Elections Arsenal: The Science of Persuasion


Elections Arsenal: The Science of Persuasion

In general, it’s difficult to persuade people about anything. It’s common for people to dig in their heels when met with opposing opinions, people may already be comfortable with their choices, and people generally don’t like being told what to do. Likewise, all these issues are only intensified when it comes to the topic of politics and especially the election season.

Persuading people about anything, especially about politics, takes a certain finesse—a science if you will. Luckily, the science behind it isn’t that difficult to understand, and it can easily be applied to all sorts of endeavors, from sales, the sciences, and especially politics.

Based on the body of work from American Psychologist, Robert B. Cialdini Ph.D., here are 6 principles on the science of persuasion and some practical tips on how you can apply them in persuading people during elections.

1.   Reciprocity: People tend to return favors

“All societies subscribe to a norm that obligates individuals to repay in kind what they have received. Evolutionary selection pressure has probably entrenched the behavior in social animals such as ourselves.”

In our modern day, we see this a lot. Restaurants, groceries, and even doctors offer free samples, gyms and spas offer one-time free trials, and many other establishments offer something for free. And they keep on doing it because of this effect—increasing the likelihood that they become customers. And even on a personal level, you have probably experienced this feeling too; maybe someone lent you money or let you hitch a ride—and you’ve probably had that same feeling of wanting to repay them. Likewise, favors can come in many different forms, not just in kind, but it could also be acts of service.

Application: Give a favor—then try a pitch

It’s important to point out that it is unethical to hinge someone’s vote on a favor. But the next best thing would be for them to choose your candidate out of their own volition, with a little help of your persuasion. The key is to make people open to being persuaded by doing them a little favor first.

If you’re doing a house-to-house campaign, maybe offer some free snacks or drinks. If you’re pitching to a family member or friend, maybe invite them to get a quick coffee or snack at a convenience store or at some fast-food chain. If you’re willing to go the extra mile, you could even offer some sort of service; perhaps offer them a ride or help them with an errand. In all of these cases, they could be opportunities to ask if they’d be willing to listen to your pitch. And in all of these cases, it’s better than just doing a pitch out of the blue.

Although, be careful not to abuse this. Remember, you are not buying their time; you are giving something away for free regardless of outcome. You can only count on the chance that they would be willing to listen. Likewise, offer something in a way that makes it comfortable for the person to disengage; don’t put them in a situation where they feel like a hostage to your favor.

2.   Consistency: People want to appear consistent

“Those who make public commitments regarding their future actions felt obligated to be consistent with their statements and to live up to their pledges. We have a fundamental human tendency to be and to appear consistent with our actions, statements, and beliefs.”

Imagine, your friend asks you to sign a petition to support human rights—and you go ahead and sign it, thinking nothing of it. Then, in two weeks’ time, that same friend asks you for some monetary contribution to the cause. Do you think you’d give some money? You probably would. In fact, from a similar scenario from Bar-Ilan University in Israel, researchers found that many were actually likely to give because they had already signed the petition. Similarly, imagine if a friend said, “come to my party tonight!”. You’d probably give a non-committal response like “I’ll see”. Alternatively, if that friend asked instead, “Are you coming to my party tonight?”, you’d probably find yourself providing a definitive response right on the spot. In 1998, a similar change of phrasing was also to have led to more committal responses. All in all, although the situations were different, people were similarly made to commit.

Application: Find people’s values—use it as your anchor

The person you’re trying to persuade may have already chosen a candidate. But there’s still a chance that their goals and values align more with your candidate, and that can be your opening. If you really dig into a person’s ideals and frame your candidate’s ideal to be consistent with theirs, they could have a change of heart and realize their internal consistency lies with your candidate. And likewise, make sure you ask them to commit to their own values by choosing your candidate.

The way to employ this strategy is to focus your conversations on personal goals and values, rather than politics or competition. Whoever you may be talking to, ask about their problems and what they value in life. Listen carefully and don’t be afraid to probe for further details. Ask about hardships in life, family problems, financial problems, and even problems of daily life. Don’t be afraid to talk about these topics. In fact, listen carefully because later on, you can use these details as your selling points; connect their goals and values with your chosen candidate’s platforms, then use them as an anchor for them to commit to. Crucially, keep on reminding them about their goals and values.

Moreover, this framing allows you to avoid talking about other candidates, which often leads people to become defensive. Although, it should be noted that asking about people’s aspirations and problems can often cover sensitive and private topics. So, make sure to be respectful while also ensuring confidentiality.

3.   Social proof

“One fundamental way that we decide what to do in a situation is to look at what others are doing or have done there. If many individuals have decided in favor of a particular idea, we are more likely to follow, because we perceive the idea to be more correct, more valid.”

We see this everywhere and it’s commonly used in all sorts of situations. In marketing, we see this with statements like, “9 out of 10 people use this product” and all its other variations. We see this in our personal lives as well. Whenever you see a long line at a restaurant, you probably think it’s good. In a more personal scenario, if you know a lot of people are going to this after-work/school thing, you’d probably feel like you want to go too. And even in odd situations, we’re all easily susceptible to this aspect of our psychology. Imagine you’re walking down a street and see a sizable group of people looking up, you’d probably look up too, even if there wasn’t really anything to look at in the first place.

Application: Peer pressure—just a little

This is one of the most common and straightforward tactics in persuading people. However, it may not be as effective for people who are also supporting a candidate with strong social proof. And in terms of logical soundness, it’s also not the strongest. As such, this strategy should ideally be used as a supplement to the other principles on this list.

For example, you could combine this with the reciprocity principle. If you’re doing a mass audience campaign, aside from approaching people 1-for-1 to give snacks and pitch, you should also find ways for people to approach you. Perhaps have a booth manned with lots of people, make your stall and “favors” enticing, and place it in an easy to reach and high traffic place. Hopefully, many people will approach you and that crowd will serve as social proof.

You could also combine this with the consistency principle. If you’re talking to someone about their goals and values, make sure to mention the many other people just like him/her that have the same goals and values they have—and that they’re also supporting the candidate you’re supporting. In this way, not only will that person be committing to their own goals and values, but to the many others like him.

Remember, this alone is not a strong logical argument. But as a supplement, it can serve as the last push to change a person’s mind.

4.   Authority

“Those touting their experience, expertise or scientific credentials may be trying to harness the power of authority. And for those on the receiving end, in general, we usually want the opinions of true authorities. Their insights help us choose quickly and well.”

Unlike the social proof principle which relies on many people as validation, this is about relying only on one or a few key people as validation. In marketing we see this often with statements like “9 out of 10 experts recommend this product.” Crucially, it’s citing experts, not just the general public. And these statements continue to be used because it works. Likewise, in daily life we subconsciously follow these too. For example, a person crossing the road is suddenly not just any person if they’re wearing a police uniform while waving their hand; our teachers, our parents, and even our religious leaders, we listen to them because of their authority to their respective domains. And even in odd circumstances where expertise is not even present, this still applies; research from the University of Texas in 1955 found that you’re more likely to jaywalk if you follow a man in a suit versus someone in plain clothes.

Application: Best foot forward—or put someone else forward

This is one of the more straightforward, yet also most powerful principles to apply.

Simply, if you yourself are going to pitch, make sure you present yourself as an expert. Similar to the aspect of “being presentable” which you’ll read in the next principle, you should also make sure that you’re wearing the appearance of authority when you pitch. And if you’re conducting a mass audience campaign, it would even be ideal if someone with actual credentials pitches on your behalf. Although, be careful to actually pick a spokesperson that people will recognize as someone with authority as not all figures of authority are universally recognized.  

Either way, an authority figure also increases the likelihood that the other principles will be received well. “Favors” are reciprocated more to people of authority, commitments are kept more often to people of authority, claims of “social proof” are more likely to be believed when coming from people of authority, and so on.

Relatedly, this principle should be used with care; people can easily be led by people who pose as authority figures, even if they’re not really one. Naturally, you or your spokesperson should actually have expertise and not just present as one.

5.   Liking

“Words like ‘affinity, ‘rapport’ and ‘affection’ all describe a feeling of connection between people. But the simple word that ties these all together is ‘liking’. And in general, people are inclined to favor and to comply with those whom they like.”

There are mainly 4 reasons why people like someone:

Being attractive is one of them; our psychology often leads us to believe that attractive people also have other positive qualities such as kindness and intelligence. In fact, people are more likely to vote for more attractive politicians, proven in Canada’s 1974 elections. And on a personal level, you probably like musicians and actors who are more attractive, even if they don’t have anything to do with their occupation.

Being similar is the second; having something in common with another person, no matter how shallow, can create an instant connection. You might have had this happen to you before; maybe you just met someone and found out went to the same school as you, or perhaps lived in the same area as you, and instantly had a connection.

Being cooperative is the third; it’s all about working together towards a common goal, and this even works on people who dislike you. For example, a study found that after working on a common goal, children became more affectionate to each other even if prior to the activity, they disliked each other. Likewise, in our daily life, it’s difficult to hate someone who is helping us.

Being liked back is the fourth; and it doesn’t even have to be genuine. This is most often done through compliments. Research from the University of North Carolina found that people liked those who complimented them with accurate details—just as much as those who complimented them with inaccurate details. In daily life as well, we take all the compliments we get, we don’t usually think bad of inaccurate praise. So, it never hurts to give it out.

Application: Best foot forward—or put someone else forward (part 2)

The first, second, and fourth aspects can easily be applied as occasions arise.

Make sure to be friendly and courteous, not forgetting to incorporate compliments. However, be sure to not go overboard. Also, try to look your best, but of course consider the setting. If you’re conducting a mass audience campaign, it could even be a good idea to get an attractive and well-known spokesperson on your behalf.

Also, no matter how shallow, try to find even some common ground with the person/audience you’re pitching too. Perhaps tug on more personal and cultural things like religion or place of birth. Or ideally, you could also just have someone who already has these commonalities with your target person/audience. Crucially, you could also find some commonalities in the form of goals and values—creating an opportunity where you could also apply the consistency principle.

Now, the third aspect may be difficult to utilize since it’s not often the case that you can find a common goal to work towards right before you’re about to persuade someone. Instead, this could come into play when you’re pitching to someone you’ve already worked with in the past. If possible, maybe even have someone pitch on your behalf, someone who has worked that person/audience to a greater degree.

6.   Scarcity

“In general, items and opportunities that are in short supply or unavailable tend to be more desirable to consumers than are those items that are plentiful and more accessible. Likewise, as opportunities become less available, we lose freedoms—and whenever our freedoms are threatened, we attempt to reassert our free choice.”

Online shopping ads often use this with things like limited time offers or limited supply items. Examples like Black Friday sales and limited collection sneakers are notorious for getting people to spend. And even scenarios least expected, this principle still affects us. For instance, a study from Florida State University in 1970 found that students rated their cafeteria food higher—simply because it was announced that they wouldn’t be able to get them for a week; knowing that it would be unavailable made it more desirable. Likewise in our daily lives, we might feel lucky to have gotten that last slice of pizza or that last seat in the shuttle, in large part because it was the last one.

Application: Make people feel the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

In politics and the elections in general, this principle is not often used, but it’s actually quite a powerful persuader. So, do still talk about what one has to gain from voting for your candidate, but also don’t forget to talk about what one would miss if that candidate doesn’t get elected.

This could even be used in combination with the consistency principle; remind them about their commitments to their goals and values and circle back that, not only will their ideals be achieved when your candidate gets elected, also frame it in such a way that their ideals will not likely be achieved if your candidate doesn’t get elected.

Moreover, as someone campaigning for your candidate, you should be an expert on your candidate; provide your audience with enticing information that’s not widely available—and make sure you also frame that information as something not widely available. After all, the scarcity principle isn’t limited to just material goods, but it can also apply to information. In this case, not only are you activating the principle of authority, but it also makes people value that piece of information more since you framed it as scarce, only being known by you, and now your audience. And in that same manner, it can also seem like you’ve done them a favor, thus also touching on the reciprocity principle.

Although, be careful not to label everything as scarce. Similar to the principle of authority, people can be persuaded, even if the claim is untrue. So, only frame it in this manner if it is true.

Parting thoughts

If we are to look at these principles through the lens of the rhetorical triangle, we can notice that they are mostly appeals to emotion and authority, rather than logic. And although those 2 are important factors in decision making, a logical component is still necessary and these 2 alone are not sufficient ground for choosing our politicians. However, what is important is that these strategies do help ideas get heard, especially during difficult conversations. And hopefully, once ideas have been heard, it leads to more sound decision making and voting all around.


Cialdini, R. B. (2001). The science of persuasion. Scientific American, 284(2), 76-81. Retrievedfrom https://digitalwellbeing.org/downloads/CialdiniSciAmerican.pdf

Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2002). The science and practice of persuasion. Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, 43(2), 40-50. Retrieved fromhttps://www.influenceatwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Cornell-HotelRestAdminQrtly.pdf

Cialdini, R. B. (2004). The science of persuasion. Scientific American Mind, 14(1), 70-77. Retrieved from http://economicvision.com/Content/The%20Science%20of%20Persausion.pdf

Written by Darrion Roger Dacanay Galit, writer and human rights advocate.

This piece is part of a series of articles by youth leaders of Heroes Hub Youth FellowshipIt seeks to advocate for the youth’s vision and concerns towards a rights-based governance agenda in the May 2022 elections and beyond.

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.