if you can identify real authority.

How to Avoid Being Manipulated by Scarcity

Compliance practitioners know how to twist this instinct to their own advantage. It’s why we see so many “limited-time only” or “first-come, first-serve” sales pitches: the goal is to drive you into a scarcity frenzy that forces you to suspend your better judgment and rush headlong into an ill-considered decision.

To avoid manipulation this way, you need to ask yourself if you truly wish to use the item for its intended purpose, or if you merely wish to possess it because of the rarity itself. Do you really want that sports car because of its inherent features, or do you just want it because so few other people have it? If your answer is the latter, then you’ve probably fallen into a scarcity compliance trap. This self-questioning is how to resist manipulation. You should want things because of their intrinsic value, not because of their rarity or status.

Are You a Sucker? How to Avoid Being Manipulated

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  • How professional manipulators use your psychology against you
  • The six key biases you need to be aware of
  • How learning your own biases will help you beat the con men around you

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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