Most psychologists will read this “Questionnaire” with Robert Cialdini, PhD.

That may or may not be true, but according to Cialdini, that statement is powerfully persuasive because we tend to go along with our peers. Cialdini, who retired last year from a teaching and research position at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., is a renowned expert in the science of swaying. In his seminal book on the topic, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” (Quill, 1984), he went undercover to learn the tricks mastered by used-car dealers and Fortune 500 executives alike, bringing persuasion research to psychology’s forefront.

Cialdini distilled his findings into six “weapons of influence,” each grounded in how we perceive ourselves or others:

  • Reciprocity: We inherently want to return favors.

  • Commitment and consistency: We strive to do and think what we profess to do and think.

  • Social proof: We look to our peers for deciding what’s acceptable and desirable.

  • Authority: If not our peers, then those in charge.

  • Liking: We’re easily persuaded by those we feel good about.

  • Scarcity: We desire what is rare.

In recent years, Cialdini has been leveraging those weapons to address major world problems such as climate change by persuading people to reduce energy use. For example, an ongoing project where an energy management company places monthly door-hangers on homeowners’ doors letting them know where they stand in energy usage in comparison to their neighbors has reduced energy usage by up to 3.5 percent. And in 2006, he found that when hotel guests were told that most of the other guests reused their towels (thus saving water and energy), people were 26 percent more likely to reuse their own towels than if you simply informed them of the environmental impact of washing guest towels daily.

Cialdini now takes his findings to meetings where he shares them with environmentalists, policymakers and business owners, in hopes of inspiring them to use his weapons of influence to reduce energy usage among industries and consumers. As legislators and industry leaders search for cheaper ways to conserve energy, he believes his findings are more pertinent than ever.

The Monitor spoke with Cialdini about his work and its influence.

Have your findings from the towel study made their way into policy yet?

I think it’s a little too early. There’s only one place where we saw the implications actually taken into account. I was in the Netherlands at The Hague giving a talk to a government group about how to use psychology to improve government policy. I was talking about the towel studies, and one of the participants at the conference came up to me with a sign from his hotel. They used precisely the wording we used in the study. So somebody in that hotel’s management had read the journal article.

Have you experimented with any other wordings on hotel signage?

We recently looked at signage that was designed to stimulate a desire to give back what one had received in the situation, tapping the reciprocity principle. In this experiment, we used the standard sign that said, “Do this for the environment” — that was our control condition — and then we used one that said, “Look, if you will reuse your towels and linens, we will donate a percentage of the savings to an environmental cause.” That’s essentially an economic exchange, and it produced no more reuse of towels than the standard, “Do this for the environment” sign. But we had a third sign that said, “We already donated to an environmental cause in the name of our guests. Would you join us in this effort to cover our costs?” In a sense, the hotel went first, the hotel gave the guests something. That produced a significant increase in reuse of towels, in the range of a 21-percent increase.

How else has your research made an impact?

About two and a half years ago, we did a study where we were able to reduce household energy consumption by putting signs on people’s doorknobs that said that the majority of their neighbors were saving energy. We were approached by some people who had a start-up software company and wanted to contract with utilities — the power companies — to send their customers once-a-month messages showing where they stood relative to their neighbors in terms of energy consumption. And that company has been wildly successful. It’s been contracted by 34 utilities around the United States and they’re showing significant savings. It’s the most cost-efficient program that any of these utilities have.

How do legislators and industry leaders respond to messages about psychology’s role in saving energy?

I’m invited now to a lot of relatively high-level conferences — sometimes for policymakers, sometimes for environmental groups — that have been traditionally dominated by people who think in terms of using regulation or technology to produce energy savings. All of a sudden, behavioral science is being introduced as a way to do it. Initially, the reaction was really very arms length. They didn’t really recognize or register the extent to which behavioral science could make a difference. And so there was a lot of skepticism at first.

If there’s a silver lining to the economic recession that we’re all going through, it’s that these policymakers are really looking hard at budgets. And behavioral techniques turn out to be much less expensive than other levers for change, such as technology development and lobbying, that these policymakers have relied on in the past.

What drives people’s energy-saving behaviors? Fear of being seen as wastrels by their neighbors?

No, I don’t think it’s keeping up with the Joneses. I think it’s something more similar to a study I saw recently from Beijing, which illustrates the cross-cultural reach of all this: If a restaurant owner puts on the menu, “These are our most popular items,” those items immediately become 17 to 20 percent more popular.

So, it’s not social pressure, it’s social evidence. It’s what we call “social proof”: If this is what people around you have decided is a good choice, it’s a great shortcut for you to determine what’s a good choice.

Does that have any roots in evolutionary adaptation?

It makes great evolutionary sense. For example, when the cards in our hotel studies said, “The majority of guests in this hotel are reusing their towels at least once during their stay,” that produced a significant difference. But if we said, “The majority of guests who stayed in this room,” that produced even more of a difference. The evolutionary rationale for that might be, “You should follow the lead of those individuals whose circumstances are most comparable to yours.”

Are there situations where it’s better not to follow the crowd?

No one strategy will be optimal in all circumstances. When people want to stand out for some reason — like for example, when romantic goals are to be achieved — you may want to go toward using scarcity appeals, in which you’d appeal to your valuable uniqueness. “This is exclusive! I’m the only one who has this product or service.”

You don’t want to think of any one of these principles of influence as always the best to apply. Thank goodness there are six! When one or another don’t apply or isn’t especially apt, you want to use one of the other ones to achieve your goals.

How can job-seekers harness persuasion to help them land a job?

Consistency is a good weapon of influence in job-hunting — the idea being that if you make a public statement, there are strong pressures to stay consistent with that, both internal and external.

Let’s say you’ve got a job interview, and you know that you’re among a variety of candidates. Say something like, “I’m very pleased to be here, and I look forward to giving you all the information you’d need to know about me, but before we begin, would you mind telling me why it is that you selected me to interview.” And let them speak. Let them, in a public, active way, describe your plusses. And they will spend much of the rest of the meeting validating what they are on record as having valuing about you, because people want to stay consistent with what they’ve previously claimed.

And you’re entitled to that. Why be in the dark?

Besides conserving energy or finding love and a job, what are some other areas where persuasiveness can be helpful?

International negotiation is a big one, to the extent to which it’s possible for individuals who represent different groups, cultures and nationalities to move beyond a confrontational approach and see that it’s possible to identify common interests and mutual goals.

I think the best negotiators have undertaken that strategy rather than focusing on their own needs and goals and preferences. Taking the perspectives of others and inviting others to take their own perspective, to have a kind of mutuality of perspective — that allows people to see opportunities that they weren’t able to see previously.

There’s research on this by Adam Galinsky, PhD, at Northwestern University’s business school. He and quite a few collaborators showed that having people take the perspective of someone else in a negotiation produces better outcomes, both for the individual who does it and for the joint outcomes.