How to Win Rebels and Influence Empires: A Star Wars Story
May the Fourth has a special place in my heart for many reasons, it’s the title of the first piece of original art I ever bought and it’s a global celebration of Star Wars, one of my favorite movie franchises. So, in honor of the films, and the spray-painted Stormtrooper hanging on my wall, I started thinking about how the films have not only maintained, but also gained, popularity over the past four decades. The stories and themes in Star Wars are universal; the evil Empire fighting the underdog Rebellion. You can apply this to politics, workplaces, and high school drama. Today, however, I was thinking about a story I recently heard about someone who was scammed out of their savings. We often talk about social engineering in terms of the implications to organizations but the impact can often be much more harmful to individuals. The scammer is not unlike the evil Empire with the upper hand as they look to aim the Death Star at your bank account and credit rating. My goal today, since I’m not a Jedi with a lightsaber, is to help rebel against the scammers.
Social Engineering finds its power in exploiting human flaws, many of which can be tied back to Robert Cialdini’s (updated) Theory of Influence, which identifies seven key principles that drive our ability to influence others:
- Unity (the most recent addition to the list of principles)
If you can recognize when one of these principles are used, you may be able to mitigate their effect. We’ll also look at some of the more common social engineering techniques that individuals are likely to encounter and, since it’s Star Wars Day, we’ll look at all of this with Star Wars in mind.
Reciprocity is, perhaps, the easiest of the principles to understand. When I think of this, a single scene in Star Wars: The Last Jedi comes to mind. As Rose and Fin climb from the sewers into the fathier stables, they encounter Temiri Blagg (known by many as “the kid with the broom”) while looking for a means of escape. Rose gifts her antique resistance ring to Temiri who, in turn, helps them escape as they are chased by the Canto Bight Police. This is reciprocity at its most basic, the idea that you gift a gift to get a gift and it’s a concept that is often ingrained in us from a young age. It’s why makeup counters offer free makeovers. If you can recognize when it’s happening, you can prevent yourself from losing money in a long-con scam.
Scarcity as a tactic is all around you. “Limited Time Only”, “Limited Edition”, “Last Chance”… these are all phrases used to motivate people to act immediately. There’s a limited quantity, so you want it NOW! In Star Wars, scarcity is a way of life for many of our main characters. Be it, Anakin or Luke growing up on Tatooine or Rey on Jakku, they all live pretty minimal lives. Instead of looking at how this principle works in Star War, let’s instead look at someone avoiding succumbing to the principle. When Plutt tries to buy BB-8 from Rey, she resists, even though she could really use the money for basic necessities. This demonstrates that you can overcome persuasion techniques.
There’s a reason that courts have expert witnesses and we trust the opinion of our doctor over our neighbor when it comes to medical advice. We appreciate and value the opinion of experts. There are a few cases of this in the Star Wars universe but the most obvious examples are Rey and her almost-master Luke Skywalker. Just as Luke followed the guidance of Jedi Masters Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, Rey seeks out Luke to learn from his teaches. While she ultimately fails, or rather Luke fails her, it’s clear that they both seek out experts who have a great deal of influence over them.
You often hear that people are creatures of habit, they tend to like things they’ve done before and support activities they have supported before. I, for example, split my annual donation budget between SickKids and the MS Society of Canada, I seldom consider other agencies due to the consistency of my previous donations. Star Wars, as a franchise, is plagued by consistency. Nothing is one and done, the same concepts happen over and over again – The Death Star for example – DS-1 and DS-2 – (conceptually, you could also add Starkiller Base to this list). Another example would be the Ewoks, Jar Jar Binks, and Porgs – each a polarizing element within their respective trilogies (Side Note: Ewoks win). Within the films, Luke is a great example of consistency. He’s the hero, we know this. It’s why so many people were angry at how he behaved in The Last Jedi, it was not expected aka inconsistent with his past behavior. Ultimately, he showed up (in a way) when it counted because that’s who he is, his past actions dictated that he would save the day again.
You like what you like and that’s going to influence your decision making process. At a basic level, if you don’t like a movie, you probably aren’t going to see it, unless you like someone who wants to see it – this is how I conned my wife into seeing the It remake. Cialdini posited that individuals are more likely to be influenced by someone they like, whether it’s physical attractiveness, similarity, association or something else. Without this principle, Star Wars would not exist. Luke is influenced by the image of Leia and her plea. While he may be drawn to her due to their sibling bond, it appears, at the time, that he is drawn to her because he finds her likeable.
The last of Cialdini’s original six principles, you’re more likely to do something if everyone else is doing it. Remember when your parents first said, “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” The answer, it turns out, according to Persuasion Science, is that you would be more likely to do it. Within the Star Wars universe, there isn’t a single scene that stands out as being consensus driven but rather a single character. C-3PO is a coward and pessimist if ever there was one but, in the end, he tends to go along with everyone else as it’s easier to go with the popular opinion, even if that popular opinion is a single droid traipsing across the desert.
Robert Cialdini added this last principle much more recently, and it involves the shared identity that you have with the person you are influencing. Think of identity politics as a modern buzzword tied to this concept. It’s why you are more strongly influenced by a family member than a stranger (“blood is thicker than water”) and why religious, racial, or social groups often share common perspectives. While Han Solo had a gruff exterior and stated, “Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution, and I’m not in it for you, princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in it for the money,” he stuck around. Over time, I believe, he came to share the rebellions identity, the unity principle influenced him and kept him around.
These principles of persuasion are all around you… embedded in your purchasing experiences, political choices, and every day interactions, so why are we discussing them now? It turns out that there’s a lot more to social engineering and popular scam methods than simply stating, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” Star Wars can serve as a lesson plan for identifying social engineering by teaching you to identify the various principles of persuasion.
One of the more common examples of social engineering is Quid Pro Quo, which couldn’t be more obviously tied to Reciprocity if it tried. It does, however, so draw from a second principle, Authority. This one is pretty simple, a user surfing the Internet comes across a pop-up that says, “DANGER! Your computer has been infected with a virus, please call Microsoft Tech Support at 1-800-555-1234.” The phone is answered and the voice on the end of the line identifies themselves as Microsoft Tech Support (Authority) and offers to help you remove your virus (Reciprocity). This could play out as the scene mentioned above where Rose tells Temiri that they’re with the Rebellion (Authority) and gives him her ring (Reciprocity). In her case, she was honest but there are no rules that says an influencer must be honest.
Another social engineering technique, Baiting, is one of the more commonly known, but still incredibly successful, techniques. Baiting involves leaving something out in the open that you know someone else will pick up or investigate. The trojan horse is the most well-known example of this but you frequently hear tales of people leaving USB drives laying around, hoping that someone will pick them up and plug them into a computer. A classic example of baiting within the Star Wars franchise, comes to us in Return of the Jedi when Luke sends R2-D2 and C-3PO to Tatooine to buy Han’s release. While Jabba refuses to release Han, he does keep the droids, not knowing that hidden away within R2-D2 is Luke’s lightsaber, ready for use when needed.
Once you know the principles of persuasion, it’s easy to pick them out in social engineering attacks and scams. The next time you watch a movie, whether you are watching the Star Wars franchise or, perhaps, a series like the Ocean’s Eleven movies, pay attention and see how many of the principles of persuasion are used. While movies may not be real life, it’s safe to say that these techniques are nearly as successful and used just as frequently in the real world as they are in Hollywood. Knowing how to identify the application of these principles may be the only thing that saves you the next time your phone rings and a scammer is waiting on the other end.
Posted by Tyler Reguly on May 04, 2018