For me, the keynote presentation by Dr. Robert Cialdini, titled “Influence,” was the highlight of the recent 2008 meeting of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE). I’ve followed Dr. Cialdini’s research and scholarship for more than 30 years and have used his classic book, “Influence: Science and Practice,” in my social psychology classes.

Dr. Cialdini defined the six influence principles listed below which are key to persuasion (which is essential in occupational safety), and then focused primarily on three: scarcity, authority and consensus.

The Six Social Influence Principles

1. Reciprocity – We return favors. 2. Scarcity – We value rare opportunities. 3. Authority – We follow those who are credible and trustworthy. 4. Consistency – We keep our promises. 5. Consensus – We follow the example of others. 6. Friendship/Liking – We like those who share common goals and values.

Anger is not one of the six social influence principles.

The value of scarcity

Dr. Cialdini claimed, “People are more mobilized by realizing what they will lose than what they might gain.” He cited one study in which homeowners received an energy audit and then a list of conservation strategies. Half the residents were told they would gain an average of 75¢ per day if they followed the advice; the others were informed they’d lose 75¢ per day if they did not make the recommended alterations. Follow-up audits indicated those with the loss-control message made significantly more changes than those receiving the achievement message.

Marketing companies capitalize on this scarcity notion. For example, ads for Bose sound systems carry the slogan “Hear what you’ve been missing.” Consultants promote their training sessions by emphasizing there are a limited number of opportunities to receive the exclusive information provided.

Combining scarcity and exclusivity is especially powerful, according to Cialdini. Make information you present seem not only new and scarce, but stress too that the recipient is among the first to acquire it.

The power of authority

Cialdini emphasized we especially look to credible others for direction when we are uncertain about appropriate behavior.

He discussed how to deliver information that appears credible and trustworthy. An upfront display of your credentials can make you sound like a “boastful braggart.” Listeners could become suspicious of your intentions and doubt your trustworthiness. To overcome this, Cialdini recommended first stating a weakness of your case, before specifying the strengths. Thus, it’s more persuasive to state, “We have a long way to go, but I feel good about our plan,” instead of, “I feel good about our plan, but we have a long way to go.”

He refers to this weakness-first technique as a “moment of persuasive power.” This suggests the safety slogan, “Injury prevention requires a lot of extra effort from all of us, but we and our families are deserving of such actively caring.”

The consensus principle

Check what’s wrong with these statements:
“We must do something, because the troublesome behavior is so widespread.”
“We must step-up our safety-awareness program because so many of our employees are not using their PPE.”

When our communication implies many others are performing an undesirable target behavior, we provide a normative excuse. Cialdini described research that attempted to increase the number of hotel guests who reuse their towels. First, it’s obvious why a request like the following will be ineffective: “Please be more environmentally responsible than most of our guests by reusing your towels.”

Dr. Cialdini and his associates counted the number of reused towels per room following various persuasive messages and found strong support for the consensus principle. Messages that affirmed a majority of guests reused their towels affected significantly more towel reuse than did messages appealing to sustainability or cooperation. The most effective message was: “Most of the guests who have stayed in this room have reused their towels.”

Relevance to occupational safety

First, regarding the scarcity principle, consider the following ramifications: 1) A command-and-control approach to occupational safety can make personal freedom seem scarce and thus hinder participation; 2) Program participation can be enhanced by emphasizing a rare opportunity to implement leading-edge procedures that would set positive precedence for the entire company; and 3) Use personal stories to remind people of what they could lose if they perform at-risk behavior.

The principles of authority and consensus go hand-in-hand to influence safe vs. at-risk behavior. The assumption, “I was just following orders,” reflects the impact of authority, while “everyone else does it,” reveals consensus. These excuses indicate the significant impact of peoples’ behavior. Indeed, setting the safe example is one critical moment of persuasive power.