Applying the Door-in-the-Face Effect to Volunteer Commitments

Experimenters asked different levels of response of pedestrians about volunteering to chaperone a zoo trip.

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

The reality TV show Bar Rescue illustrates the door-in-the-face effect: When you want to make a sale, start with a high price and then the low price will seem reasonable by comparison. Now, you might not find yourself writing a bar menu, but the principle applies to a wide range of interpersonal interactions. 

Man writing menu on chalk board
Being asked for a large response first makes saying “yes” to a second, smaller response seem much more palatable by comparison. Photo By David Pereiras / Shutterstock

Cialdini’s Study on the Door-in-the-Face Effect

The best support for the door-in-the-face effect comes from a researcher named Robert B. Cialdini, and his colleagues. The experimenters in their studies stood along a busy walkway and asked pedestrians if they would be willing to serve as volunteer youth counselors.

They told the pedestrians they were recruiting people to chaperone a group of children from the county juvenile detention center on a trip to the zoo, and that it would take about two hours of their time one afternoon or evening. Fewer than 17% of people said yes to this request. 

“Actually, that’s a pretty high number,” Professor Vishton said. “It’s a little less than one in five people asked. The students at Arizona State are clearly a pretty community-minded group. But that’s not the point of the study.”

The first group was the control condition for this study. Another group of participants was randomly selected to hear a much larger request.

This request said they were recruiting people to work as volunteer youth counselors at the county juvenile detention center. If they volunteered, they would need to work for about two hours per week for a minimum of two years. 

“The two hours part isn’t so bad, but the two years was understandably off putting for most people who were approached,” Professor Vishton said. “There were 72 participants in this particular study, and different versions of it have been run with hundreds of participants over the years. No one has ever said yes to this initial request.”

The participants in this condition first heard this request and declined to volunteer. They were then immediately asked for a smaller volunteer commitment—to help out with the one-time, two hour trip to the zoo. 

Keep in mind that the control group said yes 17% of the time. For the people who were asked for the much larger favor first, the proportion skyrocketed to 50%.

Contrast Effect

One idea for why this happens is a contrast effect. If you anchor the participants’ notion of a standard request as a very large request, then a smaller request seems tiny by comparison. 

This idea is the same reasoning that went into writing the bar menu with the $25 drinks in Bar Rescue. There is undoubtedly some influence of this contrast effect. If the person seeking volunteers asks for an initial small volunteer commitment—rather than the initial large commitment that was used in this experiment—the boost in the percentage of “yes” responses drops significantly.

However, Cialdini and his group think it goes deeper than that. They argue that the unconscious reflex that gets triggered has to do with the discomfort that is created by refusing a favor. 

Reciprocity Reflex

The door-in-the-face effect is related to the notion of the reciprocity reflex. When someone gives you a gift, it creates a social pressure—and a strong unconscious desire—to give a gift as well. 

When a person asks you for a favor, your brain activates a deep-seated desire to say “yes.” We have to exert mental effort not to say “yes.” If you’ve already said “no” once, it’s that much harder to say “no” again.

“They tested this in a really clever way—by having two different people ask for the initial large and second small volunteer requests,” Professor Vishton said. “If you have two separate people make the two asks, the effect almost vanishes. People who hear the initial request and those who don’t hear it, say ‘yes’ to the smaller request with about equal frequency.”

Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.