• David de Souza

The 80/20 Guide to Persuasion - 53 Mental Models

Updated: Oct 7



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: Part 1 - Persuasion

  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:


53 Mental Models for Persuasion


1. The Map is not the Territory

  • We often try and increase accuracy to the point of uselessness. Provide enough information to be useful and then a little more as needed.

2. 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..."

3. Anchoring

  • 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: a charity who tries to sell you a circus ticket and if you decline they offer a chocolate bar for sale instead.

4. Arguments/Counterarguments

  • Choose your argument wisely. Let sleeping dogs lie when they don't affect your primary concerns.

  • 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."

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

5. Associations

  • 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 capitalism.

  • 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".

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

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

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

6. Attention

  • A message that is ignored can not be persuasive. The message must get the person's attention.

  • The thoughts going through the person's head when the communication is being heard plays a pivotal role in persuasion.

  • 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 gains our attention, we suddenly no longer notice the hunger.

7. 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.

8. Availability Bias

  • Most conversation is small talk. We are simply looking for something to say to avoid silence and to keep the conversation going. We usually talk about whatever is at the forefront of our mind.

9. Belittlement

  • Most lawsuits (and bad reviews) come from a sense of belittlement. People lash out when they are belittled to increase their status/ego or to shrink yours.

10. Benchmarking

  • Every decision is a comparison of alternatives. If you can influence how people see the alternatives you can sell anything.

11. Bottlenecks

  • When it comes to change, people usually add heat and pressure but rarely think about removing barriers.

12. Choice

  • We prefer choice, even if it makes us worse off. For example: people prefer to make the choice to turn off a family members' life support even though they feel worse compared to a doctor making the decision.

  • 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, however. This is the paradox of choice.

13. Cognitive Dissonance

  • Propaganda takes advantage of our rationalizing of thoughts and behavior; so they appear reasonable to ourselves and others.

  • A great marketer has the ability to express powerful, hidden reasonings indirectly because some reasoning is socially unacceptable and can not be expressed openly. The buyer would reject the message if it were.

  • To spot cognitive dissonance, look for the trigger. The trigger is what made you realize that your actions were in conflict with your self-image.

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

i. Making them seem like a hypocrite.

ii. 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:

i. Giving to charity.

ii. Buying a car

iii. Voting for a politician.

14. Commonplace

  • When making an argument start from the audiences commonplace (a view that your audience, as a group hold), not yours.

15. Confirmation Bias

  • When deciding if a possibility is correct, people look for confirmation instead of examples that do not align.

16. Conspicuous Reserve

  • A common technique of people in a secure, high social position. The desire to show their status but to do so in a modest way. They show their superiority by highlighting their indifference to status. They buy old station wagons and deliberately downgrade.

17. Desires

  • Don't ask people what they want. For example, most people would say they want more positive news on TV. Men say that they want an intelligent woman but in reality, they would rather have an attractive one.

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

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

  • There are two opposing forces of 'desire' and 'resistance', when desire is greater than resistance, the purchasing decision is made. The longer the decision is being considered, the higher the tension becomes, and eventually, the purchase will be made.

  • Don't create desire, channel and direct it by utilizing people's hopes, dreams and fears.

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

  • "We are most likely to find revolutions where a period of improving economic and social conditions is followed by a short sharp reversal in those conditions. It is not traditionally the most downtrodden people - who have come to see their deprivation as part of the natural order of things- who are especially liable to revolt. Instead, revolutionaries are more likely to be those who have been given at least some taste of a better life. When the economic and social improvements they have experienced and come to expect suddenly become less available, they desire them more than ever and often rise up violently to secure them.

18. Differentiation

  • You want your customers to be loyal and loving towards your brand even when there is little difference between your products and your competition. To create this 'illogical loyalty' create differentiation in the mind of the buyer.

19. Emotions

  • 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

i. Show evidence

ii. Offer support

iii. Tell stories

19.1 Anger

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

19.2 Curiosity:

  • The job of your headline (or message) is to stop the reader and to compel her to read the second line.

19.3 Envy

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

19.4 Fear

  • Fear is most effective when: It scares people greatly and clear steps are given to help the person change (otherwise, the person will be indecisive)

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

  • We want to understand the world. People who set our minds at ease are label makers. For example: The doctor who is able to describe what is going on in our body.

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

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

19.5 Guilt

  • When we feel guilt we are less likely to pay attention to the logic of an argument.

  • People who are made to feel guilty were 3 times more likely to comply with a request.

19.6 Love/Sex

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

19.7 Power:

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

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

19.8 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. Identity/Status

  • Appeals to self-image are effective for persuasion.

  • People make decisions based on their identity, norms, and principles. They ask themselves: What do people like me (environmentalist/mothers/firemen) do in situations like this?

  • Status symbols are important to people caught in a stratified life

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

  • People share things that make them look good. We don't share things that make us or others look bad. Remarkable things make people who talk about them remarkable and give them social currency.

  • Products that are too good or too high status may cause people to ask: "Am I good enough for this product?"

  • 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.

  • "Your prospect must identify with your headline before he can buy from it. It must be his headline, his problem, his state of mind at that particular moment".

21. Fixed Action Patterns

  • Fixed action patterns are blindly mechanical behaviors in species. 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, for example: canned laughter.

22. Groups

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

23. Liking

  • The number 1 rule of salespeople is to get the customer to like you (in reality, it is the pre-suasion technique of the customer thinking the seller likes them that causes the result.)

  • Any attempt to sell to someone who doesn't know or like you will fail 95% of the time.

  • Humans are susceptible and open to people who think like them. When you think like someone, they will see you as a friend. It's easier to change a mind on 1 issue, after being seen as a friend, then every issue as an enemy.

  • The more familiar something is the more it will be liked: "What the masses term truth is the information which is most familiar."

  • 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 they were trying to please someone who is attractive.

  • When someone treats us continually well, we receive a consistent reward. The result is that we take them for granted. Give people sporadic reinforcement to keep them wanting you.

  • "If you could master one element of personal communication that is more powerful than anything we've discovered it is the quality of being likable.... if your audience likes you, they'll forgive just about everything else you do wrong. If they don't like you, you can hit every rule right on target and it doesn't matter".

24. Loss Aversion

  • People are more motivated by loss than by a proportional gain.

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

25. Momentum

  • 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.

26. Multiple Ways to win

  • Play games you can't lose by having multiple ways you can win. For example: an advert that has the opportunity to include partners' products will improve the relationship. Even if the advert is not effective in selling, it will have solidified a relationship.

27. Newton's 3rd Law/ Reactance

  • 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.

  • Jurors who are told to disregard evidence weigh it more heavily.

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

  • People resist unwelcome attempts to persuade them. People can't resist what they do not notice.

  • 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 work under the radar of persuasion.

  • People sometimes doubt what they are told but they never doubt what they conclude.

28. Peripheral/Central Routes to Persuasion:

  • Peripheral: Little attention is needed. Persuasion is determined by simple cues. For example: watching TV while doing another task.

  • Central: The listener is careful and thoughtful in their consideration. In this situation, persuasion is determined by how well the message can stand up to scrutiny.

29. Pre-suasion:

  • 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.

  • 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 persuade them to buy French wine).

  • Anything that is given attention will lead people to overestimate its importance.

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

30. Questions