Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Start small

September 16th, 2010

So, you want to do something big.

More accurately, you want to get other people to do something big.

And you can’t figure out how on earth you are going to persuade them to do it. It’s just that big. Nobody would volunteer to do something that big.

Fortunately for everybody in that situation, there’s an approach that will help. It’s called the “foot-in-the-door technique”.

Forced EntryThe foot-in-the-door technique involves asking someone to agree to a small request or favour so that they will be more likely to agree to a larger one. It was named in 1966 by Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser, who did a clever experiment.

First, they asked 36 women to answer a short telephone survey about their cleaning products. A few days later, they asked each of the same women to agree to a visit by several people who wanted to examine every cleaning product in her house. They also made this request of another 36 women who hadn’t been contacted before (the “control group”). Freedman and Fraser discovered that the women who had answered the survey were more than twice as likely to agree to the home visit. (The visit never occurred since the goal was to find out who would agree to such an intrusive request.)

Marketers use this technique a great deal. If you agree to buy a small, inexpensive item from a product line, you will be more likely to buy more expensive items later – because your image of yourself now includes “someone who uses those products”.

Fortunately, the technique works even better to achieve what researchers call “pro-social” goals than it does to sell things. In a second experiment, Freedman and Fraser found that signing a petition about safe driving made people more likely to agree to have a large “Drive Carefully” sign installed on their front lawn. The approach worked even when the two requests were made weeks apart by different requesters – and even when the second request was to install a “Keep California Beautiful” sign that had nothing to do with the subject of the earlier petition.

As they wrote in their original paper,

“What may occur is a change in the person’s feelings about getting involved or about taking action. Once he has agreed to a request, his attitude may change. He may become, in his own eyes, the kind of person who does this sort of thing, who agrees to requests made by strangers, who takes action on things he believes in, who cooperates with good causes.” (emphasis mine)

If you think this sounds suspiciously like the self-perception theory I discussed in my last post, you’re absolutely right. They’re based on the same principle: if we do something without an external reason, we tend to believe that we’re the kind of person who does that kind of thing.

It works to increase charitable contributions, too. Patricia Pliner’s research team went door-to-door asking people to wear a lapel pin publicizing a Cancer Society fund-raising drive being done the next day. Everyone agreed. The following day, the Cancer Society canvasser went to these houses and others asking for donations. More than three quarters of those asked to wear pins contributed to the charity – compared to 46% of those who hadn’t been previously approached.

It even works online: people asked to sign an online petition were more likely to agree when they were later asked for a donation.

Here’s a challenge for you: think up some other ways to use this technique, and share them in the comments. I’d love to hear some new ideas.

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