Psychology Melbourne Blog

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Psychologists and the tricks of persuasion

Edited by Jill Wright,

The BBC has some invaluable advice for its audience on the psychology of sales - an exploration of the psychological tricks that sales people use to get you to buy their products. 

Psychologists have been studying the science of influence for decades, and they know quite a lot about the techniques that the top salesmen use to mess with their customers' minds. It's a sobering thought that these methods were first deployed on the public by Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, based on Freud's theories and early research on crowd psychology.

The BBC's Tiffanie Wen lists what you might call the "top sellers" of sales and some of the researchers who have unravelled the techniques.

Social psychologist Professor Robert Levine, for instance, sold cutlery door to door and worked as a used car salesman gathering the material which led to his fascinating book on the mechanics of manipulation, The Power of Persuasion: How We're Bought and Sold  [PDF link here] published in 2004. 

I think Levine's insights into devastatingly effective sales techniques - and the sadly dangerous fiction that most of us regard ourselves as immune to them - should be taught in our schools to help our youth defend themselves against becoming mere fodder for the world of marketing. Chapter 7 of the book, for instance, shows you how car salesmen and others trap customers into sales by gradually escalating commitments and constructing "four walls" through rhetorical questions that make it seem unreasonable not to buy something.

We adults should read the book to discover why we so often find ourselves acting against our own best interests and filling the pockets of cynical marketers. In the meantime, Wen's article is a solid introduction to some of the sneaky tricks that cynical salesmen play on us: false comparisons; emphasis on social similarities; illusion of demand; inducing feelings of obligation and the use of emotional triggers.


About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the APS Victorian branch Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.