Book Review: Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini

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I was pre-pared to like Pre-suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, by Robert Cialdini. After all, his earlier work, Influence, was something of a cult classic among those of us who think a lot about persuasive writing. We mined it for insights that helped us write more persuasive copy and referred it to all our friends.

I was also excited because the early part of the book talked about communication as a process, not as an event. My experience in business and as an author and copy writer led me to endorse that position. I used to have a copy of the famous “Man in The Chair” ad right where I could see it when I was writing.

McGraw-Hill’s classic ad first appeared in 1958. It shows a fellow in a plain suit and a bowtie with a scowl on his face sitting in a chair and staring at the reader of the ad. The copy essentially says, “I’ve never heard of you or your company, so what was it you wanted to sell me?”

The ad is a classic. It speaks to the need to have previous communication before you show up and want to sell me something. It seemed like Cialdini’s book was going to meet that need, too. I was prepared to be impressed, but I quit reading at page 146. I don’t abandon many books. Let’s go back to the beginning so you can understand why I didn’t finish this one. In the author’s note, Dr. Cialdini says this:

“Pre-suasion seeks to add to the body of behavioral science information that general readers find both inherently interesting and applicable to their daily lives. It identifies what savvy communicators do before delivering a message to get it accepted.”

Fair enough. I qualify as a general reader. I’m not a psychologist or academic and I’m always looking for information and insights that are both interesting and helpful. I was prepared to be impressed.

The first warning that this might not be the book I expected came on page 4. That’s where Cialdini describes the concept of “anchoring,” but doesn’t use that term at all. I admit to distrusting writers who don’t use common terms to refer to their concepts or don’t mention their colleagues by name to give them credit or share any references to research that comes to different conclusions. I expect that from political speech writers. I don’t expect it from a professor at a major university.

There are good things in this book. An example is the discussion of “single-chute questions” and how they can distort understanding and research findings. Even so, by page 30 I was already getting frustrated. That’s where Cialdini says

“Plenty of research shows that reducing the distance to an object makes it seem more worthwhile.”

That may be true, but a footnote would have been helpful. More helpful would have been an example of the research, complete with names of who did it and how it was structured. You don’t have to show me a lot of the research, but a complete description of one piece of the “plenty” would be nice. Throughout the book, Cialdini refers to studies but offers no descriptions and no footnotes. It makes me wonder about the quality of the research and the validity of his conclusions.

Then there are statements like this one: “Already some data show…” I don’t know what “already” means. Is that research done in the last 10 years or the last 6 months? And I certainly would like to know more about what “some data” is.

By the time I got to page 45, I was making marginal notes about things being very general and facts being stated without support.

Around page 50, he presents a study that he says shows that people make decisions for reasons that aren’t strictly economic. Well, duh! The only people who don’t know that are traditional economists. Human beings know it quite well and a variety of psychologists and behavioral economists have pointed it out.

Even though I was frustrated by extraneous material that didn’t seem to fit and broad statements about research with no details or footnotes. I pushed ahead until I got to page 130. That’s where I found this.

“In one university physics class, women students who engaged in such a self-affirmation exercise just twice – once at the outset and once in the middle of the semester – scored better on the course’s math-intensive examinations by a full letter grade.”

I’m pretty sure that if one of Cialdini’s students wrote that in a paper his red comments would cover the page. One physics class? How can that be a valid sample? Better by a full letter grade? Better than what? Better than their peers? Better than they had in another class? Better than other women taking physics? It was enough to make me consider abandoning the book right there.

But, hope springs eternal. I decided to push ahead anyway. I was at page 146 when I finally slammed the book shut for good. That’s where you find this:

“Sleep researchers have noted that in field tests of combat artillery units, teams that are fully rested often challenge orders to fire on hospitals or other civilian targets. But after 24-36 sleepless hours, they often obey superiors’ directives without question and become more likely to shell anything.”

Really? What army is this? Who orders gun crews to fire on hospitals or other civilian targets? Would you like to know? I sure would. Guess what? There’s no footnote for this one, either. That’s where I quit reading.

Bottom Line

There are some good things about Pre-suasion. I’m sure that some of the material is valid and might be helpful. I just don’t know how to figure out which material that is. Instead of being a great sequel to a legendary book, this one is filled with slipshod research, questionable assertions, and sloppy writing. It’s not worth your money or your time.


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