Influence: Social Engineering the Office and Beyond

Did you know that influence has been studied for many years?

Not only con men, sales people, pickup artists, and others of their ilk, but also scientists.

Influence: Pulling the right strings

That’s why we can talk about the Science of Influence.

Let’s define “Influence” as getting people to do what you want them to do. Obviously getting people to do what you want is enormously helpful!

Influence can be used for the good, the bad, and even the ugly.

  • Influencing people on your project to get along better and work smarter is good.
  • Getting your buddy so drunk on tequila he or she vomits profusely the night before their wedding is bad.
  • Social engineering waste management engineers to spill 5 million gallons of untreated sewage just about anywhere is ugly (and probably smelly!).

We will discuss using influence for good here

“Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion” by Dr. Robert B. Cialdini is the classic book on this.

It’s a fast and easy read and highly recommended. The principles are applicable to business, your career, personal life, and just about anything else. And there is nothing sleazy about it.

Six “Universal Principles”

Influence is Based on Six “Universal Principles” according to Dr Cialdini.

• Commitment and Consistency 

Ever see someone in a horrible situation they won’t leave? It may be a horrible job for them, a miserable relationship, etc.

Humans are consistent. Once they have made a commitment, regardless of how small, they tend to stick with it. And small commitments can lead to bigger commitments (the “foot in the door” principle).

Can you get someone to make a small commitment to security, and then leverage that?

• Reciprocation

If you do something nice for someone they are more likely to do something nice for you. Anthropologists claim this pervades all human societies and permeates exchanges of all kinds.

This is why male chimpanzees and other apes buy dinner, flowers, and open doors for female chimpanzees they are sexually interested in.

As other example, President Lyndon Johnson was incredibly effective: he got members of Congress, even those strongly opposed to various bills, to vote for and ratify them. How did he do this? He had done many favors for member of Congress during his many years in powerful positions in the House and Senate!

Even something unwanted or uninvited can trigger the power of reciprocation.

Those return address labels you do not want that come in the mail from people requesting donations definitely increase the amount of donations for example – trust me, direct mail practitioners (i.e. junk mail pros) test these things, they have extensive metrics, they absolutely know.

Do you think there might be something we can learn from this that might help us be effective in our jobs?

Are there ways you or your security program can add value to people and help them out?

Maybe you can even experiment with giving them things they may or may not want like mouse pads with security slogans, posters on security awareness, or free beer?

Social Proof

Ever notice that some people are popular just because they are popular (think back to high school if you have to), and some things are popular just because they are?

  • If you have a beautiful boyfriend, girlfriend, etc. people are more likely to think you are attractive.
  • If a place is popular, many people think it must be good.
  • If all your kid’s friends smoke pot, well, they are more likely too (availability may play a role here also).
  • And if McDonalds has sold 77 gadzillion hamburgers they must be good, right?

These are all examples of social proof.

And if people seem to be complying with your security program, those that aren’t or aren’t sure about it are more likely to comply in the future.

• Authority

People in general simply listen to authority – at least most of the time.

In ISO 27002 (formerly ISO17799 formerly BS 7799), The ISMS (Information Security Management System) statement is very effective. It is a statement by senior executives (the CEO works very very well) basically saying security is important, or more formally that security is important to business operations and senior management supports a culture of security.

Why is the above effective? An authority, hopefully the CEO or equivalent (THE authority) is suggesting you comply!

Get buy in for security and your programs and initiatives from someone with authority if you can.

If can be positional authority (the boss, the official expert, the program manager) or personal authority (the personal really in charge, the very likable and influential person in no official real position of authority, the popular person everyone follows, etc.).

• Liking

If people like you, they are more likely to do what you want them too. Be nice. Be likeable.

In general security people and security departments are not liked! Work on it!


“Order before midnight tonite. Supplies are limited!”

The restaurant that is difficult to get a reservation at must be better than the one you can easily get into. Really? No, but that’s how the human mind works.

When I was selling an educational program online, sometimes after a teleseminar or other presentation, I’d bundle an hour of “free” coaching for the first few people to buy my program. Obviously, my time is limited – it is reasonable I only offer a free hour to a limited people. It increased sales significantly.


Think about how you can use these six principles: Commitment/Consistency, Reciprocation, Social Proof, Authority, Liking, and Scarcity to get what you want.

And by that we mean to make good things happen!

Of course there might also be other methods of influence: waterboarding, blackmailing, threatening etc. that we cannot ethically consider.

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    • JJ
    • October 27, 2014

    Fascinating – I never knew this stuff had actually been studied by psychologists for years or even at all. “Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion” sounds pretty interesting

    • Bill
    • October 27, 2014

    I agree the study of this psychology along with the physiology of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP)can be used for both positive and nefarious means.

    • Bill
    • October 27, 2014

    A few books besides Cialdinis works include, Social Engineering- The art of human hacking by Chris Hadnagy and the many books of Kevin Hogan.

      • Ted Demopoulos
      • October 27, 2014

      Kevin Hogan has some great books out there – I also enjoy his newsletter. I’ll need to look into Chris Hadnagy more – I have read and enjoyed some of his material.

    • Joe Eckhout
    • November 1, 2014

    Great article Ted, I love it. I am reading a book now, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell. One thing the author talks about is the law of influence. When going into an organization, all the things you mention are important. There is also a bit of a shortcut. We don’t need to influence everyone; we just have to influence the influencers. The influencers are not always the c-suite people. It is more frequently their go-to people. Their assistants, the people they go to lunch with etc.. Identify the influencers, win them over, and the job gets easy.

      • Ted Demopoulos
      • November 6, 2014

      Thanks Joe,
      I may need to grab a copy of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell for my long upcoming flight home from the Dubai soon!

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