Brains, Evolution, Principles that Persuade

Our Brains, Evolution and Principles that Persuade

As I prepared to speak at the Chief Learning Officer Symposium this week I found myself continually referring to our brains, evolution and the principles that persuade. Each of Robert Cialdini’s “principles of persuasion” have their roots in the evolution of the human species. When it comes to evolution two powerful drivers of your brain are: 1) survival and 2) procreate. If human history is to continue we must keep on living and we must keep on reproducing. The principles of persuasion are very good at helping us make choices that put us in better positions to survive. Let’s take a look at each so you understand what I mean.


This principle says we feel obligated to give back to those who first give to us. As a species we’ve come to realize we can accomplish far more together than alone. When someone helps you and you return the favor both parties win.

This rule we live by is so ingrained that social psychologist agree, all human societies raise their people with this rule. Doubt that? I’m willing to be some of the first words your parents taught were “Thank you.” Someone did something nice for you and they whispered in your ear, “What do you say?” And you were condition from that point forward that you were expected to do something in return when someone first did something for you.


It’s easier for us to say “Yes” to those we know and like. That’s how we define the rule of liking. This is so commonplace you might be thinking, “Well, duh!” If we go back tens of thousands of years life was very hard and dangerous. Society wasn’t like it is today and people were not connected as we have been in recent centuries. It was a sure bet humans were leery of people who didn’t look like them, act like them or talk like them. But, when someone was similar that probably meant they were friend, not foe.

Today it’s still the case that it’s much easier for us to follow the lead of someone who is similar to us than dissimilar. Of course, we don’t go simply on looks and speech. If we learn someone has similar interests it’s naturally easier for us to go along with what they might ask because we naturally like them more than people we don’t know.


Humans evolved in tribes and just as is the case in most of the animal kingdom, there are always leaders and followers in groups. Over history we’ve looked to those who possessed superior wisdom for guidance on what to do. Following the leader usually increased the odds for survival for members of the tribe.

Today, when we make decisions we still look to people we consider to be wise, those who are experts. Why? Because we’ve learned experts typically help us make better decisions. You may turn to a CPA before April 15h because CPAs know how to do your taxes better than you. It’s almost a sure bet you see a doctor from time to time because a doctor can give you advice on how to live a healthier lifestyle. None of us is immune to the advice of an expert.


This principle tells us we look to others to see how we should behave in certain situations. Consider ancient history again. When we lived in tribes we knew our odds of survival we better off in groups. If the tribe started running you would have run too because if you didn’t you’d be left to fend for yourself. You’ve heard the phrase, “There’s safety in numbers.”

This instinct still holds true today in great measure. Our brains are wired to give great weight to what other people are doing. And just as in times long, long ago, our willingness to follow the lead of others is heightened when we’re unsure what to do.


Have you ever given your word to a friend then failed to follow through? If you did I bet you felt bad and perhaps a little embarrassed. Those feelings arose because of the principle of consistency which alerts us to this reality; we feel internal psychological pressure and external social pressure to be consistent in what we say and do.

We’ve come to rely on people keeping their word. The ability to depend on someone helps create trust and allows us freedoms that would not exist otherwise. For example, when someone tells you they’ll get you a report you can turn your attention to other tasks that demand your attention. Going back in time, people keeping their word, or failing to, could have been the difference between life and death. That’s why we feel bad, and look bad to others, when we fail to do what we said we would do.


The rule of the rare. According to this principle we value things more when they’re rare or diminishing. Dig further into the psychology and you’ll see that humans are much more driven to avoid loss than they are to gain the same thing. Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on loss aversion. He and his late partner Amos Tversky statistically proved humans feel the pain of loss anywhere from 2.0-2.5 times more than the joy of gaining the same thing.

Social psychologists theorize that the brain is more sensitive to lose because, while having an abundance would have been nice, not having enough could have meant death. In other words, we’re hardwired to be especially sensitive to loss.


This seventh principle of influence was introduced by Robert Cialdini in 2016. You can sum up unity this way; we is me. There are some groups we so closely identify with (family or being part of a group like the Marines) that they supersede all other relationships. We self-identify with people who are part of these groups on a level that’s much, much deeper than mere liking or friendship.

These are the closest relationships and as such, over time we knew people in these groups would come to our aid and we would come to their aid. These are the relationships we could depend on for survival.


I hope you have a better sense of why the principles of influence have such a powerful impact on our thinking and behavior. No one principle gets everyone to do what you want all the time. However, the seven decades of research are undeniable about this – each principle affects every human being to one degree or another. If you tap into the principles correctly and ethically it’s a sure bet more people will say yes to you more often and that will lead to more professional success and personal happiness.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at InfluencePEOPLE and Learning Director at State Auto Insurance. His course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed more than 125,000 times! Have you seen it yet? Watch it and you’ll learn how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process.

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