Cialdini Asks is a series of video interviews in which I ask experts in behavioral science about the journey that spurred their literary and academic work: how they wrote about it for a larger and more popular audience, the aspects of their content, and the motivations behind their work. 

Today, I interview Adam Grant, Professor of Management at the Wharton University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, Originals and Give and Take, and he recently published Option B with Sheryl Sandberg. Adam’s 2016 TED Talk was watched almost 6 million times, and he has been recognized as one of the world’s 25 most influential management thinkers.

It was a pleasure speaking with Adam for the Cialdini Asks Interview Series.

Read the transcript of this interview below.

Robert Cialdini:                      

Hello, I’m Bob Cialdini, a behavioral scientist and author of the book Influence as well as the new book Pre-Suasion. I’d like to tell you about a series of video interviews I’ve conducted with individuals who I admire and who have written about behavioral science not just for the academic community but as well for the larger community. Individuals such Dan Ariely, Adam Grant, Amy Cuddy and Richard Thaler. In this series of interviews called Cialdini Asks, I try to get beneath the surface and behind the scenes, inquiring into the motivations that spurred the work of these individuals and their decisions to write about it for a popular audience. I also asked them about aspects of their work that exceeded their expectations in terms of impact as well as those aspects of their work they felt have been most under appreciated. I even asked them to tell us a funny story or revealing one that nobody knows about them and their work. I know that in the process, I have been surprised, fascinated and informed by their answers. I hope that the same will be true for you. So I do hope that you will look out for and tune in to the Cialdini Asks video series as we make it available online over the next several weeks. Thanks.

Robert Cialdini:                      

Hi, Adam.

Adam Grant:                   

Hey, Bob. Great to see you.

Robert Cialdini:                      

You as well. One of the basis I employ to select people for this interview series involves not just the contributions they’ve made to behavioral science with their research but also how they’ve extended the reach of behavioral science beyond the academic community to the larger community. You’ve done that with a pair of terrific books, Give and Take, first, and then more recently, Originals, both of which I read cover to cover at one sitting.

Adam Grant:                   

Oh no, I’m so sorry.

Robert Cialdini:                      

I couldn’t get enough of it, really. I have my own reasons for wanting to share behavioral science with the nonacademic reader and I wonder what yours might be. That is what were the factors that spurred you to take that particular direction?

Adam Grant:                   

Well, let me start by taking it back to 1999. I was a freshman in college. I was taking a writing seminar on social influence. The assigned reading for the seminar was a book called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. I think you might have read it a few times because you wrote it. I was just riveted that you could take all of these principles that I didn’t realize had affected my life over and over again and explain them using social science. I started telling all my friends and my family about the book and they got tired of it at some point and at the same time I was taking an Intro to Psychology class and your book was assigned for that class too and I loved it so much that I read it both times. I was just hooked. I mean, honestly, your work was what first piqued my interest in social science and I love the way that you combined the ability to explain the weird things that had happened in our lives and the barriers to our own success and happiness but also we’re able to teach us how to do better. I thought that the greatest social science ought to live in … And both generate fundamental understanding but also real applied insight and I decided I was going to do that. Really, when I got to grad school, I forgot about it because I got busy with publishing and a few weeks after getting tenure, started realizing that I had a responsibility to live up to to try to share these ideas outside the Ivory Tower. So it’s all your fault, here we are.

Robert Cialdini:                      

Well, you know, I didn’t expect that but that’s very gratifying to hear. That’s terrific. But let me ask the first substantive question that I like to ask in these interviews. Once again, let me begin by saying that I’m a big fan of your research but I was especially taken with the study of yours showing that putting a small sign in examination rooms reminding doctors that washing their hands would reduce their chance of getting an infection had no effect on their hand washing but a sign reminding them to wash their hands because it would reduce their patient’s chance of getting an infection increased hand washing by 45%. What was the impetus for that study? That is, what was the insight or experience that lead you to want to do that particular study?

Adam Grant:                   

It was a combination of things. So one of the ways, Bob, that your work has really influenced me is it’s showed me the power of small interventions to have a large impact. When I started graduate school, I knew I wanted to do field experiments where we could make relatively minimal changes to people’s environments but produce a pretty dramatic effect on behaviors that matter. I’d been working on this on a couple of settings and then my wife was pregnant, we were expecting our first child and we went into the hospital and I saw these signs on the wall that said things like gel in, wash out. Even worse, here are the 12 steps to wash your hands, and I’m thinking, this is not a how-to problem, it’s a why-to problem, especially doctors and nurses and anybody who’s been trained as a healthcare professional, they know how to wash their hands. The problem is they’re busy and they’re not sufficiently motivated to do it. A colleague of mine, Dave Hoffman have been studying safety behaviors like this and we’ve been looking for an excuse to do a project together. So while we’re waiting for our daughter to arrive, I shot him a quick email and said, “I think these signs are terrible. We ought to do something about it.” Part of the instinct was that people obviously are willing to do a lot of things for others that they wouldn’t do for themselves. You’ve observed this your whole career, that there are times when immediate self interest is not sufficient but knowing the consequences of your actions for others is something that focuses your attention and brings you a sense of meaning. But we also thought that we have this basic assumption, that people are unwilling to hear that their own health is at risk. There’s a lot of research on the defensive processing of health messages and how people would say, “No, no, no. But I’m a doctor. I’m protected.” Or, in some cases, “Well, I’m in a hospital a lot. I’m exposed to a lot of diseases but I rarely get sick so either I had a superior immune system to begin with or now I’ve acquired one.” Either way, it’s going to fall on deaf ears.

Robert Cialdini:                      

Yes.

Adam Grant:                   

You can’t deny that a patient is vulnerable and so we thought maybe if we posted a sign reminding people that patients could get sick, they would stop and wash.

Robert Cialdini:                      

What I love about that is that it’s a reminder, that recognition that patients can get sick and that commitment to the welfare of the patients was in there all along. What you did with that sign was simply bring it to consciousness and that was the trigger for this remarkable 45% increase in hand washing, something that had been a barrier in hospitals that various administrators were trying to climb because physicians weren’t washing their hands. This one little thing that you touched on made that difference. I thought that was really instructive.

Adam Grant:                   

Thank you. I never quite thought about it that way. But you’re right, in some sense, it’s just … It’s another example of consistency and commitment, that it’s a group of people who have a core set of values around protecting patient health and preventing diseases and we’re just calling that to attention and making it salient for them again. I don’t think it’s unique though at all to that setting. We’ve seen for years that some of the most effective ads to get parents to buckle up when driving cars are not the ones that remind them to buckle up for themselves, are the ones that say buckle up for your kids.

Robert Cialdini:                      

Right, right. Terrific. Let me move onto another question that is one that somebody once asked me and it produced what I thought was instructive reflection on my part. It was, of all the work you’ve done, what would you say has been most under appreciated? Why do you think that is?

Adam Grant:                   

My instinct is to reject the premise of the question because it assumes that there’s some work that deserves to get more attention that it has. Honestly, I don’t think it’s my place to judge whether that’s true. I do think though that you’ve experienced this for a long time that there are certain ideas that catch on and when they become popular. Sometimes that does obscure other ideas that you might think are equally important. I guess, as I think about that, I think that the one that stands out for me is my favorite experiment that I’ve done in my whole career is one where I was working with a university fund raising callers and trying to get them to actually continue making calls and harassing alums during their dinner and get them to make donations that are so important for student scholarships and occasionally faculty salaries and buildings. Their five-minute interaction with one scholarship student was enough to increase time on the phone by 141% for the average caller per week and money raised by 172%. I love that intervention because nobody ever expected that this one five-minute interaction would make such an impact and like the hand washing experience, it was just a small reminder of the good that your work can do that seem to really boost people’s motivation. I think a lot of people have maybe overlooked that because it’s hard to relate to being a fund raiser. But I think it speaks to something really fundamental about what motivates people and how meaningful it is to know that your work has an effect on the lives of others.

Robert Cialdini:                      

Right, right. Meaning, meaning. Very important. That small intervention, hooked to this big motive inside people. It’s like flipping a switch in a stadium that suddenly all the lights go on. That flip of the switch just engaged the power of something that was already there in the bowels of the stadium, the utility system there. But the small thing that closed the circuit and made that thing viable now and motivating was the key, it was a trigger.

Adam Grant:                   

It’s a wonderful metaphor and there’s one little puzzle that comes after it which I’d love to actually get your take on which is so we got the big behavioral change. You see the caller is working harder, making more calls, spending more time on the phone. They also tend to use more effective influence strategies like they’re more likely to tell the stories of the scholarship students on the phone when they’re allowed. That translates into more donations raised. The odd thing though was I did pretest and post-test surveys of the callers. I didn’t get significant changes in a series of these experiments on their own reports of meaning or impact or their sense of being valued. It was almost like that light bulb went on but they never connected. The interaction they had with the scholarship students to the change they experienced in motivation, it was like too small for them to admit or notice that that was why they were working harder. I was curious of whether you’ve seen this as well that you get people’s behavioral to change but sometimes the attitude doesn’t follow or at least people aren’t aware of it.

Robert Cialdini:                      

That’s right. Because I think there are so many things going on. They don’t recognize that you’ve changed just one and that was the key. That’s why the behavioral science orientation to the larger community allows us to tell people what works in them even if they’re not recognizing those dimensions that are so powerful, those vectors that are so powerful. We can show them what they are and allow them to undertake behaviors that optimize those particular vectors in their own behavior. Yeah. Well, let me ask a follow up question. Feel free to reject the premise if you wish. It’s the flip side of the earlier one. Of all your work, what has most surprised you in terms of its big impact? Has there been anything that has produced oversized impact relative to your expectations?

Adam Grant:                   

Yeah, I think there probably … One of the core ideas in Give and Take, I didn’t expect it to take off the way that it did. But I went in thinking that this framework is obvious, right? The idea that some people are givers, they’re generous. Some are takers, they’re more selfish and most of us are in the middle as matchers, playing it safe and following the norm of reciprocity. That to me was really clear from the day I started doing this work and part of that was just from interacting with different kinds of people over the course of my life and part of it was from reading a lot of social science with different labels that essentially was describing these same differences and value orientations. The thing that most surprised me about this is how many people have come up with a version of growing up, my grandmother always told me there are givers and there are takers in the world but she forgot to tell me about the matchers and that’s actually the majority of people, the default instinct is to be fair and reciprocal. I just found that so odd, that people would live in an understanding … And people are at the extremes of anything but especially that people are either generous or selfish as opposed to just saying, “Look, most of the time, people approach their interactions and say, ‘I’ll do something for you if you do something for me.” I just took for granted that everyone knew that. It turns out they didn’t.

Robert Cialdini:                      

It strikes me that that’s probably because of the conspicuousness of the extremes. Those are the things that we remember because those are the things that draw our attention. The things that are in the middle that we do most of the time, we kind of gloss over as if they’re not really having the biggest impact.

Adam Grant:                   

Yeah, I think you’re right. I guess part of the reason that I found the style of matching so interesting is I’ve had a few conspicuous experiences with matchers that were almost more standout than the givers and the takers. I think, I guess when that happens it resets your expectations about what’s going to be selling it for other people.

Robert Cialdini:                      

Right, right. Okay, another question, in your experiences as researcher or author, is there a revealing or humorous story you can tell us that very few people know?

Adam Grant:                   

Well, actually yes. One of the matcher stories fits that perfectly. So I was in grad school. I think it was about halfway through my first year. I was writing a paper on a topic that was a little bit outside my comfort zone and I had another student in the program who knew that area extremely well. I sent an email and said, “Look, this is an area of your expertise, I was wondering if you’d be willing to take a look at this paper and maybe send me a few comments or suggestions, even some literature to read.” Three days later, I got an email back, two pages of detailed comments, extremely insightful and I was blown away but how responsive and how generous he was, until I saw the rest of his message which said, “Attached is a paper I’ve written. You have three days to send me your comments.” It was one of the oddest, I guess you would call it one of those click were responses like he helped me and I had activated this primal instincts that now I owed him not only an equal favor but in the same exact amount of time. It was so uncomfortable because I would have been perfectly happy to help but the fact that he felt that there was some obligation that he was now entitled to my help, it really kind of … It extinguished my motivation to help him at some level. I still did it. But it felt very transactional. I felt like he didn’t care about me. He just wanted something from me. It made me realize that the same behavior guided by different motives can have very, very different affects on us.

Robert Cialdini:                      

Right. I’ve always remarked when I speak about the principle of reciprocity and someone has said thank you to us, what we don’t ever want to say is, “Yeah, and you owe me one now.” Because that’s going to explode that goodwill that goes with the gratitude associated with having received a generous act.

Adam Grant:                   

I’m going to have to try this now just to see what the reaction is, right? I can’t imagine anyone ever saying that unless you’re the Godfather.

Robert Cialdini:                      

Here’s the last question. As you know, I’ve recently written a book called Pre-Suasion which explores what communicators do before delivering a message to increase its acceptance. I wonder, can you describe a situation in which you have seen a communicator and it could be you who said or did something first that lead to the success of an immediately subsequent request?

Adam Grant:                   

I’ve been thinking about this one a lot in part because one of the things that Pre-Suasion really caused me to reflect on is all the things that we do to set the stage for the moments that we want to have influence. I’ll tell you that actually the example that’s really stuck with me is a mistake that I made in my own career which was I was called in by a financial services company to try to help them attract and motivate and retain their junior people. Investment bank, people were treated very poorly and the stars who had lots of other options were jumping ship pretty quickly. I went in and spent a couple of months doing interviews and surveys and proposed a field experiments where we could really try to test what worked. They started arguing about whether they should just change compensation and offer more bonuses which of course they’ve done at least nine times before and haven’t done any good. It was like I was having a conversation with a Homo Economicus. “People are only motivated by incentives. That’s all there can be,” never mind the data I had collected showing that the desire to learn and the chance to help clients were the two factors that most motivated the majority of the bankers. I think I just, I lost it. I just blurted out, “I’ve never seen smart people act so dumb,” and it was one of those moments like what was I thinking, I clearly wasn’t thinking. I immediately regreted it. I got a call about seven months later from one of the head bankers and he said, “We’ve been implementing six of the 20-some recommendations that you gave us and I wanted you to know that the single most important thing that you did was you called us a bunch of idiots.” “I’m sorry. Literally, I’ve lost sleep over this. How is this possible?” He said, “You earned our trust that you’re willing to be honest with us in that situation and now we want to come back to you and do some work together.” I guess it’s a little bit like the court jester who doesn’t get his head cut off but it was good lesson and the fact that there was a time and a place to speak really candidly and maybe even a little bit too directly because it lead this group of people to believe that I was not just giving them platitudes. That I was willing to call a spade a spade and that was a big aha for me. But I don’t know that I’m ever going to word it quite like that again.

Robert Cialdini:                      

No, but I think what you revealed here anything you can do that winds up establishing your trust in the eyes of your audience is going to elevate your subsequent influence over that audience. This isn’t unusual, when I agree, [inaudible 00:22:01] use this in many other kinds of situation but there are all kinds of ways to elevate trust that people don’t think of, admitting a weakness for example, early on in their presentation which we’re schooled never to do. We’re always schooled to lead with our strengths, get people leaning in our direction before we ever mention a drawback or weakness in our case. It’s just not what the research shows. There are things that we can do that we wouldn’t expect which establish our trustworthiness and leveraged our influence subsequently.

Adam Grant:                

I’m in complete agreement on that. I will say that one of those “oh shoot” moments afterward was what would Bob tell me to do in this situation where I’m trying to have influence. I’m pretty sure you would tell me not to insult the guy that I’m trying to persuade.

Robert Cialdini:                      

Right.

Adam Grant:                   

But I guess I got lucky in that situation.

Robert Cialdini:                      

That’s right. I would have been wrong, it turns out. But this was great. I genuinely enjoyed our time interacting and learned a bunch of things that I didn’t know about you that I think the behavioral scientists and both our followers, sets of followers would be interested in knowing. So thank you very much for taking the time, Adam.

Adam Grant:                   

No, it’s a real honor that you asked and if I can turn the tables on you with one question for you.

Robert Cialdini:                      

Sure.

Adam Grant:                   

I would love to know, since writing Pre-Suasion, how has the way that you’ve lived your own influence attempts changed? I feel like we rarely get to hear the author’s own experience of what they do differently as a result of what they learned from writing the book.

Robert Cialdini:                      

Yeah. Here’s the one that stand out for me. In the book, Pre-Suasion, I also talk about the seventh principle of influence, the thing that had eluded me in my recognition of the major motivators that move people in our direction and I call it unity, the idea that if we can establish for an audience that we are of them, we are one of them, then everything inside the influence process gets easier. So I had a particular situation, I had read this research and I was ready to write about it and I was also preparing a report that needed to be done the next day and I had a hole in my data. I didn’t have data to make a particular point I wanted but I knew that a colleague of mine did have those data from a study that he had done. So I called him. He was a sort of a [inaudible 00:24:57] guy on my faculty in the psychology department and I said, “Tom,” not his real name, “Tom, I’m going to call you. I’m going to call you.” I sent him an email to this effect, “I’m going to call you and ask you for these data because I’m behind and I have a deadline for tomorrow.” So I called him and he said, “Bob, I know why you’re calling and I’m not going to be able to help.” He said, “Look, I’m a busy man too. I can’t be responsible for your poor time management skills so I’m not going to be able to help.” Before I read this research about what you do first to establish a sense of unity, I would have said, “But Tom, I really need this. This is important to me. Could you help me out?” Here’s what I said instead, “Tom, you know we’ve been in the same department now for 12 years. I really need this. It would really help me out,” and I had the information that afternoon.

Adam Grant:                   

Wow.

Robert Cialdini:                      

I did something first just as we started our interaction with, something that was in there. He knew it, that we were part of the same unit but it wasn’t top of consciousness. I just had to establish that first, make that a Pre-Suasive context in which to make my request that I really need this, “Tom, it would really help me out,” and then I got a yes. I don’t think I would have gotten a yes otherwise.

Adam Grant:                   

Wow, that’s fascinating. So you reminded him of his identification with the group and that made you someone that he actually did feel responsible for.

Robert Cialdini:                      

Exactly. We were colleagues. We were partners. We were part of the same unit and there were obligations and expectations associated with that that made him want to say yes.

Adam Grant:                   

It’s fascinating.

Robert Cialdini:                      

Yeah. Great. Okay, well, I appreciate the insightful question that you asked me. Got me to remember this particular instance and I’m glad we’ve had the chance to spend some time together. It was terrific.

Adam Grant:                   

Me too, thanks Bob.

Robert Cialdini:                      

All right. So long for now.


 

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Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy

Resilience comes from deep within us and from support outside us. Even after the most devastating events, it is possible to grow by finding deeper meaning and gaining greater appreciation in our lives. Option B illuminates how to help others in crisis, develop compassion for ourselves, raise strong children, and create resilient families, communities, and workplaces.

Learn More

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Pre-Suasion:  A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade

The author of the legendary bestseller Influence, social psychologist Robert Cialdini shines a light on effective persuasion and reveals that the secret doesn’t lie in the message itself, but in the key moment before that message is delivered.

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