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Tie My Shoes, Please: How Persuasion Works

Filed by KOSU News in Science.
July 24, 2012

Marketers, managers and panhandlers all have something in common: They regularly want to make you do things they want. Marketers want you to buy stuff, managers want you to finish projects on time, and panhandlers want you to spare a buck, or three.

Over the years, psychologists have studied the techniques of manipulation and found several that seem to work. (Read on only if you agree to use these techniques for good and not for evil!)

One is called the door-in-the-face technique. You start by asking for something outrageous; when that’s turned down, you then ask for something reasonable. A boss may ask an employee to work weekends for a whole year, for example, and when that request gets turned down, the manager might ask for a report to be turned in by Friday. The outrageous request reframes the real request to make it sound reasonable.

Another technique is known as fear-then-relief. Here, you tell someone he narrowly dodged a bullet and take advantage of his relief to make your real request.

The best-studied technique of all is the foot in the door. The panhandler who stops to ask you the time before asking you to spare a buck is employing the technique. In contrast to the door in the face, the foot in the door starts by making a very small, easy-to-accomplish request, and then follows up with the real request.

In a series of new experiments, researcher Dariusz Dolinski of the Warsaw School of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland found that when the initial request was highly unusual, people were more likely to comply with the demand that followed it.

Dolinski had a confederate stop people en route to a supermarket and say to them, “Excuse me, but I suffer from terrible back pain and I cannot bend down. My shoelaces are undone. Could you please be so kind as to tie them for me?”

That was the unusual request. Other passersby were given a routine marketing survey.

A little later, the passersby were stopped by a woman standing outside the supermarket.

Dolinski wrote: “The second request was posed at the entrance to the supermarket by a woman who asked the participants to ‘keep an eye’ on her shopping cart full of goods ‘for a moment.’ She explained that her husband had her car keys and he had disappeared somewhere in the supermarket, and as the cart had a broken wheel, it was very hard to push. She would like to look for her husband without having to push the cart.”

Dolinski found that people were more likely to mind the woman’s grocery cart when they had been previously asked to fulfill an unusual request — to tie someone else’s shoelaces. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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