40 Books in 2018 / #5
336pp HarperBusiness 2007
Jan and I are visiting our second son, BJ and his parter E in their new flat. Better equipped, decorated and furnished than anything we achieved when starting out.
We’ve seen the Nespresso machine (that we gave as a Christmas gift, but we still haven’t had a coffee) the Playstation 4, the cleanser and conditioner collection in the bathroom cabinet - and the obligatory stacked occasional tables.
And now we're in the bedroom. I’m looking at a waist-high stack of carboard boxes.
“Are they what I think they are??” I ask.
“Sure” says BJ. “They're pairs of trainers.”
“Do you wear a new pair every hour?”
E rolls her eyes towards the heavens, puts her hands on her hips, and gives BJ a silent “go on then, explain what all that is doing in MY bedroom” shrug.
BJ continues; “They’re not for wearing. They’ll be for selling.”
His mother and I go blank, like struggling facelift patients. BJ picks a box from his Wall of Sole. “I’ve had an offer for these. Too good to miss the sale.”
Is he speaking Swahili? He’s had an offer??
“A friend I know from Crepe City.” More parental blanks. (For this he went to University?) “A conference and trading event. New launches. Exchanges. Perhaps a chance to complete your collection.”
There are worlds of which we know nothing. I point to the pair he’s holding aloft:
“So how much for those?”
BJ pauses for a moment. “One-fifty.”
I flashback to my classes in the school gym, running around in my £4.99 plimsoles.
“Someone’s going to play you £150 for a pair of trainers??” I can see that BJ is enjoying my incredulity.
“No. I’m not selling for one-fifty. I bought them for one-fifty.”
Jan leaves the room, obviously sensing the immediate paternal explosion.
“You’ve sunk £150 into one pair of trainers?! Why on earth..?”
Now BJ gives me his best look of pity: “This pair was launched in 2016 by adidas and Kanye West. It’s called Yeezy in Pirate Black. They sold out immediately.
"A year later, no one can get them. Now I’ve let a couple of people know that I have a pair I want to off-load. I’ve had a couple of offers.”
“Seven hundred and fifty.”
Across East London there is the loud crack of my jaw dropping.
Oh, for the life of the early twenty-something, figuring out how the world works. Obviously, BJ already understands one of Robert Cialdini’s six ‘universal principles’ of influence: Scarcity.
(While writing this, I checked UK supply of the Yezzy in Pirate Black. ‘Out of Stock’ everywhere.)
The others are psychological traits to help individuals and organizations achieve objectives. They are: Reciprocation, Commitment and Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, and Authority.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is rather over-written (200 pages would be just as impactful as 336), and some of the examples are stretched to ‘fit in’ with his model. But much resonates, as it must have done in the first edition, thirty years ago:
Reciprocation. G. Gordon Liddy’s first $1m program to gather intelligence for the Committee to Re-elect President (Nixon) was regarded as 'very, very foolish'. Liddy’s second idea (for $500k) was equally unwelcome. The third, bare bones plan for $250k was deemed acceptable by John Mitchell, the CRP Director because “we were reluctant to send him away with nothing.” Which became the break-in to the Democratic National Committee offices – in the Watergate office complex.
Commitment and Consistency: Throughout this chapter, Cialdini highlights the impact of writing personal commitments. From Amway sales agents to US soldiers held as prisoners in the Korean War, participants use written evidence to decide what s/he is like. Seeing a commitment in one’s own hand closes the loop of internal and external pressure.
Liking: We like people who are similar to us. The fact seems to hold true whether opinions, personality traits, background or life-style. Dress is a good example. One study showed how automatic our positive response to similar others can be: Marchers on an anti-war demonstration were found to be not only more likely to sign the petition of a similarly dressed requester, but also without bothering to read it first.
Authority: If you’ve read a general psychology textbook, you’ll know Stanley Milgram. He said his objective was to find out how much pain – searing jolts of electric current – ordinary people would be willing on another innocent person. Beyond all estimates, over 60% of participants were willing to go all the way up the dial to 450-volts. Of course, there was no electricity; he wasn’t really testing that. Rather, the study measured the willingness to follow instructions from an authority figure. As Cialdini puts it, in hierarchies “we don’t have to think; therefore, we don’t.”
The actions of those around us are important signals – perhaps permission – on how we are to behave.
There are no new things on earth, just reinvention of old ideas, given a new technology or a new context. When at school, my class mates mutually proved our sophistication by watching the Alan Alda M*A*S*H without canned laughter.
Despite our beliefs at the time, it wasn’t an invention of ‘crass American TV ‘. Instead, it came from Parisian Opera in the1820s.
Under the banner L’Assurance des Succes Dramatiques, a pair of opera buffs started renting themselves to producers, directors, conductors and singers, to make appreciative noises at performances.
By 1830, the claque was a full-blown tradition among operas everywhere, offering styles (e.g. ordinary applause or insistent applause) and strengths (Bene! Bravo!! or Wild Enthusiasm). Artificial, but it became a hugely important aspect of operatic performance.
If everyone else claps and cheers, it must be good.
A less grandiose case in point: Just before our parental visit, Jan and I attended a performance of The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. A marvellous cast, a suitably conservative production, and seemless riding of the legendary Pinteresque pauses.
First Act. Curtain. Applause. Interval for bathroom visit and ice cream queue. Back for Second Act. Tension. Threat. Dramatic peak. Curtain.
A pause for breath, and then I started to applaud. A few in front of me join in, couple to either side in my row, a few more behind. Another patch starts on the other side of the auditorium. A smattering of clapping hands in the Circle above us.
It starts to mute. Then the curtain starts rising again, and the applause stops dead. Oh hell: I’d forgotten there is a Third Act.
We unintentional claqueurs almost started the fire. Such is the potency of Social Proof.
(1087 words. Thanks for reading.)
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