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This is one of those books that can give us an entirely new view on the world. Most people will think that they are self-conscious and in control of themselves nearly all the time. This books casts serious doubt on that view.

First an issue I have with the subtitle “A revolutionary way to influence and persuade”. That is not true. The mechanisms described are centuries old and most certainly not revolutionary. What is new is our insight in these processes. While some people may have used them unconsciously, to most of us they are indeed new and often unexpected. In that sense they do open up new insights in how to (pre-)persuade as well as how to recognize we are being pre-persuaded. Because the book also shows that recognizing will often negate the effect.

Pre-suation is of course a clever word game on the process that precedes a persuasion tactic. In an earlier book “Influence” the same writer discussed a lot of persuasion tactics and this book shows how these can become more effective by the process leading up to the persuasion.

A memorable example that illustrates the power of pre-persuasion is an experiment done in France where middle-aged men were asked by a young lady to assist her in recovering her phone from a small band of youngsters. Usually men were quite unwilling to assist, only 20% did so. Now came a twist: a short while before the young lady asked for assistance another young lady would ask the same man for directions to a street: Valentine street. An astonishing thing happened: twice the number of men (40%) would now assist the second lady in recovering her phone.

To be sure, the experiment also asked the men for directions in the first case, only those directions were to Market street. So the effect measured was only the result of exposure to the word “Valentine”.

How is it possible that just exposing the men to a romance related word would increase their willingness to take risk? And what is even more: the men themselves were totally unaware of this. As far as they were concerned, they were operating 100% on free will.

One possible way of explaining this is that the brain works as follows: when a decision must be made, all regions of the brain that are associated with the question are “asked” for their input. The total strength of all replies decides the answer. Is the total answer is positive, the answer is yes, if negative, it’s no. The strength of each individual answer is impacted by recent experiences. If a brain region has been active, then its part of the answer will be stronger, resulting in a stronger overall answer. Both positive and negative.

Romance is quite clearly a positive answer. Engaging the “romance region” of the brain beforehand will result in a stronger positive answer and thus the result will be skewed towards “yes”.

I am pretty sure that had the men be exposed to an article about somebody who died as a result of a fight with youngsters, that the result would have been skewed toward “no”.

Regardless, what this experiment shows is that it is possible to be totally unaware of being influenced/manipulated.

In this book the author has done a good job of cataloging the different factors at work. Though I do not doubt that this field is only just beginning.

To me however the book did more. It also opened a window into how our society can have a mind of its own. Think of the hundreds or thousands of stimuli we receive every day. Each of which will influence our behaviour. And in turn that behaviour will influence what stimuli will be present in the environment. Creating a feedback loop that will take on a life of its own, with us as the unwittingly messenger. Like the ant in an anthill.

Needless to say, I enjoyed the book very much. All in all I would give it 4 out of 5 stars, simply because I reserve 5 stars for the really really excellent books. This book falls only just short of that elusive goal. Still I very much recommend this book. It is a must-read for marketeers and a very strong suggested reading for the rest of us.

  • Title: Pre-Suasion, A revolutionary way to influence and persuade
  • Author: Robert Cialdini
  • Pages: 233 main writing + 190 references and background (paperback)
  • ISBN: 978-1847941428

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