Pre-Suasion: Summary & Review

Pre-suasion book cover

Pre-Suasion (2016) is Cialdini’s prequel to his famous “Influence“, and explores the psychology of persuasion before you even place your question, demand, or call for action

Exec Summary

  • The top persuaders focus on what they do and say before the request rather than the request itself (i.e.: they focus on priming)
  • Pre-Suasion is all about channeling your prospect’s attention to favorable aspects of your pitch (or yourself)
  • Hold attention to favorable aspects, without any comparison and new information, and you’ve won half the battle

Pre-Suasion Summary

About The Author: Robert Cialdini, is almost a household name and he’s one of the most well-known experts when it comes to the psychology of persuasion.
His previous book, Influence, is the biggest seller in the psychology of persuasion.

About Pre-Suasion: “Pre-Suasion” is divided into three parts. Cialdini wrote it after “Influence”, yet he says you should probably read “Pre-suasion” first.
This a chapter summary of “Pre-Suasion

Pre-Suasion – An Introduction

Robert Cialdini says that the top persuaders spend more time crafting what they do and say before the actual request than on the request itself.

To persuade effectively, adds Cialdini, is to Pre-Suade effectively.

How do you do that?
Pre-Suasion explains just that.

Cialdini uses the example of a friend of his in a consulting business.
His friend always felt put in a difficult spot when asked for discounts, but that all changed when he started presuading his target.

Before communicating his fee, he would joke:

Pre-Suader: as you can tell, I’m not gonna be able to charge you a million dollar for this.

With that simple trick, he eliminated almost all challenges to his fees.

And if that doesn’t sound surprising to you, here are a few more Pre-Suasion effects:

  • drawing a long line instead of a short one raised estimate for a river’s length
  • listening to a German song made people more likely to buy German products;
  • observers’ estimates of athletes’ performances increased if the jersey’s number increased
  • the amount of money people were willing to spend on a restaurant went up when the name of the restaurant was Studio97 rather than Studio17.

The Sneaky Presuasion Example:

An alarm system salesman was able to consistently sell more than all his competitors.
His pitch and process were the same in all but one detail

Which one was it?

While the prospects were taking a test in their house as part of the process he would tell them he forgot a piece of important information in his car.
He would ask the couple if they could lend him the keys so he could go out and be back without disturbing them.

The secret is that you only let people you trust in and out of your house on their own.
Now that they had given him the key the sub-communication was that he is a “trusted person”.

Chapter 2 – Privileged Moments

Cialdini used to be a palm reader and he has a few funny stories.

He recounts when he told a man he was stubborn.
Later that night, that same man was impressed to hear he was “quite a flexible man”.
In both instances, he uttered “absolutely right”.

Cialdini says that giving very general traits helps, but that’s not the only factor at play.
People usually look for confirmation rather than disconfirmation.

And thus, whatever generic trait you tell someone, they will look in their past for all the times they conformed to your chosen trait.

Pre-suasion and Confirmation Bias

Similarly, a sample of Canadians changed their mood when asked if they were happy or unhappy with their social life.
The people asked if they were 375% more likely to declare themselves unhappy.

For the same reason, you should be wary of surveys employing a single-sided and biased form of questioning (ie. “how are happy are you with.. “).

Your Focus Sways Your Opinion

Cialdini says the dominant model of social influencing is that if you wish to change someone’s behavior you first change one of their existing features.

For example:

  • If you want them to buy a soft drink they’re unfamiliar with, you will change beliefs by reporting it’s the fastest-growing new beverage
  • To change attitude you will connect it to a well-liked celebrity
  • And to change the experience you will offer a sample.

This approach works.

But Cialdini says there’s an alternate model of social influence. It’s the Pre-Suasion.
Prep them by asking:

Pre-Suader: are you adventurous enough to consider a new soft drink?

Or get them to focus on a time in which they did try something different and were happy about it.

This way you only alter what they’re focusing on.

Pre-Suading People At The Mall

Another example is researchers surveying random people in a mall.
Only 29% agreed to answer when asked directly.

But prepping them with a pre-suasive opener such as “do you consider yourself being a helpful person” changed everything.
Most people answered yes, and now you are in what Cialdini calls a “privileged moment”.

As a consequence of the new focus, 77% of people agreed to take part in the survey.

Chapter 3 – The Importance of Attention

Channeled attention leads to persuasion: we tend to overestimate the importance of anything which draws our attention.

So the persuader who draws attention to the best feature of whatever he’s offering succeeds first in having the audience consider that feature fully and, more importantly, also in giving exaggerated significance to that feature even before they see it.

It’s important to notice that while drawing attention to anything is effective in making that idea or information stand out and be important, it’s only a positive influence if the idea is valid.

Agenda Setting

Agenda-Setting theory says that media rarely produces change directly -ie. telling you what you think-, but it’s extremely effective in telling us what deserves our attention -ie. what to think about-.

Pre-suading With Background Images

Cialdini gives us an extremely interesting example of how the background image of a website can sway our decisions.

A furniture store selling both quality and cheaper sofas wanted its clients to buy more quality sofas.
When they changed the background image on their website to fluffy clouds customers bought the quality version because the clouds made them focus on comfort.

On the other hand, a background image with pennies had customers buy the cheap version as the image had them focus on savings.

Noises and images in real life also have powerful effects.
Students in schools with train tracks nearby have lower test scores results. And classes with highly decorated walls also produced lower test scores.

Presuade Without Comparison

If you focus your prospect’s attention on a positive benefit of your product without mentioning any rivals’ equally good option you will likely enhance your product’s rating.
Interestingly, your prospect’s intention to buy your product will also jump.

For example, if Sony asked you to consider the quality of its smartphone but not the qualities of major rivals, your intention to purchase a Sony will increase.

Chapter 4 – What’s Focal is Causal

Channeled attention also leads to the belief in causality.
Meaning that what draws our attention, we believe has the power to make events occur.

For example, when Johnson and Johnson issued a public recall of a dangerous product with serial numbers associated, those numbers ended up being played in local lotteries at unprecedented rates.

The number had become the focus of attention and people assigned special (predictive) power to them.

Presuading With Prominence

We all know that body language speaks the truth, right?
Well, body language is also heavily influenced by what you pay attention to.

An experiment scripted a conversation in such a way that neither speaker contributed more to the discussion.
The observers were arranged in a way that they could see the face of one person at a time and then asked who was the most influential of the two.

Guess what happened?

The observers always picked the person whom they had focused on the most.

Pro Tip: if you find yourself under interrogation find the camera in the room and move your chair in a way that it will record your face and the questioner’s face equally.
So no judges will be Pre-Suaded you’re guilty.

Leaders and Causality

Leaders often receive a disproportionate amount of attention and are often assigned disproportionate credit -or blame- for results.

Pre-Suasion hypothesizes the causality fallacy might be the reason why CEOs are paid so much more than employees.

Chapter 5 – Commanders of Attention I: The Attractors

Sexual and threatening cues catch our attention powerfully because they tie to our innate drive of reproducing and surviving.

However, they can be used in the wrong way and become ineffective or even counterproductive.

Sex and Sales

Using sex only helps to sell if the item is connected to sex in some way. For example, sex for cosmetics, perfume, lipsticks, and form-fitting clothes works.

While soft drinks, laundry detergents, or kitchen appliances do not follow in that category, Cialdini says.

Sex Interest As Breakup Indicators

I found it extremely interesting that the biggest predictor of a future break up was not how much a couple liked each other or what they planned, but how much they were aware of other attractive people around them.

How to Deliver Threatening News for Actions

The most threatening examples of poor health habits work better than mildly threatening ones.

However, Robert Cialdini also says that reducing the fear level works too because very high fear might have people denying the risks.

A great way to convey highly threatening news without raising people’s defenses is to give a real and scary warning and then present the solutions.

An experiment in The Netherlands showed that a group given the scariest message and then presented with a workshop to reduce risks were 4 times more likely to sign up compared with the non-highly threatening message group.

Threatening, Sexual and Pre-Suasion

When we are exposed to sexual messages we prefer being on our own -to take advantage of the sexual possibilities-.
When we feel threatened instead we’d rather be in a group -for defense power-.

This tendency has far-reaching consequences in influencing.

For example, ads showing how popular your product is won’t be effective during a romantic movie.
On the contrary, it will be very effective during a scary movie (or anything which makes people worried).

And showing how unique your product is will work well during a romantic movie (or anything with sexual undertones) and poorly during a scary movie.

To me, this was an incredible finding and it goes to show the far-reaching consequences of Pre-Suasion.

The Investigatory Reflex

If someone enters our environment or if we enter a new environment our focus shifts to the new setting.
This is why we often forget what we were supposed to do when entering a new room.

And it also happened to Pavlov’s Dog: the most drooling dog in psychology wouldn’t salivate when someone new entered the room.

Unique = Higher Sales

Two sofas pitched against each other were comparable except for the cushioned softness.

Let’s call the couches “Hardy” and “Softy”.
Most people preferred Hardy. But when 3 other sofas all with a harder cushion were added, Softy became the favorite.

It’s because Softy’s distinguishing factor drew more attention and it became more important.
Softy became the standout.

Chapter 6 – Commanders of Attention II: the Magnetizers

If you hold the attention your argument is likely to go unchallenged by opposing views.

And some information or format have intrinsic pull and staying power, like:

Self-Relevant Info Prevails

Any information specific to us will catch and hold attention.

Try to take a group’s picture and pass the camera around.
Who do you think people will be looking at?
At themselves of course!

If you have a good product, Robert Cialdini also recommends switching the wording of your copy to “you” and to starting with “you”.

And if you want someone to listen to you during a meeting you should not speak immediately before them or after them.
Immediately before they will be too focused on what they are going to say. Immediately after they’ll be rehashing what they’ve just said.

Unfinished Arguments Linger On

Unresolved problems and unfinished activities keep holding our attention for quite a while (and spur us to get back to them).

It works even for humdrum advertising of soft drinks and toothpaste: students were better able to recall the details when the researchers stopped the ads 4-5 seconds before their natural end.

Leaving Open Loops in Dating

In another experiment, women participated in an experiment in which attractive men rated them based on their Facebook profiles.

The women were then asked who of the guys who had rated them they preferred.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the guys who had rated them the highest, but it was those whose rating was unknown.

Those men with unknown ratings stayed in the women’s minds and made them appear as the most attractive.

Leveraging Open Loops

Here are a few ways you can leverage open loops in your life:

  1. Don’t finish a task so that you will want to work on it later on
  2. Cialdini starts classes with stories he leaves unfinished and uses mysteries rather than questions and explanations. When he challenged students to provide explanations to mysteries their test scores went up.

Counterarguments VS Argument

Cialdini says in persuasion counterarguments are more powerful than arguments.

If you can show your opponent is misinformed on the topic you will undermine him even if you don’t have a full-blown point to make.

And it’s even more powerful when the counterclaim paints him as an untrustworthy source of information. In this case, you not only win the battle, but you also start with a huge advantage in all successive battles.

Chapter 7 – I Link Therefore I Think

Robert Cialdini says that our brain operation is all about associations. Associations are the building block of thoughts.

Association and words are more powerful than most people think: an experiment shows that people exposed to violent words delivered 48% more intense electric shocks in a successive experiment.

Associations For Political Persuasion

Pre-Suasion details a fantastic example of a politician with policies to catch and cage criminals.
Such a politician should portray crime as a wild beast raging through the city that must be stopped.

Imagine the other candidate wants to tackle the problem by addressing the root causes with education and jobs instead.
This candidate should portray the crime as a virus infecting the city.
It’s because to remove a virus it’s necessary to remove the unhealthy conditions that allowed it to spread.

And if you think it’s too far-fetched an experiment presented two groups of the criminality problem with exactly those wording: wild beast and virus.

The ones presented with the “beast” problem chose the catch-and-cage solution and the opposite was true for the other group.
The size of the change due to a single word was twice more significant than gender and political party affiliation.

Associations in Sales

A master salesman used metaphors to achieve unparalleled sales in insurance policies.
He wouldn’t say people died but they “walked out” of life and the insurance money “walks in”.

Personal Associations

And of course, we like anything we can associate with ourselves.

We like more people who come from where we come from, people who look like ourselves, people with the same ideas, and also products with our same initials.

And we also like people whose name is easy for us to pronounce and sounds more familiar (read what to do when people mispronounce your name).

Nonverbal associations

Associations also work non-verbally.

“Heavy” in English is associated with seriousness and importance, so HR people with a CV attached to a heavy clipboard tend to view the candidate as a more serious contender for the job.

And major holding a heavy mock-up for a project tends to ponder the project more deeply.

And people who’ve been holding a hot cup of coffee feel warmer toward their conversation partner.

Chapter 8 – Persuasive Geographies

Cialdini says that working from home when writing his first book for a general audience produced a better job than when he wrote at University.

It was because at university he had all the scholar cues around him that made it more difficult for him to drop the jargon.
At home instead, he was immersed in the “general population” environment and more befitting words flowed accordingly.

Presuasion Can Help Women & Minority

Women have a negative stereotype of not being good at math.

Anything focusing on reminding them of their gender and focusing attention on that stereotype will lower their test results.

On the other hand, they score better when the teachers in the class are women themselves, or when on the wall there are paintings of famous female scientists.

For female Asian Americans, reminding them of their female gender led to worst performance.
But performed better when reminded of their Asian roots.

Cialdini also says that an effective technique before an exam is to focus on all past academic successes and strengths.

Chapter 9 – The Mechanics of Pre-suasion

The elements in our mind don’t just fire when “ready”, they fire when “readied”. When a concept enters our minds, all the linked concepts enjoy a privileged moment in our minds.

That’s the reason why violent games can raise aggressiveness: because they stimulate all connections related to aggressiveness.

The same concept works when we change the background of a product or when we communicate subliminally.
Superimposing a brand of mouthwash on pictures of nature scenes made people feel more positive towards the brand immediately and 3 weeks later.

And subliminally exposing thirsty people 8 times to happy faces vs angry faces before tasting a new soft drink led them to consume more beverages and be willing to pay 3 times more for the beverage.

If, When, Then

By using the “if, When, Then formula” you can train yourself to stay on track with your goal.

For example, you can say “when back at home, I take the stairs (instead of the elevator)”.

My Note:
For me, a clue to do something productive is always when I’m doing nothing.
My if-then clause is: “If I’m not doing anything, how can I use this time more productively”?
So if I’m riding the underground I listen to audiobooks. If I really feel like laying down, I do it on the floor and train a good posture.

Fatigue and Influencing

Some ads and infomercials run late at night as people don’t have the mental strength to resist the buying urges.

The same concept is true for criminal interrogations: while the average questioning time is less than one hour, interrogation leading to false confessions average of 16h.

And similarly, military personnel were more likely to fire on civilians when sleepless and tired.

Chapter 10 – Six Main Roads to Change

Cialdini says that attention should be channeled toward one of the major principles of Influence.

And then he takes a step back from Pre-Suasion and focuses on the principles of his seminal book Influence.

Chapter 11 – Unity 1: Being Together

Cialdini adds another principle of influence: Unity.

Unity comes from coming in the same genealogy or geography.

There’s a shortcut to feeling like someone belongs in our family: living under the same roof.
If you want your children to develop altruism as a quality, allow strangers in need in your house and offer them a meal.

Very interestingly, Cialdini says, the majority of people who helped hide Jews during the Holocaust did it after a relative or neighbor asked.
So the helper, often, was saying yes to a neighbor or family member.

How Psychology Can Save Lives

And I loved the example of Jewish persecution in Japan.

Japanese high officials were pondering whether or not to prosecute Jews in Japan and asked two rabbis why the Nazis hated them so much.

One of the rabbi, well versed in history and European affairs, had no explanation.

The other one, well versed in social psychology said: because we are Asians, like you.

It implied that the Nazi self-appointed race superiority did not cover Asian people.
And it shifted the Japanese wartime alliance to one based on regional belonging.

Chapter 12 – Unity 2: Acting Together

Working together on a project with its employees will lead a manager to value the output higher than if he hadn’t worked on it.

And the more he attributed the success of the project to himself, the more he also attributed the result to the skills of the employees.

This latter finding surprised Cialdini and he explains it as a merging of identity: what applies to one applies to the other.
Working together brings feelings of being part of a bigger unified organism.

Asking for Advice is Good Advice

Asking for advice -not opinion or feedback- will activate a linking of identity between the adviser and the advised, bringing people into a “together state of mind”.

Opinion or feedback instead will put people in an introspective state of mind, focusing on themselves.

Rational and Emotional Systems

Cialdini says there are two systems of thinking: system one and system two.

  1. System one is intuitive, quick, and often emotional
  2. System two is slow, deliberate, and rational.

The two systems hardly co-exist at the same time, so rather than going for both a salesman would be wise to recognize the current system and match it.

Even just saying “I think this is the right car for you” VS “I feel this is the right car for you” will have an influence if correctly matched to the prospect’s system.

Music influences system one.
Cialdini funnily says he finally understands why so many women are into the musician type even though the musician’s economic and romantic perspectives are often low.
Music does not deal with the rational part of the brain but with the emotional one.

The “music” and romance association has also been proven by research: a man with a guitar asking for a girl’s phone number is significantly more successful than men without (more than double the hit rate).

Chapter 13 – Ethical Use

In this chapter, Cialdini says that most of the “tricks” he teaches are used by professionals.
So any book popularizing persuasion tricks is mostly for the benefit of the general population.

I agree with it and I have the same stance for what I teach on this website.

Cialdini also says that in the long run, any unethical action tends to damage companies.

Chapter 14 – Post-Suasion, After Effects

Pre-Suasion can produce dramatic, immediate shifts in people.

But to retain the changes of our persuasions it’s important that people will commit to them at a later time in the form of related behavior.

The most effective “confirming” behavior are the ones involving identity.

Post-Suasion To Influence Voting Behavior

For example, people surveyed during the McCain (Republican) VS Obama (Democrat) campaign were divided into two groups.

One saw a small American flag on the top corner of the screen.
The second group didn’t see any flags.

The group seeing the American flag espoused Republican causes more strongly and voted in bigger numbers for McCain (Pre-Suasion).

The groups were later asked to register online for the survey, thus committing to their behavior (Post-Suasion).
They later on then voted for McCain, an even bigger commitment to their identity( Post-Suasion).

And eight months later the Pre-Suasion was still holding.

Locking In PreSuasion For The Long Haul

Another experiment put people in a happy mood and had them rate a panting.
They liked the painting more.

But after five days only those who had submitted the rating still kept the same feelings for the painting.
It’s because the people submitting the rating “locked in” their feelings.

Pre-suasion book cover


There are really nocons here, more like a few notes:

  • Improving the consultant’s persuasion

Remember the consultant presuading his clients to accept his full fees?
He was saying:

Presuader: as you can tell, I’m not gonna be able to charge you a million dollar for this

I don’t think that’s as effective as it could be.
“Not gonna be able to” sounds predatory (=I’d charge you as much as I can get away with) and demeaning towards your product (=it’s not worth that much).

  • No mention of the limitations of priming

Pre-Suasion was published before the huge replication crisis in psychology.

And what I would caution about is that much of Pre-Suasion is based on priming.
And Bargh’s original priming experiment has been at the epicenter of that crisis, failing to replicate and giving way to a rather nasty exchange right after.

I will keep it brief here, but priming is real, just not as strong as many were led to believe (also read more in pop-psychology myths).


Pre-Suasion is a classic of the psychology of persuasion.
The amount of wisdom that it packs is mind-boggling and a real treasure trove for anyone interested in psychology, people, and influences.

What I particularly loved to learn in “Pre-Suasion“:

  • Threatening and sexual timing: you need to take care of using sex with unique USPs and threatening messages with social proof
  • Standing out is better: put yourself (or your product) among people looking similar to each other and make yourself stand out

Pre-Suasion by Cialdini is a must-read if you’re interested in communication, people, and influences.

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Or get it on Amazon.

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