The students in my AD374 Marketing II class recently read the classic book Influence. Social scientist and author Robert Cialdini describes six psychological principles of influence that “compliance professionals” (from sales people to con artists) exploit to manipulate others:
- Commitment and consistency
- Social Proof
The same principles can be used ethically, of course, and smart marketers use these tactics every day. In fact, Cialdini also teaches businesspeople how to do that very thing.
As a practical exercise in recognizing the six principles, the students analyzed the Steven Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can. The based-on-real-events movie set in the 1960s features Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale, the teenage con artist who convinced others to believe he was a commercial pilot, doctor, and lawyer. He also committed bank fraud by cashing $4M in fake checks.
“How,” you may ask, “was a teenage boy able to impersonate a Pan Am airline pilot?” Armed with a charming personality and a fake ID, clothed in a pilot’s uniform, and able to speak some essential airline jargon, Abagnale capitalized on the principles of liking and authority. And he never flew on Pan Am (where he might be recognized as a pretender).
The story seems unbelievable but it’s true. Abagnale was finally arrested and served time in prison before being released to the custody of the FBI. He continues to work with the FBI and consults with businesses about security issues.
Abagnale gave a talk in 2013 in which he recounts his story (many points are funny) but also talks about the impact of his decisions later in life. If you’ve read Influence, you’ll notice how Abagnale was able to use many of those principles to pull off his cons.