Nov
24
2002

The Pyramid Scheme

I just finished reading Robert Cialdini’s “Influence”. It’s a book about six basic behavioral principles that can be used to influence people.

So it was with great interest that I engaged in a conversation with Stephen, a gentleman sitting next to me on my Southwest flight to New York. He offered me some drink coupons and then tried to sell me some air treatment equipment.

Instantly, I my radar beeped. Give a gift to someone and he’ll generally feel the need to give in return. (Chapter 2, “Reciprocation: The Old Give and Take…and Take”)

He even added that the air treatment equipment offer would end in a few days. Emphasize how rare something is, and it will seem more valuable. (Chapter 7, “Scarcity: The Rule of the Few”)

Then he gave me his card, inquired into what I did, and expressed an interest in hiring independent contractors. My eyes lit when he said he was interested in hiring freelancers. He asked for my card and I made the mistake of giving it to him. (I didn’t believe it was a mistake until later, of course—I thought he was only an air treatment equipment salesman who needed a web site.)

After he established a rapport with me, peppered compliments throughout our conversation. People are generally more susceptible to people they like, and flattery can get you anywhere. (Chapter 5, “Liking: The Friendly Thief”)

“I can tell you’re an intelligent young man. You’ve got a great future ahead of you. I can tell you how you can make hundreds of thousands, easily.”

He pulled out several charts and brochures. They listed dozens of examples of how his distributed marketing business (basically, a pyramid scheme) could make me rich. Stephen even told me about a “partner” of his in San Jose and how hundreds of others in California are doing this right now.

“Hundreds of intelligent young men just like you are getting rich right now.” People are more apt to do something if many others are doing it too. (Chapter 4, “Social Proof: Truths Are Us”)

It was interesting to hear these how he was using every influential behavioral principle in the book. I wonder if he had read it too.

He described to me a rather polished and formal looking pyramid scheme. The color brochures and practiced speech made it sound even more legitimate. He himself was, in fact, one of the organization’s most successful and knowledgeable members, he told me.

And if I were to join, he, an experienced authority, would personally teach me. People will generally follow those in authority. (Chapter 6, “Authority: Directed Deference”)

Finally, he had me write a list of luxurious goals and dreams (like which sports cars I’d like to own and how many vacations I’d like to have).

“You would like to achieve these dreams someday, right? If I told you I had a guaranteed way to help you reach these dreams, you’d be interested, right? Now what if I told you that all you needed to do to start was to attend one of our seminars for only six measly dollars, you would, right? What’s six dollars, a lunch? Wouldn’t you trade a day’s lunch in order to make hundreds of thousands of dollars in one year’s time?”

By committing to part of an behavior, many people will continue the rest of the behavior in order to act consistently. (Chapter 3, “Commitment and Consistency: Hobgoblins of the Mind”)

It was a very fascinating discussion. After the plane landed, I thanked him and left. As soon as I reached my house, I pulled out Cialdini’s “Influence” and leafed through it.

Wow. Stephen sure gave me a great presentation of the principles in practical use. He probably thought I was thanking him for this “opportunity” to get rich, when I was really thanking him for this cool demonstration of Influence.

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