Why we believe strange things

This post doesn't have anything to do with cyber security. It's one of those "It's my blog and I can write what interests me" posts.

A couple of years ago I read Robert Cialdini's book Influence: The psychology of persuasion. It's considered one of the classics on how to persuade other people to your point of view. In it, Cialdini lists six things:

1. Reciprocity - we do things for others once we they have done things for us
2. Commitment and consistency - once we've established our position, we tend to want to establish consistency in our positions because being seen as inconsistent is negative
3. Likability - we do things for others that we like
4. Social proof - we look to others when trying to establish our beliefs (i.e., make purchase decisions based upon recommendations from others
5. Authority - we are more likely to take something seriously if it comes from an authority (e.g., an actor dressed in a doctor's coat will cause us to take his message seriously if he is in a commercial advertising a medication)
6. Scarcity - the more scarce a resource is, the more we desire it


If part of your job is to persuade or influence others, then you need to read this book.

One thing that struck me about the social proof chapter is why we believe certain things, even when sometimes those beliefs don't make any sense. For example, in modern society, we have people who believe the moon landing was faked, or have major reservations about genetically modified foods (National Geographic tackled this is a previous issue about why we doubt science).

One of the points that Cialdini makes is that our reasons for believing something today may not be the same reasons for believing something originally. In fact, that reason for original belief may be completely irrelevant today. So, suppose you believe something that sounds odd to everyone else, for example, that the Winnipeg Jets are the best hockey team in the NHL. Cialdini makes the analogy that the belief is a sheet of plywood (the Jets are the best team) and the reason for it is that your favorite player plays for them (let's go back in time and pick 1992-93 rookie of the year, Teemu Selanne, who holds the record for most goals by a rookie with 76).

Just because Selanne is your favorite player and plays for the Jets does not make them the best team in the NHL. That's a shaky foundation upon which to build a belief system, so imagine the plank of wood is "The Jets are the best team" and the supporting block of wood is "Selanne plays for them."



Here's what that belief looks like. Not too stable.


The Jets make the playoffs that year which indicates that they have reasonable successful team, and that adds another reason - a block of wood - to support the underlying (yet clearly wrong) belief - that the Jets are the best team. The whole system is still shaky, but a little less.

Next, a couple of years later, the Jets add a Russian goaltender with a fast glove hand, making some unbelievable saves every time you watch TV. They win some close games and stage some comebacks. More evidence that they are the best team. Your belief gains another support structure. It's still wobbly, but not as much as the first time.


Let's now toss in the fact that the Jets are your hometown team and you can go to their home games. Hometown teams are almost always the most popular team with the local fan base. It's yet another reason why the Jets are the best team; neither of these reasons are particularly strong on their own but look at how they work together to stabilize everything.



The Jets add a couple of more good players and make the playoffs; sure, they don't get past the first round but it's a fluke. Too many injuries and besides which, the refs are biased against them. They want the Vancouver Canucks or Edmonton Oilers to win, everyone's out to get Winnipeg.

You add another base support to your belief system.


Then, halfway through the 1995-96 season, the Jets trade Teemu Selanne to Anaheim for two players in an unequal trade that makes absolutely no sense, stunning the entire city. Why would the Jets make such a boneheaded trade? To get almost no one in return? What a terrible trade!

Your original reason for believing the Jets were the best team in the NHL has been removed from the table structure, so the whole thing should collapse like a house of cards, right? No! The other pillars you've added along the way are more than enough to compensate for the loss of your original reason for believing something:




The belief system remains in place long after the original reason for believing it has passed on. Because you've built up your belief system, it can withstand damage to it and still remain intact.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I've always wanted to write that up. I try to be careful now of my own beliefs and whether or not the original reasons I believed something are still relevant; I came to the conclusion I'm as biased as anything so I try not to be dogmatic about too much.

But anyhow, make sure you read Cialdini's book if you haven't already.

Comments (3)

  1. Razvan says:

    Why are all the 6 things listed with “1.” ?

    1. tzink says:

      When this blog was moved over to WordPress, it forced me to use the native web interface for writing posts. It’s hard to use and posts don’t come out the way I want (e.g., notice how the first two paragraphs have different font size than the rest?). Strong dislike on the UX for creating/editing blog posts on this new platform.

      Anyhow, I went and fixed the numbering.

  2. thought provoking…

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