Title: Influence: The psychology of persuasion
Author: Robert Cialdini
Pages: 336

Have you ever been approached by a door-to-door salesman who claimed that Mr. Gaitonde down the road had just bought two copies of the encyclopaedia, one for himself and one to gift to someone else? We were able to see right through the salesman’s foolish ruse and turned him away with a knowing smile on our faces.

It turns out that just because we were able to see through that clumsy salesman’s ruse it doesn’t mean that we are immune to being influenced and manipulated in other, much more subtle and powerful ways. Consider this:

  • Websites that only accept a certain number of members initially (Gmail did this when it first started) are trying to make you want to be a member more by making it scarce.
  • My company’s corporate social responsibility department gives out small bookmarks and calendars because they are trying to get us to see ourselves as more helpful and socially responsible – resulting in more volunteers.

These are just two ways in which I realized that I was being influenced after reading Influence. I stumbled across this book while searching for books on management and leadership. I thought this book would teach me how to influence people using psychological tricks. However, the book is geared towards explaining how we can defend ourselves against people whom Cialdini calls compliance professionals – those who subtly manipulate and influence us into doing things we wouldn’t otherwise (think of unscrupulous advertising executives or insistent salesmen).

Although the book didn’t teach me how to influence others I enjoyed myself immensely while reading it and learned a lot. It is divided into different chapters based on principles like scarcity(we want things that are in short supply or harder to maintain) and social proof. Each chapter ends with a section titled, “How to say no”; which teaches how we can defend ourselves against the influence tactics.

Influence was a surprisingly light read. It quotes dozens of interesting and amusing research studies that read like anecdotes. I also gained a new respect for the field of psychology.

Paramahansa Yogananda was a Hindu holy man who travelled to America in 1920 to introduce ancient Indian meditation techniques to the west. Yogananda is hardly a gifted writer but he has some fascinating stories to tell. Stories of his meetings with Tagore, Gandhi and other major historical figures were interesting to read.

Yogananda claims to have been taught an ancient yoga technique that allows one to achieve “direct, personal experience of God”. The book contains no description of the technique (which can only be taught by certified instructors).

Since Yogananda’s life was dedicated towards spreading Kriya Yoga in America it comes as no surprise that he tries to highlight ‘the essential unity’ of Hinduism and Christianity by quoting the Bible repeatedly.

Yogananda was definitely a profoundly holy man who loved God deeply. However I doubt some of his more interesting interpretations of Christian theology have much merit.

‘A fine balance’ is a historical novel set during the Indian Emergency of 1975-1977. The entire book revolves around four characters – the still beatiful Parsi widow, the traumatised student, the stoically suffering tailor and his firebrand nephew. They are all brought together as a result of mayhem caused by during the Indian emergency of 1975.

In 1975 the Allahabad High Court found the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, guilty of election malpractice and removed her from the Parliament null and void. Strikes and rallies started on a country-wide scale to demand her resignation. Indira declared a state of emergency ostensibly to prevent ‘internal disturbance’. Rumours were also heard of ‘a foreign hand’ – allegedly the CIA – worsening things. The declaration of emergency gave her almost dictatorial powers, suspending elections and civil liberties.

It was beyond a doubt one of the most controversial periods in modern Indian history. The government, no longer encumbered by having to respect civil liberties, went on a rampage with their ‘garibi hatao’ (abolish poverty) campaign. Many politicians, union leaders and even student leaders were jailed and allegedly tortured. Freedom of speech was absent and newspapers were muzzled. Thousands of poor illiterate men were forced to have vasectomies. Slum-dwellers were left homeless or were killed when slums in Delhi were demolished. It is this India in which Mistry’s characters go about their wretched lives, living in miserable conditions, working for a pittance and suffering grave injustices.

Interestingly Indira is never referred to by name in the book. The ‘city by the sea’ described in the book is most probably either Mumbai or Kolkata. Mistry’s potrayal of India is ruthless, be prepared for a poignant look at India’s many problems – poverty, caste violence, corruption, etc. As a review on the book jacket says, this is truly the India novel.