[Excerpt] Robert Cialdini's book, Influence (Cialdini, 1984), has counseled countless readers on the art and science of persuasion. Some have read the book looking for tips on how to become more persuasive, while others have flipped the pages searching for clues on how to protect themselves from persuasive attempts. Whatever they are hoping to find, readers come away with a similar emotional response. Almost without exception, their common reaction is a feeling of surprise. Scan the reviews of Influence available online and you will be told in clear detail about a strong sense of shock, awe, and amazement, all centered around how gullible people seem, how transparent effective persuasion tools are, and how willing we all may be to say "yes" to a clever phrasing of a direct request.
The effects described in Influence are indeed surprising, but, at the same time, they are also empowering to the casual reader. They verify that tools of persuasion are not possessed exclusively by individuals with unique skills and rare talents; instead, they are simple and subtle approaches to presenting a decision so that others will feel compelled to comply. These tools can be understood, customized, and implemented by anyone—not just used car dealers, door-to-door salesmen, and brand advertisers. In short, what is particularly surprising about Cialdini's book is not his compelling description of how people can be easily influenced, but how easy it may be for each of us to become influential ourselves. If we appreciate the pressure that others face when deciding whether to agree with our requests for help, we may be in a much better position to get help.
This insight has inspired our own research on the topic of help-seeking and compliance. Specifically, we have examined the extent to which people are aware of the most basic weapon of influence—making a direct request for help. Given that we regularly ask people for help or are subject to help requests ourselves, we should be fairly accurate in estimating the likelihood that others will say "yes" to a direct request. However, our research tells a different story—one that suggests people are woefully inaccurate when it comes to predicting others' helpfulness. Rather than give people the benefit of the doubt, most of us wrongly assume that others will say "no" in response to our requests (e.g., to buy a box of cookies or to write a letter of recommendation). In the sections that follow, we describe this systematic bias, highlight its potential utility, and address some of its adverse consequences.