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How to influence people through their need for approval

Top social psychologists led by Professor Robert Cialdini have found that a vital key to influencing people is to connect with their deep-seated need to affiliate and receive the approval of others.

Researchers have found that the most successful persuasive strategies trigger one or more of three powerful human motivations:

  1. Making effective decisions efficiently
  2. Affiliating with and gaining the approval of others
  3. Seeing ourselves in a positive light

We are all fundamentally motivated to create and maintain meaningful connections with others. We are all social creatures who want to form bonds with, and gain the approval of others. For instance, think of those people queuing to buy the latest Apple device, or trying to be part of the ‘cool-group’ in high school or the ‘in-crowd’ at the office.

What’s surprising is how often we fail to notice some of the small and subtle ways that connections between others are formed. But we can adjust our approach to achieve big dividends.

An example comes from the norm of reciprocity – people feel obliged to give back the form of behaviour they have first received from others. If a friend invites you to their party, you feel obliged to invite them to a future party of yours. If a neighbour does you a favour, you owe them a favour. This phenomenon applies in the workplace as well.
One study conducted in a large international bank found that when employees decided whether to assist a co-worker on a project they would not be recognized or paid for, they tended to ask themselves, “What has this person done for me lately?” If they could readily think of a situation, they would help. If they could not, they tended to say “No!”

Even though most of us recognize how reciprocity can help to create connections and gain the approval of others, it’s surprising how often businesses get the subtleties wrong. Many cause-related marketers offer to donate to causes their customers consider important if the customers in return purchase or endorse their social media pages. However, these tit-for-tat appeals fail because they don’t engage the rule for reciprocity properly. Why?

For a reciprocity-based attempt to work effectively, a sense of obligation needs to be created before a request is made, not afterwards.

To encourage desirable behaviours by individuals and businesses, you need to contribute first, and in ways that are meaningful and unexpected by recipients. This creates a favourable social obligation that people will want to respond to because doing so will fulfil an underlying and powerful motivation to affiliate and gain the approval of others. The alternative might mean being labelled a moocher, freeloader or dead-beat.

For example, one small change anyone can make to ensure their communication aligns with this powerful urge to affiliate with others is to humanize them more. One study found that when a photograph of a patient was included on a CT scan or X-ray, doctors recommended more caring and attentive treatment. The photograph acted as a cue that focused on the patient as an identifiable individual, rather than one of a faceless group. This small change activated the underlying motivation.

So when pitching for next year’s budget, rather than simply pointing to numbers on a spread sheet, instead show images that identify and individualize people. Saying something like “This is Mary, our head analyst, who together with Jim and Lindsay, will benefit from the system upgrade which accounts for increases in the budget I am submitting” aligns to this fundamental motivation and could make the difference.
It’s a small change, but as persuasion science consistently demonstrates, small changes can lead to big differences.


Martin, S.J, Goldstein, N.J., & Cialdini, R.B. (2014) The Small Big – Small changes that spark big influence. New York. Hachette

Goldstein, N. J., Griskevicius, V., & Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Invoking Social Norms: A Social Psychology Perspective on Improving Hotels’ Linen-Reuse Programs. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 48(2), 145-150.

Wendling, P. (2009). Can a photo enhance a radiologist’s report? Clinical Endocrinology News 4(2), 6-9.


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