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Factors Underlying Cialdini's Six Principles


Techniques General persuasion > Cialdini's Six Principles > Factors Underlying Cialdini's Six Principles

Common forces | Principles | Summary | See also


Robert Cialdini's six principles of influence are long established and widely used. However, it is possible to dig deeper into these and look for factors and needs on which these are based. This gives another lens to understand them and also a way to explore further principles of persuasion.

Common forces

Underlying Cialdini's principles are common human forces that act on us and drive how we think and behave. In particular, we have deep needs that drive us and much of what we do is intended to either satisfy these needs or avoid the discomfort felt when the needs are negatively affected.

The following factors were hence derived by looking backwards from the six principles to basic needs, in particular through the lens of the CIA Needs Model, and triangulating on social factors that seem to be of particular significance. They can be further grouped into three sets:

  • Control and identity as key underlying needs
  • Social dependence, conformance and comparison as critical social forces that affect multiple principles
  • Trust as key factor within several principles

Control: The need to understand and predict

The need for a sense of control leads us to seek to understand the world around us through the development and adoption of beliefs and models that help to explain how the world works. With this knowledge, we can predict the future, and what we can do to change things.

When predictions and consequent expectations are not met, we feel cognitive dissonance and a loss of control.

Social dependence

We do not have time to learn everything through experience (which may also be hazardous). We also may lack the power to effect control by ourselves.

We hence depend on others for knowledge and support. This provides a key lever that is used in influence. For example, disturbing a person's sense of control creates fear of harm and leads them to seek help.

Identity: Our sense of who we are

We all have a need for a sense of identity, which includes our beliefs and models about ourselves and the values we believe we follow. We also see ourselves through the eyes of others, as well as the groups to which we belong, along with the esteem given to us by others and our consequent social status. In this way, we socially construct our selves.

When there is a lack of alignment between these factors, we feel dissonance and a confusion of identity.

Social conformance

Evolution has taught us that living in groups with others is more effective than living alone. However, for groups to survive, we must cede control and follow the rules of social norms in order to sustain membership.

Key social rules include those for fairness (including helping the vulnerable and repaying debts) and obedience.

When people do not follow these rules, they create a sense of betrayal and may well be punished, for example by being socially criticized or ostracized. This leads to a loss of identity, which is so horrifying a thought, most people work hard to stay within social rules.

While we may prefer the control given by independence, there are situations where conformance becomes more important. Some persuasive methods act to increase pressure to conform to rules that the persuader implies are critical.

Social comparison

We identify our position in society and hence our sense of identity by comparing ourselves with others.

In this comparison, we decide whether we are cleverer, superior or otherwise better than other people. This affects both our sense of identity (eg. I am higher status) and our sense of control (eg. I can command rather than obey).


One of the key factors that enables us to work with others is trust, which is a great social lubricant and reduces transaction cost.

We trust people who are honest, reliable, fair and caring. But in the short term we have little evidence for this, so we base decisions on similarity, including similarity to ourselves and similarity to other people we trust, from friends to people in authority.



Principle: We feel obliged to give back to people who have given to us.

Factors: obligation, fairness, trust, social conformance

Needs: identity, control, belonging

Reciprocity is based on the social conformance of obligation, the requirement to fulfil the promises that we make and the duties that social norms dictate.

Reciprocity is also driven by the common social norm of fairness, that in living together, we practice equality, where each has the same share. Hence if you give me something, I feel obliged to give you something in return.


Principle: We seek to align what we do, say, think, and believe

Factors: models, alignment, social conformance

Needs: control, predictability, identity, belonging

If we act in ways that do not align with our sense of identity, then we feel conflicted and out of sorts. We may think 'I am the sort of person who does not...' and when we actually do it, we feel the inner tension of dissonance.

This leads us to try and keep our inner system in alignment with what we do. We cannot change the past, so we may feel we should change what we think about ourselves.

We also seek to conform with social norms and align with explicit expectations. In this, it can seem better to change how we think and who we are rather than face the wrath resulting from social non-conformance.

Social Proof

Principle: We copy what others do, especially when we are unsure

Factors: control, confusion, social dependence, identity, social conformance

Needs: identity, belonging, control

We build our sense of control through models and patterns, many of which we get from other people. When we are not sure about something, it is natural to turn to others to see things from their viewpoint. We hence become more dependent on others in situations of uncertainty.

Our sense of identity is tightly connected with others and conformance to social norms. When we are uncertain we fear that we might act in ways that leads to social criticism. This also acts to


Principle: We tend to agree with people we like

Factors: trust, similarity, social conformance

Needs: identity, connection

Within social systems we build closer social ties with people we like as we create the closer relationships of friendship. A key element of this is the value of trust in reducing transaction cost.

In the short term, we use similarity (to us or people we trust) to assess the likeability of people, along with indications that they mean no harm and may actively help us. This is used in influence by people who smile and act in friendly ways before making their requests.


Principle: We must agree with, and do what we are told by those in authority

Factors: social conformance, trust, social dependence

Needs: control

A benefit of society is division of work, where individuals can develop deep skills in certain areas. This means depending on others who are more knowledgeable than us in other fields. We hence learn to defer to experts.

Another aspect of society is hierarchies of control, where people higher up the chain of command must be obeyed by those lower down. Again, we conform with

We identify authorities by indicators including their dress, attitude and speech. These factors are often used by people who seek to create the appearance of authority in order to influence others.


Principle: We want what we might not be able to get in future

Factors: control, social comparison

Needs: control, identity

When we have the opportunity to acquire something, we consider both current and future need. If we do not need it now, we consider future availability and experience anticipated regret should it not be available. This discomfort can lead us to seeking to acquire the item, even if we are unsure if we will ever need it.

We also consider the scenario of other people having the item when we do not and the consequent status impact. The though of this social imbalance can amplify our desire to acquire.


We can now compare the impact of needs and social factors on Cialdini's influence factors (by simple observation).

Inner needs

In the table below, the number of 'X's indicate the perceived strength of the factors identified.

Principle Control Identity
Reciprocity X XX
Consistency X XXX
Social proof XXX  
Liking   XXX
Authority XXX  
Scarcity XXX XX


There seems a roughly even amount of influence of the need for control and for identity across the six principles, although these are divided such that:

  • Reciprocity, consistency and liking are more identity based.
  • Social proof, authority and scarcity are based more in the need for a sense of control.

Social forces

In the table below, the number of 'X's indicate the perceived strength of the factors identified.

Principle Dependence Conformance Comparison Trust
Reciprocity   XXX   XX
Consistency   XX XX  
Social proof XXX XXX   XX
Liking   XX XX XXX
Authority XXX XXX   XX
Scarcity     XXX  


Here, there is also spread of factors across the principles. Observed similarities include:

  • Social proof and authority seem similar in their use of dependence, conformance and trust.
  • Reciprocity and liking are similar in their use of conformance and trust, although liking includes some comparison.
  • Consistency and liking are similar in the use of conformance and comparison, although liking has an additional trust component.
  • Scarcity is unique in being based firmly in social comparison (it can also have a significant non-social element).

Other notes include:

  • Social dependence appears as significant only in two principles, but is highly important in these.
  • Social conformance is common and often important in five out of the six principles, and hence appears to be the most important factor.
  • Social comparison appears in half the principles and is hence important, though not the most important factor.
  • Trust slightly different, in being a precursor to agreement, but seems very important in four out of the six principles.

Other factors

Other factors that may affect how we are influenced include:

  • Self-image: If we define ourselves more internally than through others, then the social power of Cialdini's methods is reduced.
  • Self-awareness: When we see ourselves being influenced, we may consciously block this effect.
  • Concern for the views of others: How significantly we are concerned about what others think will change how we decide.

In other words, the power of Cialdini's methods, while well-proven in the general case, may vary significantly in efficacy across individuals, particularly where they are less influenced by other people in their decisions. This can happen when they are more rational in their thinking and where they are more self-oriented.

See also

Beliefs, Values, Needs, Models, Motivation, Personality


Cialdini, R. (1984). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, New York: Quill


Note: This article is a reasoned analysis based on experience, reading and understanding. It is not intended as an academic paper. If you are interested exploring further in this area, please do contact the author.


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