Asking for Things Is Easy—Take Advantage of Cognitive Dissonance

Just start small!

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

This foot-in-the-door technique can be adapted to almost any situation in which you are looking to persuade someone to do something. The goal is to seek an initial, small commitment from someone who has three characteristics. Professor Vishton explains what these are.

Coworker asking for a favor
Cognitive dissonance refers to when a person holds two different contradictory beliefs or sets of information; their unconscious drive for consistency will prevail. Photo By eggeegg / Shutterstock

Characteristics of Commitment

The reason that starting small is so effective has to do with cognitive dissonance. First, the commitment should be voluntary. If you compel someone to do something, then it might change their sense of who you are, but it won’t tap into this unconscious sense of who they are. 

Second, the commitment should be active. It should be that the person does the small action themselves. 

Third, if possible, the act should be public. Our unconscious drive for consistency is present even when we’re just sitting by ourselves in a quiet room, but it is amplified if we have the sense that others might be aware of our decisions.

Some have suggested that this is an inherently social phenomenon. We have an internal drive to be perceived by others as principled, character-driven people. 

If our decisions seem haphazard, then perhaps it will make us seem less enviable in the eyes of others. Often researchers have found that it’s good to have a written, permanent part of that initial, small commitment that gets the foot-in-the-door. 

Human memory is great in many ways, but it’s inherently fallible. If there is a permanent, visible piece of evidence of that early “yes,” then the persuadee will be much more consistently reminded of and influenced by it.

What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

The one other factor that seems to be important to make use of this consistency reflex is to make sure there is a delay between the small request and the large one. This unconscious process of changing our sense of who we are and what’s important to us seems to take at least a day. Most studies that have shown the largest effects have involved delays of around a week.

A variety of different brain regions seem to be involved in this shift in compliance. It has often been studied using fMRI neuroimaging techniques via something called cognitive dissonance. 

Cognitive dissonance refers to holding two different contradictory beliefs or sets of information. Imagine that you don’t like noodles. If for some reason at dinner one night, you find yourself eating a lot of noodles, then there is a contradiction present in your mind. 

In this situation, we can presume that you will either stop eating noodles or decide that you were mistaken. Perhaps you do like noodles.

Consistency Reflex

Methods of persuasion that focus on this unconscious consistency reflex capitalize directly on our desire to minimize our cognitive dissonance. It’s an unpleasant thing to be in a state of mental dissonance. In general, humans do what they can to reduce dissonance if they experience it.

A state of cognitive dissonance is associated with activity in a variety of regions of the brain, notably the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula. When the person whose initial request you have granted makes a second, larger request, the activation in these regions of the brain is likely increased. You might want to say no to the large request, but the disconnect between your prior behavior and that no would create a large amount of dissonance.

The unpleasantness of the dissonance becomes a factor in your decision-making. Your brain determines the best way to maximize its positive emotional state. In many cases, that will involve saying yes to that large request.

Want to recruit someone to serve on a volunteer committee with you but have some concerns that they will say no? Ask them to help out with a simple, 20-minute project that you are working on for the committee. Wait a few days, and then ask for more. 

Want someone to go on a date with you and have some concern that they will say no? Ask them to get coffee first, then wait a few days and ask for more.

Of course, the flip side of this is to beware of people asking for small favors. When the person returns to ask for something more, you may not consciously feel more inclined to say yes. However, your unconscious decision-making system will be more inclined to say yes to other requests, even if the requests are larger.

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