Using Principles of Influence to Enhance Emergency Preparedness

In a previous post, I touched on the science of persuasion and the concept of social proofing as a way in which people and groups respond to uncertainty. Robert Cialdini pioneered the study of influence in his books Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and Influence: Science and Practise

Recent studies have shown that fewer than half of U.S. and Canadian households have emergency preparedness plans in place, despite their proven effect in assisting both the speed and quality of recovery. Using Cialdini’s study of influence may provide additional understanding and insight into how organizations and governments (particularly EM agencies) can increase household participation in emergency preparedness plans.

The six principles of influence are reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity. These principles have been studied extensively and are backed up by empirical studies in the fields of psychology, marketing, economics, anthropology and social sciences. Each of these principles must be employed with the strongest ethical standards as a fundamental guiding philosophy. 

The first three principles are examined below in the context of emergency preparedness, with part 2 to be posted next week:

Reciprocation. As a general rule, people feel obligated to return favours offered to them. As with all the principles of influence, this trait is common across all human cultures. An example of this is when a small gift is provided by a salesperson to a potential customer. Even if the gift is unwanted, it will influence the receiver to reciprocate in some way. 

How could the principle of reciprocation be used to convince individuals and households to prepare for emergencies? A small gift, like a detailed ‘personal preparedness plan’ booklet, customized to the specific hazards of the geographic location may encourage participation. Recipients of the booklet could ‘reciprocate’ by posting about their plans as part of an integrated campaign. 

Commitment and Consistency. Appearing to be consistent in behaviour and action is a strongly held desire, as is the desire to stand by commitments made. This is why some retail outlets may offer an attractive, or “low ball” offer to consumers, in order to get them into the store, then using these techniques to upsell, or make the initial (lower) offer appear less favourable to the customer.

This principle used in the context of emergency preparedness can also help the organization assess the effectiveness of an initiative. Using the example of the booklet above, commitment to ‘practising the plan’ could be sought and obtained through methodical followup, targeted social and traditional media campaigns.

Social Proof. The principle of social proof holds that people will look to those similar to themselves when making decisions, particularly in times of uncertainty. Unfortunately, this principle of persuasion is sometimes used to exploit often vulnerable populations, through deliberate disinformation campaigns or ‘infomercials’ claiming to provide proof of a biased claim.

Used ethically, social proof can be a powerful technique to persuade people in a homogenous group to adopt a set of behaviours. In an emergency preparedness context, a small sign prominently displayed in a front window, may encourage others to follow suit. 

As always, it is important to remember these techniques must be employed to the highest ethical standards.

Stay tuned for part two of this series. Should you or your organization wish to learn more, please feel free to contact me directly. 

Author: Alison Poste

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