Persuasion Techniques in American Hustle – Reactance & The Liking Rule

Persuasion techniques are used frequently in the movie “American Hustle,” the ones they leverage the most are Reactance and The Liking Rule.

Persuasion Techniques in American Hustle - Reactance & The Liking Rule
Persuasion Techniques in American Hustle

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. In each of these instances, the characters in the movie employ persuasion techniques in order to achieve their goal. I am going to cover three scenes when a character uses a technique 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 make 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 while 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 actions that a person can realistically do at any given moment and time. Dr. Jack Brehm’s research demonstrates that when one of those possible actions is 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.

The movie then shows a series of scenes of Sydney and the main character, Irving Rosenfeld, resisting various people begging them for money. They then eventually give in and say yes. Their effective use of this persuasion technique allowed them to be successful at persuading people to give them their money.

Liking Rule

In a later scene, Sydney is in a jail cell by herself being lectured by a police officer, 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 told her that he is not supposed to be talking like that at work. But he says he does not care because he likes her. “Tell me you didn’t feel it too the first time we saw each other,” he then said to her. He wanted Sydney to join him in his fight against con artists and corrupt politicians. He also wanted to have a romantic relationship with her. The cop very effectively levered the liking rule to do so.

By expressing his personal feelings for her, he was using what is called the Liking Rule. Dr. Robert Cialdini wrote about this rule. He is an author and psychology and marketing professor at Arizona State University. He wrote that when we like people and they are our friends we are much more likely to be persuaded by them. In his book Influence: Science and Practice, Dr. Cialdini tells us about compliance practitioners, who he defines as salesmen, fundraisers, con artists, and advertisers. He says their widespread use of the liking bond between friends tells us much about the power of the liking rule to produce assent.

In fact, Dr. Cialdini points out that professionals seek to benefit from the rule even when already formed friendships do not exist. 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.

Liking Rule Again

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 Mayor Carmine by immediately establishing common ground. He then insults the guy that caused the mayor to panic.

When talking to the mayor he uses phrases such as “the school where we come from.” By doing that he put himself in the same category as the mayor. Eventually the mayor 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, but he also saw himself and Irving as being really good friends.


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

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