Four reasons you'll always agree to this kind of request

by Dorian Minors

January 28, 2016

Analects  |  Newsletter


This is the only time that ‘no’ means ‘yes’. I’ll tell you why but first, did you know, asking someone for a favour can make them like you more? Well, in a kind of variation of that, if they turn you down for that first request, they’re more...

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This is the only time that ‘no’ means ‘yes’. I’ll tell you why but first, did you know, asking someone for a favour can make them like you more? Well, in a kind of variation of that, if they turn you down for that first request, they’re more likely to agree to help out with your next favour.

It’s called the ‘door in the face’ technique and it’s a well-documented way of gaining compliance in the world of marketers and behavioural scientists. The technique is so named because it relies on the initial request being so unwelcome (either through it being too large or outlandish) that the requestee is likely to ‘slam the door in your face’. Once one has made that initial, unwelcome request then if the requestor makes a second, more reasonable ask, then the requestee is more likely to acquiesce than if you’d never asked them the first question at all.

You'll agree to almost anything...

So, the classic experiment, conducted by that (in)famous persuasion psychologist Rob Cialdini, asks a few volunteers if they'd babysit some young offenders for two hours each week. The volunteers refused (they were probably just signing up for a chance to win a gift card or something - would you do it?). Then they were asked if they wouldn't mind taking the young offenders on a brief trip to the zoo. The findings were that volunteers were more than twice as likely to take the kids to the zoo than if they were asked to babysit every week first than those volunteers asked to go to the zoo straight off the bat.

You're compelled because you're a nice person (you can't help it)

The two major explanations that get bandied about in trying to explain this phenomenon are the concept of reciprocity and the concept of social responsibility. But before those, there are two more obvious explanations of which I imagine you've already thought of one. You turned the poor person down and feel bad. That kind of guilt reduction is probably only a small portion of why we behave this way, though. The other half is related to our self-image and how we present that to others. You might know by now that a large part of being a social animal involves impression management, the process of presenting the best possible image of ourselves to our social partner. It's a pretty large part of what we do as people and the suggestion is that in this context, we're more likely to accept request number two because we want this person to think that we aren't some kind of  meagre individual. But under these more superficial drivers is the less tangible reciprocal concessions. In social psychology, the phenomenon of reciprocity refers to the tendency of people to respond to actions in kind. So if people are nice to us, we'll be nice to them. If they're not nice, we'll tend to respond in equal measure. In this context, it's thought that we perceive the person making the big ask as compromising (doing something nice) when the come back with the second request and so we're more likely to agree to the compromise (do something nice in return).

Layered on this is an ingrained feeling of social responsibility. It has been found that often in situations like this, we perceive that by accepting the second request we feel that we’re ‘helping’ the person, rather than engaging in some kind of negotiation. Once we’re in the helping frame of mind, it becomes a social responsibility to help the person out and thus we feel obligated to follow through.

And it's more than three times as effective as when it's not used (and how to beat it)

A 2005 study looked at 22 studies testing the effect, with a combined total of over 1600 participants and found that on average, you're three times more likely to get what you want using the door-in-the-face method than if you don't. So, keep a look out for this one won't you? My advice? When you're about to turn down someone's request, suggest an alternative that you came up with in the same breath. You still get to be socially responsible and assuage that inevitable guilt. But on your terms. Not theirs. Speaking of persuasion, want to know a way to double your chances of compliance? Or maybe you'd like to know how a dodgy source can make a message more persuasive (yep, it'll even persuade you). Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

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