I blame my suspicious nature on my friendly neighborhood grocery store.

This store used to be a logically arranged market with bright lights and clean floors — a downright friendly place to shop.

And then the bulldozers arrived to morph it into a big fancy chi-chi supermarket complete with mood lighting and cushy chairs.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against beautiful spaces and modern conveniences. But I’m no fool. I knew all of this effort was to one end — to get me to drop more of my hard-earned money on the way out.

Of course they had a big splashy Grand Re-opening and from that day on I cast a jaundiced eye on everything from the way the produce was stacked to the new pricing tactics.

Take the “Three for $6!” special of the week. Why not just say $2 each and drop the exclamation mark, I muttered to myself as I placed one bag of Fritos® in the cart. Before I could wheel away I had my answer. Three customers dutifully placed three bags each in their carts. Not two, not four, but three bags of Fritos.

In his fascinating book Influence: Science and Practice (Allyn & Bacon, 2000), Arizona State University psychology professor Robert Cialdini examines the science of selling and the silent triggers that savvy marketers use to persuade our buying behaviors.

Cialdini organizes compliance techniques into six categories based on psychological principles that direct human behavior:

Reciprocation

When a hair-netted demonstration lady can get you to accept a food sample, you are far more likely to purchase that product than if you simply walked past a fancy display of the same product. We feel the need to reciprocate her kind gesture. It’s the polite thing to do.

Consistency

If you splurge on the $24-a-pound fresh Chilean sea bass, you’re more apt to go ahead and buy the $12.95 spice rub perched next to it—not because you know anything about the product, but it seems to be consistent with the persona of someone who would spend that kind of money on gourmet fish.

Likability

Home parties (think: Tupperware®) work because someone who likes you puts you into a buying situation, requiring you to prove that you like them back.

No one wants to be the one deadbeat friend who just happened to forget her checkbook.

Social proof

Celebrity endorsements and depictions of beautiful people with perfect lives using a particular product triggers the assumption they are beautiful because of they use the product. The implication is that if we buy it we’ll be like them too.

Authority

Put a white lab coat on a young college student, position her behind the Lancôme counter and most people will assume she has some advanced degree in skincare technology therefore making it wise to pay $124 for the jar of wrinkle cream she recommends highly. And how about those Fritos? My fellow shoppers were manipulated by a sense of authority that said they had to buy three bags.

Scarcity

Remember Beanie Babies®? Cabbage Patch Kids®? The words “Limited Edition” or “While they last,” trigger the influence of scarcity. When we believe there may not be enough to go around the sense of urgency — or greed — influences us to act before it’s too late.

Cialdini says these silent persuaders can be powerful influencers, manipulating our buying behaviors. And not only in the grocery store. Every day you step into the zone of influence when you listen to the radio, read the paper, watch TV or walk into a store. But if you recognize these ploys you can brace yourself against reacting mindlessly to the onslaught of silent persuaders.

And when you see a sample lady up ahead, you might want to just keep on walking.

© 2005 Debt-Proof Living. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

"Debt-Proof Living" was founded in 1992 by Mary Hunt.  What began as a newsletter to encourage and empower people to break free from the bondage of consumer debt has grown into a huge community of ordinary people who have achieved remarkable success in their quest to effectively manage their money and stay out of debt.  Today, "The Cheapskate Monthly" is read by close to 100,000 Cheapskates. Click here to subscribe.