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  • Writer's pictureDavid de Souza

56 Mental Models for Persuasion

Updated: Mar 5, 2022


Persuasion was a skill taught by ancient Greeks. They believed it to be critical to human happiness due to its power to filter the best ideas and avoid coercion and civil unrest.

If you want your ideas to be taken seriously you need to learn how to persuade. Persuasion is no longer taught in schools, but I’ve distilled the core principles from the best books on the subject.


I've scoured second-hand books shops and spent hours looking for expert sources of persuasion. If you think I've missed a book please do let me know in the comments as I am always looking to refine my thinking and this list.

The Books:

  1. Pre-suasion

  2. Influence

  3. Age of Propaganda

  4. The Process of Persuasion

  5. The Hidden Persuaders

  6. The Art of Manipulation

  7. Thank You for Arguing

  8. The Catalyst

  9. Breakthrough Advertising

  10. The Forbidden Keys to Persuasion

  11. The One Sentence Persuasion Course

  12. Persuasive Copywriting

  13. Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don't Matter

  14. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

  15. Contagious: Why Things Catch On

  16. Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive

I've studied these books and distilled the core principles from each. I've deleted any overlapping principles to produce this ultimate guide on the 80/20 of persuasion:


56 Mental Models for Persuasion:

  1. Action & Reaction: Newton's Third Law

  2. Activation Energy

  3. Agenda Setting Theory

  4. Algorithms

  5. Alloying

  6. Anchoring

  7. Association

  8. Attentional Bias

  9. Authority

  10. Availability Heuristic

  11. Choice Architecture

  12. Commitment & Consistency Bias

  13. Confirmation Bias

  14. Critical Mass

  15. Curiosity Instinct

  16. Denial

  17. Desire

  18. Ecosystems

  19. Ego

  20. Emotions: Anger, Calm, Fear, Guilt, Hope, Mystery, Resentment, Revenge, Sadness, Shame, Smugness, Uncertainty

  21. Evolution: Adaptation

  22. Evolution: Sexual Selection

  23. Feeback-Loops

  24. First Conclusion Bias

  25. Flywheel Effect

  26. Incentives

  27. Inversion

  28. Language Instinct

  29. Liking/Disliking

  30. Loss Aversion

  31. Mise-en-Place

  32. Momentum

  33. Narrative Instinct

  34. Niches

  35. Opportunity Cost

  36. Optionality

  37. Pareto Principle

  38. Randomness

  39. Reciprocity

  40. Resistance

  41. Sampling

  42. Scarcity

  43. Second-Order Thinking

  44. Seeing the Front

  45. Self-Preservation

  46. Sensitivity to Fairness

  47. Social Proof

  48. Status

  49. Supply & Demand

  50. System 1 vs System 2 Thinking

  51. Tendency to Minimize Energy Output

  52. The Ikea Effect

  53. The Map is Not the Territory

  54. Trust

  55. Velocity

  56. Vividness Bias

1. Action & Reaction: Newton's Third Law
  • For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. People will often respond by fighting back to a direct message. Stories are an indirect form of messaging that works under the radar of persuasion.

  • We often watch the mass media in a mindless state and are therefore more susceptible to persuasion because we do not make an attempt to refute the messages.

  • When you confront a person about their beliefs, they will harden their belief even if your argument is perfect.

  • Mirror verbalization: Repeating back what a customer ordered increased tips by 70%.

  • People are often drawn to people who treat them badly because they subconsciously feel unworthy, they are drawn to people who confirm this.

  • If someone makes a claim, for example, We spend too much money. Don't say they are wrong and provide counterexamples. Instead say: Because you deserve to be treated well and I want what's best for you.

2. Activation Energy
  • When making an argument start from the audience's commonplace (a view that your audience, as a group hold), not yours.

  • People are more likely to be persuaded if they have taken a small step in the right direction as long as the first step was made voluntarily and without coercion. The momentum will propel them to carry on.

  • To get people to act, use the emotions of:

  1. Desire

  2. Lust

  3. Joy

  4. Love

  5. Esteem

  6. Compassion

3. Agenda Setting Theory
  • The media does not change opinion by providing compelling evidence that changes peoples' minds. They persuade by giving selected issues more coverage than others. The audience believes (due to the greater attention being paid) that the selected issues are the most important.

  • "The mass media may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about..."

  • Studies have shown that people watch the news primarily to be entertained and being informed is only of secondary importance.

  • 'Master persuaders move your energy to the topics that help them, independent of facts and reason'.

  • We see what we've been conditioned to see. We accept the ideas that we've been trained to accept. Pressure to make us see differently will just make us frustrated and annoyed.

  • The US employs 8,000 people and spends more than $400 million on propaganda per year.

4. Algorithms
  • Fixed action patterns are blindly mechanical behaviors in animals. For example: A robin will attack a clump of red feathers but leave a stuffed replica without the red feathers. Humans also have these triggers.

  • We have created a world so complex and with so much information that we must deal with it by using shortcuts like animals that we once transcended.

  • Even though we consider ourselves rational animals we are rationalizing animals. Experts say that over 99% of our behavior is simply the result of conditioned responses.

  • When we have false maps in our brain, persuasion can negatively affect us. It is the result of living in a black + white world and allowing ourselves to respond automatically to words and symbols that we associate as either being good or bad. Just as someone with hay fever can have physical symptoms triggered by paper flowers, our mind can also play tricks on us so that we are triggered when we hear words such as communist, democrat, republican or capitalist.

  • The word "because" acts like an automatic reflex to get someone to do something.

  • Using the word "and+most important" as a joining phrase which implies the sentence after is similar to the one before.

  • After centuries of use and conditioning, these words, regardless of their truth carry weight and should be woven into your writing:

  1. It's as simple as

  2. Here's why...

  3. And, most important of all is the fact that

  4. Therefore...

  5. There is a basic underlying reason for this...

  6. They discovered in case after case that....

  7. This has been proven in thousands of studies

5. Alloying
  • Use layering: "Not only do get this but you also get...."

6. Anchoring
  • The door-in-the-face technique: You begin by asking for a large favor and then follow up with a smaller ask.

  • We are more likely to become influenced when we are asked for a big request, which is followed up with a smaller request, even if we are interested in neither. For example Boy Scouts selling circus tickets and countering with a chocolate bar.

  • Rejection then Retreat Technique: Make a large ask, something you know you'll be rejected for, and then ask for the item that you wanted initially. The optimal strategy is: exaggerate the initial position enough but not too much.

  • When given a bonus gift for purchasing a product, the value of the bonus gift will decline. To overcome this instead of writing: "Receive a free Ecourse" change it to: "Receive a $500 Ecourse at no cost to you.

7. Association
  • The most important factor of persuasion: The thoughts going through the person's head when the communication is being heard.

  • Virtue Device: Virtue words bring to mind pleasant images. For example democracy and freedom.

  • Poison Device: Use "bad" words/symbols to persuade us to reject by association, avoiding the need to present facts and arguments.

  • Together Device: Use poison words, virtue words and testimonials to organize the group as one mind.

  • Voting location has a big impact on how people vote. More than 10,000 people voted for school funding when the voting location was at a school.

  • Weight is linked metaphorically to seriousness, importance, and effect. People rated a candidate higher when their rating was read from a heavy clipboard.

  • Warmth is linked with being friendly. When a warm cup was given to a person, they rated the person more warmly.

  • The Catholic church tried to use force to convert people but they realized that this wasn't effective. Propaganda was used to convert people voluntarily. As result propaganda has negative connotations in Protestant countries and positive connotations in Catholic countries.

8. Attentional Bias
  • Your message must get the person's attention. A message that is ignored can not be persuasive.

  • A communicator who is able to focus a person's attention on a key element pre-loads it with importance.

  • Persuaders often draw our attention to the most favorable feature before they talk about the product. For example: A furniture website that features fluffy clouds as the background causes visitors to place more importance on comfort.

  • The only job of your headline is to stop your customer and to compel her to read the second line.

  • Personal information about ourselves is a strong magnet of attention. Use the word 'you' liberally before you make a pitch to predispose your audience for a full consideration.

  • Use incongruity theory to gain people's attention.

  • Create surprise by breaking a pattern that people have come to expect.

  • Physical needs are the foundation of Maslow's pyramid and can take priority over our safety. Mental engagement can override them. For Example, We can be starving hungry and then something distracts us and we don't notice the hunger.

9. Authority
  • A society built on authority provides many advantages, including the development of resource production, trade, defense, expansion and social control. Guidance from a recognized authority provides a useful shortcut, helping us to decide how to act.

  • People defer to experts. When you show your credentials it will allow you to influence them. Don't brag - ask someone to highlight them for you.

  • Use "experts have discovered" which continues the acceptance momentum.

  • Lawyers use jargon that we don't understand. If we do not understand the problem we are at their mercy.

  • A confident person is more persuasive. Show confidence with:

  1. A low number of speech errors (pauses help with this).

  2. Authoritative tone.

  3. Steady body posture.

10. Availability Heuristic
  • You don't need to change anything except what the person is thinking about at the moment they make the decision. For example: Asking them if they are an adventurous person? or Playing French music (to buy French wine).

  • Pre-suasion is guiding attention before a person receives a message to move the listener into agreement. The key is to focus the person on concepts that are aligned and associated with the information they are about to receive.

11. Choice Architecture
  • We prefer choice even if it makes us worse off. For example: People preferred to make the choice when to turn off life support even though they felt worse compared to a doctor making the decision.

  • When our choices are taken away or threatened, we react against this loss of control. To gain back control and to feel autonomous, we often engage in the forbidden behavior.

  • When given just one option people will find holes in it. By giving multiple options you divert their brain to thinking about which option is best.

  • Increased choice can result in increased frustration.

  • When making a choice, we are more likely to make the selection that will make others envious.

  • An indecisive person will naturally follow someone who confidently leads them.

  • When someone is indecisive using a 'fake because' will give them self-justification to go ahead.

  • Act as if the choice hurts you personally.

  • Give the impression you are conceding a plan and not making a choice: "OK, so let's tweak/improve it".

  • When everyone has finished making their point and they are petering out and time is short: summarise the best 5 opinions in a way that favors you.

  • Powerless people will lash out. Make them feel powerful. Give them the feeling of control.

  • Give the audience a choice of an action that defines them as a group.

  • Frame your choice to your audience as: 2 ways to win and no way to lose. This is a natural high-ground maneuver.

  • A logic Sandwich: "Since [commonplace], then we should [your desired choice].

  • Questions are a powerful tool for persuasion because they structure a person decision-making process by:

  1. Directing our thoughts to the relevant issues.

  2. Specifying the range of options.

12. Commitment & Consistency Bias
  • Consistency is powerful in influencing human behavior because of 'commitment'. Researchers asked people to predict if they would vote on election day. As most people want to seem virtuous they said 'yes' and this acted as a commitment device and more people went to vote.

  • Charities use consistency when calling and asking "How are you?" Our natural reaction is to say "Fine/Good" and they then reply with "I'm glad to hear that because I am calling to see if you can help the unfortunate victims of...."

  • Give a person the label of a certain trait and then make a request consistent to that trait (and provide examples of when they have done something similar).

  • Highlight a discrepancy between what a person might recommend others to do and what they are doing. This technique works because we strive for consistency. We want our beliefs and behaviors to align.

  • Use ideas & concepts that people already understand. Schemas increase memory and comprehension.

  • After a person has answered a question favorably, say "I'll let the others know" to increase commitment as their decision has now been publicly declared.

  • The Rule of Belief: "If you violate your prospect's established beliefs in the slightest degree nothing you promise him, no matter how appealing, can save your ad."

  • People who write down a statement are more committed to it even after new evidence is provided, especially those who do so publicly. People who do not write down a statement are more willing to change their minds.

  • You can increase the likelihood that someone will come to an event by saying: "We'll mark you down as coming then, Okay?" [Pause]

  • Foot-in-the-Door Technique: Start by asking for a small request in order to gain compliance for a larger request.

  • Throwing a Low-Ball Technique: The seller does not intend to sell at the low price, their only goal is to get the buyer to decide to buy. Once this is done a number of steps cement the commitment: Paperwork, financing, etc.

  • It relieves discomfort when you can show people there is a pattern.

  • To overcome the effects of peoples' consistency bias, avoid framing their commitment as a mistake. Tell them: "Their decision was correct at the time they made it".

13. Confirmation Bias
  • Confirm peoples' suspicions. Help them throw rocks at their enemies.

  • Cults often confirm what perspective members thought about their families: They are out to sabotage them.

  • If you don't want to confirm someone's suspicion, we can agree that there is a possibility their suspicion is true and ask how they had come to that conclusion.

  • The self-fulfilling prophecy - the tendency for the definition (or label) of something to become true. For example: People who are labeled smart, act smarter.

  • The Positive Test Strategy: When deciding if a possibility is correct, people tend to look for confirmation instead of instances that it's not correct.

14. Critical Mass
  • If information is within peoples' 'zone of acceptance', then that information will work to change peoples' minds. If information is outside the person's 'zone of acceptance' then the information will not persuade and it will often have a backfire effect and people become even more certain their initial thinking is correct. The solution is a more moderate appeal.

15. Curiosity Instinct
  • Gaps cause pain that we try and fix/close. Create a mental gap in your story to create curiosity.

  • Reveal a secret (or a lie) in headlines.

  • "By now you are wondering...." is a hypnosis technique that implies that you know what your audience is thinking. This creates a connection between you, and everything else that you say will be more interesting.

  • When you encounter a verbally aggressive bully, feign a sympathetic curiosity: asking for definitions, more details and suggested sources.

  • Urban legends don't have to be repeated. If you have to repeat something maybe it wasn't interesting or sticky.

16. Denial
  • We dismiss people who say we are wrong.

  • Viewpoints that are too extreme fall into peoples' 'region of rejection' and get discounted.

  • Justify peoples' failures, give them a scapegoat.

  • Cicero said:

  1. The 1st line of defense is the denial of facts.

  2. The 2nd is to challenge the definition of the action.

  3. The 3rd is to question the quality of the action.

  4. The final defense is to question the right of the tribunal.

17. Desire
  • Logic alone will not get people to act, they need desire and emotion.

  • Their beliefs may be shallow or profound, valid or false, logical or wishful thinking. It is not your job to argue with them.

  • Make a promise that is: (1) Commanding (2) Specific (3) Desirable. For example: Earn your annual salary by working 4 hours a week.

  • Desires can be: Physical (strong), Material (car), Sensual (thirst for a cold beer).

  • People all have similar psychological needs:

  1. They need to feel needed.

  2. They need a sense of hope when dealing with a difficult situation.

  3. They need a scapegoat.

  4. They need to be noticed and understood.

  5. They need to know things others (and they) aren't supposed to know. Ask a favor, make people feel important. Share a secret. Make a confession

  6. They need to be right. The instance someone feels like they are trying to be changed they feel they are "wrong" and resist.

  7. They need a sense of power. Give people a limited set of options that you decide

  • Hidden motivations are:

  1. Emotional Security

  2. Reassurance of Worth

  3. Ego Gratification

  4. Creative Outlets

  5. Sense of Power

  6. Roots

  7. Immortality

  • Often there is a conflict between our desires and persuasions. This conflict is the basis of all drama and human character.

  • "People don't change: only the direction of their desires do."

  • People pay less for soap compared to a cream. Soap only makes you clean while the cream sells the hope of beauty. You are buying the promise. We do not buy vegetables, we buy the hope of health. We do not buy a car, we buy the promise of prestige.

  • If we can control our desires we can safeguard from the tendencies that can hijack our health and relationships.

  • "When irrational acts are committed knowingly they become a delicious luxury."

18. Ecosystems
  • We often have the belief that from an evolutionary perspective humans need to be part of a group. It depends: If the person is scared or in a wary state of mind the "Don't be left out" message is more effective. If the person is feeling romantic the "Be one of a few" is more effective and the popularity-based appeal will fail.

  • Groups are maintained and strengthened by focusing their member's attention on another rival group.

  • "You can persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his'.

19. Ego
  • Appeals to self-image are effective.

  • Create the image that people want to see of themselves and sell that.

  • Ask people to describe themselves. The first thing they mention will be their identity and who they consider themselves to be.

  • When we forgo judgment and instead entertain the idea that people’s actions make sense given their own sense of mortality and their own interpretation of reality, we are well on the way to understanding them.

  • Both flattery (and greed) are one of the most powerful motivators.

  • Ask for advice on books, videos and work habits. Let them know their recommendation was good (if you liked it) and the result of the advice.

  • Tell a person how their advice has helped you. This is indirectly saying: "You are smarter than me".

20. emotions
  • When we become emotional our sense of reason shuts down. We don't realize when this is happening.

  • The more you understand words and the emotions they carry for people, the more effective you'll be at persuading.

  • Most people think they use logic but in reality, their decisions are emotional and based on character.

  • Facts and reason only influence our decisions on trivial things. With important decisions, emotion is attached, and we make decisions first and then rationalize after.

  • We make a snap emotional decision to buy a product. We then look for information to rationalize our decisions.

  • Focus on feelings instead of functions (of the product).

  • Emotions cause buying vs information (that causes analysis). You want your reader to act.

  • Statistics don't produce emotion. Bring them to life by making them more relatable or human.

  • High arousal emotions make people share more because they motivate them to action.

  1. High Arousal/Positive Emotions: Awe. Excitement. Amusement (humor)

  2. High Arousal/Negative Emotions: Anger. Anxiety. Disgust.

  3. Low Arousal/Positive Emotions: Contentment

  4. Low Arousal/Negative Emotions: Sadness

  • Find your reader's pain point and you've found your way into their emotions.

  • The job of the copywriter is not to create desire but to channel and direct it by taking hopes, dreams, fears and desires.

  • Don't tell the person how to feel, or not be afraid. Instead:

  1. Show evidence

  2. Offer support

  3. Tell stories

  • Those who give us the greatest sense of power gain more loyalty than those who demand it.

  • Emotional Refusal: Don't show the emotion the bully wants you to show. Look calm and you'll gain the audience's sympathy.

  • Don't pre-warn of the emotion you'll invoke, it will inoculate the listener. For example: This will make you laugh.

20.1 Emotions: Anger
  • Anger is the most effective emotion to get people to act.

  • Belittlement Charge: Highlight the opposition belittling your group's values or desires. This will make your group angry.

  • Keep things simple: The more confusing something is, the more annoyed people will become.

  • Overcoming someone's anger: "Nothing makes me feel worse than failing to live up to my standards. So I'm going to do everything possible....

  • When someone is aggressive, massage their ego by agreeing with their feelings (not their point of view): "I don't blame you for feeling that way. I've felt that way myself". Empathize with their feelings. Follow up with sharing an experience that caused you to feel something similar.

  • When someone is harsh be humble:

  1. It calms the person, taking the wind out of their sails.

  2. It embarrasses them.

  3. The best response: "You are probably right" or "I guess you are right"

20.2 Emotions: Calm
  • You can calm someone's emotions by overemphasizing yours. This works well if you make a mistake and you overplay how stupid you have been.

  • Use the passive voice to calm emotions. For example: Active: The dog bit the girl. Passive: The girl was bitten by the dog.

  • People who set our minds at ease because we think the world can be understood are label makers. Example: The doctor who is able to describe what is going on in your body.

20.3 Emotions: Fear
  • Don't build better mousetraps. Build larger mice (or the perception that they are big). Build a fear of mice in your customers.

  • Fear works when there are clear steps to help the person change, otherwise, the person will be indecisive.

  • The Hierarchy of Persuasion:

  1. Big Fear

  2. Identity

  3. Small Fear

  4. Aspirations

  5. Analogies

  6. Reason

  7. Hypocrisy

  8. Word Think

  • If we can't allay fears, tell the person that it is OK to be afraid. Don't tell someone not to be afraid.

20.4 Emotions: Guilt
  • People who are made to feel guilty were 3 times more likely to comply with a request. When we feel guilt we are less likely to pay attention to the logic of an argument.

  • When buying, there is often conflict between pleasure and guilt. When selling, provide moral permission for the person to have fun without guilt. Offer absolution:. "You deserve it" or "It's the right thing to do."

  • The propagandist arouses feelings of dissonance by threatening self-esteem, by making the person feel guilty by:

  1. Making them seem like a hypocrite.

  2. Making them seem like someone who does not honor their word.

  • The propagandist offers a solution, a way of reducing dissonance, guilt or shame by:

  1. Giving to charity.

  2. Buying a car.

  3. Voting for a politician.

20.5 Emotions: Hope/Fear
  • The 2 great combos of persuasion are (security + hope) and (insecurity + fear).

20.6 Emotions: Mystery
  • 'Mystery is created not from an unexpected moment but from an unexpected journey. We know where we're headed - we want to solve the mystery- but we're not sure how we'll get there. Mysteries are powerful because they create a desire for closure.

20.7 Emotions: Resentment
  • Saying: "Yes, but...." causes resentment.

20.8 Emotions: Revenge
  • If we don't want to help someone get revenge we can acknowledge the desire to seek revenge.

20.9 Emotions: Sadness
  • Sad buyers are willing to pay 30% more on average compared to neutral buyers. Sad sellers are willing to sell an item for 33% less than a neutral buyer.

20.10 Emotions: Shame
  • Over sympathizing: If you exaggerate sympathy you can make a person feel ashamed of their behavior.

20.11 Emotions: SMUGGNESS
  • When someone is condescending, smug or not listening to you. Ask a question and then remain silent until they respond.

20.12 Emotions: Uncertainty
  • When there is confusion people are attracted to the most confident person.

  • The more ambiguity there is around an idea/event/product, the less valuable that thing becomes. This is the uncertainty tax.

  • Overcome uncertainty by using trials of products or services.

21. Evolution: Adaptation
  • Build a bridge between what your reader currently believes and what you want them to believe. Build up using their kind of logic, not your own.

22. Evolution: Sexual Selection
  • Sex only sells for items people buy for sexually related purposes: (lipstick, cologne, form-fitting clothes).

  • A study showed that an attractive woman can have a large impact on the opinions of an audience on a topic that had nothing to do with beauty. Her impact was greatest when she admitted expressing a desire to influence the people as if we are trying to please someone who is attractive.

23. Feeback-Loops
  • The inoculation effect: If we are given brief exposure to a message that we can refute we become immune to any further full-scale presentation of the same message.

  • Switch the tense to the future to avoid an argument going around in circles: "How is blaming me going to help with (.....). Let's decide on a plan and figure out how we can get along".

  • "You have heard my opponent brag about his past, but I want to talk about the future."

24. First Conclusion Bias
  • A well-tailored suit can result in deference from strangers: 3.5 x more people followed a person wearing a suit who walked into traffic at a crossing.

25. Flywheel Effect
  • By thinking someone is more beautiful, wiser or abled, you bring out their best side which makes them blossom.

26. Incentives
  • Due to loss aversion, it is usually more persuasive to mention what you would lose instead of what you'll save.

  • New ideas (and inventions) are accepted quickly when it affects people's self (or group) interest/preservation.

  • We can make people care about our ideas by:

  1. Appeal to self-interest.

  2. Appeal to their identities.

  3. Appeal to the person they want to be.

  4. Not being analytical.

  5. Creating empathy for 1 specific person (not a group).

  6. Highlight that the idea is associated with something they already feel strongly about.

27. Inversion
  • Reluctant Conclusion: Be reluctant in something you are keen to prove.

  • Recovery is often faster from severe injuries compared to minor ones because with a severe injury we get it treated straight away. With minor injuries, we put it off and the problem isn't fixed.

  • Counterarguments are more effective than arguments, especially when the original argument is shown to be mistaken or misdirected.

28. Language Instinct
  • The words used to describe an object or situation direct our thoughts and responses, they define and create our social world. For example: "Fresh frozen" was preferred to "frozen fish".

  • The do/don't of adjectives and adverbs:

  1. Don't tell how great something is, let the reader decide.

  2. Information, not emphasis.

  3. Evoke the emotional response you are looking for. Do not describe your emotions. Readers do not care how the writer is feeling.

  4. Don't say it was night: show the reader it was night by saying "the moon reflected in the lake".

  • Cognitive poetics have found rhyming leads to increased persuasion.

  • Instead of using "um" get in the habit of starting a sentence with "and" when being questioned.

  • Ads that contain the following words sell more products:

  1. New

  2. Quick

  3. Easy

  4. Improved

  5. Now

  6. Suddenly

  7. Amazing

  8. Introducing