Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

If you can’t start small, start big

October 18th, 2010

We’re recruiting volunteers to act as youth counsellors at the County Juvenile Detention Centre. It would require two hours of your time per week for a minimum of two years. Are you interested in being considered for one of these positions?


Well, we also have another program you might be interested in. We’re recruiting volunteers to chaperone a group of children from the County Juvenile Detention Centre on a trip to the zoo. It would require about two hours one afternoon or evening. Would you be interested…?

You probably know what you’d say in response to such a request. And it probably wouldn’t be, “Yes, sign me up for as a counsellor for two years” (although my readers are exceptionally generous individuals, so I’m sure some of you would volunteer). But would you agree to be a zoo chaperone?

Logan, UTThis was a question asked of university students in 1975 in a classic study of what became known as the “door-in-the-face” technique. A randomly chosen third of the students were asked the above questions. Another third were just asked to volunteer as chaperones for the zoo trip. The remaining third were told about both programs and asked whether they’d be interested in volunteering for either one.

I would have expected the agreement rates to be about the same in all three conditions. I would have been wrong.

None of the students agreed to volunteer as counsellors for two years. However, half of those given the above spiel agreed to act as zoo chaperones – three times as many as agreed when presented with only the zoo request. (Results of the both-programs request were between these extremes.)

What’s going on? (And, muttered from the back of the room, hey, didn’t you tell us to start small last month? Yes, I did.)

There are apparently two factors at work here. The more obvious one – called the “contrast effect” – means that being asked for both a larger and a smaller favour makes the smaller favour look even easier. Going to the zoo is nothing compared to spending two years doing counselling!

The other factor is both stronger and more subtle. When we see someone back down from a large request to a small one, we perceive it as a concession on that person’s part. This triggers an urge to reciprocate with a concession ourselves (the “norm of reciprocity“) and so we’re more likely to agree to the smaller favour.

You probably recognize this technique when it’s used by a salesperson who asks you to buy home landscaping and then sells you a potted plant. We don’t notice it as easily when it’s being used to negotiate work assignments, chores or groceries (“No, you may not have the sugary cereal… okay, one small chocolate bar.”).

I’m sure you can imagine using this to achieve your own goals. If you want people to sign a petition, first ask for a cash donation. If you want volunteers for a day, ask for a weekly commitment. If you want your partner to put his/her socks in the hamper, ask for participation in a full spring cleaning.

There are three rules to succeeding with this, however. The study described above found that (1) it must be the same person who makes both requests, and (2) the large request must be rejected by the recipient before the smaller one is made. Another study found that (3) if the first request is perceived as unreasonable, the whole process fails.

On the plus side, this technique not only increases the number of positive responses you can get to a request, it increases the likelihood that people will follow through with their agreement and makes it more likely that they’ll respond positively to future requests. So, please use it for good.

And would you let me know about all the times you’ve seen this technique successfully used?  No?  Okay, just give me one example. Thanks!

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