There is a thin line between what is considered as human behaviour that is given and human behaviour that we can influence by means of willpower. Charles Duhigg (The power of habit, 2012) examines the boundaries. He found that while gambling addiction is not considered behaviour that we cannot change, a man who kills his wife while sleepwalking is considered showing behaviour that he cannot change. To the latter a judge said: “You are a decent man and a devoted husband. I strongly suspect that you may well be feeling a sense of guilt. In the eyes of the law you bear no responsibility.” The gambling addict who was seduced by casinos to gamble away her whole fortune heard from a judge that she herself was responsible for her deeds because she should have taken “personal responsibility to prevent and protect [herself] against compulsive gambling.”

Duhigg agrees with the differentiation: the man who murdered his wife in his sleep did not know he had that habit. The woman who gambled away all she possessed knew she had that habit. He states: “once you know a habit exists, you have the responsibility to change it. If she had tried a bit harder, perhaps she could have reined them in. Others have done so, even in the face of greater temptations. … once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom – and the responsibility – to remake them.”

Robert Cialdini (Influence, 2007) discusses the basic weaknesses our brains have. Our brains are programmed to implement “automatic, stereotyped behaviour”. Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011) writes that this behaviour is steered by one of the two systems in the mind: “System 1”. He explains: “System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” System 2, on the other hand, according to Kahneman “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it … The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.”

Kahneman continues: “We are born prepared to perceive the world around us, recognize objects, orient attention, avoid losses, and fear spiders. Other mental activities become fast and automatic through prolonged practice.”

The reason that we have a System 1 and 2 in the first place is that humans only “dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget you will fail.” By letting System 1 steer a major portion of our behaviour we save energy to focus our attention to things we think are important. But while we focus on a task we do not see other things. For an example see: https://youtu.be/vJG698U2Mvo.

Most of the time System 1 not only helps us save a lot of time but also helps us make the right judgments about situations. Nevertheless, our brain is not an objective machine. Since humans are a social species some social mechanisms have been programmed into the brain to support our social behaviour. Sensitiveness to injustice, that we saw among the Capuchin monkeys, is one of them.

Cialdini names six social mechanisms that we possess but that can be used, and are used, to severely manipulate us. He calls these “principles” that can be used as “weapons of influence”. Each principle has an “ability to produce a distinct kind of automatic, mindless compliance from people, that is, a willingness to say yes without thinking first.” First there is a trigger, and then there is automated action: “Click and the appropriate tape is activated; whirr and out rolls the standard sequence of behaviors.”

He continues: “The evidence suggests that the ever-accelerating pace and informational crush of modern life will make this particular form of unthinking compliance more and more prevalent in the future. It will be increasingly important for the society, therefore, to understand the how and why of automatic influence.”

Cialdini’s six principles – “consistency, reciprocation, social proof, authority, liking, and scarcity” – are described by him, as well as “how to say no”.

Reciprocation involves the mechanism that if we receive a gift it triggers feelings of obligation to give a gift back. The principle is used to trick people into feeling obliged to buy something after they have received a gift or  to get someone to feel obliged to agree to “a substantially larger return favor”.

How to say no? “As long as we perceive and define [an] action as a compliance device instead of a favor, [the trickster] no longer has the reciprocation rule as an ally: The rule says that favors are to be met with favors; it dos not require that tricks be met with favors.”

Consistency concerns how we are seen. “The person whose beliefs, words, and deeds do not match may be seen as indecisive, confused, two-faced, or even mentally ill. On the other side, a high degree of consistency is normally associated with persona and intellectual strength. It is at the heart of logic, rationality, stability, and honesty.

The trick here is to get people to commit to something and thereby “set the stage for your automatic and ill-considered consistency with that earlier commitment.” The way to say no is to pay attention to our body to find out if we are “trapped into complying with a request we know we don’t want to perform”. We then feel our stomach tighten we know we are being tricked. The other way to say no is to ask one’s self the question: “Knowing what I know now, if I could go back in time, would I make the same choice?”

The third principle is social proof. “It states that one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. The principle applies especially to the way we decide what constitutes correct behavior.” When does this principle work best? “In general, when we are unsure of ourselves, when the situation is unclear or ambiguous, when uncertainty reigns, we are most likely to look to and accept the actions of others as correct.” Cialdini adds: “But, in addition, there is another important working condition: similarity.” Social proof by people “just like us” works best.

We can say no by establishing whether “the social-proof automatic pilot is working with inaccurate information”, either because it is purposely falsified like canned laughter on TV, or because a “pluralist ignorance phenomenon” occurs “in which everyone at an emergency sees no cause for alarm”.

The fourth principle is liking: “as a rule, we most prefer to say yes to the requests of someone we know and like”. Friends and people similar to us can misuse this principle, as well as good-looking people, people who pay us compliments and celebrities. The way to say no is to check whether “we feel ourselves liking the practitioner more than we should under the circumstances”.

The fifth principle is authority. We have an “inability to defy the wishes of the boss”.  We take statements by individuals of authority at face value, and thereby run the risk of being unjustly swayed by authorities making mistakes or people posing as authorities, for instance by wearing authoritative clothes, using authoritative titles and displaying “an aura of status and position”.

How to say no?  “A fundamental form of defence against this problem … is a heightened awareness of authority power [in order to not be caught by surprise]. When this awareness is coupled with a recognition of how easily authority symbols can be faked, the benefit will be a properly guarded approach to situations involving authority-influence attempts.”

The sixth principle, scarcity, employs the “idea of potential loss”. This idea “plays a large role in human decision making. In fact, people seem to be more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value”. What we feel we lose is choice: “As opportunities become less available, we lose freedom; and we hate to lose freedoms we already have.” The scarcity principle operates “powerfully on the worth we assign things”. The principle works the most effective when there is a “drop from abundance to scarcity”. This is especially the case when the scarcity is caused by “social demand”: “Not only do we want the same item more when it is scarce, we want it most when we are in competition for it.”

How to say no? “Whenever we confront the scarcity pressures surrounding some item, we must also confront the question what it is we want from the item. If the answer is that we want the thing for the social, economic, or psychological benefits of possessing something rare, fine … But very often we don’t want a thing purely for the sake of owning it. We want it, instead, for its utility value; we want to eat it, or drink it, or touch it … or otherwise use it. In such cases it is vital to remember that scarce things do not taste or fel or sound or ride or work better because of their limited availability.”

According to Duhigg habits are moments when System 1 takes over from System 2: we go on auto-pilot, for instance to do the dishes or to drive our car. A so-called habit loop initiates in which the routine “is the most obvious aspect”. But there are two more factors to consider: the trigger that sets the routine off and the reward that follows the routine.

After having identified the routine, according to Duhigg step two is to examine the reward: “By experimenting with different rewards, you can isolate what you are actually craving, which is essential in redesigning the habit.” Then, one needs to study the trigger, or cue. “The reason why it is so hard to identify the cues that trigger our habits is because there is too much information bombarding us as our behaviors unfold. … To identify a cue amid the noise, we can … [i]dentify categories of behaviors ahead of time to scrutinize in order to see patterns.”

Step four is redesigning the habit. “Once you’ve figured out the habit loop – you’ve identified the reward driving your behavior, the cue triggering it, and the routine itself – you can begin to shift the behavior. You can change to a better routine by planning for the cue and choosing a behavior that delivers the reward you are craving.”