Yesterday, my four year old son wanted candy instead of dinner. If you have or have had a young child this is probably something you have experienced more than once.

If you have not had a child, or have not reflected on their behaviour, you might not suspect that they can be amazing treasure-troves for learning about influence and "game".

In fact, the more you look at young children, the more you will realise how much most of us "unlearn" as we grow up. My first realization of this came when I saw my son squat down to play. When I was 25, I could no longer squat down unaided, as I'd spent too long in office jobs and lounging on the sofa all evening and doing no exercise (yes, that was shameful).

It hurt, and I had to support myself. By the time my son was born I was 34, and had finally worked my way up to reasonably effortlessly being able to do what he did naturally and effortlessly from as soon as he could walk.

But it is not only physically that we fail to maintain abilities:

Yesterday, my four year old wanted candy instead of dinner. He started by asking for it. I said no. He could have some after dinner. A partial victory, and I half thought he might go for it.

Instead he insisted he did not want dinner. He wanted candy.

Then he started crying. He can turn the waterwork on and off at will.

When he still did not get a reaction, and in fact, I turned my head away (one of the most effective reactions to almost all bad behavior, from people of all ages, is to withdraw attention; we are hardwired to value attention highly) he quickly dropped the crying - he knows crying does not get him anywhere when I turn my head away.

Instead he went for the emotional blackmail:

  • I like you, daddy. I don't like mommy. I just like you.

Yeah, right. He might as well insist he loves to eat broccoli. Not that he doesn't love me, he is a very loving boy. But we both knew that mommy comes first.

I told him flat out I didn't think that was true. That I was happy he likes me, but he still had to eat dinner first.

His next trick was this:

  • I just want you to wipe my nose

It was dripping. No go - I pointed him to the wipes, and he reluctantly got them, then went for another try:

  • Can you bring the heater down?

It was warm, and he was in a t-shirt and jumper and was more than warm enough, especially after getting all agitated earlier.

I still refused.

Finally he yielded and told me "I just want to be friends", and came to eat his dinner. (In the end, after he forgot all about the candy)

What does this have to do with game, influence and compliance?

It's all about the attention

People crave attention. People love attention. But people also use attention as a way to get influence.

Young children are hyper-sensitive to attention, or lack of it. My son often says (copying us) "look at [x]; turn you head here and look at [x]" - he always notices if we passively tries to pass of as having given him attention and will note whether or not we are actually looking. The wording is a copy of how we ask him to turn to face us when we expect his attention.

He will also give up on attention-seeking behaviors as well as various approaches to get his will the moment he realizes it is being punished by withdrawal of attention.

Meanwhile adults often get slower at this. We keep talking to people who are practically nodding off listening to us, because we are too engrossed in our own little world. We continue ith all kinds of behaviours that those around us find gross, annoying, boring etc. because we have built ourselves a fantasy world where we think we know what deserves attention, even faced with evidence to the contrary day out and day in.

Toddlers are engrossed in their world too, but our attention is a central part of it, and that make them very sensitive to whether or not they have "lost" their audience.

LESSON: Learn to pay attention to "your audience", and be sensitive to when you are losing them.

Ask for the hand, and you might get a finger

Unfortunately for my son, I've read a few more books than him about influence techniques, but note that even in this case he was offered "a finger": He asked for candy right away, and was offered candy after dinner. In one way this was a mistake - I should have told him "no", and instead offered up candy after dinner as a reward for doing as he was told.

Right away, he was ahead, and if I'd been softer, or he'd been a bit more willing to compromise (stubbornness runs in the family), he might have gotten more.

Thanks to a principle called anchoring, negotations tends to center around the starting point, whether or not the starting point is reasonable, and if you ask for a lot, you can often negotiate yourself into an ok position even when the other side wouldn't have wanted to give you anything at the outset.

In this case his ploy ultimately failed, but often he proves more "reasonable" and will "pull back" to a position where he is well ahead of the starting point but that seems like a victory for us after a protracted "negotiation".

The crazy thing is that people tend to be more happy with the outcome when you make them negotiate than if you give them what they want right away. But so do you.

In other words: As tempting as it might be, put up resistance. Women know this - women can crave sex just as much as men, but they are also intimately familiar with the risk of being labelled "cheap". Why is this bad? Because people don't want what everyone can have. As much as we might moan about how hard it is to get the woman we want, we want the resistance, and are much happier when we have to fight for something.

But so is she. Even in cases where it is ultimately a dance back and forth where both know where it leads, putting up even token resistance makes both sides happier.

Advance, withdraw, advance again. Whether seduction, business negotiations, or hardest of all, keeping the candy from the toddler: Make it feel like a victory for the other side.

LESSON: Ask for more than you think you will get.

The emotional tug of war

Toddlers are brutal in using emotions. Until roughly their fourth year, most children are largely unable to see your point of view - their brains are not developed enough -, and so they will think nothing about doing things that might be deeply hurtful.

My son is an expert at crying a bit to see if it helps, switching to telling us he loves us, hates us, likes one of us and hates the other, etc. He is also an expert at observing and triggering emotions. E.g. he knows we get immensely angry if he hits, and so if he really badly wants attention he has a few times tried to calmly look at us and then start a sequence like this:

I am going to hit you now. I am going to hit you, and I will like it. It will be fun to hit you. I am going to get mommy to hit you, and she will like it too. I will hit you many times. I am coming to hit you.

First time I got that speech, it was chilling and horrifying. I've been threatened; some big guy threatening you in anger is nothing compared to having a four year old calmly and collected telling you how he wants to hurt you.

Then I called his bluff, and let him come over and give me the light slap that passed for hitting. I turned my back, ignored him after telling him I was angry and disappointed. Then I waited.

He broke down crying, apologized, and have only tried a much milder variation a couple of times, before he gave up this ploy.

But the takeaway is that emotional triggers are immensely powerful. Toddlers pick them up because they work in the face of all but parents that are acutely aware that even negative attention is attention, and attention reinforces behaviour.

But adults play these games too. You've probably come across adults that always have drama in their life. But most of us have forgotten or never learned what toddlers know:

It is all about the attention. And so most of us gets baited time and time again by people who try to manipulate our emotions to get attention.

The best way of killing bad behaviour like this, is to withdraw the attention. Toddlers notice straight away, and will often explicitly tell you to give them attention, or will use blatant in your face ploys to try to get your attention back. I've described some ways above.

Adults curiously tends to not understand what is going on, but still respond the same way:

We escalate. We start shouting matches with the girl that shouts at us, or we try to comfort her. Either way, we give her attention, and reinforce the bad behaviour. We buy her drinks when we thinks she likes us (because she brushed her boobs against us), and we reinforce the behaviour. We dote on her because she did us a sexual "favour" and milked it for what it was worth by tugging at our emotions afterwards, because she has in the past gotten her will that way.

The trouble is, if you keep responding to manipulating behaviour like this, she will keep doing them - perhaps not even intentionally - and come to see you as a weak willed little puppet that can be manipulated at will. She will resent it.

A big part of the "asshole appeal" comes from assholes unwillingness to yield - it's often easier to find assholes than nice guys that are strong enough to withstand the emotional manipulation long enough for her to learn not to try that shit with you.

LESSON: Be aware of when negative behaviours are used to get your attentions, and shut it down by withdrawing attention.


The "I like you, daddy. I don't like mommy" might seem like simple flattery. But it is more: On top of triggering emotions, or at least trying, it is a simple example of attempts to trigger reciprocity. My son will also give "spontaneous hugs" (sometimes they really are), only to shortly afterwards ask for something he wants (that's when we know they weren't spontaneous). Or he will give us something (that we usually own in the first place...), or any number of other "gifts".

Being given something triggers an immensely strong sense that we owe that person something in return.

Reciprocity is one of the most powerful means of influencing behaviours we know. When we have rules against bribes, we don't only have rules against the big stuff that can make a big impact on peoples lives. We also have rules against the small stuff, because reciprocity is intensely powerful. It's one of the reasons why companies love giving you free stuff: apart from being advertising, it also engenders a desire to return the favor.

We instinctively know this, and we are often loathe to receive something from someone because we don't want to go "in debt". Especially when we are aware it is given with the intent of getting us to give back. Yet most of us also tends to be strongly conditioned to accept when we are offered. It is the socially acceptable alternative.

Reciprocity is in part behind many mens insistence on buying drinks for women, but it works poorly when someone is bombarded with the same "gifts" from all sides - the competition devalues the gift and makes it easier to ignore. That women are generally aware that there is an ulterior motive behind drinks also makes them less vulnerable to it than they otherwise would be.

Yet we fall for this time and time again in various settings.

It falls straight in with the point above: We get those boobs pushed into us, and not only are we being manipulated emotionally, but we are also being tricked into a reciprocity situation where we either see ourselves as having received something and want to pay back, or we see the request to do something as an opportunity to create an obligation to reciprocate and the boobs as a hint at what our "price" might be.

LESSON: When you want something, give something. When someone tries to give you something, ask yourself what they want from you, and beware attempts to extract more than you want to give (a trick: find something else to offer in return before the person tries to "cash in" the debt).

Compliance ladders

Notice from my incident with my son how he, when he met resistance, switched tacks completely, and suddenly asked for seemingly unrelated things? He tried to find an entry for a compliance ladder. Not that he knows what that means, of course. But when someone asks for something that doesn't seem aligned with their goals, you should ask yourself why.

And the answer is very often that they are trying to get you to comply. There's sound research that shows that getting someone to say "yes" to one request makes them more amenable to saying yes to subsequent requests. So it make sense to try to ask for something "innocent".

Want that hot girl to do a threesome with her friend? Ask her to hold your jacket first.

Seriously. Start small, and work your way up to bigger and bigger requests. Sometimes you can ask for something outrageous (and sometimes get it) and backtrack with a laugh when she refuses, but compliance ladders builds lasting ... compliance.

Any child knows this from paying attention. When faced with refusals, there are two fundamental approaches: Start asking for small things, and then bit by bit ask for something bigger, or "negotiate" your way down. If negotiations are open (the other party does not refuse you outright but gives a counter-offer or indicates that they're not toally uninterested), trying to negotiate first is likely more effective. But when you're shut down immediately, then starting small and working up can overcome extreme defenses.

On the flip side, faced with someone trying to build a compliance ladder: Stand firm, and the requests stop abruptly. Give in, and the other person effortlessly steps up the ladder and tries for the next price. There's little to lose.

I first started realising the power of this when I broke up with my long time partner a few years ago. She used to ask me small favors that annoyed me. It was first after we broke up I understood why: She was, and I don't think she ever did this intentionally, pushing buttons to create compliance. She had gotten used to it, as had I, because I did comply.

As much as I have always been dominant in many respects, my insecurities around whether or not I was worthy of someone as beautiful as she was, pushed me into a lot of negative and unattractive behaviours. Incidentally I believe she pushed for these favours out of her own insecurities (she was always deeply insecure about her looks; the irony is that this fed into my insecurities - I long assumed I only got here because she didn't realize how hot she was).

Over the years she pushed and pushed.

Then one day after we had "formally" split up, when she asked me to get up off the sofa and get her some lemonade (we were still sharing the house), I told her she could do it herself, or wait until I was going to the kitchen.

She blew up. She was furious, even though she could plainly see her request was unreasonable: Why should I get her something she could just as well do herself.

But the thing is, it changed our strained living situation for the better almost instantly: She stopped making unreasonable requests pretty much immediately, and I stopped resenting doing favours.

I happily do favours on a reciprocal basis or when they are "reasonable". E.g. offering to bring something when you're going to the kitchen anyway is just common courtesy - refusing a request to do that is just being an asshole.

You come across this when a woman asks you to hold their purse for them for no good reason (instead of taking it with them or just putting it on a table; note that asking you to hold something in situations where there's reason to think it might get stolen, or to avoid putting it on the ground while out is completely different), or ask you to fetch something for them, or pick up the tab.

Of course not all requests are intended to manipulate, and you will be rude to refuse all requests. But you need to draw a line, or you will be deeply unattractive.

Alternatively, when you can't reasonably refuse, "keep a tab". Don't be petty about it, but if she frequently asks you for favours, ask favours in return. Make her hold stuff. Don't do it in situations where she will resent it, but if she is happy to lean on you when it is reasonable, ensure she reciprocates.

At the same time, you can use compliance ladders yourself to get agreement, within reason, without being an asshole.

If she agrees to meet you at a coffee shop, she is more likely to agree to do more things with you. If she agrees to run errands with you, go on a full date with you, do your laundry, and so on, she will be increasingly prepared to go even further.

Notice the examples, though: You can use this for good, to make you both happy, or you can use it to become an immense manipulative douchebag that exploits people. Choose wisely.

LESSON: When people ask for small favours, pay attention to whether they ask for bigger favours next and if so shut them down if you don't like where it is leading; call out "unreasonable" requests, or request favours in return (relying on the reciprocity effect) to "cancel out" the ladder effect.

Relive your childhood powers by paying attention

All of this is about paying attention to how others respond to you. To children, the world is small. It is centered around them. Your reactions to them them is for a long time one of the most important parts of their world.

  • Make it an important part of your world. Be mindful of how people act around you, and respond to what you say and how you act.
  • Pay attention to whether or not they are actually listening and showing interest.
  • Adjust your behaviour, just like a child.
  • Mimic the successful behaviours of those around you, just like a child.
  • Drop the behaviours that don't work, instead of continuing with the destructive behaviours you've spent a lifetime building habits around, just like a child will near instantly drop behaviours that are not successful.