Review: PRE-SUASION and The Persuasion Code

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

PRE-SUASION: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade
Robert Cialdini
2016, Random House Books

The Persuasion Code: How Neuromarketing Can Help and Persuade Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime
Christophe Morin and Patrick Renvoisé
2018, Wiley

Robert Cialdini is that rare creature: an academic who has written a bestseller. Influence was first published in 1984, and though not an instant hit, it went on to sell well over the subsequent decades. Since then, behavioural economics has joined social psychology to make this a vibrant field.

The author professes some surprise that paid persuaders mined his work for insights to improve their performance. He claims his intention for Influence was to arm consumers against sales techniques. I don’t know how seriously to take him, but it reminds us that the role of academics is not solely to increase commerce. Science is science, and it’s not only done for profit. So Cialdini offers a disclaimer:

‘Just because we can use psychological tactics to gain consent doesn’t mean that we are entitled to them. The tactics are available for good or ill. They can be structured to fool and thereby exploit people. But they can also be structured to inform and thereby enhance others.’

To make the point that the art of persuasion is based on science, this book has around 150 pages of notes and references.

Yet most readers will want to jump to the central argument. ‘The best persuaders become the best through pre-suasion – the process of arranging for recipients to be receptive to a message before they encounter it.’

It’s an updated version of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Like Pre-suasion and The Persuasion Code, these three books come from the commercially-driven culture of the United States.

Cialdini writes anecdotally (and he writes very well), as if to resist the book being reduced to a series of bullet points. This is a good way to introduce theories of psychology to the general reader. So confirmation bias is explained through the example of palm reading. If we’re told we’re stubborn – or indeed flexible – by a palm reader, we’ll look for instances to confirm this diagnosis, and are almost certain to find them. ‘It is easier to register the presence of something than its absence.’

Because it’s hard to gain our attention (the term ‘paying attention’ implies it has a cost), we tend to overestimate the importance of the thing we’re paying attention to. What’s focal is presumed causal. The disturbing example given is the extracting of false confessions under police interrogation. Innocent people are ill prepared for the persuasive influence of skilled interrogators. The case Cialdini reports did end in acquittal, when evidence that had been hidden later came to light, but this was a murder investigation and I had feared that the story might have ended with a death sentence.

The book is not a checklist, but the author does revisit his famous six principles of social influence from the earlier book.

  1. Reciprocation: People say yes to those they owe.
  2. Liking: People say yes to those they like.
  3. Social proof: People follow others.
  4. Authority: The messenger is the message.
  5. Scarcity: We want more of what we can have less of.
  6. Consistency: We like to stay with the previous commitments we’ve made.

In the new book, Cialdini proposes a seventh principle he’d missed first time around.

  • Unity. We like people who are like us. ‘Put simply, we is the shared me.’
‘The merit (of the arguments) can be the message… We learned via Marshall McLuhan that the medium can be the message; via the authority principle that the messenger can be the message; and now via the concept of unity that the merger (of self and other) can be the message.’

The Persuasion Code promises ‘cutting-edge persuasion science to make your messages brain friendly.’

The core concept is that the primal brain (evolved to address survival) dominates our decision making, not the rational brain (the neocortex). The primal brain is mostly unconscious and preverbal. The challenge the authors address is to offer a scientific persuasion model for our illogical minds.

Following Cialdini, the authors use the example of ‘paying attention’. ‘Attention burns valuable oxygen and glucose in the brain, which is why it is both precious and fragile.’

There’s a tussle between emotion and reason. They cite neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explaining ‘we are not thinking machines that feel. We are feeling machines that think.’

The authors run a business called SalesBrain, and have developed NeuroMap, their brain-based persuasion theory. It draws on the work of Sigmund Freud and Daniel Kahneman, among others. They argue that persuasive messages will not work unless they first influence the primal brain at an emotional or visual level. Once the message has engaged the primal brain, persuasion moves to the rational brain.

To gain this attention, there are six primal stimuli that need invoking.

The first is to make the message personal. ‘Because the primal brain is driven to help us survive, humans are fundamentally wired to be self-centred and to attend first to what affects us personally.’

The next principle is to make a message contrastable. The primal brain wants to make quick decisions, so offer few options. The paradox of choice suggests we do not become happier by having more choices. Instead, we subconsciously seek fewer options (an approach that works for Lidl and Aldi among grocers).

Then, making something tangible minimises the cognitive energy needed to process the message. Our brains want to conserve energy (though only about 2% of body mass, it requires 20% of our energy to run).

Then, you should make it memorable. We tend to remember the first occurrence (primacy) of something, and the most recent occurrence, but struggle with events in the middle.

Then, it should be visual since this is our dominant sense. Next, make it emotional. René Descartes may have believed us to be rational, but behavioural economists and neuromarketers have shown otherwise. It seems we make emotional decisions first, and then rationalise them later.

You may be wondering (if you’ve read this far) if these books relate to your work. Although much space has been devoted in the literature to a well-known academic model that argued for a separating of persuasion from public relations, most scholars and all practitioners surely now accept that public relations is persuasive – and that persuasion need not be unethical.

In my case, as an educator I face the constant challenge of gaining understanding and persuading students to learn. Both books have much to say about the gap between what the educator knows and what the student hears. Rather than shying away from persuasion, we need to become more persuasive.