03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

I've just added a new favorite book to my top ten list: Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini, PhD.

The premise of this book is that in our increasingly complex and pressured world, we often make decisions by falling back on instinctive patterns. Cialdini has identified six categories of these reflexes:

1. Reciprocity - when someone does something for us, we are inclined to want to do something in return.

2. Consistency - we tend to stay within the perimeters of prior decisions or commitments we have made.

3. Social Proof - we are inclined to follow the crowd.

4. Likeability - we make decisions in favor of people we like or feel a bond with.

5. Authority - we bend toward the views and instructions of those who on face value warrant our respect.

6. Scarcity - we want what we can't have.

The fact is that most of the time, we are right to use the above shortcuts in making choices. When you hear tons of people talking about a great movie, it is likely that you too will enjoy the movie. When you feel connected to a person, you are usually safe in following his or her lead. When a person of authority or presumed respect suggests a course of action, it is most often logical to follow that advice. And so on.

The problem arises when persuaders and marketers manipulate our instincts to induce decisions that are not necessarily in our best interest. Before I read Cialdini's book, I would have said that does not happen to me very often. I would have said (pre-book) I am a level-headed person who understands the why of Path A over Path B. After reading the book, I am not so sure.

Cialdini's many examples and studies make a powerful case that the paths we often take are the result of our not having the time, information or energy to assess all factors.

I intend to use future e-letters to flesh out some of the points in Cialdini's book.

For now, let me leave you with an excerpt from Cialdini's concluding chapter:

(F)or the sake of efficiency, we must sometimes retreat from a time-consuming, sophisticated, fully-informed brand of decision-making to a more automatic, primitive, single-featured type of responding. ... All this leads to a jarring insight: With the sophisticated mental apparatus we have used to build world eminence as a species, we have created an environment so complex, fast-paced, and information-laden that we must increasingly deal with it in the fashion of the animals we long ago transcended.