Psychology, for writers and other curious minds

No point in asking if you’ve ever done anything that in hindsight seemed like a folly and left you wondering — why the hell? Everyone has at one point or another.

We are hardwired with fixed-action responses that are activated by specific triggers and can at times run contrary to reason or our best interest. It could be the reciprocity factor — if someone has done us a favor we feel obliged to do them a favor in return. It could be the mechanism of social proof — if people around us are doing something, this must be the right thing to do, so we do the same.

It’s striking how vulnerable we are when those fixed-action responses are in motion, and how unaware of them we remain. It’s striking, fascinating, and worth studying, especially if you’re an aspiring writer.

A place to start with is Influence by Robert Cialdini. In a very accessible manner the book discusses several such fixed-action patterns that lead us to comply with things we otherwise wouldn’t. The author explains those mechanisms in psychological and sociological terms and supports his theories with plentiful examples from scientific research as well as every day life. He often brings up cases of compliance professionals, as he calls them, who make use of those mechanical reactions, some in a less honest way than others.

One of my favorite examples is that of Sid and Harry, tailor brothers, who employed two of the fixed-action principles in their business: 1) people automatically assume that expensive equals good, 2) if something, be it an item or an opportunity, is available only for a limited time, it becomes more desirable.

Whenever the salesman, Sid, had a new customer trying on suits in front of the shop’s three-sided mirror, he would admit to a hearing problem, and, as they talked, he would repeatedly request that the man speak more loudly to him. Once the customer had found a suit he liked and had asked for the price, Sid would call to his brother, the head tailor, at the back of the room, “Harry, how much for this suit?” Looking up from his work—and greatly exaggerating the suit’s true price—Harry would call back, “For that beautiful all-wool suit, forty-two dollars.” Pretending not to have heard and cupping his hand to his ear, Sid would ask again. Once more Harry would reply, “Forty-two dollars.” At this point, Sid would turn to the customer and report, “He says twenty-two dollars.” Many a man would hurry to buy the suit and scramble out of the shop with his “expensive = good” bargain before Poor Sid discovered the “mistake.”

Influence is a treasure trove of similar schemes, intrigues, cons, and behaviors — some almost too fanciful and ingenious to be true. To me, the tailor brothers read like taken straight out from a novel. But since they’re not, they should definitely make it into one. Calling dibs on Sid and Harry.

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