One of My Favorite Influence Techniques


What follows is one of my favorite influence techniques written about in Cialdini’s famous book on influence. It describes a study where people were convinced not only to become and remain energy conscious, but that they were doing it because they themselves wanted to. While the techniques described hereafter may not fit into every situation, the result is subtle and powerful. The following paragraphs are lightly edited.

A project, headed by Dr. Michael Pallak, began at the start of the Iowa winter when residents who heated their homes with natural gas were contacted by an interviewer. The interviewer gave them some energy conservation tips and asked them to try to save fuel in the future. Although they all agreed to try, when the researchers examined the utility records of these families after a month and again at winter’s end, it was clear that no real savings had occurred. The residents who had promised to make a conservation attempt used just as much natural gas as a random sample of their neighbors who had not been contacted by an interviewer. Just good intentions coupled with information about saving fuel, then, were not enough to change habits.

Even before the project began, Pallak and his research team had recognized that something more would be needed to shift long-standing energy patterns. So they tried a slightly different procedure on a comparable sample of Iowa natural-gas users. These people, too, were contacted by an interviewer, who provided energy-saving hints and asked them to conserve. But for these families, the interviewer offered something else: Those residents agreeing to save energy would have their names publicized in newspaper articles as public-spirited, fuel-conserving citizens. The effect was immediate. One month later, when the utility companies checked their meters, the homeowners in this sample had saved an average of 422 cubic feet of natural gas apiece. The chance to have their names in the paper had motivated these residents to substantial conservation efforts for a period of a month.

Then the rug was pulled out. The researchers extracted the reason that had initially caused these people to save fuel. Each family that had been promised publicity received a letter saying it would not be possible to publicize their names after all. At the end of the winter, the research team examined the effect that letter had had on the natural-gas usage of the families. Did they return to their old, wasteful habits when the chance to be in the newspaper was removed? Hardly. For each of the remaining winter months, they actually conserved more fuel than they had during the time they thought they would be publicly celebrated for it! In terms of percentage of energy savings, they had managed a 12.2 percent first-month gas savings because they expected to see themselves lauded in the paper. But after the letter arrived informing them to the contrary, they did not return to their previous energy-use levels; instead, they increased their savings to a 15.5 percent level for the rest of the winter.

Although we can never be completely sure of such things, one explanation for their persistent behavior presents itself immediately. These people had been persuaded into a conservation commitment through a promise of newspaper publicity. Once made, that commitment started generating its own support: The homeowners began acquiring new energy habits, began feeling good about their public-spirited efforts, began convincing themselves of the vital need to reduce American dependence on foreign fuel, began appreciating the monetary savings in their utility bills, began feeling proud of their capacity for self-denial, and, most important, began viewing themselves as conservation-minded. With all these new reasons present to justify the commitment to use less energy, it is no wonder that the commitment remained firm even after the original reason, newspaper publicity, had been kicked away.

But strangely enough, when the publicity factor was no longer a possibility, these families did not merely maintain their fuel-saving effort, they heightened it. Any of a number of interpretations could be offered for that still stronger effort, but Cialdini has a favorite. In a way, the opportunity to receive newspaper publicity had prevented the homeowners from fully owning their commitment to conservation. Of all the reasons supporting the decision to try to save fuel, it was the only one that had come from the outside; it was the only one preventing the homeowners from thinking that they were conserving gas because they believed in it. So when the letter arrived canceling the publicity agreement, it removed the only impediment to these residents’ images of themselves as fully concerned, energy-conscious citizens. This unqualified, new self-image then pushed them to even greater heights of conservation. Whether or not such an explanation is correct, a repeat study done by Pallak indicates that this was no fluke.

The experiment was done in summer on Iowans whose homes were cooled by central air-conditioning. Those homeowners who were promised newspaper publicity decreased their electricity use by 27.8 percent during July, as compared to similar homeowners who were not promised any coverage or who were not contacted at all. At the end of July, a letter was sent canceling the publicity promise. Rather than reverting to their old habits, the residents increased their August energy savings to a stunning 41.6 percent. They appeared to have become committed to a choice through an initial inducement and were still more dedicated to it after the inducement had been removed.

From: Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion.

Referencing: Pallak, M. S., Cook, D. A., & Sullivan, J. J. (1980). Commitment and energy conservation. Applied Social Psychology Annual, 1, 235–253.

Written on June 30, 2020