Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

The power of positive replying

January 6th, 2011

You have probably received a telephone call from a stranger that started with “How are you this morning/afternoon/evening?” and went on to try to sell you something. If you don’t live in a cave, this has most likely happened to you more than once.

YesIt’s not a coincidence that all these calls start the same way, and it’s not because the callers have been told to be polite. It’s because research has shown that if you ask a question designed to get a positive answer, people will be more likely to respond positively to your next question.

Daniel Howard first demonstrated this in a 1990 study. Researchers telephoned randomly selected people and asked them whether a representative of the “Hunger Relief Committee” could come to their homes to sell them cookies for charity. Half the calls began with “How are you feeling this evening?” and acknowledged the response, while the other half followed an identical script but without the opening question. Most of those asked about their health did answer positively, and 32% of them agreed to a visit from the cookie seller – compared to only 18% of those who weren’t asked. Most of those who agreed to the visit bought the cookies, too.

To make sure his results weren’t due to the question-using callers looking more polite and caring, Howard did another experiment with the same set-up. This time, half the calls began with the “How are you feeling?” question and the other half started with “I hope you are feeling well this evening”. Again, the friendly question approach did better, with 33% agreement compared to 15% in those who heard a friendly statement.

As Howard put it, “Before you ask anyone for a donation, you first ask them how they’re feeling. After they tell you they’re feeling good, and you tell them you’re glad they’re feeling good, they’ll be more likely to contribute to helping someone who isn’t.”

yes glass buttonsIt works with other types of affirmative responses, too. A 2010 study gave university students a set of statements and asked how much they agreed with them. Half the sets were made up of statements designed to elicit positive answers in most respondents (such as “I think women should receive equal pay to men”) while the other half were made up of a combination of those and similar statements designed to elicit negative answers. The students were later asked to help out the person who supposedly constructed the statements they had judged. More than twice as many were willing to help in the positive-statements group as in the mixed-statements group.

What should you get from this? I don’t advocate asking everyone you speak to how they’re feeling; this question has become so common as to be meaningless. I do think that when you’re making a pitch, whether it’s to attract volunteers, make sales or solicit donations, you begin with the questions that have positive answers. As an example:

WRONG: “Do you want to see our planet lose even more unique species?” (“Uh, no, and by the way, you’re making me feel a little defensive here.”)

RIGHT: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could prevent our planet from losing any more unique species?” (“Well, yeah, now that you mention it. How can I help?”)

Then you ask for whatever it is you want. I suspect that this small change in approach could make a real difference in results.

Of course, the other benefit to understanding this “yes effect” is that you can avoid being influenced by it yourself. For example, you can answer negatively next time a telemarketer asks how you are. (“Oh, not so good. One of the kids has the flu and my best friend just moved away and my back has been acting up again. Let me tell you all about it…”)

No, I take it back. That’s just cruel, even to telemarketers.

2 comments on 'The power of positive replying'

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  1. Allan McKeown

    6 Jan 11 at 10:10 pm

    when a telemarketer begins by asking “how are you this evening sir?” I always become a little upset because I know that they dont really give a damn and that they are simply trying to manipulate me into parting with my money. So if they begin with that kind of opening instead of having the courtesy to introduce themselves first then they have blown it and I quickly end the call.
    But then, I dont have much patience with telemarketers to begin with!


    Carol Reply:

    Me neither. It’s a real effort to make myself remember that (a) they probably didn’t choose this job and (b) they have to work from a script or get fired. Still, I occasionally say something wacky just to throw off their scripts, and it’s unkind of me.


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