At my old job, I worked for a partner who everyone knew was terrible to work for. Every day, he left at 5:00pm exactly to catch the 5:20 train from Grand Central to Connecticut. He’d eat dinner with his family – lucky guy – then begin working again around 9:00pm. I’d wait in the office until about 10:00pm to see what would happen, often to find out (of course) some urgent task was due by the morning.
The question is, how did they keep me there? Who would tolerate it? It wasn’t the money – by the hour, I made no more than $30 hourly. They kept me there because they are masters of manipulation.
In 1984, Robert Cialdini published the now-classic Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. In it, he published the results of his studies of the “compliance professionals” in sales and marketing. Cialdini identified six core principles of persuasion that get you to say “yes.” These principles form the foundation of influence – and your job uses them to manipulate you.
Reciprocation is the idea that we have to repay someone who has done us a so-called favor, even if we didn’t actually want that favor. It’s automatic. The exchange doesn’t even have to be equal; our repayment is often bigger than the initial gift.
Cialdini provides the example of the Hare Krishna cult to illustrate the unfair nature of the exchange. Hare Krishna members used to stand in airports and hand out small gifts, like a flower, to travelers. An airport is a bad place to solicit donations. People are rushed and distracted. But the strategy still worked: asking for donations was consistently more successful after Hare Krishna members pressed a flower into travelers’ hands. People were forced to take something they didn’t even want, and the principle of reciprocation took hold.
Law firms force the equivalent of flowers into their targets’ hands. The gifts begin in law school – awkward cocktail parties during recruitment season, ugly branded fleece jackets during finals, even blankets. They’re just tchotchkes that gather dust until thrown away when students move out of their dorms.
The gifts continue at the law firm. They lavish associates with free dinners, cocktail parties, and car service. My department had a biweekly drinks night, where the lounge was stocked with greasy food and beer. I’d rather have just gone home if I were able to. We’d more often than not have to work afterward anyway.
Even this awful thing – cheap, greasy food with people I wanted to avoid – created a sense of obligation. It was the principle of reciprocation at work, influencing me to repay the firm, even though I didn’t even want the “gifts” from the law firm.
The principle of reciprocation makes you give more effort and work late to repay the gifts. Even mentally, it makes you more susceptible to buying into the firm’s messaging. Your efforts are worth more than the cheap gifts from your company, but the reciprocation still influences you.
Commitment and Consistency
The principle of commitment and consistency states that we strive to act consistently with how we’ve acted in the past. This holds true even if that prior action isn’t something we value any more, and it’s especially strong when the prior actions were public. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Salespeople often secure a large purchase by first getting a target to commit to a small purchase. The point of the small purpose isn’t profit; it’s commitment. Beyond business, the principle of commitment explains initiation rites in fraternities. The more effort someone puts into obtaining something (like going through a painful hazing process to become a member of a fraternity, or passing the bar exam to become a lawyer), the more someone values it, and the greater is its ability to influence the person’s behavior.
The small purchases come first. We strive to be the top of our high school class, then top of our college class. We join honors clubs and get good grades on exams. By themselves, these actions don’t make us susceptible to law firms’ efforts at persuasion, but they are the small purchases that lay the groundwork for the large purchases later. They’re also powerful because they’re made in public. We get praised for our good results.
Then when faced with further actions – the large purchases – we strive to act consistently with how we’ve acted in the past. The large purchases as a student are being top of our law school class and getting chosen by the most prestigious law firm. As a young lawyer, they’re billing the highest number of hours and being the last to leave the office. You want to be consistent, so “you become the sort of person that does this sort of thing.”
Acting consistently with our prior actions just conveniently happens to align with the goals of the institutions in power. We want to be consistent with our giving in to requests of authority in the past.
I didn’t care about the arcane details of some private equity acquisition, but I still stayed up late, responding to emails at all hours. I saw myself as a conscientious, hardworking person. I was the sort of person who did that sort of thing.
We use what others like to figure out what we like. It’s most powerful when we’re observing the behavior of people similar to us. When we’re unsure, we look to our social group for proof.
Native American tribes relied on social proof when hunting buffalo in North America. They would concentrate on driving only a few buffalo, the leaders of the herd, off a cliff. The rest of the herd followed the leaders, and the hunters wound up with a huge bounty by only focusing on a few buffalo. The buffalo relied on social proof – what were the leaders doing? – to decide what to do, to their loss.
We’re that herd of buffalo looking at our peers to figure out what to do. We continue to follow them off the cliff into expensive law schools and MBA programs. After all, that’s what people like us do, right? The opaque nature of grading and success in law school only intensifies the social proof effect for those three years. It continues in the law firm. Other employees accept the long hours, unpredictability, and humiliation. So we do too.
Cialdini calls the principle of liking “the friendly thief.” At its most basic, we’re more inclined to say yes to people we know and like. It’s obvious, but its power is strong, and the more similar we are to the people asking something of us, the stronger it is.
Tupperware parties rely on the principle of liking to a high degree. The participants play games, socialize, and eat and drink. But eventually, the request – the sales pitch – is made. It’s not made by a professional salesperson, but by the party’s host, who’s friends with all the participants. The social bond makes it much more likely that the targets will buy Tupperware.
The friendly thief robs us our decision-making power when we decide to go to law school or join a law firm. Our friends are all making the same decision, so it makes it more likely that we’ll decide to do the same thing, similar to the principle of social proof. Often we don’t even realize it.
Also powerful is the fake cooperation where superiors pretend to be on your side. It’s like buying a new car. The salesperson pretends to work with us by going back to the sales manager, negotiating a price that’s best for us. The salesperson promises that they want us to get the best deal too. Of course, this is blatantly false: the salesperson and sales manager have interests aligned against yours; they want the highest price and you want the lowest. But they rely on the principle of liking to get you to say yes.
The same can be seen in organizations like law firms. The senior associate pretends to be the friend of the junior associate, negotiating with the partner for less work, the chance to go home and have a life, et cetera. But what they’re actually selling the junior associate is to work harder, work longer, attend another conference call, and give up sleep. The partner is the sales manager, and the senior associate is the salesperson.
Your goals are not their goals, but they rely on the friendly thief to convince you otherwise.
Simply, we comply with authority. When we’re unsure, to look to experts to light the way. Even the mere appearance of authority is sufficient; often, we don’t bother to check the credentials of someone with the air of authority.
The classic example of compliance with authority is the Stanley Milgram shock experiment from 1961. Professor Milgram directed participants to administer an electric shock every time a “learner” – really, a volunteer pretending to be shocked – gave an incorrect answer to questions posed by the experiment subjects. Following the authority of the researchers, participants administered progressively more dangerous electric shocks to the learners. Participants submitted to authority, going so far as to administer (thankfully fake) 450-volt shocks to the learners. Humans are susceptible to authority. We want to comply.
Law firms know this. Partners have real authority, with the power to hire and fire employees nearly on a whim in the arcane leadership structure of traditional law firms. They also have all the correct appearances of authority. They’ve got the fancy suits, pens, bags, shoes. So we say yes. It’s that easy.
Compliance with authority goes back further than just the law firm. Reach into your past, and you’ll see a history of compliance: compliance with our teachers, social group leaders, religious authorities. As in the Milgram experiment, we’ll bypass our own good judgment and objective evidence (the hours worked, the student debt) in order to comply with authority.
Marketers pay doctors to endorse products in advertisements. Our authorities have sold us the idea that compliance is important, that doing their job is important. And we’ve bought their product.
Finally, the principle of scarcity states that we value scarce things more than abundant things – even when they’re the same thing. Increasing scarcity means we react against that scarcity to try harder and harder to obtain that scarce item, no matter what it is.
In one experiment, participants were told to evaluate the quality of cookies. In one version, the cookie jar held ten cookies. In the other, it had only two cookies. Participants consistently rated the cookies from the jar of two cookies better than the abundant cookies. Of course, the cookies were identical.
Law firm jobs are the cookies. Prestigious jobs are more scarce, so we value them more highly – even though the tasks and issues are largely the same. In fact, scarcity is present in all steps on the path to becoming a lawyer. The top law schools have a limited number of seats to grant to potential students. Being in the 99th percentile on the LSAT, the law school admissions test, is necessarily scarce. And law school exams are graded on a curve; a good grade for one person means that good grades are more scarce for his classmates.
Scarcity makes it all seem more worthwhile, as competition reigns.