Daily we as an individual are bombarded with influences such as TV advertisements, billboards, radio ads, and even people on the street. Whether we are conscious of these influences or not, they will have an impact on us and our attitudes and beliefs. However, to what extent are we aware of and in control of these influences? And, do we have control over the influences bestowed upon us? In order to gain a better understanding of this phenomenon we will briefly look at consumer research and how psychology has influenced their original views, the effects of priming, followed by Cialdini and the 6 principles of influence.
As Posner and Snyder (1975, p.55) noted a quarter century ago, “this question of how much conscious control we have over our judgments, decisions, and behaviour is one of the most basic and important questions of human existence.”
There are various paradigms in the study of consumer research. Primarily the major focus is on consumer purchasing decision using the information-processing model. However, until recently, there has been a significant change as consumer researchers realized the importance of researching cognition. “It is of interest to study whether there has been a corresponding increase in the share of cognitive relative to social topics studies by consumer researchers” (Carmon, Dhar, Drolet, Nowlis, & Simonson, 2001, p.6). and, “the cognitive revolution that continues to dominate psychological research has led to an emphasis on mentalism over behavior and a preference for proximal over distal influences on behaviour” (cf. Kenrick 1994, as cited in Alba, 2000, p.6).
According to Bargh (2002), the cognitive approach can be divided into two classes; first is the social cognition approach which contains the elaboration likelihood model (ELM) and the heuristic-systematic model (HSM). The second approach is the behavioural decision theory. It is important to note that, the social cognition models are “mainly concerned with the conditions under which people do, versus do not, engage in careful, effortful processing of the information” (Bargh, 2002, p.2). Bargh continues on by adding, “Consumer research has largely missed out on two key developments in social cognition research” (Bargh, 2002, p.1). There is now evidence to support that judgement and behaviour are occurring without being consciously aware, also this is lack of awareness is crossing over in regards to influence and related goal pursuit. The evidence that Bargh was inferring to looks at the influences on subliminal priming (Bargh, 2002).
Priming (stimuli) can be delivered two ways, subliminal or supraliminal. Subliminal priming means that the person is not aware of the primes, and conversely with supraliminal, the person is aware of the primes but not aware of the prime’s potential. Both of these primes are responsible for influencing attitude, behaviour, and judgement (Bargh, 1992). To show case the effects of subliminal messages, we acknowledge Dr. Ran Hassin, a cognitive scientist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Psychology. His experiment was based around the national flag and the attitude outcomes. In one experiment, the Israeli participants were divided into two groups and then were questioned about their position regarding the issues in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. During the questioning process, half of the participants were exposed to subliminal images of the Israeli flag, half were not. The results were that, of the half exposed to the Israeli flag, their political views had shifted to the middle. Other experiments followed weeks after, with identical results. Dr. Ran Hassin colleagues (2009) state, “in general, subliminal messages do indeed influence explicit attitudes and real-life political behaviour-a significant extension to what we know about the effects of non-conscious processes.”
It is important to include that priming is not an unfamiliar idea to the realm of psychology and consumer affairs as it has been hiding in the shadows for more than half a century. Because of weakened theories that were unsupported, the effects of subliminal priming have had a marked past. However this attitude has shifted gears as it is now deemed more successful due to researchers taking into consideration the goals and needs of the participants. Lewin states, “… you can influence people by activating the goals that they already possess” (as cited in Bargh, 2002, p.283).
It has been considered that supraliminal primes can actually be more effective than subliminal priming because of goal activation. However, for this to be effective, it is important that the person is not aware of how these primes might affect them. Chartrand and Bargh (1996) were the first to investigate goal priming using the scrambled-sentence test. They implemented previous findings from conscious goal research and modified it. In this experiment, they did not give detailed instructions to the participants to either form an impression or to memorize the information as was the case with the original research. What they concluded was that, results were the same for both experiments. “It did not matter whether the goals were set consciously, or whether they were merely unconsciously activated (Baaren, Dijksterhuis, Smith, & Wigboldus, 2005). (For a detailed account of the experiment, see Bargh, 1996).
With all this information constantly being presented, how do we manage? Are we actually absorbing it all, or does the vast majority of this influential information become part of the greater unknown? According the the Newspaper Association of America, it has been estimated that consumers are exposed to an average of 3,000 advertising messages a day. If that is the case, then how do we categorize what is what is important to us? Cialdini and his six principles of influence, uses the term, “short-cuts”, which can be used to help the consumer make choices.
Cialdini’s work regarding influence and persuasion was monumental in the social psychology spectrum. These influential tactics highlight that we react, “mindlessly” to stimuli (Baaren et al.,2005). Cialdini (2001) describes this as, “click-zoom” reactions by which our decisions and behaviour can be directly affected by certain stimuli (Baaren et al., 2005).
Cialdini’s six principles for social influence were created as a way to make sense of the influences presented before us. The first principle is that of, Reciprocity. What this means is that, we feel obligated to repay in kind. Scarcity can be observed when the phrase, “today only” is mentioned and we rush off to the department store to pick up the item quickly before it is gone as this phrase indicates to us, scarcity therefore making it more valuable. Authority uses credible authorities such as doctors to sell or promote a product; thereby people typically are more easily persuaded as a result. People become uneasy when they feel that others are viewing them as unreliable based upon being inconsistent with their words; this leads us to Cialdini’s fourth principle; Consistency. This principle suggests that people feel pressure to be consistent within their own words and actions. Social proof is very effective in ambiguous situations as we tend to follow the lead of others with similar experiences. We will look to others to see how they are behaving and choices that they have made as this will help us to make our decisions. Lastly, the principle of liking, simply put implies that we like those whom like us. Cialdini list three separate characteristics of liking. Firstly, people will like those who are similar to them. Secondly, people who are praised and complimented by others will be more persuaded by them. There is strong evidence Cialdini writes to suggest that people are more perceptive after receiving a compliment from another. Thirdly, people who are co-operative with us and our common goals are more likeable (Cialdini & Martin, 2006).
Cialdini’s six principles of influence provide a detailed evidence based short cut to help people navigate in the right direction. Cialdini noted that, although most people use these mental short cuts when making decisions, this is not to say that people consciously use them. However, regardless of whether it is conscious or not, these six principles of influence are, influential (Cialdini & Martin, 2006).
Previously, consumers were viewed as being in control of choices that they made; however the latest research tells us that this is now not the case. There are subtle cues from our environment which can trigger memory responses causing us to make choices that we are unconsciously aware of. While there does pose some ethical concerns regarding priming, it is of great importance to continue one with studies that are more purposeful in nature. To conclude, priming and Cialdini’s six principles of influence can help others have more control and mastery over their environment.
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Newspaper Association of America Website
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Consumer sciences today. 2006 volume 7, no 2, issn 1470-8159 cialdini,r., & martin, s.4-6