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Easy Way To Tell Which Influencing Techniques Are Effective


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    We are all overwhelmed by professional and career development advice at work or on social media. Other than the authority of the source (LinkedIn Influencer or blue check mark on Twitter), it is difficult to sort the good techniques from the ineffective ones. They are all presented in the most positive light with plenty of anecdotal evidence to back them up. But can we believe this and should we invest our efforts in learning and then deploying those methods?

    Here I will teach you a cognitive-science backed way to separate the wheat from the chaff with the help of the famous Müller-Lyer illusion.

    I call this the Müller-Lyer illusion test to identify weapons-grade persuasion.

    If you’ve not encountered the Müller-Lyer illusion before, try judging the lengths of the three black lines below.

    Depiction of the  Müller-Lyer illusion. All three lines are the same length but some look longer because of the arrow heads.

    It appears that the middle line is the longest of the three black lines and the top line the shortest. However, when actually measured out in red, it is clear that all three lines are all the same length. But now that you know this, look at the black lines again and see if you can convince your mind to stop falling for the illusion. You can’t.

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    According to the world renowned psychologist and winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics, Daniel Kahneman, there are two main thinking processes that occur in human brains. System 1 is the fast and automatic way we decide things. System 2 is a slower, more reason-based way of thinking [1].

    We continue to succumb to the Müller-Lyer illusion because our System 1 thinking overrides the slower System 2 level, which is trying to clarifying the illusion to our brains but without success.

    The same is true with influencing techniques. The best ones are simple, and engage System 1 thinking in the subjects you are trying to persuade.

    To apply this test to influencing techniques, ask yourself – despite knowing the method, do I still fall for it when others use it on me? If so, that is persuasion gold and you’ve found a top influencer who you should follow.

    All of Robert Cialdini’s influence principles operate through System 1 engagement [2]. They are all fast acting, and for which people have little or no natural defense.

    LinkedIn Influencers who peddle techniques that stop working on you after you learn them, are sophistry and BS mongers. These are mainly done by System 2 processes and involve reasoning as the main basis for persuasion. You’ve probably been taught that reasoning with people is a good way to persuade them. That’s wrong. New research has shown that reasoning in humans evolved more for argumentation and not for decision making [3,4]. These techniques have low potential for moving others to your view. Instead they make people argue with you leading to non-compliance.

    Persuasion techniques that work on you even after you understand them are the only ones worth knowing and using to advance our careers.


    1. Thinking, Fast and Slow By Daniel Kahneman, Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, NY 2011.
    2. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion By Robert B. Cialdini, Revised Ed., Collins Business Essentials, New York, NY 2007
    3. The Enigma of Reason By Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2017
    4. Mercier, H.; Sperber, D. “Why do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory” Behavioral and Brian Sciences, 2011, 34, 57-111.

    Shaun Mendonsa, PhD is an influencing expert and pharmaceutical development leader. He writes on the topics of influence and persuasion, and develops next generation drugs in human pharma by advising international pharmaceutical CROs and CMOs. He can be reached at [email protected].


    Influence, Persuasion, Career Development, Leadership Tips

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