Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

“Can I interest you in a bottle?”

For my 20th birthday, I was lucky enough to be treated to a fancy night out at one of London’s fine dining restaurants. Once escorted to our seats and our starter orders taken, a gentlemen wearing a white shirt, long black apron, holding a bottle opener in his hand, introduced himself as the resident Sommelier. As MacNeil (2001) explains, a sommelier has the responsibility for selling the appropriate bottle, advising and complimenting the customer’s eventual wine choice.

Charmed by his speech about a bottle of New Zealand red, we proceeded to order a couple of bottles for the table. However, when looking back at the pitch, it was filled with subtle persuasion techniques that most wouldn’t have thought twice about; two of which being Cialdini’s (2007) availability limit and the rule of social proof.

“Well, you could choose this bottle, but I think we only have a few left” was just one of the quotes used to express the (hypothetical or real) limited availability. As outlined by Cialdini (2007), products seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited, or they are more rare/novel. Similar to the notion of loss aversion (Tversky & Kahneman, 1991) the idea of a potential loss is more painful than the thought of gaining something of equal value; humans are inherently loss adverse. Knowing the sommelier had us hooked, he followed up with the simple, yet effective, deadline tactic – unless we make an immediate decision to buy the bottles now, it cannot be guaranteed that the product will still be available later on. Again, playing to human nature, whenever our free choice is limited or threatened we feel the need to retain our freedom, in this case, it was via buying the “splendid but in-demand” wine, (Brehm, 1996).

Social proof was another factor at work that night. When a person doesn’t know the ‘proper’ behaviour for a situation, they will look to another and imitate their actions. Probably recognising the dining situation was unfamiliar to us, the sommelier used his expertise to influence our choice in his preferred direction (IE, to a more expensive bottle). Social proof is also fuelled by uncertainty – it will have the greatest effect when your customer is unsure about the product, they therefore look to the informed other for advice. In sum, we were ideal customers for the sommelier; uninformed, unsure and following the human tendency to seek others in times of ambiguity.

To sum up, although we spent too much money on bottles of overpriced wine that night, credit has to be given to the sommelier behind that decision. He understood the classic errors in human judgement and combined it with persuasion techniques to benefit himself, whilst making us feel like we were in control of the decision. An ultimate manipulator; we didn’t even like wine!


Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance.

Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York: Collins.

MacNeil, K. (2001) The Wine Bible. New York:  Workman Publishing

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1991). Loss aversion in riskless choice: A reference-dependent model. The quarterly journal of economics, 106(4), 1039-1061

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