This well-known 17th century philosopher developed a Personal Influence Defence System.
So should you.
“De Omnibus Dubitandum” [Doubt everything]René Descartes
My use of his quote may sound overly cynical to you but maintain full awareness that, on any given day, you will be subjected to myriad influencing attempts by others. Likewise, you will frequently attempt to apply your influence upon others.
In a positive and wholesome way, I’m trying to influence you right now.
There is only one of “you” and many of “them.” Influence has a high inbound bias.
This article is about understanding what influence is and how you can begin to defend yourself against unwanted and/or unnoticed influencing attempts by other people or organisations.
BTW – if you prefer an audio version of this article, I’ve included one right at the end.
What is influence and why should you care?
Let’s move forward with a simple working definition of influence:
Influence, or influencing, is the ability to affect or change another’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours without using force or formal authority.
There are two terms which are used frequently when exploring the topic of influence and they are very useful:
Agents and Targets
Agents are those attempting to apply influence and targets are the recipients of an agent’s influencing attempt.
An agent attempts to get others to do things by showing that there is a real and genuine advantage to them in moving in the direction you want.
The term “advantage” can mean an attraction to a positive outcome or the avoidance of a negative one.
As a somewhat simplistic example, banks often try to influence people to save their hard-earned money with them by highlighting the advantage of future gains and avoidance of potential penury. The bank is the agent here and the potential saver is the target.
The real world is more complicated, complex, and nuanced. The agent to target relationship can be very fluid and dynamic but it operates regardless of scale and context.
The reason you should care about influence is that it is everywhere. It is all around you. You are a constant target to the legion of agents out there.
I have an image in mind of the millions of “Agent Smiths” which the hero Neo had to fight in the Matrix movie trilogy. It works for me, and I really enjoy the movies. They’re well worth a watch if you haven’t seen them yet.
In my experience, a Personal Influence Defence System is an essential tool in your toolkit of life.
Attention is the currency of modern life
There is a war raging and the fight is all about attention. Your attention. My attention. Everyone’s attention. As a result, you must be always on your guard.
We only have so much attention to go round. It is a valuable commodity. You need it to run your own life so don’t give it up too easily. Hence the idea of a Personal Influence Defence System.
Many people and organisations want your money. Others want your support or vote. More and more people and organisations want to bring you round to their agenda or their way of thinking. I’m sure you can think of a few more examples.
They are trying to influence you and they need your valuable attention to do it.
Types of influence
Benign or pseudo-benign influence
Some influence is benign, or at least appears to be benign. Many people around you will mean well and genuinely want the best for you.
However, their influence is not always good for you or even wanted at all.
For example, family members want you to take a certain career path which you don’t want to take.
I can mostly ignore this type of pseudo-benign influence unless it gets overly onerous or aggressive but not everyone is as resilient as me
A lot of influence is simply neutral. It will pass you by unnoticed and have no effect on you.
For example, advertisements for shampoo don’t influence me because I shave my head and therefore have no hair to shampoo.
As a side note, advertisements do annoy me intensely as a generally life intruding concept. Part of my initial PIDS activity was to work on letting this annoyance go. However, I discovered that the annoyance I feel is actually a very good trigger to initiate my PIDS and keep me from becoming complacent. I do have to work very hard to avoid vocalising my annoyance in deference to those around me.
A significant proportion of the influencing attempts directed at you will be harmful if you engage with them.
For example, phishing attempts by internet fraudsters who often fake entire banking websites to trap the unwary into parting with bank sign-in details and then their money.
For me, these malign approaches are the main reason to create my Personal Influence Defence System. I’m keenly aware that the internet is chock full of criminals out to fleece the unwary. Cybersecurity is fighting a losing battle, so I must protect myself as far as possible.
What is a Personal Influence Defence System or PIDS
My version of PIDS comprises basic critical thinking skills and a healthy level of scepticism.
My default position is always, “This is trying to influence me in some way. Why should I allow or agree to this?”
You might believe me to be overly cynical or even paranoid, but this approach has saved me money and embarrassment on many occasions.
I love author Joseph Heller’s quote from his beautifully satirical book Catch-22
“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”Joseph Heller, Catch-22
As I’ve already mentioned, I discovered that annoyance of advertisements in general and fear of being scammed is more than enough to keep my PIDS detectors active.
You are a unique individual so your PIDS will be different. It’s not called a Personal Influence Defence System for nothing.
Yours will have a different form, intensity, and way of operating. There will always be some basic similarities but the key for you is to go your own way.
Don’t let me influence you too much after the initial push.
Start with the critical thinking basics
For me, the foundation is always the six critical thinking question starter words:
Framing your questions using these six roots will serve you well and may be all you need.
You don’t need to apply all six question starter types to every influencing situation you encounter. You can also ask the same question starter multiple times in any enquiry.
Often using just one or two will highlight relevant issues and provide you with a way forward.
They are all very powerful and useful tools for your Personal Influence Defence System toolbox.
Coupled with a healthy dose of scepticism they make a great starting point.
A few practical examples might help.
Some Personal Influence Defence System usecase examples using Robert Cialdini’s “6 Principles of Influence”
Professor Robert Cialdini is an American psychologist. His book “The Psychology of Persuasion” details his six principles of Influence which are:
- Commitment or consistency
- Consensus or social proof
I can highly recommend reading it.
Note that many of the agents who are trying to target you will have read this book and learned from many more excellent sources besides. You should educate yourself to give your defences the best chance of working well for you.
It’s an influencing battlefield out there and you don’t want to get caught in the crossfire.
Here are some brief examples of how I might analyse influence attempts based on each of the Cialdini influencing categories. I’ll use the basic Personal Influence Defence System tools we’ve looked at so far.
A great place to start is by noticing any advertisements or marketing materials which catch your attention. Analyse why this might be happening. What can you do to mitigate the effects?
Reciprocity and your Personal Influence Defence System
Reciprocity essentially means the strong human desire to return favours and to not be in any kind of social debt.
If someone you don’t know too well offers you a substantial “gift” it might be wise to be initially sceptical and apply your Personal Influence Defence System questioning skills.
Who are they? Why are they doing this? What might they want from me? What might happen to me later if I accept this gift right now? And so on and so forth.
They may be on the level, but these few questions might well lead you to say, “thanks but no thanks” and save you a lot of grief down the line.
Commitment or Consistency and your Personal Influence Defence System
For the most part, if we commit to something we try to stick to it and we generally want to be seen as being consistent in our behaviours.
For me, this one is not dissimilar to reciprocity.
Accepting small “free” gifts from strangers or organisations can lead people into trouble by accepting larger ones later.
This can also happen with behaviours, opinions, and self-image.
For example, if you initially donate a small amount to a charity you may find, if that charity takes an aggressive stance on fundraising, that you are asked for more and more. They will make a big thing about you being such a “charitable person” and because of this tactic you may find it hard to refuse for fear of being thought of or seen as uncharitable.
Many charities are big corporate businesses nowadays with high salaried executives to maintain. They thrive on understanding powerful influencing techniques and getting the most from their targets.
So, before you donate you might benefit from asking some questions and doing some research.
What is this charity’s approach to fundraising? How many complaints have been raised against them? What percentage of donated money reaches the intended cause? Where is the head office? How much personal information are they taking? When did they begin operating? What better alternatives for charity donation might there be? And so on and so forth.
Consensus or Social Proof and your Personal Influence Defence System
We humans generally like to feel we fit in. We generally also like to feel others share our tastes and good judgement. It is very difficult sometimes to go against the wishes of the groups and systems we are part of.
If we see our friends, or people we admire, doing something or using a certain product we are often drawn to do it or use it too.
Marketers often uses tactics such as expert or celebrity endorsement, user testimonials, big business client lists, press reviews and/or social media reach to add perceived value to products or services. These are powerful tactics.
For example, suppose you are considering one product over another. One of the products is more expensive but a favourite celebrity is endorsing it and they have lots of testimonial comments on display. This might make it appear very attractive and even worth the extra money.
Time to put your Personal Influence Defence System questions to good use.
How much money is the celebrity earning? How much is my liking of the celebrity clouding my judgement? What would the lack of a celebrity endorser mean to my decision? How much of the purchase price is being used to cover the advertising cost? Who are the testimonials from? How much can I trust them? What are the merits of the non-celebrity endorsed product when compared on a like for like basis? Why do they need to use a celebrity at all? And so on and so forth.
You might still go ahead and buy it but at least you’ve done some due diligence.
Authority and your Personal Influence Defence System
People or organisations with “authority” wield significant influence because they instil confidence that expertise and/or deep experiential knowledge is in play. People tend to trust them as a default position. Think doctors, police officers, judges, scientists, and so on.
Is this wise nowadays? I’ll leave you to decide on that on for yourself.
If your doctor offers to prescribe a certain drug for you have an immediate choice.
You can either accept the prescription at face value because you trust your doctor implicitly or you can be sceptical and ask your doctor a lot of questions instead.
Why this drug and not others? Who else benefits from my taking this drug? How much will it cost? What are possible side-effects? Where can I find independent reports about this drug’s efficacy? What non-drug alternatives might exist? When will I be able to stop taking it? How much stock am I placing in the doctor’s genuine authority? Where might I find a second or third opinion? And so on and so forth.
You can ask all these questions and more to become an informed individual. It’s your body and health after all.
Liking and your Personal Influence Defence System
We generally like people who are like us. It’s an evolutionary tribal thing. If we feel a connection with someone, we tend to trust them more.
It’s also long been known by marketers that likeable and attractive people sell more products.
So, if a salesperson is spending more time trying to create an atmosphere of friendship with fawning flattery and bonhomie, rather than letting you inspect the product they’re trying to sell you, it may be time to be sceptical.
An oft used sales tactic is asking a question about holidays for example, then instantly telling the customer, “Oh! I’ve been there and …” or “My friend/relative went there and …”
Run through some Personal Influence Defence System questions. Why do I like this person I’ve only just met so much? How much is my liking of them clouding my practical judgement? How likely would I be to buy this product or service if I didn’t like them so much? And so on and so forth.
Scarcity and your Personal Influence Defence System
FOMO is an interesting new phrase/acronym. It stands for Fear Of Missing Out.
FOMO is the main lever being used when a person or organisation tries to influence with a scarcity approach.
For example, “Only two left in stock. Buy now!” or “You’ll never see this product at this price again and stock is low.”
These and similar statements are crude but often highly effective. We can experience an almost instant desire to snap something up before anyone else does. We don’t want to lose a good opportunity to buy something we like.
Time to put your Personal Influence Defence System into action.
Why do I really want this item or service? What will it do for me? Where might other similar or better items be available with less urgency? What would happen if I didn’t have it? What would my desire level be like if I waited a week or a month? And so on and so forth.
I’ve purchased many unwanted items and services over the years because of the scarcity effect. Be vigilant.
Begin to develop your own Personal Influence Defence System
Start with yourself. Take some time to become more self-aware because your attitude, preferences and personality all have an impact on your susceptibility to influencing attempts.
Seek some warts and all feedback from people you trust.
Are you a tough nut to crack or a pushover?
A great place to start is by noticing any advertisements, marketing materials or interpersonal interactions which catch and hold your attention. Analyse why this might be happening. If they’re problematic to you, what can you do to mitigate the effects?
Start to educate yourself about the psychology and science of influence. Many great books and other resources are out there. The legions of agents out there will be doing just that. Ignorance of the power of influence is no defence and leaves you vulnerable to the many nefarious forces out there.
Lastly, if you know someone who is very good at resisting influence why not ask them to provide some mentoring for you. It’s an excellent way to pick up these kinds of skills.
Over to you
The word “Personal” in the phrase Personal Influence Defence System is super-important.
It’s personal to you. Everyone influences, and is likewise affected by influence, in unique ways.
There are crossovers and similarities for sure, but you are a unique human being.
Your experience and application of influence is unique to you.
I’m also a unique human being, so my PIDS only works best for me.
So, start to create your own Personal Influence Defence System which works best for you.
Research, observe, experiment, practice, analyse feedback, self-educate, etc…
The key point is action.
If you don’t act and do something different, everything will stay the same.
Until it doesn’t.
That’s all for this one
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PPS Here is the audio version of this article if you would prefer to listen.