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How to Protect Yourself From Unethical Persuasion


Have you ever agreed to do or buy something you really didn’t want or need, and later wondered, “Why did I say yes?” You’re not alone. Whether you ended up doing a colleague’s job, buying nutritional supplements you had little use for, or donating time and/or money to a cause you weren’t passionate about, chances are you said yes due to some finely honed persuasion.

Of course, only some of these people had dishonorable motives. The others—representatives of certain charitable agencies, for instance—had the best of intentions, even if you didn’t really want to give in, but did so anyway. Regardless, you may often find yourself in possession of unwanted goods or doing tasks you dislike simply because you feel compelled to say yes.

It doesn’t have to be that way. If you ever find yourself the recipient of an unwanted or unethical persuasion attempt, there are steps you can take to recognize and disarm it so you have the confidence to walk away unscathed. Here are some suggestions.

You don’t always have to reciprocate.

When someone gives you something or does something for you, it’s natural to want to repay the favor, even if you didn’t request the original favor. This refers to the principle of reciprocity. Whether it’s a salesperson offering you a free sample or a colleague volunteering to help you with a task, once you take the offer, human nature compels you to feel indebted to the person.  This is a positive response when reciprocity is used correctly, because it helps keep us in groups and enhances relationships.

The best defense against the use of unethical reciprocity is not systematic rejection of everything people offer you (after all, if you never accept the initial favor there’s nothing to repay, right?). Rather, accept initial favors or concessions in good faith. If you find they are not given in good faith or are given only to initiate reciprocity, be ready to ignore the pull.

It’s OK to change your mind.

Psychologists have long recognized that people have a desire to be and look consistent within their prior words, beliefs, attitudes and deeds. So if you’ve agreed to something once, you’ll most likely act consistent with your prior words, beliefs, attitudes and deeds again and again. This demonstrates the principle of consistency.

The best defense against the unethical use of consistency is to listen to your gut. If you feel that you are being pushed by consistency pressures and continued purchases or involvement no longer make sense, stop what you’re doing. Explain to the requester that the situation has changed and you can no longer engage, buy, or help.

Know yourself.

People often decide what to do based on what similar others think or have done. This refers to the principle of social proof. Social proof is employed through things like testimonials, tip jars salted with cash and long lists of others in your neighborhood who have displayed similar behaviors.

The best defense against the unethical use of social proof is to ask yourself, “Is this information real/honest?” “Are these people in a similar situation?” and “Are these people most like me?”

Base your decisions on the offer, not the requester.

People prefer to comply with requests from people they know and like. That’s why charities have people canvass friends and neighbors, and why colleges get alumni to raise money from classmates. You’re more apt to like, and consequently say yes to someone who is similar to you. This comes from the principle of liking.

The best defense against the unethical use of the liking principle is to take a step back from the interaction, mentally separate the requester from his or her offer, and make any decision based solely on the merits of the offer.

You don’t always have to follow authority figures.

People often defer to an authority for their decisions. If a doctor, plumber, mechanic, or investment expert makes a recommendation based on in-depth knowledge, we should take advantage of that authority in that area. While this principle of authority can be good for keeping order, automatic obedience can leave people vulnerable to exploitation, particularly if the person is manufacturing his or her own experience, background, or credentials.

The best defense against the unethical use of authority is to ask yourself two questions: “Is this authority truly an expert?” and “How knowledgeable can I expect this expert to be?” The first question directs your attention away from symbols and toward evidence for authority status. The second advises you to consider the expert’s background, credentials and expertise.

What is really finite?

Have you ever noticed that products and opportunities seem more valuable as they become less available? That’s why persuaders often emphasize that “supplies are limited” and why offers are available for a short time. The principle of scarcity often overrides your attention to the threat of loss rather than the desire of the product or service.

The best defense against the unethical use of scarcity is to be alert to what is truly dwindling in availability. If you feel a sudden rush to act on something quickly, take steps to slow yourself down. Determine whether the information is true and assess the merits of the opportunity in terms of why you want it. If you’re not ready to commit, remember that there will be other opportunities for the same or similar products.

Decide wisely.

Not all persuasion attempts are unethical. In fact, when done correctly, they can result in a win-win situation for both parties. The successes of business professionals are measured by their ability to accomplish goals. Those goals are met—more often than not—by reasoning, persuading and inspiring others to share a vision and to pursue a common purpose.

Robert Cialdini, Ph.D, is founder of the organizational consulting firm Influence at Work and the author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

(Image via IVY PHOTOS/

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