On connections


Published: January 21, 2013 by Dr. Cheryl Stenstrom

On this foggy morning I find myself on a ferry en route to Seattle for the annual ALISE conference and thinking about ‘connections’. It’s a powerful word – my research interests are focused on how we connect with different individuals and groups in the context of decision making. My recently completed doctoral study explored the connections between those in the public library community (librarians, patrons, and trustees) and the people making decisions about public library funding.

In a multi-jurisdictional case study, I interviewed key decision makers at the provincial/state level – senior government staff and elected politicians. The purpose was to be able to create picture of the funding process at that level that went beyond the recorded and regular procedures that take place during the budget process. For those groups and politicians looking for increased funding, how did they prepare to make a pitch to their colleagues? Where did the information gathering process start? What would motivate them to make a case for one particular cause over another? Conversely, how were the difficult decisions about those unfortunate programs and services being cut made? If a program received an increase, did it mean another would suffer?

Through interviews across three Canadian provinces and a thorough investigation of official supporting documentation, I was able to create that picture – or at least a snapshot of funding decisions for public libraries in the 2009-10 fiscal year. From there, I wanted to know what role interpersonal influence played in the process. Using a framework of influence developed by American sociologist Robert Cialdini (2001), six universal principles were explored. Cialdini stresses the importance of the following tactics affecting our ability to create favourable connections with people and to exert influence at the individual level.

  1. Consistency and commitment relate to a target’s need to carry through on either previous statements/promises, or actions that appear consistent with their values, statements, public beliefs, etc.
  2. Reciprocity reflects exchange theory and supports the notion that targets are more willing to comply with requests if the agent has had a prior exchange with the target. This can include examples such as favours, gifts, advice-giving, etc. Surprisingly, Cialdini asserts that an agent may be more successful in influencing a target even if the favour was received by the agent, rather than given by him or her.
  3. Social proof is the reflection of a decision maker to act in accordance with peers or otherwise accordingly in situations where one option is clearly more socially acceptable than others.
  4. Liking reflects the popular definition of the term – a mutual affinity between the target and agent – but may also encompass aspects of the mere exposure theory. In other words, a target may be more likely to feel positively toward an agent upon multiple introductions and interactions. The mere exposure theory further supports the notion that one may find an object or person more attractive as they become more familiar it. Both of these attributes can have a positive effect on influencing the target.
  5. Scarcity refers to the possible lack of availability of an object or service. An everyday example could include the retail sales pitch cliché of “Buy now! They won’t last at this price!” In the context of this study, services that may be seen as valuable and hard to obtain are seen to be scarce.
  6. Authority can refer both to legitimate authority, that is, when an agent has hierarchical or organizational power over a target; or authority of expertise. When making an appeal, those who are perceived to have genuine knowledge, or the reputation as having genuine knowledge, may be able to make more persuasive arguments (Benoit, 2008).

Indeed, I found interpersonal influence was at play in these decisions and certainly, some of these six tactics were more prominent than others. Perhaps not surprisingly, ‘authority’ and ‘consistency and commitment’ factored heavily. If a decision maker in a position of power felt it was important to support a cause, it was very difficult for other officials to make arguments against the cause. But the big surprise came in finding out just how important the concept of ‘liking’ was throughout the process. More than any other tactic, interview participants acknowledged the concept of ‘relationship building’ was important in their work when advancing requests within government, whether pertaining to library funding or other non-library related issues. Stable personal networks were used to ensure proposals were both thorough (i.e., critical information was gathered through these networks) and well positioned for acceptance (i.e., informal support was often sought in advance of formal voting processes). These networks were most often created over lengthy periods of time.

This morning it’s not the connections between provincial politicians and librarians that are on my mind. Recently, I’ve been working on a study about information technology infrastructure in large public libraries in Canada. My co-investigator and I used a variety of methods to probe the various models and explored the degree to which these public libraries relied on their counterparts in the IT departments of their corresponding cities. We’re in the final stages of working through our findings, but interestingly, it’s become clear that those same six factors of influence play an important role in this arena as well. We knew there would be some connection between my earlier doctoral study and our current look at public library IT infrastructure in the context of working with cities, but we didn’t realize just how prominent the connection would be until all the data were gathered. While we’ll be completing our report on how these various models function, the lure of revisiting the data to take a closer look at the role of influence and relationship building is great. Watch for more on this in the coming months.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to think about how people, events and even studies are connected, but right now I’m going to focus on making travel connections!

Benoit, W. L. (2008). Persuasive messages: The process of influence. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and pratice (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.