How the pros use the psychology of persuasion to convince us to buy now

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Credit card backgroundThe psychology of persuasion has always fascinated me–probably because I stink at it.

When I was in college, I worked for a while as a salesman at a Slumberland store. Maybe I wasn’t fired . . . technically. I was, after all, the model employee–never late, always responsible, well dressed, pleasant with the customers. I just never sold anything. Being a bit of an introvert, every prospect seemed to me like that cute girl I was too shy to talk to.

And yet, the older I get the more I realize how valuable a skill persuasion really is. From getting that promotion to getting your team to buy in; from vying for your movie choice on date night, to getting your teen to do her homework; persuasion is as practical a day-to-day skill as there is.

That’s why I found the following story so fascinating. It illustrates just how easily those who understand a little about persuasive psychology can manipulate the rest of us. In his book, “Influence: Science and Practice,” Dr. Robert Cialdini shares how his brother Richard sold cars to pay his way through college. He didn’t work on a lot or for a dealer. Instead, he scoured newspaper ads for cars he could buy near the bottom of their blue book range then legitimately resell near the top. And he always got his asking price.

How did he do it?

The ads always came out on Sunday and he was good enough at writing them that his phone often began ringing that morning. Next, for those interested in seeing the car, he began scheduling appointments—for the same time. So if four people called, they were all scheduled for, say, 2:00 that afternoon. The trick of simultaneous scheduling created an air of competition that always closed the deal—and quickly.

I’m far from a champion seller. But every once in awhile I’ll put an ad in Craigslist to sell something we no longer need. While I’ve never scheduled simultaneous appointments, I have noticed that people do become more interested after learning others have made inquiries.

Black Friday shoppers know the feeling. What most don’t realize however, is how much they are actually being manipulated. Like the chum in the water stimulating a feeding frenzy, Black Friday deals get masses of people to do things they normally wouldn’t. Students of influence call this The Scarcity Principle—and it has the power to cloud the minds of the most rational and frugal among us. It’s what fuels prices for rare baseball cards, coins and antiques. It’s that sense of competition and rivalry that auctioneers try to stimulate in their bidders.

Regardless of utility, the pressures of scarcity always increase the perceived value of an item. The less available something is the more desirable it becomes. Notice how often “supplies are limited” or how many, “one time offers” you see.

Richard Cialdini added competition to scarcity and with it, paid his way through college. The first prospect to arrive would typically begin by inspecting the car, noticing any flaws and asking if there was any room to negotiate. And then the second prospect would arrive—changing everything.

As Cialdini writes, “The availability of the car to either prospect suddenly became limited by the presence of the other. Richard claims it was possible to watch the agitation grow on the first buyer’s face. His leisurely assessment of the car’s pros and cons had suddenly become a now-or-never rush to a decision over a contested resource. If he didn’t decide for the car—at Richard’s asking price—in the next few minutes, he might lose it for good to that . . .that . . . lurking newcomer over there. If these conditions alone weren’t enough to secure a favorable purchase decision immediately, the trap snapped shut as soon as the third 2:00 appointment arrived on the scene.”

The moral of the story depends, of course, on whether you’re buying or selling. Used ethically, sharing honest information with a buyer on the fence about someone else’s interest might be just the nudge he needs to make a decision. Understanding that competition for a used car (or anything) doesn’t make it run better or last longer, may be exactly what shoppers need to remember in order to walk away from that now-or-never deal.

Founder of, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at:

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