The envelope looked like something from the government. It was that familiar brown kraft paper that we associate with official mailings. It even had a maple leaf logo printed on it that looked like a flag.
The printing on the outside indicates that this is “Private & Confidential,” “Important,” and to add to the impact, it directed me to “Open Immediately.” I guess that means I have to open it right now. I can’t have my coffee first or let out the cat. Nope. The envelope has spoken.
You’ve probably gotten similar mailings, phone calls or notices that command you to “Sign up now” or “Press this key.”
Regardless of what envelopes, posters or people tell us to do, we still have some choice in the matter. What would you do? Would you open the envelope right now? Drop it into your recycle bag? Put it aside with intentions to look at it later?
The envelope normally wouldn’t have made much of an impression on me, but I’ve just been rereading a book by Dr. Robert Cialdini. He’s a recognized expert on influence and persuasion. In fact, he wrote the book, appropriately titled “Influence.”
People who want to influence us use known methods to motivate us to think or act the way they want. One influence mechanism discussed by Cialdini is authority. Look again at my brown envelope; it is deliberate mimicking an authoritative government document. Puts it into perspective, doesn’t it?
Who wants to influence us? Gosh, who doesn’t? Of course, marketing and sales activities come to mind. But influence isn’t just about getting between us and our money. There are plenty of areas where people have an interest in motivating us to approve of one thing and disapprove of another.
I’ll admit it: I attempt to influence! I try to persuade people to make conscious choices rather than blaming, complaining or unnecessarily giving up their control. I’ve encouraged people to continue learning when they might have believed learning was beyond them. And I have persuaded people to explore careers that they might not have otherwise considered.
Influence abounds. Political discussions often attempt to persuade. Media is an influencer. Even health discussions, which we might think would be based simply on fact, can become a subject of influence.
There will always be people who tell us what to do, how to think, what is good and what is bad. No one of us has the time or expertise to figure everything out for ourselves. So we look to authorities—people who should know—to help us make decisions.
An influencer uses their knowledge of our human responses to persuade us toward their desired outcome. There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing that. However, because we are surrounded by so much influencing, I think it is helpful to be aware of the techniques.
And the authoritative-looking brown envelope is a great reminder that all influence is not trustworthy. As you probably suspected, it was a sales pitch. And despite the notice on the outside, it wasn’t important at all. Go figure.
How do you determine what influences to trust?
Welcome to Reality Check:
articles and observations inspired by the work of Dr. William Glasser
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