Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

Startle them into agreeing

January 3rd, 2011

“Let’s get together at nineteen minutes past two.”

“Can you spare 46 cents?”

“It’s selling for only 250 pennies – that’s $2.50.”

These probably aren’t sentences you’ve ever heard anyone say, but you might want to consider using them yourself. Research has shown that making a request in an unusual way makes people pay more attention and increases the likelihood that they’ll agree to it.

Surprise!!! 4/365This has been called the “pique technique” and the best-known study of it was done by Michael Santos, Craig Leve and Anthony Pratkanis. A researcher acting as a panhandler asked passersby if they could spare some change, but made the request in different ways. Half the time, the panhandler said, “Can you spare 17 (or 37) cents?” The other half of the time, he asked, “Can you spare any change?” or “Can you spare a quarter?”

Passersby asked one of the unusual questions were almost 60% more likely to give money than those asked one of the ordinary questions were. The unusual requests also piqued their interest: more passersby asked questions about the request when it was unconventionally expressed. Further experiments showed that the odd requests also increased people’s liking for the panhandler.

A similar tactic, called the “disrupt then reframe” technique, involves using a subtle, odd element (the disruption) in a typical scripted request, followed by a persuasive statement (the reframing). This was first described by Barbara Davis and Eric Knowles in a 1999 research paper. They had assistants sell Christmas cards door-to-door for a local non-profit organization. After describing the cards, the assistants said one of the following:

“This package of cards sells for 300 pennies.” (two-second pause) “That’s $3. It’s a bargain.”


“This package of cards sells for $3.”


“This package of cards sells for $3.” (two-second pause) “It’s a bargain.”

The difference in responses was striking: 65% of people agreed to buy the cards when asked with the pennies line, compared to only 35% with either of the other two lines. A second experiment showed that using the pennies line without adding, “It’s a bargain” afterward improved sales slightly, but nowhere near as much as the original pennies line. A third experiment found that describing the cards as a bargain before using the pennies line actually decreased sales.

Can you apply these techniques yourself? Here are some possibilities that occurred to me:

“Could you help us for 120 minutes or so? That’s two hours – not much time at all.”

“We’re asking for donations to support a local charity. Could you spare $11 to help us out?”

“Could I have your autograph? I’m collecting signatures on this petition to get City Council to change the zoning bylaws.”

Thanks, as always, for taking 300 seconds to read this. That’s only five minutes, of course. Not much time at all!

Leave a Comment