This may horrify you, so I’d like my more delicate readers to make sure they’re sitting down, with a nice cup of tea and a reassuring comedic novel nearby.
Here goes: I’m going to teach you how to use a technique that is most commonly associated with car dealers. In fact, this technique is widely considered to be underhanded and sneaky, especially when used by car dealers. (I know, where are my ethics?)
It’s called the “low-ball effect”. You may have heard of it.
This technique involves offering someone an appealing opportunity and securing their agreement before disclosing an unattractive aspect of the situation. Car dealers have traditionally done this by offering an unusually good deal; once the customer has decided to buy the car, the salesperson will “discover” that a certain option isn’t actually included, or the trade-in price on the customer’s vehicle is lower than they believed, or the manager hasn’t really decided that Fords are free this week.
What’s interesting about this technique is that many more people will accept the now-less-appealing offer than would have accepted it if all the details had been disclosed up front. Robert Cialdini and colleagues confirmed this in a 1978 paper – and also showed that the low-ball effect works in achieving socially positive goals as well as in selling cars.
Posing as charity workers, the researchers asked university students in dormitory rooms if they would display United Way posters on their windows and doors. The catch was that the posters were located elsewhere in the building and only for “the next hour,” so the students had to go pick them up immediately.
Some of the students were told all of this before they were asked if they would put up the posters. Others were just asked if they would put up the posters; if they said “yes,” they were then informed of the posters’ inconvenient location and need for immediate pick-up.
Most of the students in both groups agreed to participate, but while less than 30% of the told-everything-first group actually picked up their posters, three quarters of the low-balled group did so.
Cialdini and colleagues concluded that we respond to the low-ball effect because we commit to an action or decision when it looks appealing, and then don’t withdraw our commitment when the appealing factor is removed. Other research has discovered that the low-ball effect works more effectively when the same person makes both the appealing offer and the revised offer, so the commitment seems to be to the person more than the offer.
Using this technique carries an unfortunate side effect: you will feel like something of a jerk. And perhaps you should. Encouraging people to make a choice without all the information isn’t really fair, even if they have the option to alter that choice later.
However, understanding the low-ball effect is useful in two situations: when someone is trying to use it on you, and when your goal is so important that feeling like a jerk is an acceptable byproduct.
In the first case, remember that you are free to change your mind when the offer in front of you changes. In the second, you’d better be pushing world peace or ending hunger, because if I find out that this post helped someone low-ball their way to a fortune by selling toilet plungers or shaky investments, I will be very disappointed. And sad. And just because I haven’t written about guilt yet (Edit: I have now!) doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.