How To Manipulate People Into Saying 'Yes'

There's new research on how marketers, managers and public radio pledge drives can better use the "foot in the door" technique to make pitches. New research shows people comply with demands when you start by asking for something unusual.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Both candidates are also raising money, which matters in many ways. The cash pays for TV ads, of course. You'll see some of them this fall. If you live in a swing state, you may be seeing some now. Raising money also gets people involved in the campaign, and the money totals are taken by the media as a sign of a campaign's strength.

Mitt Romney headlined a couple of fundraisers this week in California, took in $10 million. He has lately been ahead of President Obama in terms of cash on hand.

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INSKEEP: All of us need other people to do things. Parents want small kids to brush their teeth and get ready for school. Panhandlers want our money. Marketers want people to buy. And there's new research into how to get people to do things you want. NPR's Shankar Vedantam regularly joins us to talk about social science research. He's in our studios.

Hey, there, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what's this research all about?

VEDANTAM: Well, this about the dark art of manipulation, Steve. So before I teach you what these techniques are, you have to promise that you're going to use them only for good and not for evil world domination.

INSKEEP: Yeah, like Harry Potter, learning dark magic. But, anyway, go on. Go on. OK.

VEDANTAM: You're right. I mean, we're constantly persuading other people to do stuff for us. And over the years, psychologists have studied all kinds of techniques that actually work. And, in fact, you're going to be familiar with many of the techniques, but you probably don't know all the names.

INSKEEP: All right.

VEDANTAM: So there's the door-in-the-face technique.

INSKEEP: Door-in-the-face technique. That sounds like an outright rejection, slamming the door in somebody's face.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. So you go up to an employee and say: I'd like you to spend the next two years working six hours a day on a new project. Would you be up for it? And when the person says no, you say, all right. Well, how about getting me that report by Friday?

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VEDANTAM: And the person's more likely to comply because, you know, it's a more reasonable request.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. So you make the outrageous request. The guy says no, and then you ask for what you really want.

VEDANTAM: Right.

Now there's another technique called fear, then relief. So you go to a neighbor who's just come back from vacation and you say, you know, there was a terrible storm while you were away. But don't worry. I went and checked on your house, everything's OK. And by the way, I'm going away on vacation for the next two weeks. Would you mind coming over and feeding my cat twice a day?

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VEDANTAM: And the idea here is that you frighten people, and then you make them feel relieved, and that they're much more likely to comply with your request. The most common technique of all is called the called the foot in the door. Imagine you're walking down the street and a panhandler stops you. You're much more likely to give the guy money if he starts by saying, hey, buddy. What's the time? And if you stop and answer him and tell him what the time is, and then he asks you for the money, you're much more likely to give him the money.

INSKEEP: Oh, now we have a relationship. We're just talking here, among friends.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. So the foot in the door essentially opens the conversation, gets the guy to stop. And what this new research is finding - this is by a guy called Dariusz Dolinski. He's in Poland. He's found that when that initial request is highly unusual, people become much more likely to comply with what you're actually asking them.

INSKEEP: OK. So just don't ask you for the time. I ask for, what? What are you talking about here?

VEDANTAM: So he's conducted all these experiments. And I actually have something better than scientific evidence. I have anecdotal evidence.

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VEDANTAM: I was up in New York last week, and I decided to give Dolinski's technique a try in Times Square. And I managed to grab this couple - they turned out to be from Washington, D.C. Their names are Morgan McDonald and Peter Scott. And I tell them that I want to talk with them one at a time. And with the first guy, McDonald, I ask him right away to do something really embarrassing, right, no foot in the door. I say: Can you stand in the middle of Times Square and clap loudly over your head?

MORGAN MCDONALD: No. I'm going to look like an idiot. I thought you were going to ask me a question about world affairs or something like that. I'm not going to go do that. Come on.

VEDANTAM: All right. I bring in McDonald's partner. His name is Peter Scott. And this time, I start by making a really unusual request.

I hurt my back this morning really badly, and I'm having trouble bending over. I'm wondering if you might be able to help me tie my shoelace, which has come undone. You think you might be able to help me do that?

PETER SCOTT: Yes. I could do that. I don't mind helping someone. How did you hurt your back?

VEDANTAM: Oh, I slipped in the bathtub and...

SCOTT: How's that?

VEDANTAM: That's great.

INSKEEP: OK. So you ask him to get into your personal space here right away. All right. Fine.

VEDANTAM: And he's nice enough to actually say yes. He actually bends down. He ties my shoelace. And, by the way, this is the same unusual request that Dolinski used in his experiments. Now I ask Scott to do the exact same thing I asked McDonald to do.

Could I ask you to stand over here and clap three times over your head?

SCOTT: Clapped over my head?

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VEDANTAM: Now, I want to point out, of course, this was just a stunt. It wasn't really science. I mean, so Dolinski's actually conducted the experiments that show how this works in a controlled fashion. But the basic idea behind all these experiments is that most of the time, we're all running on autopilot. So somebody asks you for a buck or to brush her teeth or for that report by Friday, and you just say no. You don't even think about it. And what the unusual request gets you to do is it gets you to stop and think. And when you get to stop and think, you become much more likely then to comply with the real request.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. If you want to manipulate him with an unusual request, tell him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. And while you're at it, you can follow this program on Twitter @MORNINGEDITION and @NRPinskeep.

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