Retired psychology professor researching peer influence

Published On:
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
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After 38 years of teaching and researching at ASU, one former professor is spending his retirement educating people outside the academic community.

Though he retired in May as a W.P. Carey Distinguished Professor of Marketing and a Regents’ Professor of Psychology, Robert Cialdini still spends 60 hours a week researching the factors that drive people to comply with requests.

Unlike most of his other work, which was published in scholarly journals, Cialdini is directing the results of his research to a general audience.

“I’ve always caught myself buying unwanted products and contributing to causes I’ve never heard of, and it occurred to me that there must be a psychology to this,” Cialdini said. “So it must have been the way that those things were being presented to me that spurred me to give assent.”

Bobette Gorden, Cialdini’s wife, said that rather than sitting back and smoking cigars or going on fishing trips, Cialdini continues to be dedicated to his work with influence and persuasion. Gorden and Cialdini are also business partners at their company, INFLUENCE AT WORK.

The company specializes in providing corporate training on the ethical business applications of the science of influence.

Cialdini has authored several books, which have sold millions of copies and been translated into 25 different languages.

“His research teaches us all how we can be most effective, most influential and ethical all at the same time,” Gorden said.

Cialdini’s research centers on persuasion and social influence, he said. He is currently applying this research to see how people can motivate others to conserve energy and more effectively sustain the environment.

It was for these reasons that Cialdini began researching the human psychology of persuasion. His research seeks to understand the human psychology behind persuasion and the procedures that cause people to move in directions they don’t find particularly attractive, Cialdini said.

Tanya Marsh, a human resources manager for DHL and second-year W.P. Carey MBA student is familiar with Cialdini’s work.

“As a business manager, what he brings to the table on the research of influence is mind-blowing,” she said.

Cialdini said one central technique to persuasion is “social proof,” the idea that people want to follow the lead of others like them.

Social proof is a simple way for people to decide what actions would be appropriate in a given situation, based off what others like them have done in similar situations, Cialdini said. Those kinds of norms have been very powerful in moving people to conserve energy, recycle and refrain from littering, he said.

“A lot of people call that peer pressure, but we don’t think it’s pressure at all because our neighbors can’t know how much energy we’re using,” Cialdini said. “It’s peer information, not peer pressure.”

Cialdini conducts the majority of his research through studies in the field.

With his colleagues, he’s done research in hotel parking garages, amusement parks and even door-to-door campaigns asking people to reduce their energy consumption. He’s also done research in ASU dormitory lobbies to observe how many students litter their junk mail based on how much litter is in the environment around them, Cialdini said.

“He is one of the most accomplished researchers in our field,” Naomi Mandel, an associate marketing professor for the business school said in an e-mail.

Cialdini and his colleagues have recently done research on energy conservation in several hotels in the Phoenix area. The hotel managers allowed Cialdini to place different signs inside hotel rooms and depending on what the signs said, the colleagues were able to significantly increase the willingness of people to hang up their bath towels.

By simply stating that the majority of guests who stay in the hotel hang up their towels at least once during their stay, Cialdini and his colleagues were able to get 28 percent more people to follow that suggestion.

All of these principles of influence can be used to get people to save energy, Cialdini said.

After many years of research, Cialdini hasn’t run out of energy either. He continues to remain fascinated by influence and how it affects people’s lives, Gorden said.

“He does this because he cares about people and he wants to help people,” she said. “I remain surprised by his continued energy, passion, and perseverance of the science of influence.”

Reach the reporter at daniel.baxley@asu.edu.