By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
Persuasion is mostly about how people come to change their attitudes and their behavior in pretty indirect ways. But such changes can also happen more directly. The term ‘compliance’ describes changes in behavior due to a request from another person. In spite of having an option to decline an offer, you deliberately choose to accept it instead.
There are a variety of different persuasive techniques people use to help elicit compliance. In fact, a clever study by psychologist Ellen Langer in 1977 revealed that simply providing what appears to be a reason can lead people to comply with a request.
Her research assistant tried to cut in front of someone waiting to make photocopies at the library. She then made one of three requests:
- Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?
- Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?
- Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?
Now, it must be noticed that this last request appears to be a reason, it has the word because but there’s no actual explanation given—“…because I have to make copies” is the same reason everyone else is waiting in the line. But it still works.
Only 60% of the people who received the first request, with no reason given, agreed. But over 90% of people agreed with both the second and third requests. So, simply phrasing a request as if it were a reason was just as effective as actually giving a reason.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Foot-in-the Door Compliance Technique
One of the most common techniques used to elicit compliance is the so-called foot-in-the-door. This is a two-step process, in which someone first asks for a small commitment, something pretty meaningless, that’s pretty easy to agree to. As Dale Carnegie said, “Start with questions to which the other person will answer yes.”
But this initial small request is then followed up by a second, larger request. Once you’ve agreed to the first request, it’s far harder to say no to the second request. Why? Because once you’ve signaled your willingness to agree to something small, you’ve headed down a particular path and it becomes harder for you to stop.
A variety of daily life situations use a foot-in-the-door technique—A salesperson may offer a free demonstration of a product, knowing that once you’ve sat through the demonstration, you’ll feel more obligated to buy it.
How It Works
Why does this technique work? One explanation is that it builds up a relationship between the person making the request and the person receiving it. This makes it harder to resist the second ask once you’ve already said yes to the first one.
Another factor is that agreeing to the first request influences how you see yourself; I’m someone who cares about the environment, which is why I signed your petition. So, now when you ask me to spend money, I’m primed to see myself as the person my behavior says I am.
A variation of foot-in-the-door is the lowball technique, which is often used in big-ticket sales, like a car, or renovating a house. This is another two-step technique, in which a person first commits to something, and then hidden costs are revealed, which increase the overall stakes of that commitment.
Let’s say you negotiate the price of a car and reach an agreement. Then, the price of the car starts climbing as various extras are added—floor mats, tinted windows, rust proofing, and so on.
Study on the Lowball Technique
The lowball technique can also be used for other types of costs, besides money. In one study, researchers asked some students to participate in a psychology study at 7 am. This is a pretty early hour for most students, so it wasn’t surprising that only 31% agreed to participate and only 24% actually showed up.
But in another condition, the researchers instead first asked students if they’d participate in a psychology study, and over half, 56 %, agreed. Then, after they’d elicited this commitment, the researchers told them the study would take place at 7 am. But even in this case, 53 % showed up; so more than twice the rate of those who agreed when they were initially told the time.
Another technique—the door-in-the-face—is based on a principle exactly opposite to the previous two techniques. This strategy involves starting with a large commitment, so large that the person is almost certainly going to say no. But then, when the requester follows it up with a smaller ask, that new request seems much more reasonable by comparison, leading the person to be more likely to say yes.
Researchers asked one group of college students if they would accompany a group of juvenile delinquents as a chaperone on a day trip to the zoo. Only 17% of students agreed to do so.
The researchers then asked another group of college students first for a significantly larger request: Would they serve as a counselor to a juvenile delinquent, which required a two-year commitment of two hours a week? As one can probably predict, all of those asked refused. But the researcher then asked them if they would instead agree to help with the day trip to the zoo, and this time, 50% agreed.
So, a person who reduces the size of their ask appears to be doing something kind and we feel we should return the favor. Compliance as a way of persuasion is, then, trying to get an individual to agree to your terms by appealing to their interests or emotions.
Common Questions about Compliance and Its Various Techniques
The term ‘compliance‘ describes changes in behavior due to a request from another person. In spite of having an option to decline an offer, you deliberately choose to accept it instead.
A study by psychologist Ellen Langer in 1977 revealed that simply providing what appears to be a reason can lead people to comply with a request.
Some of the compliance techniques are the foot-in-the-door technique, lowball technique, and door-in-the-face technique.