Ended: June 8, 2015
three-year period of participant observation was most instructive. Although there are thousands of different tactics that compliance practitioners employ to produce yes, the majority fall within six basic categories. Each of these categories is governed by a fundamental psychological principle that directs human behavior and, in so doing, gives the tactics their power. This book is organized around these six principles. The principles—reciprocation, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity—are each discussed in terms of their function in the society and in terms of how their enormous force can be commissioned by a compliance professional who deftly incorporates them into requests for purchases, donations, concessions, votes, or assent.1
The ethologists tell us that this sort of thing is far from unique to the turkey. They have begun to identify regular, blindly mechanical patterns of action in a wide variety of species. Called fixed-action patterns, they can involve intricate sequences of behavior, such as entire courtship or mating rituals. A fundamental characteristic of these patterns is that the behaviors comprising them occur in virtually the same fashion and in the same order every time. It is almost as if the patterns were recorded on tapes within the animals. When a situation calls for courtship, a courtship tape gets played; when a situation calls for mothering, a maternal behavior tape gets played. Click and the appropriate tape is activated; whirr and out rolls the standard sequence of behaviors.
This parallel form of human automaticity is aptly demonstrated in an experiment by social psychologist Ellen Langer and her co-workers (Langer, Blank, & Chanowitz, 1978). A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do (Bastardi & Shafir, 2000). Langer demonstrated this unsurprising fact by asking a small favor of people waiting in line to use a library copying machine: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” The effectiveness of this request plus-reason was nearly total: 94 percent of those asked let her skip ahead of them in line. Compare this success rate to the results when she made the request only: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Under those circumstances only 60 percent of those asked complied. At first glance, it appears that the crucial difference between the two requests was the additional information provided by the words because I’m in a rush. However, a third type of request tried by Langer showed that this was not the case. It seems that it was not the whole series of words, but the first one, because, that made the difference. Instead of including a real reason for compliance, Langer’s third type of request used the word because and then, adding nothing new, merely restated the obvious: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” The result was that once again nearly all (93 percent) agreed, even though no real reason, no new information was added to justify their compliance. Just as the cheep-cheep sound of turkey chicks triggered an automatic mothering response from mother turkeys, even when it emanated from a stuffed polecat, so the word because triggered an automatic compliance response from Langer’s subjects, even when they were given no subsequent reason to comply. Click, whirr.2
4Take, by way of illustration, the case (Zimmatore, 1983) of the automatic, mindless consumer response to a standard trigger for buying in our society—the discount coupon. A tire company found that mailed-out coupons which, because of a printing error, offered no savings to recipients produced just as much customer response as did the error-free coupons that offered substantial savings.
Psychologists have recently uncovered a number of mental shortcuts that we employ in making our everyday judgments (Kahneman, Slovic, & Tversky, 1982; Todd & Gigerenzer, 2007). Termed judgmental heuristics, these shortcuts operate in much the same fashion as the expensive = good rule, allowing for simplified thinking that works well most of the time but leaves us open to occasional, costly mistakes.
Perhaps nowhere is this last point driven home more dramatically than in the life-and-death consequences of a phenomenon that airline industry officials have labeled Captainitis (Foushee, 1984). Accident investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration have noted that, frequently, an obvious error made by a flight captain was not corrected by the other crew members and resulted in a crash. It seems that, despite the clear and strong personal importance of the issues, the crew members were using the shortcut “If an expert says so, it must be true” rule in failing to attend or respond to the captain’s disastrous mistake (Harper, Kidera, & Cullen, 1971).
Clothing stores instruct their sales personnel to sell the costly item first. Common sense might suggest the reverse: If a man has just spent a lot of money to purchase a suit, he may be reluctant to spend much more on the purchase of a sweater; but the clothiers know better. They behave in accordance with what the contrast principle would suggest: Sell the suit first, because when it comes time to look at sweaters, even expensive ones, their prices will not seem as high in comparison. The same principle applies to a man who wishes to buy the accessories (shirt, shoes, belt) to go along with his new suit. Contrary to the commonsense view, the evidence supports the contrast principle prediction.
One thing I quickly noticed was that whenever Phil began showing a new set of customers potential buys, he would start with a couple of undesirable houses. I asked him about it, and he laughed. They were what he called “setup” properties. The company maintained a run-down house or two on its lists at inflated prices. These houses were not intended to be sold to customers but only to be shown to them, so that the genuine properties in the company’s inventory would benefit from the comparison. Not all the sales staff made use of the setup houses, but Phil did. He said he liked to watch his prospects’ “eyes light up” when he showed the places he really wanted to sell them after they had seen the rundown houses. “The house I got them spotted for looks really great after they’ve first looked at a couple of dumps.”
Automobile dealers use the contrast principle by waiting until the price of a car has been negotiated before suggesting one option after another. In the wake of a many-thousand-dollar deal, the hundred or so dollars extra for a nicety like an upgraded CD player seems almost trivial in comparison. The same will be true of the added expense of accessories like tinted windows, better tires, or special trim that the dealer might suggest in sequence. The trick is to bring up the options independently of one another so that each small price will seem petty when compared to the already determined much larger price.
Although obligations extend into the future, their span is not unlimited. Especially for relatively small favors, the desire to repay seems to fade with time (Burger et al., 1997; Flynn, 2002). But, when gifts are of the truly notable and memorable sort, they can be remarkably long-lived.
As the Corporate Secretary at a business in Rochester, NY, I usually work days; but one evening I had stayed late to finish some important work. While pulling out of my parking spot, my car slid on some ice and ended up stuck down a small ravine. It was late, cold, and dark; and everyone from my office had left. But, an employee from another department came by and towed me clear. About two weeks later, because I worked on personnel matters, I became aware that this same employee was being “written up” for a serious violation of company policy. Not really knowing this man’s morals, I still took it upon myself to go to the company president on his behalf. To this day, although more people have come to question the man’s character, I feel indebted to him and willing to stand up for him. Author’s note: As in the Regan experiment, it appears that the man’s personal characteristics were less relevant to the reader’s decision to help him than the simple fact that he had helped her.
Indeed, one study showed that mailing a $5 “gift” check along with an insurance survey was twice as effective as offering a $50 payment for sending back a completed survey (James & Bolstein, 1992). Similarly, food servers have learned that simply giving customers a candy or mint along with their bill significantly increases tips (Strohmetz, Rind, Fisher, & Lynn, 2002). In general, business operators have found that, after accepting a gift, customers are willing to purchase products and services they would have otherwise declined (Gruner, 1996).
At another level, we can see the recognized strength of the reciprocity rule in the desire of corporations and individuals to provide judicial and legislative officials with gifts and favors and in the series of legal restrictions against such gifts and favors. Even with legitimate political contributions, the stockpiling of obligations often underlies the stated purpose of supporting a favorite candidate. One look at the lists of companies and organizations that contribute to the campaigns of both major candidates in important elections gives evidence of such motives. A skeptic, requiring direct evidence of the quid pro quo expected by political contributors, might look to the remarkably bald-faced admission by businessman Roger Tamraz at congressional hearings on campaign finance reform. When asked if he felt he received a good return on his contribution of $300,000, he smiled and replied, “I think next time, I’ll give $600,000.”
As a marketing technique, the free sample has a long and effective history. In most instances, a small amount of the relevant product is given to potential customers to see if they like it. Certainly this is a legitimate desire of the manufacturer—to expose the public to the qualities of the product. The beauty of the free sample, however, is that it is also a gift and, as such, can engage the reciprocity rule. In true jujitsu fashion, a promoter who provides free samples can release the natural indebting force inherent in a gift, while innocently appearing to have only the intention to inform.
More bizarre still is the more recent case of an armed robber who crashed a Washington, DC, dinner party—waving a gun and demanding money—but who changed his mind, apologized, and left upon being offered some of the remaining wine and cheese (Guess who’s coming to dinner, 2007).
Although an obligation to repay constitutes the essence of the reciprocity rule, it is the obligation to receive that makes the rule so easy to exploit. An obligation to receive reduces our ability to choose those to whom we wish to be indebted and puts the power in the hands of others. Let’s reexamine a pair of earlier examples to see how the process works. First, in the Regan study, we find that the favor causing subjects to double the number of raffle tickets purchased from Joe was not one they had requested. Joe had voluntarily left the room and returned with one Coke for himself and one for the subject. There was not a single subject who refused the Coke. It is easy to see why it would have been awkward to turn down Joe’s favor: Joe had already spent his money; a soft drink was an appropriate favor in the situation, especially since Joe had one himself; it would have been considered impolite to reject Joe’s thoughtful action. Nevertheless, receipt of that Coke produced a feeling of indebtedness that became clear when Joe announced his desire to sell some raffle tickets. Notice the important asymmetry here—all the genuinely free choices were Joe’s. He chose the form of the initial favor, and he chose the form of the return favor. Of course, one could say that the subject had the choice of refusing both of Joe’s offers, but those would have been tough choices. To have said no at either point would have required the subject to go against the natural cultural forces favoring reciprocation.
Besides showing that unsolicited assistance can engage the reciprocity rule, this account points up something else worth knowing about the obligations that accompany the rule. They are not limited to the individuals initially involved in giving and receiving aid. They apply, as well, to members of the groups to which the individuals belong. Not only was the family of the college student made to feel indebted by the help he received, new research indicates that—had they been able—they could have retired the debt by helping a member of the nurse’s family (Goldstein et al., 2007).
Since, as we have already seen, the rule allows one person to choose the nature of the indebting first favor and the nature of the debt-canceling return favor, we could easily be manipulated into an unfair exchange by those who might wish to exploit the rule.
One important reason concerns the clearly unpleasant character of the feeling of indebtedness. Most of us find it highly disagreeable to be in a state of obligation. It weighs heavily on us and demands to be removed. It is not difficult to trace the source of this feeling. Because reciprocal arrangements are so vital in human social systems, we have been conditioned to feel uncomfortable when beholden. If we were to ignore the need to return another’s initial favor, we would stop one reciprocal sequence dead and make it less likely that our benefactor would do such favors in the future. Neither event is in the best interests of society. Consequently, we are trained from childhood to chafe, emotionally, under the saddle of obligation. For this reason alone, then, we may be willing to agree to perform a larger favor than the one we received, merely to relieve ourselves of the psychological burden of debt.
A person who violates the reciprocity rule by accepting without attempting to return the good acts of others is disliked by the social group. The exception, of course, occurs when a person is prevented from repayment by reasons of circumstance or ability. For the most part, however, there is a genuine distaste for an individual who fails to conform to the dictates of the reciprocity rule (Wedekind & Milinski, 2000).2 Moocher and ingrate are unsavory labels to be scrupulously shunned. So undesirable are they that people will sometimes agree to an unequal exchange in order to dodge them.
2Interestingly enough, a cross-cultural study has shown that those who break the reciprocity rule in the reverse direction—by giving without allowing the recipient an opportunity to repay—are also disliked for it. This result was found to hold for each of the three nationalities investigated—Americans, Swedes, and Japanese (Gergen, Ellsworth, Maslach, & Seipel, 1975).
losses may also persuade people to decline certain gifts and benefits. Women frequently comment on the uncomfortable sense of obligation they can feel to return the favors of a man who has given them an expensive present or paid for a costly evening out. Even something as small as the price of a drink can produce a feeling of debt. A student in one of my classes expressed it quite plainly in a paper she wrote: “After learning the hard way, I no longer let a guy I meet in a club buy me a drink because I don’t want either of us to feel that I am obligated sexually.”
The rule for reciprocity applies to most relationships; however, in its purest form reciprocity is unnecessary and undesirable in certain long-term relationships such as families or established friendships. In these “communal” relationships (Clark & Mills, 1979; Mills & Clark, 1982), what is exchanged reciprocally is the willingness to provide what the other needs, when it is needed (Clark, Mills, & Corcoran, 1989). Under this form of reciprocity, it is not necessary to calculate who has given more or less but only whether both parties are living up to the more general rule (Clark, 1984; Clark & Waddell, 1985; Clark, Mills, & Powell, 1986). Still, it appears that persistent inequities can lead to dissatisfactions, even in friendships.
Author’s note: I am struck by this reader’s language in describing her current employment options, saying that she “will be able” to move to another job only after her boss retires. It seems that his small kindnesses have nurtured a binding sense of obligation that has made her unable to seek a better paying position. There is an obvious lesson here for managers wishing to instill loyalty in employees. But there is a larger lesson for all of us, as well: Little things are not always little—not when they link to the big rules of life, like reciprocity.
We have already seen that one consequence of the rule is an obligation to repay favors we have received. Another consequence of the rule, however, is an obligation to make a concession to someone who has made a concession to us. As my research group thought about it, we realized that was exactly the position the Boy Scout had put me in. His request that I purchase some $1 chocolate bars had been put in the form of a concession on his part; it was presented as a retreat from his request that I buy some $5 tickets. If I were to live up to the dictates of the reciprocation rule, there had to be a concession on my part. As we have seen, there was such a concession: I changed from noncompliant to compliant when he moved from a larger to a smaller request, even though I was not really interested in either of the things he offered.
Because the rule for reciprocation governs the compromise process, it is possible to use an initial concession as part of a highly effective compliance technique. The technique is a simple one that we will call the rejection-then-retreat technique, although it is also known as the door-in-the-face technique. Suppose you want me to agree to a certain request. One way to increase the chances that I will comply is first to make a larger request of me, one that I will most likely turn down. Then, after I have refused, you make the smaller request that you were really interested in all along. Provided that you structured your requests skillfully, I should view your second request as a concession to me and should feel inclined to respond with a concession of my own—compliance with your second request.
Research conducted at BarIlan University in Israel on the rejection-then-retreat technique shows that if the first set of demands is so extreme as to be seen as unreasonable, the tactic backfires (Schwarzwald, Raz, & Zvibel, 1979). In such cases, the party who has made the extreme first request is not seen to be bargaining in good faith. Any subsequent retreat from that wholly unrealistic initial position is not viewed as a genuine concession and, thus, is not reciprocated. The truly gifted negotiator, then, is one whose initial position is exaggerated just enough to allow for a series of small reciprocal concessions and counteroffers that will yield a desirable final offer from the opponent
We have already discussed one reason for the success of the rejection-then-retreat technique—its incorporation of the reciprocity rule. This larger-then-smaller-request strategy is effective for a pair of other reasons as well. The first concerns the perceptual contrast principle we encountered in Chapter 1.
In combination, the influences of reciprocity and perceptual contrast can present a fearsomely powerful force. Embodied in the rejection-then-retreat sequence, they are jointly capable of genuinely astonishing effects.
For an answer, we might look at a requester’s act of concession, which is the heart of the procedure. We have already seen that, as long as it is not viewed as an obvious trick, the concession will likely stimulate a return concession. What we have not yet examined, however, is a little-known pair of positive by-products of the act of concession: feelings of greater responsibility for and satisfaction with the arrangement. It is this set of sweet side effects that enables the technique to move its victims to fulfill their agreements and to engage in further such agreements.
The requester’s concession within the rejection-then-retreat technique not only caused targets to say yes more often, it also caused them to feel more responsible for having “dictated” the final agreement. Thus the uncanny ability of the rejection-then-retreat technique to make its targets meet their commitments becomes understandable: A person who feels responsible for the terms of a contract will be more likely to live up to that contract.
Even though, on the average, they gave the most money to the opponent who used the concessions strategy, the subjects who were the targets of this strategy were the most satisfied with the final arrangement. It appears that an agreement that has been forged through the concessions of one’s opponents is quite satisfying. With this in mind, we can begin to explain the second previously puzzling feature of the rejection-then-retreat tactic—the ability to prompt its victims to agree to further requests. Since the tactic uses a concession to bring about compliance, the victim is likely to feel more satisfied with the arrangement as a result. It stands to reason that people who are satisfied with a given arrangement are more likely to be willing to agree to similar arrangements. As one study of retail sales showed, feeling responsible for getting a better deal led to more satisfaction with the process and more repurchases of the product (Schindler, 1998). Defense
Another solution holds more promise. It advises us to accept the offers of others but to accept those offers only for what they fundamentally are, not for what they are represented to be. If a person offers us a nice favor, let’s say, we might well accept, recognizing that we have obligated ourselves to a return favor sometime in the future. To engage in this sort of arrangement with another is not to be exploited by that person through the rule for reciprocation. Quite the contrary; it is to participate fairly in the “honored network of obligation” that has served us so well, both individually and societally, from the dawn of humanity. However, if the initial favor turns out to be a device, a trick, an artifice designed specifically to stimulate our compliance with a larger return favor, that is a different story. Our partner is not a benefactor but a profiteer; and it is here that we should respond to the action on precisely those terms. Once we have determined that the initial offer was not a favor but a compliance tactic, we need only react to it accordingly to be free of its influence. As long as we perceive and define the action as a compliance device instead of a favor, the giver no longer has the reciprocation rule as an ally: The rule says that favors are to be met with favors; it does not require that tricks be met with favors.
If you were to find yourself in such a situation with the realization that the primary motive of the inspector’s visit was to sell you a costly alarm system, your most effective next action would be a simple, private maneuver. It would involve the mental act of redefinition. Merely define whatever you have received from the inspector—extinguisher, safety information, hazard inspection—not as gifts but as sales devices, and you will be free to decline (or accept) the purchase offer without even a tug from the reciprocity rule: A favor rightly follows a favor—not a piece of sales strategy. If the inspector subsequently responds to your refusal by proposing that you, at least, provide the names of some friends he might call on, use your mental maneuver again. Define this retreat to a smaller request as what you recognize it to be—a compliance tactic. Once this is done, there would be no pressure to offer the names as a return concession, since the reduced request would not be viewed as a real concession. At this point, unhampered by an inappropriately triggered sense of obligation, you may once again be as compliant or noncompliant as you wish.
According to sociologists and anthropologists, one of the most widespread and basic norms of human culture is embodied in the rule for reciprocation. The rule requires that one person try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided. By obligating the recipient of an act to repayment in the future, the rule for reciprocation allows one individual to give something to another with confidence that it is not being lost. This sense of future obligation within the rule makes possible the development of various kinds of continuing relationships, transactions, and exchanges that are beneficial to the society. Consequently, all members of the society are trained from childhood to abide by the rule or suffer serious social disapproval.
The decision to comply with another’s request is frequently influenced by the reciprocity rule. One favorite and profitable tactic of certain compliance professionals is to give something before asking for a return favor. The exploitability of this tactic is due to three characteristics of the rule for reciprocation. First, the rule is extremely powerful, often overwhelming the influence of other factors that normally determine compliance with a request. Second, the rule applies even to uninvited first favors, thereby reducing our ability to decide whom we wish to owe and putting the choice in the hands of others. Finally, the rule can spur unequal exchanges; to be rid of the uncomfortable feeling of indebtedness, an individual will often agree to a request for a substantially larger favor than the one he or she received.
Another way that the rule for reciprocity can increase compliance involves a simple variation on the basic theme: Instead of providing a first favor that stimulates a return favor, an individual can make an initial concession that stimulates a return concession. One compliance procedure, called the rejection-then-retreat technique, or door-in-the-face technique, relies heavily on the pressure to reciprocate concessions. By starting with an extreme request that is sure to be rejected, a requester can then profitably retreat to a smaller request (the one that was desired all along), which is likely to be accepted because it appears to be a concession. Research indicates that, aside from increasing the likelihood that a person will say yes to a request, the rejection-then-retreat technique also increases the likelihood that the person will carry out the request and will agree to such requests in the future.
Our best defense against the use of reciprocity pressures to gain our compliance is not systematic rejection of the initial offers of others. Rather, we should accept initial favors or concessions in good faith, but be ready to redefine them as tricks should they later be proved as such. Once they are redefined in this way, we will no longer feel a need to respond with a favor or concession of our own.
Once we make a choice or take a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision. We simply convince ourselves that we have made the right choice and, no doubt, feel better about our decision (Fazio, Blascovich, & Driscoll, 1992).
Since it is so typically in our best interests to be consistent, we fall into the habit of being automatically consistent even in situations where it is not the sensible way to be. When it occurs unthinkingly, consistency can be disastrous. Nonetheless, even blind consistency has its attractions. First, like most other forms of automatic responding, it offers a shortcut through the complexities of modern life. Once we have made up our minds about issues, stubborn consistency allows us a very appealing luxury: We don’t have to think hard about the issues anymore. We don’t really have to sift through the blizzard of information we encounter every day to identify relevant facts; we don’t have to expend the mental energy to weigh the pros and cons; we don’t have to make any further tough decisions. Instead, all we have to do when confronted with the issues is click on our consistency tape, whirr, and we know just what to believe, say, or do. We need only believe, say, or do whatever is consistent with our earlier decision.
The tactic of starting with a little request in order to gain eventual compliance with related larger requests has a name: the foot-in-the-door technique. Social scientists first became aware of its effectiveness in 1966 when psychologists Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser published an astonishing set of data. They reported the results of an experiment in which a researcher, posing as a volunteer worker, had gone door to door in a residential California neighborhood making a preposterous request of homeowners. The homeowners were asked to allow a public-service billboard to be installed on their front lawns. To get an idea of the way the sign would look, they were shown a photograph depicting an attractive house, the view of which was almost completely obscured by a very large, poorly lettered sign reading DRIVE CAREFULLY. Although the request was normally and understandably refused by the great majority of the residents in the area (only 17 percent complied), one particular group of people reacted quite favorably. A full 76 percent of them offered the use of their front yards.
What the Freedman and Fraser findings tell us, then, is to be very careful about agreeing to trivial requests, because that agreement can influence our self-concepts (Burger & Caldwell, 2003). Such an agreement can not only increase our compliance with very similar, much larger requests, it can also make us more willing to perform a variety of larger favors that are only remotely connected to the little one we did earlier. It’s this second, general kind of influence concealed within small commitments that scares me.
Have you ever wondered what the groups that ask you to sign their petitions do with all the signatures they obtain? Often they don’t do anything with them, as the principal purpose of the petition may simply be to get the signers committed to the group’s position and, consequently, more willing to take future steps that are consistent with it.
Savvy politicians have long used the committing character of labels to great advantage. One of the best at it was former president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat. Before international negotiations began, Sadat would assure his bargaining opponents that they and the citizens of their country were widely known for their cooperativeness and fairness. With this kind of flattery, he not only created positive feelings, he also connected his opponent’s identities to a course of action that served his goals. According to master-negotiator, Henry Kissinger (1982), Sadat was successful because he got others to act in his interests by giving them a reputation to uphold.
This sort of stubbornness can occur even in situations in which accuracy should be more important than consistency. In one study, when 6- or 12-person experimental juries were deciding a close case, hung juries were significantly more frequent if the jurors had to express their opinions with a visible show of hands rather than by secret ballot. Once jurors had stated their initial views publicly, they were reluctant to allow themselves to change publicly. Should you ever find yourself as the foreperson of a jury under these conditions, you could reduce the risk of a hung jury by choosing a secret rather than public balloting technique (Kerr & MacCoun, 1985).
just read a newspaper article on how a restaurant owner used public commitments to solve a big problem of customers who didn’t show up for their table reservations. I don’t know if he read your book or not first, but he did something that fits perfectly with the commitment/consistency principle you talk about. He told his receptionists to stop saying, “Please call us if you change your plans,” and to start asking, “Will you please call us if you change your plans?” and to wait for a response. His no-show rate immediately dropped from 30 percent to 10 percent.
instead of saying please do something, ask them to xonfirm.
“persons who go through a great deal of trouble or pain to attain something tend to value it more highly than persons who attain the same thing with a minimum of effort.”
one study of 54 tribal cultures found that those with the most dramatic and stringent initiation ceremonies were those with the greatest group solidarity
Social scientists have determined that we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressure. A large reward is one such external pressure. It may get us to perform certain actions, but it won’t get us to accept inner responsibility for the acts.3 Consequently, we won’t feel committed to them. The same is true of a strong threat; it may motivate immediate compliance, but it is unlikely to produce long-term commitment. 3In fact, large material rewards may even reduce or “undermine” our inner responsibility for an act, causing a subsequent reluctance to perform it when the reward is no longer present (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Higgins, Lee, Kwon, & Trope, 1995; Lepper & Greene, 1978).
listen to my stomach these days, and I have discovered a way to handle people who try to use the consistency principle on me. I just tell them exactly what they are doing. This tactic has become the perfect counterattack for me. Whenever my stomach tells me I would be a sucker to comply with a request merely because doing so would be consistent with some prior commitment I was tricked into, I relay that message to the requester. I don’t try to deny the importance of consistency; I just point out the absurdity of foolish consistency. Whether, in response, the requester shrinks away guiltily or retreats in bewilderment, I am content. I have won; an exploiter has lost.
Psychologists have long recognized a desire in most people to be and look consistent within their words, beliefs, attitudes, and deeds. This tendency for consistency is fed from three sources. First, good personal consistency is highly valued by society. Second, aside from its effect on public image, generally consistent conduct provides a beneficial approach to daily life. Third, a consistent orientation affords a valuable shortcut through the complexity of modern existence. By being consistent with earlier decisions, one reduces the need to process all the relevant information in future similar situations; instead, one merely needs to recall the earlier decision and to respond consistently with it.
Within the realm of compliance, securing an initial commitment is the key. After making a commitment (that is, taking a stand or position), people are more willing to agree to requests that are in keeping with the prior commitment. Thus, many compliance professionals try to induce people to take an initial position that is consistent with a behavior they will later request from these people. Not all commitments are equally effective, however, in producing consistent future action. Commitments are most effective when they are active, public, effortful, and viewed as internally motivated (uncoerced).
Commitment decisions, even erroneous ones, have a tendency to be self-perpetuating because they can “grow their own legs.” That is, people often add new reasons and justifications to support the wisdom of commitments they have already made. As a consequence, some commitments remain in effect long after the conditions that spurred them have changed. This phenomenon explains the effectiveness of certain deceptive compliance practices such as “throwing the low-ball.”
To recognize and resist the undue influence of consistency pressures on our compliance decisions, we should listen for signals coming from two places within us: our stomachs and our heart of hearts. Stomach signs appear when we realize that we are being pushed by commitment and consistency pressures to agree to requests we know we don’t want to perform. Under these circumstances, it is best to explain to the requester that such compliance would constitute a brand of foolish consistency in which we prefer not to engage. Heart-of-heart signs are different. They are best employed when it is not clear to us that an initial commitment was wrongheaded. Here, we should ask ourselves a crucial question, “Knowing what I know, if I could go back in time, would I make the same commitment?” One informative answer may come as the first flash of feeling registered. Commitment and consistency tactics are likely to work especially well on members of individualistic societies, particularly those who are over 50 years old.
Advertisers love to inform us when a product is the “fastest-growing” or “largest-selling” because they don’t have to convince us directly that the product is good; they need only say that many others think so, which seems proof enough.
Salespeople are taught to spice their pitches with numerous accounts of individuals who have purchased the product. Sales and motivation consultant Cavett Robert captures the principle nicely in his advice to sales trainees: “Since 95 percent of the people are imitators and only 5 percent initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.”
In the process of examining the reactions of other people to resolve our uncertainty, we are likely to overlook a subtle, but important fact: Those people are probably examining the social evidence, too. Especially in an ambiguous situation, the tendency for everyone to be looking to see what everyone else is doing can lead to a fascinating phenomenon called pluralistic ignorance. A thorough understanding of the pluralistic ignorance phenomenon helps explain a regular occurrence in our country that has been termed both a riddle and a national disgrace: the failure of entire groups of bystanders to aid victims in agonizing need of help.
The psychologists speculated that, for at least two reasons, a bystander to an emergency will be unlikely to help when there are a number of other bystanders present. The first reason is fairly straightforward. With several potential helpers around, the personal responsibility of each individual is reduced: “Perhaps someone else will give or call for aid, perhaps someone else already has.” So with everyone thinking that someone else will help or has helped, no one does. The second reason is the more psychologically intriguing one; it is founded on the principle of social proof and involves the pluralistic ignorance effect. Very often an emergency is not obviously an emergency. Is the man lying in the alley a heart-attack victim or a drunk sleeping one off? Is the commotion next door an assault requiring the police or an especially loud marital spat where intervention would be inappropriate and unwelcome? What is going on? In times of such uncertainty, the natural tendency is to look around at the actions of others for clues. We can learn from the way the other witnesses are reacting whether the event is or is not an emergency.
From my own perspective, most attempts to analyze the Jonestown incident have focused too much on the personal qualities of Jim Jones. Although he was without question a man of rare dynamism, the power he wielded strikes me as coming less from his remarkable personal style than from his understanding of fundamental psychological principles. His real genius as a leader was his realization of the limitations of individual leadership. No leader can hope to persuade, regularly and single-handedly, all the members of the group. A forceful leader can reasonably expect, however, to persuade some sizable proportion of group members. Then the raw information that a substantial number of group members has been convinced can, by itself, convince the rest (Watts & Dodd, 2007). Thus, the most influential leaders are those who know how to arrange group conditions to allow the principle of social proof to work in their favor.
Apparently I’m not alone in noticing the number of blatantly phony “unrehearsed” testimonial ads these days. Humorist Dave Barry has registered their prevalence too and has labeled their inhabitants Consumers from Mars, which is a term I like and have even begun using myself. It helps remind me that, as regards my buying habits, I should be sure to ignore the tastes of these individuals who, after all, come from a different planet than I do.
If we find in such settings that we cannot trust the information to be valid because someone has tampered with the evidence, we ought to be ready to strike back. In such instances, I personally feel driven by more than an aversion to being duped. I bristle at the thought of being pushed into an unacceptable corner by those who would use one of my hedges against the decisional overload of modern life against me. And I get a genuine sense of righteousness by lashing out when they try. If you are like me—and many others like me—so should you.
The principle of social proof states that one important means that people use to decide what to believe or how to act in a situation is to look at what other people are believing or doing there. Powerful imitative effects have been found among both children and adults and in such diverse activities as purchase decisions, charity donations, and phobia remission. The principle of social proof can be used to stimulate a person’s compliance with a request by informing the person that many other individuals (the more, the better) are or have been complying with it. Social proof is most influential under two conditions. The first is uncertainty. When people are unsure, when the situation is ambiguous, they are more likely to attend to the actions of others and to accept those actions as correct. In ambiguous situations, for instance, the decisions of bystanders to help are much more influenced by the actions of other bystanders than when the situation is a clear-cut emergency. The second condition under which social proof is most influential is similarity: People are more inclined to follow the lead of similar others. Evidence for the powerful effect of the actions of similar others on human behavior can be readily seen in the suicide statistics compiled by sociologist David Phillips. Those statistics indicate that after highly publicized suicide stories other troubled individuals, who are similar to the suicide-story victim, decide to kill themselves. An analysis of the mass suicide incident at Jonestown, Guyana, suggests that the group’s leader, Reverend Jim Jones, used both of the factors of uncertainty and similarity to induce a herdlike suicide response from the majority of the Jonestown population.
Recommendations to reduce our susceptibility to faulty social proof include a sensitivity to clearly counterfeit evidence of what similar others are doing and a recognition that the actions of similar others should not form the sole basis for our decisions.
Of course, all sorts of other compliance professionals recognize the pressure to say yes to someone we know and like. Take, for instance, the growing number of charity organizations that recruit volunteers to canvass for donations close to their own homes. They understand perfectly how much more difficult it is for us to turn down a charity request when it comes from a friend or neighbor.
Of course, popular entertainers provide another form of desirability that manufacturers have always paid dearly to tie to their goods. Recently, politicians have recognized the ability of a celebrity linkage to sway voters. Presidential candidates assemble stables of well-known nonpolitical figures who either actively participate in, or merely lend their names to, a campaign. Even at state and local levels, a similar game is played. Take as evidence the comment of a Los Angeles woman I heard expressing her conflicting feelings over a California referendum to limit smoking in public places. “It’s a real tough decision. They’ve got big stars speaking for it, and big stars speaking against it. You don’t know how to vote.”
Using what he termed the “luncheon technique,” he found that his subjects become fonder of the people and things they experienced while they were eating. In the example most relevant for our purposes (Razran, 1940), subjects were presented with some political statements they had rated once before. At the end of the experiment, after all the political statements had been presented, Razran found that only certain of them had gained in approval—those that had been shown while food was being eaten. These changes in liking seem to have occurred unconsciously, since the subjects could not remember which of the statements they had seen while the food was being served.8 8To demonstrate that the principle of association also works for unpleasant experiences, Razran (1940) included in his experiment a condition in which certain participants had putrid odors piped into the room while they were shown the political slogans. In this case, approval ratings for the slogans declined. More recent research indicates that odors so slight that they escape conscious awareness can still be influential. People judged photographed faces as more versus less likable depending on whether they rated the faces while experiencing subliminal pleasant or unpleasant odors (Li et al., 2007).
So we want our affiliated sports teams to win to prove our own superiority, but to whom are we trying to prove it? Ourselves, certainly, but to everyone else, too. According to the association principle, if we can surround ourselves with success that we are connected with in even a superficial way (for example, place of residence), our public prestige will rise.
When the results were tabulated, it was obvious that the students had tried to connect themselves to success by using the pronoun we to describe their school-team victory—“We beat Houston, 17 to 14,” or “We won.” In the case of the lost game, however, we was rarely used. Instead, the students used terms designed to keep themselves separate from their defeated team—“They lost to Missouri, 30 to 20,” or “I don’t know the score, but Arizona State got beat.”
Although the desire to bask in reflected glory exists to a degree in all of us, there seems to be something special about people who would take this normal tendency too far. Just what kind of people are they? Unless I miss my guess, they are not merely great sports aficionados; they are individuals with hidden personality flaws: poor self-concepts. Deep inside is a sense of low personal worth that directs them to seek prestige not from the generation or promotion of their own attainments but from the generation or promotion of their associations with others’ attainments. There are several varieties of this species that bloom throughout our culture. The persistent name-dropper is a classic example. So, too, is the rock-music groupie, who trades sexual favors for the right to tell friends that she or he was “with” a famous musician for a time. No matter which form it takes, the behavior of such individuals shares a similar theme—the rather tragic view of accomplishment as deriving from outside the self.
Instead, we have to be sensitive to only one thing related to liking in our contacts with compliance practitioners: the feeling that we have come to like the practitioner more quickly or more deeply than we would have expected. Once we notice this feeling, we will have been tipped off that there is probably some tactic being used, and we can start taking the necessary countermeasures. Note that the strategy I am suggesting borrows much from the jujitsu style favored by the compliance professionals themselves. We don’t attempt to restrain the influence of the factors that cause liking. Quite the contrary. We allow those factors to exert their force, and then we use that force in our campaign against those who would profit by them. The stronger the force, the more conspicuous it becomes and, consequently, the more subject to our alerted defenses.
Our proper response, then, is a conscious effort to concentrate exclusively on the merits of the deal and the car Dan has for us. Of course, when we make a compliance decision, it is always a good idea to separate our feelings about the requester from the request. Once immersed in even a brief personal and sociable contact with a requester, however, we may easily forget that distinction. In those instances when we don’t care one way or the other about a requester, forgetting to make the distinction won’t steer us very far wrong. The big mistakes are likely to come when we like the person making the request.
People prefer to say yes to individuals they know and like. Recognizing this rule, compliance professionals commonly increase their effectiveness by emphasizing several factors that increase their overall attractiveness and likeability.
One feature of a person that influences overall liking is physical attractiveness. Although it has long been suspected that physical beauty provides an advantage in social interaction, research indicates that the advantage may be greater than supposed. Physical attractiveness seems to engender a halo effect that extends to favorable impressions of other traits such as talent, kindness, and intelligence. As a result, attractive people are more persuasive both in terms of getting what they request and in changing others’ attitudes.
second factor that influences liking and compliance is similarity. We like people who are like us, and we are more willing to say yes to their requests, often in an unthinking manner. Another factor that produces liking is praise. Although they can sometimes backfire when crudely transparent, compliments generally enhance liking and, thus, compliance.
Increased familiarity through repeated contact with a person or thing is yet another factor that normally facilitates liking. This relationship holds true principally when the contact takes place under positive rather than negative circumstances. One positive circumstance that works especially well is mutual and successful cooperation. A fifth factor linked to liking is association. By connecting themselves or their products with positive things, advertisers, politicians, and merchandisers frequently seek to share in the positivity through the process of association. Other individuals as well (sports fans, for example) appear to recognize the effect of simple connections and try to associate themselves with favorable events and distance themselves from unfavorable events in the eyes of observers.
A potentially effective strategy for reducing the unwanted influence of liking on compliance decisions requires a special sensitivity to the experience of undue liking for a requester. Upon recognizing that we like a requester inordinately well under the circumstances, we should step back from the social interaction, mentally separate the requester from his or her offer, and make any compliance decision based solely on the merits of the offer.
since 1900 the U.S. presidency has been won by the taller of the major party candidates in nearly 90 percent of the elections. Research suggests that the height advantage may also apply to candidates for affection in contests of the heart: women are significantly more likely to respond to a man’s published personal ad when he describes himself as tall. Interestingly for female ad-runners, size works in the opposite direction. Women who report being short and weighing less get more male/mail action (Lynn & Shurgot, 1984; Shepperd & Strathman, 1989).
This property of authority status may account for much of its success as a compliance device. Not only does it work forcefully on us, but it does so unexpectedly.
One protective tactic we can use against authority status is to remove its element of surprise. Because we typically misperceive the profound impact of authority (and its symbols) on our actions, we become insufficiently cautious about its presence in compliance situations. A fundamental form of defense against this problem, therefore, is a heightened awareness of authority power. When this awareness is coupled with a recognition of how easily authority symbols can be faked, the benefit will be a properly guarded approach to situations involving authority influence attempts.
Besides its capacity to combat the perception of grade inflation, a weakness can become a strength in a variety of other situations. For example, one study found that letters of recommendation sent to the personnel directors of major corporations produced the most favorable results for job candidates when the letters contained one unflattering comment about the candidate in an otherwise wholly positive set of specific remarks (Knouse, 1983).
In the Milgram studies of obedience we can see evidence of strong pressure in our society for compliance with the requests of an authority. Acting contrary to their own preferences, many normal, psychologically healthy individuals were willing to deliver dangerous and severe levels of pain to another person because they were directed to do so by an authority figure. The strength of this tendency to obey legitimate authorities comes from systematic socialization practices designed to instill in members of society the perception that such obedience constitutes correct conduct. In addition, it is frequently adaptive to obey the dictates of genuine authorities because such individuals usually possess high levels of knowledge, wisdom, and power. For these reasons, deference to authorities can occur in a mindless fashion as a kind of decision-making shortcut.
When reacting to authority in an automatic fashion, there is a tendency to do so in response to the mere symbols of authority rather than to its substance. Three kinds of symbols that have been shown by research to be effective in this regard are titles, clothing, and automobiles. In separate studies investigating the influence of these symbols, individuals possessing one or another of them (and no other legitimizing credentials) were accorded more deference or obedience by those they encountered. Moreover, in each instance, individuals who deferred or obeyed underestimated the effect of authority pressures on their behaviors.
It is possible to defend ourselves against the detrimental effects of authority influence by asking two questions: Is this authority truly an expert? How truthful can we expect this expert to be? The first question directs our attention away from symbols and toward evidence for authority status. The second advises us to consider not just the expert’s knowledge in the situation but also his or her trustworthiness. With regard to this second consideration, we should be alert to the trust-enhancing tactic in which communicators first provide some mildly negative information about themselves. Through this strategy they create a perception of honesty that makes all subsequent information seem more credible to observers.
During the time I was researching compliance strategies by infiltrating various organizations, I saw the limited-number tactic employed repeatedly in a range of situations: “There aren’t more than five convertibles with this engine left in the state. And when they’re gone, that’s it, ’cause we’re not making ’em anymore.” “This is one of only two unsold corner lots in the entire development. You wouldn’t want the other one; it’s got a nasty east-west exposure.” “You may want to think seriously about buying more than one case today because production is backed way up and there’s no telling when we’ll get any more in.”
Because of its lost availability, the appliance suddenly becomes more attractive. Typically, one of the customers asks if there is any chance that an unsold model still exists in the store’s back room or warehouse or other location. “Well,” the salesperson allows, “that is possible, and I’d be willing to check. But do I understand that this is the model you want and if I can get it for you at this price, you’ll take it?” Therein lies the beauty of the technique. In accord with the scarcity principle the customers are asked to commit to buying the appliance when it looks least available and therefore most desirable. Many customers do agree to purchase at this singularly vulnerable time. Thus, when the salesperson (invariably) returns with the news that an additional supply of the appliance has been found, it is also with a pen and sales contract in hand. The information that the desired model is in good supply actually may make some customers find it less attractive again (Schwarz, 1984), although by then the business transaction has progressed too far for most people to renege. The purchase decision made and committed to publicly at an earlier, crucial point still holds. They buy.
Freedoms once granted will not be relinquished without a fight.
According to the scarcity principle, people assign more value to opportunities when they are less available. The use of this principle for profit can be seen in such compliance techniques as the “limited number” and “deadline” tactics, wherein practitioners try to convince us that access to what they are offering is restricted by amount or time. The scarcity principle holds for two reasons. First, because things that are difficult to attain are typically more valuable, the availability of an item or experience can serve as a shortcut cue to its quality. Second, as things become less accessible, we lose freedoms. According to psychological reactance theory, we respond to the loss of freedoms by wanting to have them (along with the goods and services connected to them) more than before. As a motivator, psychological reactance is present throughout the great majority of the life span. However, it is especially evident at a pair of ages: the terrible twos and the teenage years. Both of these times are characterized by an emerging sense of individuality, which brings to prominence such issues as control, rights, and freedom. Consequently, individuals at these ages are especially sensitive to restrictions. In addition to its effect on the valuation of commodities, the scarcity principle also applies to the way that information is evaluated. Research indicates that the act of limiting access to a message causes individuals to want to receive it more and to become more favorable to it. The latter of these findings—that limited information is more persuasive—seems the more surprising. In the case of censorship, this effect occurs even when the message has not been received. When a message has been received, it is more effective if it is perceived as consisting of exclusive information. The scarcity principle is most likely to hold true under two optimizing conditions. First, scarce items are heightened in value when they are newly scarce. That is, we value those things that have become recently restricted more than those that were restricted all along. Second, we are most attracted to scarce resources when we compete with others for them. It is difficult to steel ourselves cognitively against scarcity pressures because they have an emotion-arousing quality that makes thinking difficult. In defense, we might try to be alert to a rush of arousal in situations involving scarcity. Once alerted, we can take steps to calm the arousal and assess the merits of the opportunity in terms of why we want it.
Modern life is different from any earlier time. Because of remarkable technological advances, information is burgeoning, choices and alternatives are expanding, knowledge is exploding. In this avalanche of change and choice, we have had to adjust. One fundamental adjustment has come in the way we make decisions. Although we all wish to make the most thoughtful, fully considered decision possible in any situation, the changing form and accelerating pace of modern life frequently deprive us of the proper conditions for such a careful analysis of all the relevant pros and cons. More and more, we are forced to resort to another decision-making approach—a shortcut approach in which the decision to comply (or agree or believe or buy) is made on the basis of a single, usually reliable piece of information. The most reliable and, therefore, most popular such single triggers for compliance are those described throughout this book. They are commitments, opportunities for reciprocation, the compliant behavior of similar others, feelings of liking or friendship, authority directives, and scarcity information. Because of the increasing tendency for cognitive overload in our society, the prevalence of shortcut decision making is likely to increase proportionately. Compliance professionals who infuse their requests with one or another of the triggers of influence are more likely to be successful. The use of these triggers by practitioners is not necessarily exploitative. It only becomes so when the trigger is not a natural feature of the situation but is fabricated by the practitioner. In order to retain the beneficial character of shortcut response, it is important to oppose such fabrication by all appropriate means.