Influence and Online Learning

Several years ago while attending the annual conference of the Peter F. Drucker Foundation (now the Leader to Leader Institute), I had the good fortune to hear psychologist Robert Cialdini speak about the psychology of influence. As someone focused on the use of online learning technologies by mission-driven organizations, I have felt ever since that a strong understanding of the rules of influence is essential to the development and delivery of high impact online learning. Nearly all learning experiences involve a transfer of knowledge and skills. In the case of learning aligned to a particular cause or issue, however, this transfer often requires a strong dose of persuasion. The need to influence must therefore be factored into both the instructional design approach and the promotional approach if the learning is to achieve its goal.

In his presentation at the Drucker Foundation conference as well as in his widely read book,
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins Business Essentials), Cialdini outlines six “weapons” of influence that we frequently use or are used upon us nearly every day of our lives (whether consciously or unconsciously). Briefly, these are:

  • Reciprocation
    The impulse to repay in kind what another person (or organization) has provided us. Organizations that send you calendars or mailing labels along with a request for a donation are playing on this principle.
  • Commitment and Consistency
    An innate desire to appear consistent with our previous actions. This is the principle behind the hackneyed “What if I were to…” that bad sales people use to lock people into a commitment to buy.
  • Social Proof
    The tendency in all of us to look to others to confirm what is correct or acceptable. The laugh tracks used in TV sitcoms are a classic example of this one.
  • Liking
    A strong inclination to agree with, buy from, hire—in general, to engage with—people we like. There is a very good reason that attractive people are used to sell products—consciously or unconsciously, we all tend to like attractive people.
  • Authority
    A compulsion to conform to the demands of authority, even when they fly in the face of other interests we may have. Any one who doubts the power of this principle need only remember Germany in the 1930s.
  • Scarcity
    The tendency to view something as more valuable when its availability is limited. There is a reason for all those “Limited time only” and “Limited supply” claims that are standard in all forms of advertising.

As some of the above examples suggest, the “weapons” of influence can be used for evil or good, and people do tend to build up their defenses against them over time. (Laugh tracks, for instance, are not as effective as they once were.) Still, the power of these basic principles is clear, and if you are trying to increase the impact of your online learning efforts—whether that means educating more stakeholders about an important issue or simply increasing the non-dues revenue you are able to generate—a firm grasp of them is essential.

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