Attribution Technique of Influence

What is Attribution Technique of Influence

Attribution technique (popularly also known as labeling) is simple but effective method that encourages people to act in a certain way and it even works on children. You simply attribute or assign a person a particular trait and the person becomes more likely to act in accordance with the assigned trait.

How to Label Friends and Influence People

Dale Carnegie was perhaps the first to popularize this technique in his mega bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People. In the chapter called “Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to” he writes:

In short, if you want to improve a person in a certain respect, act as though that particular trait were already one of his or her outstanding characteristics. Shakespeare said, “Assume a virtue, if you have it not.” And it might be well to assume and state openly that other people have the virtue you want them to develop. Give them a fine reputation to live up to, and they will make prodigious efforts rather than see you disillusioned.

Research on Effectiveness of Labeling

Labeling Volunteers

In one of the earlier studies (Swinyard & Ray 1977), the researchers labeled some residents of Palo Alto (California) as “interested in their fellowman” and “Red Cross Supporters”. In follow-up telephone interviews, the labeled participants were significantly more likely to agree to do volunteer work for the Red Cross.

Labeling Voters

In an experiment on voter participation, the researchers interviewed a group of citizens one week before a local election (Tybout & Yalch 1980). Then, the researchers randomly told some of them that they were “above-average” citizens:

“That’s interesting, your profile indicates that, relative to others in this community, you are an above-average citizen. Our research shows that people like you are very likely to vote in elections and participate in political events.”

The other half were told that they were average citizens:

“That’s interesting, your profile indicates that, relative to others in this community, you are an average citizen. Our research shows that people like you have an average likelihood of voting in elections and participating in political events.”

One week later, 86% of subjects labeled “above-average” voted in the election, compared to 75% of  “average citizens”.

This study also found that labeling worked best on those people who already viewed themselves as voters (in psychological lingo, labeling was consistent with their initial self-schema) – 92% of these subjects went to vote. So this is good news: just by labeling us, others won’t to persuade us to act in a way that contradicts our essential character.

Labeling Children

The research found that it works even on children. In one study, the researchers told some elementary school children that they look like the kind of a boy or a girl “who understands how important it is to write correctly” (Cialdini et al 1998). The labeled children worked more on their writing even in private. A persuasion technique that works even on children must be considered a super-technique.


  • Swinyard. W. R., and Ray, Michael. L. (1977). Advertising-Selling Interactions: An Attribution Theory Experiment,” Journal of Marketing Research, 14: 509-16.
  • Tybout, A. M., and Yalch, R. F. (1980). The effect of experience: A matter of salience? Journal of Consumer Research, 6:406-13.
  • Cialdini, R. B., Eisenberg, N., Green, B.L., Rhoads, K., and Bator, R. (1998). Undermining the undermining effect of reward on sustained interest: When unnecessary conditions are sufficient. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 28:249–63.