Persuasion in American Hustle

American Hustle Movie Poster

The film American Hustle is about a group of people who con, manipulate, and lie to one another. The conning and manipulating happen in a variety of ways, a man cons people out of their money, a cop manipulates a con man into working for him, a man lies to his wife and many other ways. In each of these instances, the characters in the movie employ different kinds of persuasion techniques in order to achieve their goal. I am going to cover three distinct scenes when a character uses a tactic of persuasion.

Early in the movie, there is a scene where the lead female character, Sydney Prosser, is explaining how she cons people out of their money. She said, “And after that say ‘no’ a lot. Until the guy is hooked … It was almost scary how easy it is to take money from desperate people.” As she is narrating those lines they show her walking away from a man that’s asking her to loan him money and she keeps saying no. The man continues to beg her till she walks out of the frame.

In that scene, Sydney is using the persuasion tactic called reactance. Reactance is when an individual has what is called “free behaviors.” Free behaviors are acts that a person can realistically do at any given moment and time. Reactance is when one of those possible acts are either threatened or eliminated altogether and because of that loss of freedom, the person wants to do the act much more so than when it had been available to them (Brehm, 380). The movie then shows a series of scenes of Sydney and the main character, Irving Rosenfeld, resisting various people begging them for money and then eventually giving in and saying yes. Because of their effective use of this tactic they were very successful in persuading people to give them their money.

In the scene shortly after that one Sydney is in a jail cell by herself being lectured by the police officer that arrested her, Richie DiMaso. Richie tells her how Irving has been manipulating her and that he doesn’t actually care about her. He then started saying that he personally likes her. He said that he is not supposed to be talking like that at work but he does not care because he likes her. He said to her, “tell me you didn’t feel it too the first time we saw each other.” He wanted Sydney to join him in his fight against con artists and corrupt politicians while having a romantic relationship with her. He was using a very effective persuasion tactic to do so.

By expressing his personal feelings for her, he was using what is called the Liking Rule. Dr. Cialdini put forth that when we like people and they are our friends we are much more likely to be persuaded by them. Cialdini said in his book, “Compliance practitioners’ widespread use of the liking bond between friends tells us much about the power of the liking rule to produce assent. In fact, we find that such professionals seek to benefit from the rule even when already formed friendships are not present for them to employ (Cialdini, Kindle Locations 3377-3379.” He says that principle is so powerful that even if there isn’t already an existing friendship people still can be greatly persuaded by someone that seems to like them and vice versa. Richie uses that tactic very well and Sydney ends up trusting and liking him.

The final scene we are going to review is the scene where Mayor Carmine Polito walks in the middle of bribery and Irving chases him to outside the hotel to convince him to continue with the bribery. Irving uses the Liking Rule in this scene with great effectiveness. He calms the fears of freaked out Mayer Carmine by immediately establishing common ground by putting down the guy that caused him to panic. He then talks about the school “where we come from.” There he puts himself in the same category as the Mayer and the Mayer let his guard down and began asking him about where he grew up. They found out they knew some of the same people. After the short conversation, the mayor was persuaded to continue with the bribery. He not only accepted the bribe be he saw himself and Irving as being really good friends.

The power of the friendship/liking principle Cialdini spoke of played out very well in this scene. Cialdini said it should be of little surprise to us that we are more persuaded by friends and people we like. What gets people though is when they do not expect that tactic to be used on them by strangers only to achieve a certain goal. When salespeople want to sell us something usually they attempt to get us to like them first (Cialdini, Kindle Locations 3377-3379).

American Hustle is a movie about con artists and mobsters and undercover cops who exhibited many great examples of the principles of persuasion in practice. This movie had many more great scenes of those principles being used. As I watched it though I saw a strong dominating use of the Liking Rule. That is probably the case because much of the movie is about relationships and those manipulating people. It is probably safe to say that it is easier to manipulate and persuade those you have convinced that you are their friend.


Brehm, Jack Williams. A Theory of Psychological Reactance. New York: Academic, 1966. Print.

Cialdini, Robert B. (2009-08-20). Influence: Science and Practice, ePub (5th Edition) (Kindle Locations 3377-3379). Pearson HE, Inc.. Kin

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