Influence: The Science of Persuasion
By Robert Cialdini
It is worthy of note that I have not included among the six principles the simple rule of material self-interest—that people want to get the most and pay the least for their choices. I choose not to treat the material self-interest rule separately in this book because I see it as a motivational given, as a goes-without-saying factor that deserves acknowledgment but not extensive description.
Each principle is examined as to its ability to produce a distinct kind of automatic, mindless compliance from people, that is, a willingness to say yes without thinking first. The evidence suggests that the ever-accelerating pace and informational crush of modern life will make this particular form of unthinking compliance more and more prevalent in the future.
Fixed-action patterns, they can involve intricate sequences of behavior, such as entire courtship or mating rituals. A fundamental characteristic of these patterns is that the behaviors that compose them occur in virtually the same fashion and in the same order every time. It is almost as if the patterns were recorded on tapes within the animals. When the situation calls for courtship, the courtship tape gets played; when the situation calls for mothering, the maternal-behavior tape gets played. Click and the appropriate type is ctivated; whirr and out rolls the standard sequence of behaviors.
The most interesting thing about all this is the way the tapes are activated. When a male animal acts to defend his territory, for instance, it is the intrusion of another male of the same species that cues the territorial- defense tape of rigid vigilance, threat, and, if need be, combat behaviors. But there is a quirk in the system. It is not the rival male as a whole that is the trigger; it is some specific feature of him, the trigger feature. Often the trigger feature will be just one tiny aspect of the totality that is the approaching intruder.
The second important thing to understand is that we, too, have our preprogrammed tapes; and, although they usually work to our advantage, the trigger features that activate them can be used to dupe us into playing them at the wrong times. This parallel form of human automatic action is aptly demonstrated in an experiment by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer. A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason.
People simply like to have reasons for what they do. Langer demonstrated this unsurprising fact by asking a small favor of people waiting in line to use a library copying machine: Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush? The effectiveness of this request-plus-reason was nearly total: Ninety-four percent of those asked let her skip ahead of them in line. Compare this success rate to the results when she made the request only: Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine? Under those circumstances, only 60 percent of those asked complied. At first glance, it appears that the crucial difference
between the two requests was the additional information provided by the words “because I’m in a rush.” But a third type of request tried by Langer showed that this was not the case. It seems that it was not the whole series of words, but the first one, “because,” that made the difference.
Instead of including a real reason for compliance, Langer’s third type of request used the word “because” and then, adding nothing new, merely restated the obvious: Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies? The result was that once again nearly all (93 percent) agreed, even though no real reason, no new information, was added to justify their compliance. Just as the “cheep-cheep” sound of turkey chicks triggered an automatic mothering response from maternal turkeys—even when it emanated from a stuffed polecat—so, too, did the word “because” trigger an automatic compliance response from Langer’s subjects, even when they were given no subsequent reason to comply. Click, whirr!
Consider the strange behavior of those jewelry-store customers who swooped down on an allotment of turquoise pieces only after the items had been mistakenly offered at double their original price. I can make no sense of their behavior, using a standard principle—a stereotype—to guide their buying: “expensive = good.” Price alone had become a trigger feature for quality; and a dramatic increase in price alone had led to a dramatic increase in sales among the quality-hungry buyers.
It is easy to fault the tourists for their foolish purchase decisions. But a close look offers a kinder view. These were people who had been brought up on the rule “You get what you pay for” and who had seen that rule borne out over and over in their lives. Before long, they had translated the rule to mean “expensive = good.” The “expensive = good” stereotype had worked quite well for them in the past, since normally the price of an item increases along with its worth; a higher price typically reflects higher quality. They were playing a shortcut version of betting the odds. Instead of stacking all the odds in their favor by trying painstakingly to master each of the things that indicate the worth of turquoise jewelry, they were counting on just one—the one they knew to be usually associated with the quality of any item.
You and I exist in an extraordinarily complicated stimulus environment, easily the most rapidly moving and complex that has ever existed on this planet. To deal with it, we need shortcuts. We can’t be expected to recognize and analyze all the aspects in each person, event, and situation we encounter in even one day. We haven’t the time, energy, or capacity for it. Instead, we must very often use our stereotypes, our rules of thumb to classify things according to a few key features and then to respond mindlessly when one or another of these trigger features is present. Without them we would stand frozen—cataloging, appraising, and calibrating—as the time for action sped by and away.
“civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”
Take, for example, the “advance” offered to civilization by the discount coupon, which allows consumers to assume that they will receive a reduced purchase price by presenting the coupon. That assumption is illustrated in the experience of one automobile-tire company. Mailed-out coupons that—because of a printing error—offered no savings to recipients produced just as much customer response as did error-free coupons. The obvious but instructive point here is that we expect discount coupons to do double duty. Not only do we expect them to save us money, we also expect them to save us the time and mental energy required to think about how to do it.
There is a strong but sad parallel in the human jungle. We too have exploiters who mimic trigger features for our own brand of automatic responding. Unlike the mostly instinctive response sequences of nonhumans, our automatic tapes usually develop from psychological principles or stereotypes we have learned to accept. We have been subjected to them from such an early point in our lives, and they have moved us about so pervasively since then, that you and I rarely perceive their power. In the eyes of others, though, each such principle is a detectable and ready weapon—a weapon of automatic influence.
There is a group of people who know very well where the weapons of automatic influence lie and who employ them regularly and expertly to get what they want. They go from social encounter to social encounter requesting others to comply with their wishes; their frequency of success is dazzling. The secret of their effectiveness lies in the way they structure their requests, the way they arm themselves with one or another of the weapons of influence that exist within the social environment.
To do this may take no more than one correctly chosen word that engages a strong psychological principle and sets an automatic behavior tape rolling within us. And trust the human exploiters to learn quickly exactly
how to profit from our tendency to respond mechanically according to these principles. i.e.. mark the article “Reduced from _____” and sell it at its original price while still taking advantage of the “expensive = good” reaction to the inflated figure.
Culturist and author Leo Rosten gives the example of the Drubeck brothers, Sid and Harry, who owned a men’s tailor shop in Rosten’s neighborhood while he was growing up in the 1930s. Whenever the salesman, Sid, had a new customer trying on suits in front of the shop’s three-sided mirror, he would admit to a hearing problem, and, as they talked, he would repeatedly request that the man speak more loudly to him. Once the customer had found a suit he liked and had asked for the price, Sid would call to his brother, the head tailor, at the back of the room, “Harry, how much for this suit?” Looking up from his work—and greatly exaggerating the suit’s true price—Harry would call back, “For that beautiful all-wool suit, forty-two dollars.” Pretending not to have heard and cupping his hand to his ear, Sid would ask again. Once more Harry would reply, “Forty-two dollars.” At this point, Sid would turn to the customer and report, “He says twenty-two dollars.” Many a man would hurry to buy the suit and scramble out of the shop with his “expensive = good” bargain before Poor Sid discovered the “mistake.”
There are several components shared by most of the weapons of automatic influence to be described in this book. We have already discussed two of them—the nearly mechanical process by which the power within these weapons can be activated, and the consequent exploitability of this power by anyone who knows how to trigger them. A third component involves the way that the weapons of automatic influence lend their force to those who use them. It’s not that the weapons, like a set of heavy clubs, provide a conspicuous arsenal to be used by one person to bludgeon another into submission.
The process is much more sophisticated and subtle. With proper execution, the exploiters need hardly strain a muscle to get their way. All that is required is to trigger the great stores of influence that already exist in the situation and direct them toward the intended target. This last feature of the process allows the exploiters an enormous additional benefit—the ability to manipulate without the appearance of manipulation. Even the victims themselves tend to see their compliance as determined by the action of natural forces rather than by the designs of the person who profits from that compliance.
There is a principle in human perception, the contrast principle, that affects the way we see the difference between two things that are presented one after another. Simply put, if the second item is fairly different from the first, we will tend to see it as more different than it actually is. So if we lift a light object first and then lift a heavy object, we will estimate the second object to be heavier than if we had lifted it without first trying the light one. If we are talking to a beautiful woman at a cocktail party and are then joined by an unattractive one, the second woman will strike us as less attractive than she actually is. In fact, studies done on the contrast principle at Arizona State and Montana State universities suggest that we may be less satisfied with the physical attractiveness of our own lovers because of the way the popular media bombard us with examples of unrealistically attractive models.
A nice demonstration of perceptual contrast is sometimes employed in psychophysics laboratories to introduce students to the principle firsthand. Each student takes a turn sitting in front of three pails of water—one cold, one at room temperature, and one hot. After placing one hand in the cold water and one in the hot water, the student is told to place both in the lukewarm water simultaneously. The look of amused bewilderment that immediately registers tells the story: Even though both hands are in the same bucket, the hand that has been in the cold water feels as if it is now in hot water, while the one that was in the hot water feels as if it is now in cold water.
Be assured that the nice little weapon of influence provided by the contrast principle does not go unexploited. The great advantage of this principle is not only that it works but also that it is virtually undetectable. Those who employ it can cash in on its influence without any appearance of having structured the situation in their favor.
Retail clothiers are a good example. Suppose a man enters a fashionable men’s store and says that he wants to buy a three-piece suit and a sweater. If you were the salesperson, which would you show him first to make him likely to spend the most money? Clothing stores instruct their sales personnel to sell the costly item first. Common sense might suggest the reverse: If a man has just spent a lot of money to purchase a suit, he may be reluctant to spend very much more on the purchase of a sweater. But the clothiers know better. They behave in accordance with what the contrast principle would suggest: Sell the suit first, because when it comes time to look at sweaters, even expensive ones, their prices will not seem as high in comparison. Contrary to the commonsense view, the evidence supports the contrast-principle prediction. As sales motivation analysts Whitney, Hubin, and Murphy state, “The interesting thing is that even when a man enters a clothing store with the express purpose of purchasing a suit, he will almost always pay more for whatever accessories he buys if he buys them after the suit purchase than before.”
It is much more profitable for salespeople to present the expensive item first, not only because to fail to do so will lose the influence of the contrast principle; to fail to do so will also cause the principle to work actively against them. Presenting an inexpensive product first and following it with an expensive one will cause the expensive item to seem even more costly as a result.
I came across a technique that engaged the contrast principle while I was investigating, undercover, the compliance tactics of real-estate companies. One thing I quickly noticed was that whenever Phil began showing a new set of customers potential buys, he would start with a couple of undesirable houses. I asked him about it, and he laughed. They were what he called “setup” properties. The company maintained a run-down house or two on its lists at inflated prices. These houses were not intended to be sold to customers but to be shown to them, so that the genuine properties in the company’s inventory would benefit from the comparison. “The house I got them spotted for looks really great after they’ve first looked at a couple of dumps.”
#1: The rule for reciprocation. The rule says that we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us. If a woman does us a favor, we should do her one in return; if a man sends us a birthday present, we should remember his birthday with a gift of our own; if a couple invites us to a party, we should be sure to
invite them to one of ours. Indeed, it may well be that a developed system of indebtedness flowing from the rule for reciprocation is a unique property of human culture. The noted archaeologist Richard Leakey ascribes the essence of what makes us human to the reciprocity system: “We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honored network of obligation,”
For the first time in evolutionary history, one individual could give away any of a variety of resources without actually giving them away. The result was the lowering of the natural inhibitions against transactions
that must be begun by one person’s providing personal resources to another. Make no mistake, human societies derive a truly significant competitive advantage from the reciprocity rule, and consequently they make sure their members are trained to comply with and believe in it.
Because there is general distaste for those who take and make no effort to give in return, we will often go to great lengths to avoid being considered one of their number. It is to those lengths that we will often be taken and, in the process, be “taken” by individuals who stand to gain from our indebtedness.
One of the reasons reciprocation can be used so effectively as a device for gaining another’s compliance is its power. The rule possesses awesome strength, often producing a “yes” response to a request that, except for an existing feeling of indebtedness, would have surely been refused.
The interesting thing about the Regan experiment, however, is that the relationship between liking and compliance was completely wiped out in the condition under which subjects had been given a Coke by Joe. For those who owed him a favor, it made no difference whether they liked him or not; they felt a sense of obligation to repay him, and they did. The subjects in that condition who indicated that they disliked Joe bought just as many of his tickets as did those who indicated that they liked him. The rule for reciprocity was so strong that it simply overwhelmed the influence of a factor—liking for the requester—that normally affects the decision to comply.
Think of the implications. People we might ordinarily dislike—unsavory or unwelcome sales operators, disagreeable acquaintances, representatives of strange or unpopular organizations—can greatly increase the chance that we will do what they wish merely by providing us with a small favor prior to their requests.
It is a testament to the societal value of reciprocation that we have chosen to fight the Hare Krishnas mostly by seeking to avoid rather than to withstand the force of their gift giving. The reciprocity rule that empowers their tactic is too strong—and socially beneficial—for us to want to violate it.
Politics is another arena in which the power of the reciprocity rule shows itself. At the top, elected officials engage in “logrolling” and the exchange of favors that makes politics the place of strange bedfellows, indeed. Even with legitimate political contributions, the stockpiling of obligations often underlies the stated purpose of supporting a favorite candidate. One look at the lists of companies and organizations that contribute to the campaigns of both major candidates in important elections gives evidence of such motives. Charles H. Keating, Jr., addressing the question of whether a connection existed between the $1.3 million he had contributed to the campaigns of five U.S. senators and their subsequent actions in his behalf against federal regulators, he asserted, “I want to say in the most forceful way I can: I certainly hope so.”
Let’s examine a pair of familiar ones deriving from the “free sample.” A highly effective variation on this marketing procedure is illustrated in the case, cited by Vance Packard in The Hidden Persuaders, of the Indiana supermarket operator who sold an astounding one thousand pounds of cheese in a few hours one day by putting out the cheese and inviting customers to cut off slivers for themselves as free samples.
A different version of the free-sample tactic is used by the Amway Corporation, a rapid-growth company that manufactures and distributes household and personal-care products in a vast national network of door-to-door neighborhood sales. The company, which has grown from a basement-run operation a few years ago to a one-and-a-half-billion dollar- yearly-sales business, makes use of the free sample in a device called the BUG.
The BUG consists of a collection of Amway products—bottles of furniture polish, detergent, or shampoo, spray containers of deodorizers, insect killers, or window cleaners—carried to the customer’s home in a specially designed tray or just a polyethylene bag. The confidential Amway Career Manual then instructs the salesperson to leave the BUG with the customer “for 24, 48, or 72 hours, at no cost or obligation to her. Just tell her you would like her to try the products…. That’s an offer no one can refuse.” At the end of the trial period, the Amway representative returns and picks up orders for those of the products the customer wishes to purchase. Since few customers use up the entire contents of even one of the product containers in such a short time, the salesperson may then take the remaining product portions in the BUG to the next potential customer down the line or across the street and start the process again. Many Amway representatives have several BUGs circulating in their districts at one time.
Another person can trigger a feeling of indebtedness by doing us an uninvited favor. Recall that the rule only states that we should provide to others the kind of actions they have provided us; it does not require us to have asked for what we have received in order to feel obligated to repay. For instance, the Disabled American Veterans organization reports that its simple mail appeal for donations produces a response rate of about 18 percent. But when the mailing also includes an unsolicited gift (gummed, individualized address labels), the success rate nearly doubles to 35 percent.
If we reflect for a moment about the social purpose of the reciprocity rule, we can see why this should be so. The rule was established to promote the development of reciprocal relationships between individuals
so that one person could initiate such a relationship without the fear of loss. If the rule is to serve that purpose, then, an uninvited first favor must have the ability to create an obligation. Recall, also, that reciprocal relationships confer an extraordinary advantage upon cultures that foster them and that, consequently, there will be strong pressures to ensure that the rule does serve its purpose.
Although the obligation to repay constitutes the essence of the reciprocity rule, it is the obligation to receive that makes the rule so easy to exploit. The obligation to receive reduces our ability to choose whom we wish to be indebted to and puts that power in the hands of others. Let’s reexamine a pair of earlier examples to get a sense of how the process works. First, let’s return to the Regan study, where we find that the favor causing subjects to double the number of raffle tickets purchased from Joe was not one they had requested. Joe had voluntarily left the room and returned with one Coke for himself and one for the subject. There was not a single subject who refused the Coke. It is easy to see why it would have been awkward to turn down Joe’s favor: Joe had already spent his money; a soft drink was an appropriate favor in the situation, especially since Joe had one himself; it would have been considered impolite to reject Joe’s thoughtful action.
Nevertheless, receipt of that Coke produced an indebtedness that manifested itself clearly when Joe announced his desire to sell some raffle tickets. Notice the important asymmetry here—all the genuinely free choices were Joe’s. He chose the form of the initial favor, and he chose the form of the return favor. To have said no at either point would have required the subject to go against the natural cultural forces favoring reciprocation arrangements that Jujitsu Joe had aligned himself with.
I have received five in just the past year, two from disabled veterans’ groups and the others from missionary schools or hospitals. In each case, there was a common thread in the accompanying message. The goods that were enclosed were to be considered a gift from the organization; and any money I wished to send should not be regarded as payment but rather as a return offering. If we look past the obvious tax advantage, we can see a reason why it would be beneficial for the organization to have the cards viewed as a gift instead of merchandise: There is a strong cultural pressure to reciprocate a gift, even an unwanted one; but there is no such pressure to purchase an unwanted commercial product.
There is yet one other feature of the reciprocity rule that allows it to be exploited for profit. Paradoxically, the rule developed to promote equal exchanges between partners, yet it can be used to bring about decidedly
unequal results. The rule demands that one sort of action be reciprocated with a similar sort of action. A favor is to be met with another favor; it is not to be met with neglect, and certainly not with attack. But within the similar-action boundaries, considerable flexibility is allowed. A small initial favor can produce a sense of obligation to agree to a substantially larger return favor.
Once again, we can turn to the Regan experiment for evidence. Remember in that study that Joe gave one group of subjects a bottle of Coca-Cola as an initiating gift and later asked all subjects to buy some of his raffle tickets at twenty-five cents apiece. What I have so far neglected to mention is that the study was done in the late 1960s, when the price of a Coke was a dime. The average subject who had been given a ten-cent drink bought two of Joe’s raffle tickets, although some bought as many as seven.
why should it be that small first favors often stimulate larger return favors? One important reason concerns the clearly unpleasant character of the feeling of indebtedness. Most of us find it highly disagreeable to be in a state of obligation. It weighs heavily on us and demands to be removed. It is not difficult to trace the source of this feeling. Because reciprocal arrangements are so vital in human social systems, we have been conditioned to be uncomfortable when beholden. Consequently, we are trained from childhood to chafe, emotionally, under the saddle of obligation. For this reason alone, then, we may be willing to agree to perform a larger favor than we received, merely to relieve ourselves of the psychological burden of debt.
But there is another reason as well. A person who violates the reciprocity rule by accepting without attempting to return the good acts of others is actively disliked by the social group. The exception, of course, is when the person is prevented from repayment by reasons of circumstance or ability. For the most part, however, there is a genuine distaste for individuals who fail to conform to the dictates of the reciprocity rule. Moocher and welsher are unsavory labels to be scrupulously shunned. So undesirable are they that we will sometimes agree to an unequal exchange in order to dodge them.
To try to understand precisely what had happened, I went to my office and called a meeting of my research assistants. In discussing the situation, we began to see how the reciprocity rule was implicated in my compliance with the request to buy the candy bars. The general rule says that a person who acts in a certain way toward us is entitled to a similar return action. We have already seen that one consequence of the rule is an obligation to repay favors we have received. Another consequence of the rule, however, is an obligation to make a concession to someone who has made a concession to us.
As my research group thought about it, we realized that was exactly the position the Boy Scout had put me in. His request that I purchase some one-dollar chocolate bars had been put in the form of a concession on his part; it was presented as a retreat from his request that I buy some five-dollar tickets. If I were to live up to the dictates of the reciprocation rule, there had to be a concession on my part. As we have seen, there was such a concession: I changed from noncompliant to compliant when he changed from a larger to a smaller request, even though I was not really interested in either of the things he offered. It was a classic example of how a weapon of automatic influence can infuse a compliance request with its power. I had been moved to buy something not because of any favorable feelings toward the item, but because the purchase request had been presented in a way that drew force from the reciprocity rule.
Why should I feel a strain to reciprocate a concession? The answer rests once again in the benefit of such a tendency to the society. Thus the society must arrange to have these initial, incompatible desires set aside for the sake of socially beneficial cooperation. This is accomplished through procedures that promote compromise. Mutual concession is one important such procedure.
Because the rule for reciprocation governs the compromise process, it is possible to use an initial concession as part of a highly effective compliance technique. The technique is a simple one that we can call the rejection-then-retreat technique. Suppose you want me to agree to a certain request. One way to increase your chances would be first to make a larger request of me, one that I will most likely turn down. Then, after I have refused, you would make the smaller request that you were really interested in all along. Provided that you have structured your requests skillfully, I should view your second request as a concession to me and should feel inclined to respond with a concession of my own, the only one I would have immediately open to me compliance with your second request. we decided to try the technique on a request that we felt few people would agree to perform. Posing as representatives of the “County Youth Counseling Program,” we approached college students walking on campus and asked if they would be willing to chaperon a group of juvenile delinquents on a day trip to the zoo. The idea of being responsible for a group of juvenile delinquents of unspecified age for hours in a public place without pay was hardly an inviting one for these students. As we expected, the great majority (83 percent) refused. Yet we obtained very different results from a similar sample of college students who were asked the very same question with one difference.
Before we invited them to serve as unpaid chaperons on the zoo trip, we asked them for an even larger favor—to spend two hours per week as a counselor to a juvenile delinquent for a minimum of two years. It was only after they refused this extreme request, as all did, that we made the smaller, zoo-trip request. By presenting the zoo trip as a retreat from our initial request, our success rate increased dramatically. Three times as many of the students approached in this manner volunteered to serve as zoo chaperons.
Labor negotiators, for instance, often use the tactic of beginning with extreme demands that they do not actually expect to win but from which they can retreat in a series of seeming concessions designed to draw real concessions from the opposing side. It would appear, then, that the larger the initial request, the more effective the procedure, since there would be more room available for illusory concessions. The truly gifted negotiator, then, is one whose initial position is exaggerated enough to allow for a series of reciprocal concessions that will yield a desirable final offer from the opponent, yet is not so outlandish as to be seen as illegitimate from the start.
I witnessed another form of the rejection-then-retreat technique in my investigations of door-to-door sales operations. These organizations used a less engineered, more opportunistic version of the tactic. Of course, the most important goal for a door-to-door salesperson is to make the sale. However, the training programs of each of the companies I investigated emphasized that a second important goal was to obtain from prospects the names of referrals—friends, relatives, or neighbors on whom we could call. For a variety of reasons we will discuss in Chapter 5, the percentage of successful door-to-door sales increases impressively when the sales operator is able to mention the name of a familiar person who “recommended” the sales visit.
We have already discussed one reason for the success of the rejection then-retreat technique—its incorporation of the reciprocity rule. This larger-then-smaller-request strategy is effective for a pair of other reasons as well. The first concerns the perceptual contrast principle we encountered in Chapter 1. If I want you to lend me five dollars, I can make it seem like a smaller request by first asking you to lend me ten dollars. One of the beauties of this tactic is that by first requesting ten dollars and then retreating to five dollars, I will have simultaneously engaged the force of the reciprocity rule and the contrast principle. In combination, the influences of reciprocity and perceptual contrast can present a fearsomely powerful force. Embodied in the rejection-then-retreat sequence, their conjoined energies are capable of genuinely astonishing effects.
Given the remarkable effectiveness of the rejection-then-retreat technique, one might think that there could be a substantial disadvantage as well. The victims of the strategy might resent having been cornered into compliance. The resentment could show itself in a couple of ways. First, the victim might decide not to live up to the verbal agreement made with the requester. Second, the victim might come to distrust the manipulative requester, deciding never to deal with him again. Research indicates, however, that these victim reactions do not occur with increased frequency when the rejection-then-retreat technique is used. Somewhat astonishingly, it appears that they actually occur less frequently!
A study published in Canada throws light on the question of whether a victim of the rejection-then-retreat tactic will follow through with the agreement to perform the requester’s second favor. In addition to recording whether target persons said yes or no to the desired request (to work for two unpaid hours one day in a community mental-health agency), this experiment also recorded whether they showed up to perform their duties as promised. As usual, the procedure of starting with a larger request (to volunteer for two hours of work per week in the agency for at least two years) produced more verbal agreement to the smaller retreat request (76 percent) than did the procedure of asking for the smaller request alone (29 percent).
The important result, though, concerned the show-up rate of those who volunteered; and, again, the rejection-then-retreat procedure was the more effective one (85 percent vs. 50 percent). Strangely enough, then, it seems that the rejection-then-retreat tactic spurs people not only to agree to a desired request but actually to carry out the request and, finally, to volunteer to perform further requests.
We have already seen that as long as it is not viewed to be a transparent trick, the concession will likely stimulate a return concession. But what we have not yet examined is a little-known pair of positive by-products of the act of concession: feelings of greater responsibility for, and satisfaction with, the arrangement.
Responsibility. Those subjects facing the opponent who used the retreating strategy felt most responsible for the final deal. Much more than the subjects who faced a non-changing negotiation opponent, these subjects reported that they had successfully influenced the opponent to take less money for himself. it appeared to these subjects that they had made the opponent change, that they had produced his concessions. The result was that they felt more responsible for the final outcome of the negotiations.
The requester’s concession within the technique not only causes targets to say yes more often, it also causes them to feel more responsible for having “dictated” the final agreement. Thus the uncanny ability of the rejection-then-retreat technique to make its targets meet their commitments becomes understandable: A person who feels responsible for the terms of a contract will be more likely to live up to that contract.
Fortunately, these are not our only choices. With the proper understanding of the nature of our opponent, we can come away from the compliance battlefield unhurt and sometimes even better off than before. It is essential to recognize that the requester who invokes the reciprocation rule (or any other weapon of influence) to gain our compliance is not the real opponent. The real opponent is the rule. If we are not to be abused by it,we must take steps to defuse its energy.
But how does one go about neutralizing the effect of a social rule like that for reciprocation? If you were to find yourself in such a situation with the realization that the primary motive of the inspector’s visit was to sell you a costly alarm system, your most effective next action would be a simple, private maneuver. It would involve the mental act of redefinition. Merely define whatever you have received from the inspector—extinguisher, safety information, hazard inspection—not as gifts, but as sales devices, and you will be free to decline (or accept) his purchase offer without even a tug from the reciprocity rule: A favor rightly follows a favor—not a
piece of sales strategy. And if he subsequently responds to your refusal by proposing that you, at least, give him the names of some friends he might call on, use your mental maneuver on him again. Define his retreat to this smaller request as what (it is hoped after reading this chapter) you recognize it to be—a compliance tactic.
A STUDY DONE BY A PAIR OF CANADIAN PSYCHOLOGISTS UNCOVERED something fascinating about people at the racetrack: Just after placing a bet, they are much more confident of their horse’s chances of winning than they are immediately before laying down that bet. Of course, nothing about the horse’s chances actually shifts; it’s the same horse, on the same track, in the same field; but in the minds of those bettors, its prospects improve significantly once that ticket is purchased. Although a bit puzzling at first glance, the reason for the dramatic change has to do with a common weapon of social influence. Like the other weapons of influence, this one lies deep within us, directing our actions with quiet power.
It is, quite simply, our nearly obsessive desire to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have already done. Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment. Those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our earlier decision. Once a stand had been taken, the need for consistency pressured these people to bring what they felt and believed into line with what they had already done. They simply convinced themselves that they had made the right choice and, no doubt, felt better about it all. Indeed, we all fool ourselves from time to time in order to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided.
Take, as proof, what happened when psychologist Thomas Moriarty staged thefts on a New York City beach to see if onlookers would risk personal harm to halt the crime. In the study, a research accomplice would put a beach blanket down five feet from the blanket of a randomly chosen individual—the experimental subject. After a couple of minutes on the blanket spent relaxing and listening to music from a portable radio, the accomplice would stand up and leave the blanket to stroll down the beach. A few minutes later, a second researcher, pretending to be a thief, would approach, grab the radio, and try to hurry away with it. As you might guess, under normal conditions, subjects were very reluctant to put themselves in harm’s way by challenging the thief—only four people did so in the twenty times, that the theft was staged.
But when the same procedure was tried another twenty times, with a slight twist, the results were drastically different. In these incidents, before taking his stroll, the accomplice would simply ask the subject to please “watch my things,” which each of them agreed to do. Now, propelled by the rule for consistency, nineteen of the twenty subjects became virtual vigilantes, running after and stopping the thief, demanding an explanation, and often restraining the thief physically or snatching the radio away. To understand why consistency is so powerful a motive, it is important to recognize that in most circumstances consistency is valued and adaptive. inconsistency is commonly thought to be an undesirable personality trait. The person whose beliefs, words, and deeds don’t match may be seen as indecisive, confused, two-faced, or even mentally ill.
On the other side, a high degree of consistency is normally associated with personal and intellectual strength. It is at the heart of logic, rationality, stability, and honesty. A quote attributed to the great British chemist Michael Faraday suggests the extent to which being consistent is approved—sometimes more than being right. When asked after a lecture if he meant to imply that a hated academic rival was always wrong, Faraday glowered at the questioner and replied, “He’s not that consistent.”
But because it is so typically in our best interests to be consistent, we easily fall into the habit of being automatically so, even in situations where it is not the sensible way to be. When it occurs unthinkingly, consistency can be disastrous. Nonetheless, even blind consistency has its attractions. First, like most other forms of automatic responding, it offers a shortcut through the density of modern life. Once we have made up our minds about an issue, stubborn consistency allows us a very appealing luxury: We really don’t have to think hard about the issue anymore.
There is a second, more perverse attraction of mechanical consistency as well. Sometimes it is not the effort of hard, cognitive work that makes us shirk thoughtful activity, but the harsh consequences of that activity.
Sometimes it is the cursedly clear and unwelcome set of answers provided by straight thinking that makes us mental slackers. There are certain disturbing things we simply would rather not realize. Because it is a preprogrammed and mindless method of responding, automatic consistency can supply a safe hiding place from those troubling realizations. Sealed within the fortress walls
One night at an introductory lecture given by the transcendental meditation (TM) program, I witnessed a nice illustration of how people will hide inside the walls of consistency to protect themselves from the troublesome consequences of thought. In less than two minutes, he pointed out precisely where and why the lecturers’ complex argument was contradictory, illogical, and unsupportable. The effect on the discussion leaders was devastating. At the end of the question period, the two recruiters were faced with a crush of audience members submitting their seventy-five dollar down payments for admission to the TM program. Outside the lecture room after the meeting, we were approached by three members of the audience, each of whom had given a down payment immediately after the lecture. I began to question them about aspects of his argument. The spokesman put it best: “Well, I wasn’t going to put down any money tonight because I’m really quite broke right now; I was going to wait until the next meeting. But when your buddy started talking, I knew I’d better give them my money now, or I’d go home and start thinking about what he said and never sign up.” All at once, things began to make sense. These were people with real problems; and they were somewhat desperately searching for a way to solve those problems. They were seekers who, if our discussion leaders were to be believed, had found a potential solution in TM.
Driven by their needs, they very much wanted to believe that TM was their answer. Now, in the form of my colleague, intrudes the voice of reason, showing the theory underlying their newfound solution to be unsound.
Panic! Something must be done at once before logic takes its toll and leaves them without hope again. Quickly, quickly, walls against reason are needed; and it doesn’t matter that the fortress to be erected is a foolish one. Here, take this money. Whew, safe in the nick of time. No need to think about the issues any longer. The decision has been made, and from now on the consistency tape can be played whenever necessary:
For the exploiters, whose interest will be served by an unthinking, mechanical reaction to their requests, our tendency for automatic consistency is a gold mine. They structure their interactions with us so that our own need to be consistent will lead directly to their benefit.
So the toy manufacturers are faced with a dilemma: how to keep sales high during the peak season and, at the same time, retain a healthy demand for toys in the immediately following months. The problem is in motivating post-holiday spent-out parents to reach down for the price of yet another plaything for their already toy-glutted children. Certain large toy manufacturers, however, think they have found a solution. It’s an ingenious one, involving no more than a normal advertising expense and an understanding of the powerful pull of the need for consistency.
“What do you mean, ‘No coincidence’?” “Look,” he said, “let me ask you a couple of questions about the roadrace
set you bought this year. First, did you promise your son that he’d get one for Christmas?” “Well, yes, I did. Christopher had seen a bunch of ads for them on the Saturday morning cartoon shows and said that was what he wanted for Christmas. I saw a couple of the ads myself and it looked like fun, so I said okay.” “Strike one,” he announced. “Now for my second question. When you went to buy one, did you find all the stores sold out?”
“That’s right, I did! The stores said they’d ordered some but didn’t know when they’d get any more in. So I had to buy Christopher some other toys to make up for the road-race set. But how did you know?” “Strike two,” he said. “Just let me ask one more question. Didn’t this same sort of thing happen the year before with the robot toy?”
“Wait a minute…you’re right. That’s just what happened. This is incredible. How did you know?” “No psychic powers; I just happen to know how several of the big toy companies jack up their January and February sales. They start prior to Christmas with attractive TV ads for certain special toys. The kids, naturally, want what they see and extract Christmas promises for these items from their parents. Now here’s where the genius of the companies’ plan comes in: They undersupply the stores with the toys They’ve gotten the parents to promise. Then, after Christmas, the companies start running the ads again for the other, special toys. That juices up the kids to want those toys more than ever. They go running to their parents whining, ‘You promised, you promised,’ and the adults go trudging off to the store to live up dutifully to their words.”
Once we realize that the power of consistency is formidable in directing human action, an important practical question immediately arises: How is that force engaged? What produces the click that activates the whirr
of the powerful consistency tape? Social psychologists think they know the answer: commitment. If I can get you to make a commitment (that is, to take a stand, to go on record), I will have set the stage for your
automatic and ill-considered consistency with that earlier commitment. Once a stand is taken, there is a natural tendency to behave in ways that are stubbornly consistent with the stand.
Commitment strategies are aimed at us by compliance professionals of nearly every sort. Each of the strategies is intended to get us to take some action or make some statement that will trap us into later compliance
through consistency pressures. You would be wise to study the approach taken by social psychologist Steven J. Sherman. He simply called a sample of Bloomington, Indiana, residents as part of a survey he was taking and asked them to predict what they would say if asked to spend three hours collecting money for the American Cancer Society. Of course, not wanting to seem uncharitable to the survey taker or to themselves, many of these people said that they would volunteer. The consequence of this sly commitment procedure was a 700 percent increase in volunteers when, a few days later, a representative of the American Cancer Society did call and ask for neighborhood canvassers.
If all this sounds a bit farfetched, consider the findings of consumer researcher Daniel Howard, who put the theory to test. Dallas, Texas, residents were called on the phone and asked if they would agree to allow a representative of the Hunger Relief Committee to come to their homes to sell them cookies, the proceeds from which would be used to supply meals for the needy. When tried alone, that request (labeled the “standard solicitation approach”) produced only 18 percent agreement. However, if the caller initially asked, “How are you feeling this evening?” and waited for a reply before proceeding to the standard approach, several noteworthy things happened. First, of the 120 individuals called, most (108) gave the customary favorable reply (“Good,” “Fine,” “Real well,” etc.). Second, 32 percent of the people who got the “How are you feeling tonight” question agreed to receive the cookie seller at their homes, nearly twice the success rate of the standard solicitation approach. Third, true to the consistency principle, almost everyone who agreed to such a visit did, in fact, make a cookie purchase when contacted at home (89 percent).
An examination of the Chinese prison-camp program shows that its personnel relied heavily on commitment and consistency pressures to gain the desired compliance from prisoners. Of course, the first problem facing the Chinese was how to get any collaboration at all from the Americans. These were men who were trained to provide nothing but name, rank, and serial number. Short of physical brutalization, how could the captors hope to get such men to give military information, turn in fellow prisoners, or publicly denounce their country? The Chinese answer was elementary: Start small and build. For instance, prisoners were frequently asked to make statements so mildly anti-American or pro-Communist as to seem inconsequential (“The United States is not perfect.” “In a Communist country, unemployment is not a problem.”).
But once these minor requests were complied with, the men found themselves pushed to submit to related yet more substantive requests. A man who had just agreed with his Chinese interrogator that the United States is not perfect might then be asked to indicate some of the ways in which he thought this was the case. Once he had so explained himself, he might be asked to make a list of these “problems with America” and to sign his name to it. Later he might be asked to read his list in a discussion group with other prisoners. “After all, it’s what you really believe, isn’t it?” Still later he might be asked to write an essay expanding on his list and discussing these problems in greater detail.
The Chinese might then use his name and his essay in an anti-American radio broadcast beamed not only to the entire camp, but to other POW camps in North Korea, as well as to American forces in South Korea. Suddenly he would find himself a “collaborator,” having given aid to the enemy. Aware that he had written the essay without any strong threats or coercion, many times a man would change his image of himself to be consistent with the deed and with the new “collaborator” label, often resulting in even more extensive acts of collaboration.
Thus, while “only a few men were able to avoid collaboration altogether,” according to Dr. Schein, “the majority collaborated at one time or another by doing things which seemed to them trivial but which the Chinese were able to turn to their own advantage…. This was particularly effective in eliciting confessions, self-criticism, and information during interrogation.”
An article in the trade magazine American Salesman put it succinctly: The general idea is to pave the way for full-line distribution by starting with a small order…. Look at it this way—when a person has signed an order for your merchandise, even though the profit is so small it hardly compensates for the time and effort of making the call, he is no longer a prospect—he is a customer. The tactic of starting with a little request in order to gain eventual compliance with related larger requests has a name: the foot-in-the-door technique.
Social scientists first became aware of its effectiveness in the mid-1960s when psychologists Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser published an astonishing set of data. They reported the results of an experiment in which a researcher, posing as a volunteer worker, had gone door to door in a residential California neighborhood making a preposterous request of homeowners. The homeowners were asked to allow a public-service billboard to be installed on their front lawns.
To get an idea of just how the sign would look, they were shown a photograph depicting an attractive house, the view of which was almost completely obscured by a very large, poorly lettered sign reading DRIVE CAREFULLY. Although the request was normally and understandably refused by the great majority (83 percent) of the other residents in the area, this particular group of people reacted quite favorably. A full 76 percent of them offered the use of their front yards, after a ‘small’ tweak.
The prime reason for their startling compliance has to do with something that had happened to them about two weeks earlier: They had made a small commitment to driver safety. A different volunteer worker had come to their doors and asked them to accept and display a little three-inch-square sign that read BE A SAFE DRIVER. It was such a trifling request that nearly all of them had agreed to it. But the effects of that request were enormous. Because they had innocently complied with a trivial safe-driving request a couple of weeks before, these homeowners became remarkably willing to comply with another such request that was massive in size.
According to Freedman and Fraser, What may occur is a change in the person’s feelings about getting involved or 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.
What the Freedman and Fraser findings tell us, then, is to be very careful about agreeing to trivial requests. Such an agreement can not only increase our compliance with very similar, much larger re-quests, it can also make us more willing to perform a variety of larger favors that are only remotely connected to the little one we did earlier.
Notice that all of the foot-in-the-door experts seem to be excited about the same thing: You can use small commitments to manipulate a person’s self-image; you can use them to turn citizens into “public servants,”
prospects into “customers,” prisoners into “collaborators.” And once you’ve got a man’s self-image where you want it, he should comply naturally with a whole range of your requests that are consistent with this view of himself.
Not all commitments affect self-image, however. There are certain conditions that should be present for a commitment to be effective in this way. Our best evidence of what people truly feel and believe comes less from their words than from their deeds. Observers trying to decide what a man is like look closely at his actions. the man himself uses this same evidence to decide what he is like. His behavior tells him about himself; it is a primary source of information about his beliefs and values and attitudes.
Understanding fully this important principle of self-perception perception, the Chinese set about arranging the prison-camp experience so that their captives would consistently act in desired ways. Before long, the Chinese knew, these actions would begin to take their toll, causing the men to change their views of themselves to align with what they had done.
Writing was one sort of confirming action that the Chinese urged incessantly upon the men. It was never enough for the prisoners to listen quietly or even to agree verbally with the Chinese line; they were always pushed to write it down as well.
A further technique was to have the man write out the question and then the [pro-Communist] answer. If he refused to write it voluntarily, he was asked to copy it from the notebooks, which must have seemed like a harmless enough concession.
But, oh, those “harmless” concessions. We’ve already seen how apparently trifling commitments can lead to extraordinary further behavior. And the Chinese knew that, as a commitment device, a written declaration has some great advantages. First, it provides physical evidence that the act occurred. Once a man wrote what the Chinese wanted, it was very difficult for him to believe that he had not done so. The opportunities to forget or to deny to himself what he had done were not available, as they are for purely verbal statements.
A second advantage of a written testament is that it can be shown to other people. Of course, that means it can be used to persuade those people. It can persuade them to change their own attitudes in the direction of the statement. But more important for the purpose of commitment, it can persuade them that the author genuinely believes what was written. People have a natural tendency to think that a statement reflects the true attitude of the person who made it. What is surprising is that they continue to think so even when they know that the person did not freely choose to make the statement.
The strange thing was that even those people who knew that the author had been assigned to do a pro-Castro essay guessed that he liked Castro. It seems that a statement of belief produces a click, whirr response in those who view it. Unless there is strong evidence to the contrary, observers automatically assume that someone who makes such a statement means it.
Think of the double-barreled effects on the self-image of a prisoner who wrote a pro-Chinese or anti-American statement. Not only was it a lasting personal reminder of his action, it was also likely to persuade those around him that the statement reflected his actual beliefs. And, as we will see in Chapter 4, what those around us think is true of us is enormously important in determining what we ourselves think is true.
For example, one study found that after hearing that they were considered charitable people, New Haven, Connecticut, housewives gave much more money to a canvasser from the Multiple Sclerosis Association.
9 Apparently the mere knowledge that someone viewed them as charitable caused these women to make their actions consistent with another’s perception of them.
Once an active commitment is made, then, self-image is squeeze from both sides by consistency pressures. From the inside, there is a pressure to bring self-image into line with action. From the outside, there is a sneakier pressure—a tendency to adjust this image according to the way others perceive us. And because others see us as believing what we have written (even when we’ve had little choice in the matter), we will once again experience a pull to bring self-image into line with the written statement.
Other compliance professionals also know about the committing power of written statements. The enormously successful Amway Corporation, for instance, has hit upon a way to spur their sales personnel to greater and greater accomplishments. Members of the staff are asked to set individual sales goals and commit themselves to those goals by personally recording them on paper: One final tip before you get started: Set a goal and write it down.
Whatever the goal, the important thing is that you set it, so you’ve got something for which to aim—and that you write it down. There is something magical about writing things down. So set a goal and write it down. When you reach that goal, set another and write that down. You’ll be off and running.
If the Amway people have found “something magical about writing things down,” so have other business organizations. Some door-to-door sales companies use the magic of written commitments to battle the
“cooling-off” laws recently passed in many states. The laws are designed to allow customers a few days after purchasing an item to cancel the sale and receive a full refund. At first this legislation hurt the hard-sell
companies deeply. Because they emphasize high-pressure tactics, their customers often buy, not because they want the product but because they are duped or intimidated into the sale. When the new laws went
into effect, these customers began canceling in droves. The companies have since learned a beautifully simple trick that cuts the number of such cancellations drastically. They merely have the customer, rather than the salesman, fill out the sales agreement. Like the Amway Corporation, then, these organizations have found that something special happens when people personally put their commitments on paper: They live up to what they have written down.
Another common way for businesses to cash in on the “magic” of written declarations occurs through the use of an innocent-looking promotional device. Before I began to study weapons of social influence, I used to wonder why big companies such as Procter & Gamble and General Foods are always running those “25-, 50-, or 100 words or less” testimonial contests. They all seem to be alike. The contestant is to compose a short personal statement that begins with the words, “Why I like…” and goes on to laud the features of whatever cake mix or floor wax happens to be at issue. The company judges the entries and awards some stunningly large prizes to the winners. What had puzzled me was what the companies got out of the deal. Often the contest requires no
purchase; anyone submitting an entry is eligible. Yet, the companies appear to be strangely willing to incur the huge costs of contest after contest.
I am no longer puzzled. The purpose behind the testimonial contests is the same as the purpose behind the political essay contests of the Chinese Communists. In both instances, the aim is to get as many people
as possible to go on record as liking the product. So they find praiseworthy features of the product and
describe them in their essays. The result is hundreds of men in Korea or hundreds of thousands of people in America who testify in writing to the product’s appeal and who, consequently, experience that “magical”
pull to believe what they have written.
One reason that written testaments are effective in bringing about genuine personal change is that they can so easily be made public. Public commitments tend to be lasting commitments. Whenever one takes a stand that is visible to others, there arises a drive to maintain that stand in order to look like a consistent person.
Whenever one takes a stand that is visible to others, there arises a drive to maintain that stand in order to look like a consistent person. Remember that earlier in this chapter we described how desirable good
personal consistency is as a trait; how someone without it could be judged as fickle, uncertain, pliant, scatterbrained, or unstable; how someone with it is viewed as rational, assured, trustworthy, and sound.
Given this context, it is hardly surprising that people try to avoid the look of inconsistency. For appearances’ sake, then, the more public a stand, the more reluctant we will be to change it.
This sort of stubbornness can occur even in situations where accuracy should be more important than consistency. In one study, when six- or twelve-person experimental juries were deciding a close case, hung
juries were significantly more frequent if the jurors had to express their opinions with a visible show of hands rather than by secret ballot. Once jurors had stated their initial views publicly, they were reluctant to allow
themselves to change publicly, either. Should you ever find yourself as the foreperson of a jury under these conditions, then, you could reduce the risk of a hung jury by choosing a secret rather than public balloting
The Deutsch and Gerard finding that we are truest to our decisions if we have bound ourselves to them publicly can be put to good use. Consider the organizations dedicated to helping people rid themselves of bad habits. Many weight-reduction clinics, for instance, understand that often a person’s private decision to lose weight will be too weak to withstand the blandishments of bakery windows, wafting cooking scents, and late-night Sara Lee commercials. So they see to it that the decision is buttressed by the pillars of public commitment. They require their clients to write down an immediate weight-loss goal and show that goal to as many friends, relatives, and neighbors as possible. Clinic operators report that frequently this simple technique works where all else has failed. Works to quit smoking too.
Yet another reason that written commitments are so effective is that they require more work than verbal ones. And the evidence is clear that the more effort that goes into a commitment, the greater is its ability to influence the attitudes of the person who made it. If you suffer a lot before you are allowed entry into a group, you will feel more loyal to it (gang initiations, fraternities, tribes right of manhood, military). They function, oddly enough, to spur future society members to find the group more attractive and worthwhile. As long as it is the case that people like and believe in what they have struggled to get, these groups will continue to arrange effortful and troublesome initiation rites. The loyalty and dedication of those who emerge will increase to a great degree the chances of group cohesiveness and survival. Indeed, one study of fifty-four tribal cultures found that those with the most dramatic and stringent initiation ceremonies were those with the greatest
It appears that commitments are most effective in changing a person’s self-image and future behavior when they are active, public, and effortful. But there is another property of effective commitment that is more important than the other three combined.
Although the settings are quite different, the surveyed fraternities refused to allow civic activities into their initiation ceremonies for the same reason that the Chinese withheld large prizes in favor of less powerful inducements: They wanted the men to own what they had done. No excuses, no ways out were allowed. A man who suffered through an arduous hazing could not be given the chance to believe he did so for charitable purposes. A prisoner who salted his political essay with a few anti-American comments could not be permitted to shrug it off as motivated by a big reward.
Social scientists have determined that we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressures. A large reward is one such external pressure. It may get us to perform a certain action, but it won’t get us to accept inner responsibility for the act. Consequently, we won’t feel committed to it. The same is true of a strong threat; it may motivate immediate compliance, but it is unlikely to produce long-term commitment.
All this has important implications for rearing children. It suggests that we should never heavily bribe or threaten our children to do the things we want them truly to believe in. Such pressures will probably produce temporary compliance with our wishes. However, if we want more than just that, if we want the children to believe in the correctness of what they have done, if we want them to continue to perform the desired behavior when we are not present to apply those outside pressures, then we must somehow arrange for them to accept inner responsibility for the actions we want them to take.
Wise parents will know which kind of reason will work on their own children. The important thing is to use a reason that will initially produce the desired behavior and will, at the same time, allow a child to take personal responsibility for that behavior. Thus, the less detectable outside pressure such a reason contains, the better.
Selecting just the right reason is not an easy task for parents. But the effort should pay off. It is likely to mean the difference between short-lived compliance and long-term commitment.
For a pair of reasons we have already talked about, compliance professionals love commitments that produce inner change. First, that change is not just specific to the situation where it first occurred; it covers a whole range of related situations, too. Second, the effects of the change are lasting. So, once a man has been induced to take action that shifts his self-image to that of, let’s say, a public-spirited citizen, he is likely to be public-spirited in a variety of other circumstances where his compliance may also be desired, and he is likely to continue his public-spirited behavior for as long as his new self-image holds.
There is yet another attraction in commitments that lead to inner change—they grow their own legs. There is no need for the compliance professional to undertake a costly and continuing effort to reinforce the change; the pressure for consistency will take care of all that. After our friend comes to view himself as a public-spirited citizen, he will automatically begin to see things differently. He will convince himself that it is the correct way to be. He will begin to pay attention to facts he hadn’t noticed before about the value of community service. He will make himself available to hear arguments he hadn’t heard before favoring civic action. And he will find such arguments more persuasive than before. In general, because of the need to be consistent within his system of beliefs, he will assure himself that his choice to take public-spirited action was right. What is important about this process of generating additional reasons to justify the commitment is that the reasons are new.
Thus, even if the original reason for the civic-minded behavior was taken away, these newly discovered reasons might be enough by themselves to support his perception that he had behaved correctly.
New-car dealers frequently try to benefit from this process through a trick they call “throwing a lowball.” I first encountered the tactic while posing as a sales trainee at a local Chevrolet dealership. After a week of basic instruction, I was allowed to watch the regular salesmen perform. One practice that caught my attention right away was the lowball. For certain customers, a very good price is offered on a car, perhaps as much as four hundred dollars below competitors’ prices. The good deal, however, is not genuine; the dealer never intends it to go through. Its only purpose is to cause a prospect to decide to buy one of the dealership’s cars. Once the decision is made, a number of activities develop the customer’s sense of personal commitment to the car—a raft of purchase forms are filled out, extensive financing terms are arranged, sometimes the customer is encouraged to drive the car for a day before signing the contract “so you can get the feel of it and show it around in the neighborhood and at work.” During this time, the dealer knows, customers automatically develop a range of new reasons to support the choice they have now made.
Then something happens. Occasionally an “error” in the calculations is discovered—maybe the salesman forgot to add in the cost of the air conditioner, and if the buyer still requires air conditioning, four hundred dollars must be added to the price. To keep from being suspected of gouging by the customer, some dealers let the bank handling the financing find the mistake. At other times, the deal is disallowed at the last moment when the salesman checks with his boss, who cancels it because “We’d be losing money.” For only another four hundred dollars the car can be had, which, in the context of a multi-thousand-dollar deal, doesn’t seem too steep since, as the salesman emphasizes, the cost is equal to competitors’ and “This is the car you chose, right?” Another, even more insidious form of lowballing occurs when the salesman makes an inflated trade-in offer on the prospect’s old car as part of the buy/trade package. The customer recognizes the offer as overly generous and jumps at the deal. Later, before the contract is signed, the used car manager says that the salesman’s estimate was four hundred dollars too high and reduces the trade-in allowance to its actual, blue-book level. The customer, realizing that the reduced offer is the fair one, accepts it as appropriate and sometimes feels guilty about trying to take advantage of the salesman’s high estimate.
Automobile dealers have come to understand the ability of a personal commitment to build its own support system, a support system of new justifications for the commitment. Often these justifications provide so many strong legs for the decision to stand on that when the dealer pulls away only one leg, the original one, there is no collapse. The loss can be shrugged off by the customer who is consoled, even made happy, by the array of other good reasons favoring the choice.
It is vital to the only effective defense I know against the weapons of influence embodied in the combined principles of commitment and consistency. Although consistency is generally good, even vital, there is a foolish,
rigid variety to be shunned. It is this tendency to be automatically and unthinkingly consistent that Emerson referred to. And it is this tendency that we must be wary of, for it lays us open to the maneuvers of those quence for profit.
But since automatic consistency is so useful in allowing us an economical and appropriate way of behaving most of the time, we can’t decide merely to eliminate it from our lives altogether. The results would be disastrous. If, rather than whirring along in accordance with our prior decisions and deeds, we stopped to think through the merits of every new action before performing it, we would never have time to accomplish
anything significant. The only way out of the dilemma is to know when such consistency is likely to lead to a poor choice. There are certain signals—two separate kinds of signals, in fact—to tip us off. We register each type in a different part of our bodies.
The first sort of signal is easy to recognize. It occurs right in the pit of our stomachs when we realize we are trapped into complying with a request we know we don’t want to perform. I listen to my stomach these days. And I have discovered a way to handle people who try to use the consistency principle on me. I just tell them exactly what they are doing. It works beautifully. Most of the time, they don’t understand me; they just become sufficiently confused to want to leave me alone.
This tactic has become the perfect counterattack for me. Whenever my stomach tells me I would be a sucker to comply with a request merely because doing so would be consistent with some prior commitment I was tricked into, I relay that message to the requester. I don’t try to deny the importance of consistency; I just point out the absurdity of foolish consistency.
However, it is not difficult to see why there would be no tightening in somone’s stomachs though. Stomachs tell us when we are doing something we think is wrong for us. But, if someone thinks no such thing. To her mind, she has chosen correctly and is behaving consistently with that choice. There may be a little device you can use to find out how much of your current satisfaction with a decision is real and how much is foolish consistency. Accumulating psychological evidence indicates that we experience our feelings toward something a split second before we can intellectualize about it.
My suspicion is that the message sent by the heart of hearts is a pure, basic feeling. Therefore, if we train ourselves to be attentive, we should register it ever so slightly before our cognitive apparatus engages. According to this approach, were you to ask yourself the crucial “Would I make the same choice again?” question, you would be well advised to look for and trust the first flash of feeling she experienced in response. It would likely be the signal from her heart of hearts, slipping through undistorted just before the means by which she could kid herself flooded in.
What could it be about canned laughter that is so attractive to television executives? They know what the research says. Experiments have found that the use of canned merriment causes an audience to laugh longer and more often when humorous material is presented and to rate the material as funnier. In addition, some evidence indicates that canned laughter is most effective for poor jokes.
To discover why canned laughter is so effective, we first need to understand the nature of yet another potent weapon of influence: the principle of social proof. It states that one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct. The principle applies especially to the way we decide what constitutes correct behavior. We view a behavior as more correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it. Whether the question is what to do with an empty popcorn box in a movie theater, how fast to drive on a certain stretch of highway, or how to eat the chicken at a dinner party, the actions of those around us will be important in defining the answer.
The tendency to see an action as more appropriate when others are doing it normally works quite well. As a rule, we will make fewer mistakes by acting in accord with social evidence than contrary to it. Usually, when a lot of people are doing something, it is the right thing to do.
Our tendency to assume that an action is more correct if others are doing it is exploited in a variety of settings. Bartenders often “salt” their tip jars with a few dollar bills at the beginning of the evening to simulate tips left by prior customers and thereby to give the impression that tipping with folding money is proper barroom behavior. Church ushers sometimes salt collection baskets for the same reason and with the same positive effect on proceeds. Evangelical preachers are known to seed their audience with “ringers,” who are rehearsed to come forward at a specified time to give witness and donations.
Advertisers love to inform us when a product is the “fastest-growing” or “largest-selling” because they don’t have to convince us directly that the product is good, they need only say that many others think so, which seems proof enough. The producers of charity telethons devote inordinate amounts of time to the incessant listing of viewers who have already pledged contributions. The message being communicated to the holdouts is clear: “Look at all the people who have decided to give. It must be the correct thing to do.” At the height of the disco craze, certain discotheque owners manufactured a brand of visible social proof for their clubs’ quality by creating long waiting lines outside when there was plenty of room inside. Salesmen are taught to spice their pitches with numerous accounts of individuals who have purchased the product.
Bandura and his colleagues have shown how people suffering from phobias can be rid of these extreme fears in an amazingly simple fashion. For instance, in an early study nursery-school-age children chosen because they were terrified of dogs merely watched a little boy playing happily with a dog for twenty minutes a day. This exhibition produced such marked changes in the reactions of the fearful children that after only four days,
67 percent of them were willing to climb into a playpen with a dog and remain confined there, petting and scratching it while everyone else left the room.
A second study of children who were exceptionally afraid of dogs: To reduce their fears, it was not necessary to provide live demonstrations of another child playing with a dog; film clips had the same effect. And the most effective type of clips were those depicting not one but a variety of other children interacting with their dogs; apparently the principle of social proof works best when the proof is provided by the actions of a lot of other people.
‘The principle of social proof says so: The greater the number of people who find any idea correct, the more the idea will be correct. All the weapons of influence discussed in this book work better under some conditions than under others. If we are to defend ourselves adequately against any such weapon, it is vital that we know its optimal operating conditions in order to recognize when we are most vulnerable to its influence. In the case of the principle of social proof, we have already had a hint of one time when it works best.
In general, when we are unsure of ourselves, when the situation is unclear or ambiguous, when uncertainty reigns, we are most likely to look to and accept the actions of others as correct. In the process of examining the reactions of other people to resolve our uncertainty, however, we are likely to overlook a subtle but important
fact. Those people are probably examining the social evidence, too.
Especially in an ambiguous situation, the tendency for everyone to be looking to see what everyone else is doing can lead to a fascinating phenomenon called “pluralistic ignorance.” A thorough understanding of the pluralistic ignorance phenomenon helps immeasurably to explain a regular occurrence in our country that has been termed both a riddle and a national disgrace: the failure of entire groups of bystanders to aid victims in agonizing need of help.
It is founded on the principle of social proof and involves the pluralistic ignorance effect. Very often an emergency is not obviously an emergency. Is the man lying in the alley a heart-attack victim or a drunk sleeping one off? Is the commotion next door an assault requiring the police or an especially loud marital spat where intervention would be inappropriate and unwelcome? What is going on?
In times of such uncertainty, the natural tendency is to look around at the actions of others for clues. We can learn, from the way the other witnesses are reacting, whether the event is or is not an emergency. What is easy to forget, though, is that everybody else observing the event is likely to be looking for social evidence, too. And because we all prefer to appear poised and unflustered among others, we are likely to search for that evidence placidly, with brief, camouflaged glances at those around us. Therefore everyone is likely to see everyone else looking unruffled and failing to act. As a result, and by the principle of social proof, the event will be roundly interpreted as a nonemergency.
In their first experiment, a New York college student who appeared to be having an epileptic seizure received help 85 percent of the time when there was a single bystander present but only 31 percent of the time with five bystanders present. in another New York—based experiment, 75 percent of lone individuals who observed
smoke seeping from under a door reported the leak; however, when similar leaks were observed by three-person groups, the smoke was reported only 38 percent of the time.
After more than a decade of such research, social scientists now have a good idea of when a bystander will offer emergency aid. First, and contrary to the view that we have become a society of callous, uncaring people, once witnesses are convinced that an emergency situation exists, aid is very likely. Under these conditions, the numbers of bystanders who either intervene themselves or summon help is quite comforting.
The situation becomes very different when, as in many cases, bystanders cannot be sure that the event they are witnessing is an emergency. Then a victim is much more likely to be helped by a lone bystander than by a group, especially if the people in the group are strangers to one another. It seems that the pluralistic ignorance effect is strongest among strangers: Because we like to look poised and sophisticated in public and because we are unfamiliar with the reactions of those we do not know, we are unlikely to give off or correctly read expressions of concern when in a grouping of strangers.
Without question, when people are uncertain, they are more likely to use others’ actions to decide how they themselves should act. But, in addition, there is another important working condition: similarity. The principle of social proof operates most powerfully when we are observing the behavior of people just like us. Therefore we are more inclined to follow the lead of a similar individual than a dissimilar one. These results suggest an important qualification of the principle of social proof. We will use the actions of others to decide on proper behavior for ourselves, especially when we view those others as similar to ourselves.
Health researchers have found, for example, that a school-based antismoking program had lasting effects only when it used same-age peer leaders as teachers. Another study found that children who saw a film depicting
a child’s positive visit to the dentist lowered their own dental anxieties principally when they were the same age as the child in the film.
One regrettable consequence is that every year several young children drown after falling into an unattended pool. I was determined, therefore, to teach Chris how to swim at an early age. Around this time, Chris was attending a day camp that provided a number of activities to its members, including use of a large pool, which
he scrupulously avoided. I went to get Chris from camp a bit early and, with mouth agape, watched him run down the diving board and jump into the middle of the deepest part of the pool. Chris explained: “Well, I’m three years old, and Tommy is three years old. And Tommy can swim without a ring, so that means I can too.”
Uncertainty—the right-hand man of the principle of social proof. We have already seen that when people are uncertain, they look to the actions of others to guide their own actions. In the alien, Guyanese environment,
then, Temple members were very ready to follow the lead of others. But as we have also seen, it is others of a special kind whose behavior will be most unquestioningly followed—similar others. And therein lies the awful beauty of the Reverend Jim Jones’s relocation strategy. In a country like Guyana, there were no similar others for a Jonestown resident but the people of Jonestown itself.
They hadn’t been hypnotized by Jones; they had been convinced—partly by him but, more important, also by the principle of social proof—that suicide was correct conduct. The uncertainty they surely felt upon first hearing the death command must have caused them to look to those around them for a definition of the appropriate response. It is particularly worth noting that they found two impressive pieces of social evidence, each pointing in the same direction.
The first was the initial set of their compatriots, who quickly and willingly took the poison drafts. If the psychological effect of the actions of those individuals must have been potent. If the suicides of similar others in news stories can influence total strangers to kill themselves, imagine how enormously more compelling
such an act would be when performed without hesitation by one’s neighbors in a place like Jonestown.
The second source of social evidence came from the reactions of the crowd itself. Given the conditions, I suspect that what occurred was a large-scale instance of the pluralistic ignorance phenomenon that frequently infects onlookers at emergencies. Each Jonestowner looked to the actions of surrounding individuals to assess the situation and—finding seeming calm because everyone else, too, was surreptitiously assessing rather than reacting—“learned” that patient turn taking was the correct behavior.
No leader can hope to persuade, regularly and singlehandedly, all the members of the group. A forceful leader can reasonably expect, however, to persuade some sizable proportion of group members. Then the raw information that a substantial number of group members has been convinced can, by itself, convince the rest. Thus the most influential leaders are those who know how to arrange group conditions to allow the principle of social proof to work maximally in their favor.
How can we expect to defend ourselves against a weapon of influence that pervades such a vast range of behavior? The difficulty is compounded by the realization that most of the time, we don’t want to guard against the information that social proof provides. The evidence it offers about how we should act is usually valid and valuable. With it we can cruise confidently through a myriad of decisions without personally having to investigate the detailed pros and cons of each.
There are two types of situation in which incorrect data cause the principle of social proof to give us poor counsel. The first occurs when the social evidence has been purposely falsified. Invariably these situations are manufactured by exploiters intent on creating the impression—reality be damned—that a multitude is performing the way the exploiters want us to perform.
Because automatic pilots can be engaged and disengaged at will, we can cruise along trusting in the course steered by the principle of social proof until we recognize that a piece of inaccurate data is being used. Then we can take the controls, make the necessary correction for the misinformation, and reset the automatic pilot. The transparency of the rigged social proof we get these days provides us with exactly the cue we need for knowing when to perform this simple maneuver. With no more cost than a bit of vigilance for plainly counterfeit social evidence, then, we can protect ourselves nicely. I know that whenever I encounter an influence attempt of this sort, it sets off in me a kind of alarm with a clear directive: Attention! Attention! Bad social proof in this situation. Temporarily disconnect automatic pilot.
In addition to the times when social evidence is deliberately faked, there is another time when the principle of social proof will regularly steer us wrong. In such an instance, an innocent, natural error will produce snowballing social proof that pushes us to the incorrect decision. The pluralist ignorance phenomenon, in which everyone at an emergency sees no cause for alarm, is one example of this process.
The patrolman’s account of drivers changing lanes just because 2 others in front of them do, provides certain insights into the way we respond to social proof. First, we seem to assume that if a lot of people are doing the same thing, they must know something we don’t. Especially when we are uncertain, we are willing to place an enormous amount of trust in the collective knowledge of the crowd. Second, quite frequently the crowd is mistaken because they are not acting on the basis of any superior information but are reacting, themselves, to the principle of social proof.
There is a lesson here: An automatic-pilot device, like social proof, should never be trusted fully; even when no saboteur has fed bad information into the mechanism, it can sometimes go haywire by itself. We need to check the machine from time to time to be sure that it hasn’t worked itself out of sync with the other sources of evidence in the situation—the objective facts, our prior experiences, our own judgments. Fortunately, this precaution requires neither much effort nor much time. A quick glance around is all that is needed.
Next he chooses a horse that has long odds (say, 15 to 1) and doesn’t have a realistic chance to win. The minute the mutual windows open, the guy puts down a hundred dollars on the inferior horse, creating an instant favorite whose odds on the board drop to about 2 to 1.
“Now the elements of social proof begin to work. People who are uncertain of how to bet the race look to the tote board to see which horse the early bettors have decided is a favorite, and they follow. A snowballing effect now occurs as other people continue to bet the favorite. At this point, the high roller can go back to the window and bet heavily on his true favorite, which will have better odds now because the ‘new favorite’ has pushed own the board.
Once again we can see that social proof is most powerful for those who feel unfamiliar or unsure in a specific situation and who, consequently, must look outside of themselves for evidence of how best to behave there.
FEW PEOPLE WOULD BE SURPRISED TO LEARN THAT, AS A RULE, we most prefer to say yes to the requests of someone we know and like. The clearest illustration I know of the professional exploitation of the liking rule is the Tupperware party, which I consider the quintessential American compliance setting. Anybody familiar with the workings of a Tupperware party will recognize the use of the various weapons of influence we have examined so far: reciprocity (to start, games are played and prizes won by the partygoers; anyone who doesn’t win a prize gets to reach into a grab bag for hers so that everyone has received a gift before the buying begins), commitment (each participant is urged to describe publicly the uses and benefits she has found in the Tupperware she already owns), and social proof (once the buying begins, each purchase builds the idea that other, similar people want the product; therefore, it must be good).
The real power of the Tupperware party comes from a particular arrangement that trades on the liking rule. the true request to purchase the product does not come from this stranger; it comes from a friend to every woman in the room. Oh, the Tupperware representative may physically ask for each partygoer’s order, all right, but the more psychologically compelling requester is a housewife sitting off to the side, smiling, chatting, and serving refreshments. She is the party hostess, who has called her friends together for the demonstration
in her home and who, everyone knows, makes a profit from each piece sold at her party.
Consumer researchers Frenzer and Davis, who have examined the social ties between the hostess and the partygoers in home-party sales settings, have affirmed the power of the company’s approach: The strength of that social bond is twice as likely to determine product purchase as is preference for the product itself.
What is interesting is that the customers appear to be fully aware of the liking and friendship pressures embodied in the Tupperware party. Some don’t seem to mind; others do, but don’t seem to know how to avoid them.
Other compliance professionals have found that the friend doesn’t even have to be present to be effective; often, just the mention of the friend’s name is enough. Once a customer admits to liking a product, he or she can be pressed for the names of friends who would also appreciate learning about it. The individuals on that list can then be approached for sales and a list of their friends, who can serve as sources for still other potential customers, and so on in an endless chain. Turning the salesperson away under those circumstances is difficult; it’s almost like rejecting the friend.
In fact, we find that such professionals seek to benefit from the rule even when already formed friendships are not present for them to employ. Under these circumstances, the professionals’ compliance strategy is quite direct: They first get us to like them.
There is a man in Detroit, Joe Girard, who specialized in using the liking rule to sell Chevrolets. He has been called the world’s “greatest car salesman” by the Guinness Book of World Records. For all his success, the formula he employed was surprisingly simple. It consisted of offering people just two things: a fair price and someone they liked to buy from. “And that’s it,” he claimed in an interview. “Finding the salesman they like, plus the price; put them both together, and you get a deal.” In fact, he famously sent every past customer a note card every month that just said “I like you.”
What are the factors that cause one person to like another person? Fortunately, social scientists have been asking the question for decades. Their accumulated evidence has allowed them to identify a number of factors that reliably cause liking.
A halo effect occurs when one positive characteristic of a person dominates the way that person is viewed by others. And the evidence is now clear that physical attractiveness is often such a characteristic. Research has shown that we automatically assign to good-looking individuals such favorable traits as talent, kindness, honesty, and intelligence. Furthermore, we make these judgments without being aware that physical attractiveness plays a role in the process.
In one study, good grooming of applicants in a simulated employment interview accounted for more favorable
hiring decisions than did job qualifications—this, even though the interviewers claimed that appearance played a small role in their choices. Equally unsettling research indicates that our judicial process is similarly susceptible to the influences of body dimensions and bone structure.
Good-looking people are likely to receive highly favorable treatment in the legal system. Researchers rated the physical attractiveness of seventy-four separate male defendants at the start of their criminal trials. When, much later, the researchers checked court records for the results of these cases, they found that the handsome men had received significantly lighter sentences. In fact, the attractive defendants were twice as likely to avoid
jail as the unattractive ones. In another study—this one on the damages awarded in a staged negligence trial—a defendant who was better looking than his victim was assessed an average amount of $5,623; but when the victim was the more attractive of the two, the average compensation was $10,051. What’s more, both male and female jurors exhibited the attractiveness-based favoritism.
Other experiments have demonstrated that attractive people are more likely to obtain help when in need and are more persuasive in changing the opinions of an audience. Here, too, both sexes respond in the same
way. It is hardly any wonder, then, that the halo of physical attractiveness is regularly exploited by compliance professionals. Because we like attractive people and because we tend to comply with those we like, it
makes sense that sales training programs include grooming hints, that fashionable clothiers select their floor staffs from among the good looking candidates, and that con men are handsome and con women pretty.
Also, we like people who are similar to us. This fact seems to hold true whether the similarity is in the area of opinions, personality traits, background, or life-style. Consequently, those who wish to be liked in order to increase our compliance can accomplish that purpose by appearing similar to us in any of a wide variety of ways. Dress is a good example. Several studies have demonstrated that we are more likely to help those who dress like us. Another experiment shows how automatic our positive response to similar others can be. Marchers in an antiwar demonstration were found to be not only more likely to sign the petition of a similarly dressed requester, but also to do so without bothering to read it first.
Another way requesters can manipulate similarity to increase liking and compliance is to claim that they have backgrounds and interests similar to ours. Car salesmen, for example, are trained to look for evidence of such things while examining the customer’s trade-in. If there is camping gear in the trunk, the salesman might mention, later on, how he loves to get away from the city whenever he can; if there are golf balls on the back seat, he might remark that he hopes the rain will hold off until he can play.
As trivial as these similarities may seem, they appear to work. One researcher who examined the sales records of insurance companies found that customers were more likely to buy insurance when the salesperson was like them in such areas as age, religion, politics, and cigarette-smoking habits.
The information that someone fancies us can be a bewitchingly effective device for producing return liking and willing compliance. So, often in terms of flattery or simple claims of affinity, we hear positive estimation from people who want something from us.
Remember Joe Girard, the world’s “greatest car salesman,” who says the secret of his success was getting customers to like him? He did something that, on the face of it, seems foolish and costly. Each month he sent every one of his more than thirteen thousand former customers a holiday greeting card containing a personal message. The holiday greeting changed from month to month (Happy New Year or Happy Thanksgiving, etc.), but the message printed on the face of the card never varied. It read, “I like you.”
As Joe explained it, “There’s nothing else on the card. Nothin’ but my name. I’m just telling ’em that I like ’em.” Could a statement of liking so impersonal, so obviously designed to sell cars, really work? Joe Girard thinks so; and a man as successful as he was at what he did deserves our attention. Joe understands an important fact about human nature: We are phenomenal suckers for flattery.
Finally, unlike the other types of comments, pure praise did not have to be accurate to work. Positive comments produced just as much liking for the flatterer when they were untrue as when they were true.
Apparently we have such an automatically positive reaction to compliments that we can fall victim to someone who uses them in an obvious attempt to win our favor.
Contact and Cooperation. For the most part, we like things that are familiar to us. To prove the point to yourself, try a little experiment. Get the negative of an old photograph that shows a front view of your face and have it developed into a pair of pictures—one that shows you as you actually look and one that shows a reverse image (so that the right and left sides of your face are interchanged). Now decide which version of your face you like better and ask a good friend to make the choice, too. If you are at all like a group of Milwaukee women on whom this procedure was tried, you should notice something odd: Your friend will prefer the true print, but you will prefer the reverse image. Why? Because you both will be responding favorably to the more familiar face—your friend to the one the world sees, and you to the transposed one you find in the mirror every day.
Because of its effect on liking, familiarity plays a role in decisions about all sorts of things, including the politicians we elect. It appears that in an election booth voters often choose a candidate merely because the name seems familiar. In one controversial Ohio election a few years ago, a man given little chance of winning the state attorney-general race swept to victory when, shortly before the election, he changed his name to Brown—a family name of much Ohio political tradition.
How could such a thing happen? The answer lies partially in the unconscious way that familiarity affects liking. Often we don’t realize that our attitude toward something has been influenced by the number of times we have been exposed to it in the past.
For example, in one experiment, the faces of several individuals were flashed on a screen so quickly that later on, the subjects who were exposed to the faces in this manner couldn’t recall having seen any of them before. Yet, the more frequently a person’s face was flashed on the screen, the more these subjects came to like that person when they met in a subsequent interaction. And because greater liking leads to greater social influence, these subjects were also more persuaded by the opinion statements of the individuals whose faces had appeared on the screen most frequently.
What’s the point of this digression into the effects of school desegregation on race relations? The point is to make two points. First, although the familiarity produced by contact usually leads to greater liking, the opposite occurs if the contact carries distasteful experiences with it. Therefore, when children of different racial groups are thrown into the incessant, harsh competition of the standard American classroom, we ought to see—and we do see—the worsening of hostilities. Second, the evidence that team-oriented learning is an antidote to this disorder may tell us about the heavy impact of cooperation on the liking process.
As it turns out, cooperation passes the test with colors flying. Compliance professionals are forever attempting to establish that we and they are working for the same goals, that we must “pull together” for mutual benefit, that they are, in essence, our teammates. A host of examples is possible. Most are familiar, like the new-car salesman who
takes our side and “does battle” with his boss to secure us a good deal. But one rather spectacular illustration occurs in a setting few of us would recognize firsthand, because the professionals are police interrogators whose job is to induce suspects to confess to crime. For this reason, criminal interrogations have taken increasingly.
Good Cop/Bad Cop works as well as it does for several reasons: The fear of long incarceration is quickly instilled by Bad Cop’s threats; the perceptual contrast principle ensures that compared to the raving, venomous Bad Cop, the interrogator playing Good Cop will seem like an especially reasonable and kind man; and because Good Cop has intervened repeatedly on the suspect’s behalf—has even spent his own money for a cup of coffee—the reciprocity rule pressures for a return favor. The big reason that the technique is effective, though, is that it gives the suspect the idea that there is someone on his side, someone with his welfare in mind, someone working together with him, for him.
In most situations, such a person would be viewed very favorably, but in the deep trouble our robbery suspect finds himself, that person takes on the character of a savior. And from savior, it is but a short step to trusted father confessor.
Conditioning and Association. There is a natural human tendency to dislike a person who brings us unpleasant information, even when that person did not cause the bad news. The simple association with it is enough to stimulate our dislike. The principle of association is a general one, governing both negative and positive
connections. An innocent association with either bad things or good things will influence how people feel about us.
“I had one guy call and tell me that if it snowed over Christmas, I wouldn’t live to see New Year’s,” said Bob Gregory, who has been the forecaster at WTHR-TV in Indianapolis for nine years.
Our instruction in how the negative association works seems to have been primarily undertaken by the mothers of our society. Remember how they were always warning us against playing with the bad kids down the street? Remember how they said it didn’t matter if we did nothing bad ourselves because, in the eyes of the neighborhood, we would be “known by the company we kept.” Our mothers were teaching us about guilt by association. They were giving us a lesson in the negative side of the principle of association. And they were right. People do assume that we have the same personality traits as our friends.
As for the positive associations, it is the compliance professionals who teach the lesson. They are incessantly trying to connect themselves or their products with the things we like. Did you ever wonder what all those good-looking models are doing standing around in the automobile ads? What the advertiser hopes they are doing is lending their positive traits—beauty and desirability—to the cars. The advertiser is betting that we will respond to the product in the same ways we respond to the attractive models merely associated with it. And they are right. In one study, men who saw a new-car ad that included a seductive young woman model rated the car as faster, more appealing, more expensive-looking, and better designed than did men who viewed the same ad without the model. Yet when asked later, the men refused to believe that the presence of the young woman had influenced their judgments.
During the days of the first American moon shot, everything from breakfast drink to deodorant was sold with allusions to the U.S. space program. In Olympiad years, we are told precisely which is the “official” hair spray and facial tissue of our Olympic teams. The linking of celebrities to products is another way advertisers cash in on the association principle. Professional athletes are paid to connect themselves to things that can be directly relevant to their roles (sport shoes, tennis rackets, golf balls) or wholly irrelevant (soft drinks, popcorn poppers, panty hose). The important thing for the advertiser is to establish the connection; it doesn’t have to be a logical one, just a positive one. Presidential candidates assemble stables of well-known nonpolitical figures who either actively participate in the campaign or merely lend their names to it.
If politicians are relative newcomers to the use of celebrity endorsements, they are old hands at exploiting the association principle in other ways. For example, congressional representatives traditionally announce to the press the start of federal projects that will bring new jobs or benefits to their home states; this is true even when a representative has had nothing to do with advancing the project or has, in some cases, voted against it.
Research conducted in the 1930s by the distinguished psychologist Gregory Razran. Using what he termed the “luncheon technique,” he found that his subjects became fonder of the people and things they experienced while
they were eating. In the example most relevant for our purposes, Razran’s subjects were presented with some political statements they had rated once before. At the end of the experiment, after all the political statements had been presented, Razran found that only certain of them had gained in approval—those that had been shown while food was being eaten. And these changes in liking seem to have occurred unconsciously, since the subjects could not remember which of the statements they had seen during the food service.
It was a literature dedicated to the study of the association principle and dominated by the thinking of a brilliant man, Ivan Pavlov. Although a scientist of varied and elaborated talent—he had, for instance, won a Nobel Prize years earlier for his work on the digestive system—Pavlov’s most important experimental demonstration was
simplicity itself. He showed that he could get an animal’s typical response to food (salivation) to be directed toward something irrelevant to food (a bell) merely by connecting the two things in the animal’s mind. If the presentation of food to a dog was always accompanied by the sound of a bell, soon the dog would salivate to the bell alone, even
when there was no food to be had.
It is not a long step from Pavlov’s classic demonstration to Razran’s luncheon technique. Obviously, a normal reaction to food can be transferred to some other thing through the process of raw association. Razran’s insight was that there are many normal responses to food besides salivation, one of them being a good and favorable feeling.
Therefore, it is possible to attach this pleasant feeling, this positive attitude, to anything (political statements being only an example) that is closely associated with good food.
That is why radio programmers are instructed to insert the station’s call-letters jingle immediately before a big hit song is played. And that is even why the women playing Barnyard Bingo at a Tupperware party must yell the word “Tupperware” rather than “Bingo” before they can rush to the center of the floor for a prize. It may be “Tupperware” for the women, but it’s “Bingo” for the company.
During the 1980 Winter Olympics, after the U.S. hockey team had upset the vastly favored Soviet team, the teetotaling father of the American goaltender, Jim Craig, was offered a flask. “I’ve never had a drink in my life,” he reported later, “but someone behind me handed me cognac. I drank it. Yes, I did.” Nor was such unusual behavior unique to parents of the players. Fans outside the hockey arena were described in new accounts as delirious:
“They hugged, sang, and turned somersaults in the snow.” Even those fans not present at Lake Placid exulted in the victory and displayed their pride with bizarre behavior. In Raleigh, North Carolina, a swim meet had to be halted when, after the hockey score was announced, the competitors and audience alike chanted “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” until they
were hoarse. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, a quiet supermarket erupted at the news into a riot of flying toilet tissue and paper towel streamers.
The customers were joined in their spree—and soon led—by the market employees and manager. Without question, the force is deep and sweeping. As distinguished author Isaac Asimov put it in describing our reactions to the contests we view, “All things being equal, you root for your own sex, your own culture, your own locality…and what you want to prove is that you are better than the other person. Whomever you root for represents you; and when he wins, you win.”
When viewed in this light, the passion of the sports fan begins to make sense. The game is no light diversion to be enjoyed for its inherent form and artistry. The self is at stake. That is why hometown crowds are so adoring and, more tellingly, so grateful toward those regularly responsible for home-team victories. So we want our affiliated sports teams to win to prove our own superiority. But to whom are we trying to prove it? Ourselves, certainly;
but to everyone else, too. According to the associate on principle, if we can surround ourselves with success that we are connected with in even a superficial way (for example, place of residence), our public prestige will rise.
It is for this reason that, were the University of Southern California to win the Rose Bowl, we could expect people with a Southern Cal connection to try to increase the visibility of that connection in any of a variety of ways. In one experiment showing how wearing apparel can serve to proclaim such an association, researchers counted the
number of school sweatshirts worn on Monday mornings by students on the campuses of seven prominent football universities: Arizona State, Louisiana State, Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, Pittsburgh, and Southern California. The results showed that many more home-school shirts were worn if the football team had won its game on the prior Saturday. What’s more, the larger the margin of victory, the more such shirts appeared. It wasn’t a close, hard-fought game that caused the students to dress themselves, literally, in success; instead, it was a clear,
crushing conquest smacking of indisputable superiority.
This tendency to try to bask in reflected glory by publicly trumpeting our connections to successful others has its mirror image in our attempt to avoid being darkened by the shadow of others’ defeat. In an amazing display during the luckless 1980 season, season-ticket-holding fans of the New Orleans Saints football team began to appear at the stadium wearing paper bags to conceal their faces. As their team suffered loss after loss, more and more fans donned the bags until TV cameras were regularly able to record the extraordinary image of gathered masses of people shrouded in brown paper with nothing to identify them but the tips of their noses. I find it instructive that during a late-season contest, when it was clear that the Saints were at last going to win one, the fans discarded their bags and went public once more.
All this tells me that we purposefully manipulate the visibility of our connections with winners and losers in order to make ourselves look good to anyone who could view these connections. By showcasing the positive associations and burying the negative ones, we are trying to get observers to think more highly of us and to like us more. There are
many ways we go about this, but one of the simplest and most pervasive is in the pronouns we use. Have you noticed, for example, how often after a home-team victory fans crowd into the range of a TV camera, thrust their index fingers high, and shout, “We’re number one! We’re number one!” Note that the call is not “They’re number one” or even “Our team is number one.” The pronoun is “we,” designed to imply the closest possible identity with the team.
Home-team defeats are the times for distancing oneself. Here “we” is not nearly as preferred as the insulating pronoun “they.” To prove the point, I once did a small experiment in which students at Arizona State University were phoned and asked to describe the outcome of a football game their school team had played a few weeks
earlier. Some of the students were asked the outcome of a certain game their team had lost; the other students were asked the outcome of a different game—one their team had won.
My fellow researcher, Avril Thorne, and I simply listened to what was said and recorded the percentage of students who used the word “we” in their descriptions. When the results were tabulated, it was obvious that the students had tried to connect themselves to success by using the pronoun “we” to describe their school-team victory—“We beat Houston, seventeen to fourteen,” or “We won.” In the case of the lost game, however, “we” was rarely used. Instead, the students used terms designed to keep themselves separate from their vanquished team—“They lost to Missouri, thirty to twenty,” or “I don’t know the score, but Arizona State got beat.” Perhaps the twin desires to connect ourselves to winners and to distance ourselves from losers were combined consummately in the remarks of one particular student. After dryly recounting the score of the home-team defeat—“Arizona State lost it, thirty to twenty”—he blurted in anguish, “They threw away our chance for a national championship!
If it is true that, to make ourselves look good, we try to bask in the reflected glory of the successes we are even remotely associated with, a provocative implication emerges: We will be most likely to use this approach when we feel that we don’t look so good. When-ever our public image is damaged, we will experience an increased desire to restore that image by trumpeting our ties to successful others. At the same time, we will most scrupulously avoid publicizing our ties to failing others.
Support for these ideas comes from the telephone study of Arizona State University students. Before being asked about the home team victory or loss, they were given a test of their general knowledge. The test was rigged so that some of the students would fail badly while the others would do quite well. So at the time they were asked to describe the football score, half of the students had experienced recent image damage from their failure
of the test. These students later showed the greatest need to manipulate their connections with the football team to salvage their prestige. If they were asked to describe the team defeat, only 17 percent used the pronoun
“we” in so doing. If, however, they were asked to describe the win, 41 percent said “we.” The story was very different, though, for the students who had done well on the general knowledge test. They later used “we” about equally, whether they were describing a home-team victory (25 percent) or defeat (24 percent). These students had bolstered their images through their own achievement and didn’t need to do so through the achievement of others. This finding tells me that it is not when we have a strong feeling of recognized personal accomplishment that we will seek to bask in reflected glory. Instead, it will be when prestige (both public and private) is low that we will be intent upon using the successes of associated others to help restore image.
I think it revealing that the remarkable hubbub following the American hockey team victory in the 1980 Olympics came at a time of recently diminished American prestige. The U.S. government had been helpless to prevent both the holding of American hostages in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was a time when, as a citizenry, we needed the triumph of that hockey team and we needed to display or even manufacture our connections to it. We should not be surprised to learn, for instance, that outside the hockey arena, in the aftermath of the win over the Soviet team, scalpers were getting a hundred dollars a pair for ticket stubs.
Although the desire to bask in reflected glory exists to a degree in all of us, there seems to be something special about people who would wait in the snow to spend fifty dollars apiece for the shreds of tickets to a game they had not attended, presumably to “prove” to friends back home that they had been present at the big victory. Just what kind of people are they? Unless I miss my guess, they are not merely great sports aficionados; they are individuals with a hidden personality flaw—a poor self-concept. Deep inside is a sense of low personal worth that directs them to seek prestige not from the generation or promotion of their own attainments, but from the generation or promotion of their associations with others of attainment. There are several varieties of this species that bloom throughout our culture. The persistent namedropper is a classic example. So, too, is the rock-music groupie, who trades sexual favors for the right to tell girlfriends that she was “with” a famous musician for a time. No matter which form it takes, the behavior of such individuals shares a similar theme—the rather tragic view of accomplishment as deriving from outside the self.
Certain of these people work the association principle in a slightly different way. Instead of striving to inflate their visible connections to others of success, they strive to inflate the success of others they are visibly connected to. The clearest illustration is the notorious “stage mother,” obsessed with securing stardom for her child. Physicians’ wives often speak of the pressures to obtain personal prestige by association with their husband’s professional stature.
John Pekkanen, who authored the book The Best Doctors in the U.S., reports that many enraged protests to his list came not from the physicians who were omitted but from their wives. In one instance that reveals the extent to which the principle of association dominates the thinking of some of these women, Pekkanen received a letter from a frantic wife along with her proof that her husband deserved to be on the list of best doctors. It was a photograph of the man with Merv Griffin.
HOW TO SAY NO. several of the factors leading to liking—physical attractiveness, familiarity, association—have been shown to work unconsciously to produce their effects on us, making it unlikely that we could muster a
timely protection against them.
By concentrating our attention on the effect rather than the causes, we can avoid the laborious, nearly impossible task of trying to detect and deflect the many psychological influences on liking. Instead, we have to be sensitive to only one thing related to liking in our contacts with compliance practitioners: the feeling that we have come to like the practitioner more quickly or more deeply than we would have expected.
Once we notice this feeling, we will have been tipped off that there is probably some tactic being used, and we can start taking the necessary countermeasures. We don’t attempt to restrain the influence of the factors that cause liking. Quite the contrary. We allow these factors to exert their force, and then we use that force in our campaign against them. The stronger the force, the more conspicuous it becomes and, consequently, the more subject to our alerted defenses.
Suppose, for example, we find ourselves bargaining on the price of a new car with Dealin’ Dan, a candidate for Joe Girard’s vacated “greatest car salesman” title. After talking a while and negotiating a bit, Dan wants to close the deal; he wants us to decide to buy the car. Before any such decision is made, it would be important to ask ourselves
a crucial question: “In the twenty-five minutes I’ve known this guy, have I come to like him more than I would have expected?” If the answer is yes, we might want to reflect upon whether Dan behaved during those few minutes in ways that we know affect liking. We might recall that he had fed us (coffee and doughnuts) before launching into his
pitch, that he had complimented us on our choice of options and color combinations, that he had made us laugh, that he had cooperated with us against the sales manager to get us a better deal.
Although such a review of events might be informative, it is not a necessary step in protecting ourselves from the liking rule. Once we discover that we have come to like Dan more than we would have expected to, we don’t have to know why. The simple recognition of unwarranted liking should be enough to get us to react against it. One possible reaction would be to reverse the process and actively dislike Dan. But that might be unfair to him and contrary to our own interests.
After all, some individuals are naturally likable, and Dan might just be one of them. It wouldn’t be right to turn automatically against those compliance professionals who happen to be most likable. Besides, for our own sakes, we wouldn’t want to shut ourselves off from business interactions with such nice people, especially when they may be offering us the best available deal.
I would recommend a different reaction. If our answer to the crucial question is “Yes, under the circumstances, I like this guy peculiarly well,” this should be the signal that the time has come for a quick countermaneuver: Mentally separate Dan from that Chevy or Toyota he’s trying to sell. I would recommend a different reaction. If our answer to the crucial question is “Yes, under the circumstances, I like this guy peculiarly well,” this should be the signal that the time has come for a quick counter maneuver: Mentally separate Dan from that Chevy or Toyota he’s trying to sell.
That’s why it is so important to be alert to a sense of undue liking for a compliance practitioner. The recognition of that feeling can serve as our reminder to separate the dealer from the merits of the deal and to make our decision based on considerations related only to the latter.
AUTHORITY- Directed Deference. Milgram experiment with the teacher and the learner who received fake electric shocks for wrong answers and begged to stop and the teacher kept going because the researcher told them to. Milgram is sure he knows the answer. It has to do, he says, with a deep-seated sense of duty to authority within us all. According to Milgram, the real culprit in the experiments was his subject’s inability to defy the wishes of the boss of the study—the lab-coated researcher who urged and, if need be, directed the subjects to perform their duties,
despite the emotional and physical mayhem they were causing.
The evidence supporting Milgram’s obedience to authority explanation is strong. First, it is clear that, without the researcher’s directives to continue, the subjects would have ended the experiment quickly. They hated what they were doing and agonized over their victim’s agony. They implored the researcher to let them stop. When he refused,
they went on, but in the process they trembled, they perspired, they shook, they stammered protests and additional pleas for the victim’s release. Their fingernails dug into their own flesh; they bit their lips until they bled; they held their heads in their hands; some fell into fits of uncontrollable nervous laughter.
To Milgram’s mind, evidence of a chilling phenomenon emerges repeatedly from his accumulated data: “It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study.” There are sobering implications of this finding for those concerned about the ability of another
form of authority—government—to extract frightening levels of obedience from ordinary citizens. Furthermore, the finding tells us something about the sheer strength of authority pressures in controlling our behavior.
For those whose doubts remain, the story of S. Brian Willson might prove instructive. On September 1, 1987, to protest U.S. shipments of military equipment to Nicaragua, Mr. Willson and two other men stretched their bodies across the railroad tracks leading out of the Concord, California, Naval Weapons Station. The protesters were confident that their act would halt the scheduled train’s progress that day, as they had notified Navy and railroad officials of their intent three days before. But the civilian crew, which had been given orders not to stop, never even slowed the train, despite being able to see the protesters six hundred feet ahead.
Although two of the men managed to scramble out of harm’s way, Mr. Willson was not quick enough to avoid being struck and having both legs severed below the knee. Because Navy medical corpsmen at the scene refused to treat him or allow him to be taken to the hospital in their ambulance, onlookers—including Mr. Willson’s wife and son—were left to try to stanch the flow of blood for forty-five minutes until a private ambulance arrived.
Amazingly, Mr. Willson, who served four years in Vietnam, does not blame either the crewmen or the corpsmen for his misfortune; he points his finger, instead, at a system that constrained their actions through the pressure to obey.
Whenever we are faced with so potent a motivator of human action, it is natural to expect that good reasons exist for the motivation. In the case of obedience to authority, even a brief consideration of human social organization offers justification aplenty. A multilayered and widely accepted system of authority confers an immense advantage upon a
society. It allows the development of sophisticated structures for resource production, trade, defense, expansion, and social control that would otherwise be impossible. The other alternative, anarchy, is a state that is hardly known for its beneficial effects on cultural groups.
Consequently, we are trained from birth that obedience to proper authority is right and disobedience is wrong. The essential message fills the parental lessons, the schoolhouse rhymes, stories, and songs of our childhood and is carried forward in the legal, military, and political systems we encounter as adults. Notions of submission and loyalty to legitimate rule are accorded much value in each.
The very first book of the Bible, for example, describes how failure to obey the ultimate authority produced the loss of paradise for Adam, Eve, and the rest of the human race. Should that particular metaphor prove too subtle, just a bit further into the Old Testament we can read—in what might be the closest biblical representation of the Milgram experiment—the respectful account of Abraham’s willingness to plunge a dagger through the heart of his young son, because God, without any explanation, ordered it.
We rarely agonize to such a degree over the pros and cons of authority’s demands. In fact, our obedience frequently takes place in a click, whirr fashion, with little or no conscious deliberation. Information from a recognized authority can provide us a valuable shortcut for deciding how to act in a situation. Early on, these people (for example, parents, teachers) knew more than we did, and we found that taking their advice proved beneficial—partly because of their greater wisdom and partly because they controlled our rewards and punishments. As adults, the same benefits persist for the same reasons, though the authority figures now appear as employers, judges, and government leaders. Because their positions speak of superior access to information and power, it makes great sense to comply with the wishes of properly constituted authorities. It makes so much sense, in fact, that we often do so when it makes no sense at all.
This paradox is, of course, the same one that attends all major weapons of influence. In this instance, once we realize that obedience to authority is mostly rewarding, it is easy to allow ourselves the convenience of automatic obedience. The simultaneous blessing and bane of such blind obedience is its mechanical character. We don’t have to think; therefore, we don’t. Although such mindless obedience leads us to appropriate action in the great majority of cases, there will be conspicuous exceptions—because we are reacting rather than thinking.
Let’s take an example from one facet of our lives where authority pressures are visible and strong: medicine. Health is enormously important to us. Thus, physicians, who possess large amounts of knowledge and influence in this vital area, hold the position of respected authorities. The worrisome possibility arises, then, that when a physician makes a clear error, no one lower in the hierarchy will think to question it—precisely because, once a legitimate authority has given an order, subordinates stop thinking in the situation and start reacting. Mix this kind of click, whirr response into a complex hospital environment and mistakes are certain. The important lesson of this story is that in many situations where a legitimate authority has spoken, what would otherwise make sense is irrelevant. In these instances, we don’t consider the situation as a whole but attend and respond to only one aspect of it.
Wherever our behaviors are governed in such an unthinking manner, we can be confident that there will be compliance professionals trying to take advantage. We can stay within the field of medicine and see that advertisers have frequently harnessed the respect accorded to doctors in our culture by hiring actors to play the roles of doctors speaking on behalf of the product.
My favorite example is a TV commercial featuring actor Robert Young counseling people against the dangers of caffeine and recommending caffeine-free Sanka Brand coffee. The commercial was highly successful, selling so much coffee that it was played for years in several versions. But why should this commercial prove so effective? Why on earth would we take Robert Young’s word for the health consequences of decaffeinated coffee? Because—as the advertising agency that hired him knew perfectly well—he is associated in the minds of the American public with Marcus Welby, M.D., the role he played in an earlier long-running television series.
From the first time I saw it, the most intriguing feature for me in the Robert Young Sanka commercial was its ability to use the influence of the authority principle without ever providing a real authority. The appearance of authority was enough. This tells us something important about unthinking reactions to authority figures.
There are several kinds of symbols that can reliably trigger our compliance in the absence of the genuine substance of authority. Consequently, they are employed extensively by those compliance professionals who are short on substance. Con artists, for example, drape themselves with the titles, clothes, and trappings of authority. They
love nothing more than to emerge elegantly dressed from a fine automobile and to introduce themselves to their prospective “mark” as Doctor or Judge or Professor or Commissioner Someone. They understand that when they are so equipped, their chances for compliance are greatly increased. Each of these three types of symbols of authority has its own story and is worth a separate look.
Titles are simultaneously the most difficult and the easiest symbols of authority to acquire. To earn one normally takes years of work and achievement. Yet it is possible for somebody who has put in none of this effort to adopt the mere label and receive a kind of automatic deference.
I recently talked with a friend—a faculty member at a well-known eastern university—who provided a telling illustration of how our actions are frequently more influenced by a title than by the nature of the person claiming it. He says that he has learned through much experience never to use his title—professor— during these conversations. When he does, he reports, the tenor of the interaction changes immediately. People who have been spontaneous
and interesting conversation partners for the prior half hour become respectful, accepting, and dull. His opinions that earlier might have produced a lively exchange now usually generate extended (and highly grammatical) statements of accord.
Studies investigating the way in which authority status affects perceptions of size have found that prestigious titles lead to height distortions. Because we see size and status as related, it is possible for certain individuals to benefit by substituting the former for the latter. Usually, in combat with a rival, the larger and more powerful male wins. To avoid the harmful effects to the group of such physical conflict, however, many species have adopted methods that frequently involve more form than fracas. The two males confront each other with showy aggression displays that invariably include size-enhancing tricks. Various mammals arch their backs and bristle their coats; fish extend their fins and puff themselves up with water; birds unfurl and flutter their wings.
Fur, fins, and feathers. Isn’t it interesting how these most delicate of parts can be exploited to give the impression of substance and weight? There are two lessons for us here. One is specific to the association between size and status. The connection of those two things can be profitably employed by individuals who are able to fake the first to gain the appearance of the second.
The other lesson is more general: The outward signs of power and authority frequently may be counterfeited with the flimsiest of materials. Clothes. Especially revealing was one version of the experiment in which the requester stopped pedestrians and pointed to a man standing by a parking meter fifty feet away. The requester, whether dressed normally or as a security guard, always said the same thing to the pedestrian: “You see that guy over there by the meter? He’s overparked but doesn’t have any change. Give him a dime!” The requester then turned a corner
and walked away so that by the time the pedestrian reached the meter, the requester was out of sight.
The power of his uniform lasted, however, even after he was long gone: Nearly all the pedestrians complied with his directive when he had worn the guard costume, but fewer than half did so when he had dressed normally. It is interesting to note that later on, Bickman found college students able to guess with considerable accuracy the percentage of compliance that had occurred in the experiment when the requester wore street clothes (50 percent vs. the actual 42 percent); yet the students greatly underestimated the percentage of compliance when he was in uniform (63 percent vs. the actual 92 percent).
Less blatant in its connotation than a uniform, but nonetheless effective, is another kind of attire that has traditionally bespoken authority status in our culture: the well-tailored business suit. It, too, can evoke a telling form of deference from total strangers. Research conducted in Texas, for instance, arranged for a thirty-one-year-old man to violate the law by crossing the street against the traffic light on a variety of occasions. In half of the cases, he was dressed in a freshly pressed business suit and tie; on the other occasions, he wore a work shirt and trousers. The researchers watched from a distance and counted the number of pedestrians waiting at the corner who followed the man across the street. Three and a half times as many people swept into traffic behind the suited jaywalker.
Trappings. Aside from its function in uniforms, clothing can symbolize a more generalized type of authority when it serves an ornamental purpose. Finely styled and expensive clothes carry an aura of status and position, as do trappings such as jewelry and cars. According to the findings of a study done in the San Francisco Bay area, owners of prestige autos receive a special kind of deference from us. The experimenters discovered that motorists would wait significantly longer before honking their horns at a new, luxury car stopped in front of a green traffic light than at an older, economy model. The motorists had little patience with the economy-car driver: Nearly all sounded their horns, and the majority of these did so more than once; two simply rammed into his rear bumper. So intimidating was the aura of the prestige automobile, however, that 50 percent of the motorists waited respectfully behind it, never touching their horns, until it drove on. This property of authority status may account for much of its
success as a compliance device. Not only does it work forcefully on us, but it also does so unexpectedly.
HOW TO SAY NO. One protective tactic we can use against authority status is to remove its element of surprise. Because we typically misperceive the profound impact of authority (and its symbols) on our actions, we are at the disadvantage of being insufficiently cautious about its presence in compliance situations. A fundamental form of defense against this problem, therefore, is a heightened awareness of authority power. When this awareness is coupled with a recognition of how easily authority symbols can be faked, the benefit will be a properly guarded approach to situations involving authority-influence attempts.
Yet there is a perverse complication—the familiar one inherent in all weapons of influence: We shouldn’t want to resist altogether, or even most of the time. Generally, authority figures know what they are talking about. Thus, as a rule, their directives offer excellent counsel. The trick is to be able to recognize without much strain or vigilance when authority promptings are best followed a nd when they should be resisted.
Posing two questions to ourselves can help enormously to accomplish this trick. The first is to ask, when we are confronted with what appears to be an authority figure’s influence attempt, “Is this authority truly an expert?” The question is helpful because it focuses our attention on a pair of crucial pieces of information: the authority’s credentials and the relevance of those credentials to the topic at hand.
By orienting in this simple way toward the evidence for authority status, we can avoid the major pitfalls of automatic deference. That is why the “Is this authority truly an expert?” question can be so valuable: It brings our attention to the obvious. It channels us effortlessly away from a focus on possibly meaningless symbols to a consideration of genuine authority credentials. What’s more, the question impels us to distinguish between relevant authorities and irrelevant authorities.
Suppose, though, we are confronted with an authority we determine is a relevant expert. Before submitting to authority influence, it would be wise to ask a second simple question: “How truthful can we expect the expert to be here?” We allow ourselves to be much more swayed by experts who seem to be impartial than by those who have something to gain by convincing us; and this has been shown by research to be true around the world. By wondering how an expert stands to benefit from our compliance, we give ourselves another safety net against undue and automatic influence.
When asking ourselves about such a person’s trustworthiness, we should keep in mind a little tactic compliance practitioners often use to assure us of their sincerity: They will seem to argue to a degree against their own interests. Correctly done, this can be a subtly effective device for proving their honesty. Perhaps they will mention a small shortcoming in their position or product (“Oh, the disadvantages of Benson & Hedges”). Invariably, though, the drawback will be a secondary one that is easily overcome by more significant advantages—“Listerine, the
taste you hate three times a day”; “Avis: We’re number two, but we try harder”; “L’Oréal, a bit more expensive and worth it.” By establishing their basic truthfulness on minor issues, the compliance professionals who use this ploy can then be more believable when stressing the important aspects of their argument.
I have seen this approach used with devastating effect in a place that few of us recognize as a compliance setting: the restaurant. It is no secret that because of shamelessly low wages, servers in restaurants must supplement their earnings with tips. Leaving the sine qua non of good service aside, the most successful waiters and waitresses know certain tricks for increasing tips. They also know that the larger a customer’s bill, the larger the amount of money likely to come to them in a standard gratuity. In these two regards, then—building the size of the customer’s
charge and building the percentage of that charge that is given as a tip—servers regularly act as compliance agents.
Once again in a Reader’s Report we can see the influence of the contrast principle combining with the principle of primary interest. In this case, after the thirty-five-hundred-dollar figure was set, each two-hundred-dollar nick seemed small by comparison.
SCARCITY- The Rule of the Few. The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.
THE CITY OF MESA, ARIZONA, IS A SUBURB IN THE PHOENIX AREA where I live. Perhaps the most notable features of Mesa are its sizable Mormon population—next to that of Salt Lake City, the largest in the world—and a huge Mormon temple located on exquisitely kept grounds in the center of the city. Although I had appreciated the landscaping and architecture from a distance, I had never been interested enough in the temple to go inside until the day I read a newspaper article that told of a special inner sector of Mormon temples to which no one has access but faithful members of the Church. Even potential converts must not see it. There is one exception to the rule, however.
For a few days immediately after a temple is newly constructed, nonmembers are allowed to tour the entire structure, including the otherwise restricted section. The newspaper story reported that the Mesa temple had recently been refurbished and that the renovations had been extensive enough to classify it as “new” by Church standards. Thus, for the next several days only, non-Mormon visitors could see the temple area traditionally banned to them. I remember quite well the effect of the article on me: I immediately resolved to take a tour. But when I phoned a friend to ask if he wanted to come along, I came to understand something that changed my decision just as quickly. After declining the invitation, my friend wondered why I seemed so intent on a visit.
I was forced to admit that, no, I had never been inclined toward the idea of a temple tour before, that I had no questions about the Mormon religion I wanted answered, that I had no general interest in the architecture of houses of worship, and that I expected to find nothing more spectacular or stirring than I might see at a number of other temples, churches, or cathedrals in the area. It became clear as I spoke that the special lure of the temple had a sole cause: If I did not experience the restricted sector shortly, I would never again have the chance. Something that, on its own merits, held little appeal for me had become decidedly more attractive merely because it would soon become unavailable.
Since that encounter with the scarcity principle—that opportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited—I have begun to notice its influence over a whole range of my actions. For instance, I routinely will interrupt an interesting face-to-face conversation to answer the ring of an unknown caller. In such a situation, the caller has a compelling feature that my face-to-face partner does not: potential unavailability. If I don’t take the call, I might miss it (and the information it carries) for good. Never mind that the ongoing conversation may be highly engaging or important—much more than I could reasonably expect an average phone call to be. With each unanswered ring, the phone interaction becomes less retrievable. For that reason and for that moment, I want it more than the other.
The idea of potential loss plays a large role in human decision making. In fact, people seem to be more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value. For instance, homeowners told how much money they could lose from inadequate insulation are more likely to insulate their homes than those told how much money they could save.
Collectors of everything from baseball cards to antiques are keenly aware of the influence of the scarcity principle in determining the worth of an item. As a rule, if it is rare or becoming rare, it is more valuable. Especially enlightening as to the importance of scarcity in the collectibles market is the phenomenon of the “precious mistake.” Flawed items—ablurred stamp or a double-struck coin—are sometimes the most valued of all. Thus a stamp carrying a three-eyed likeness of George Washington is anatomically incorrect, aesthetically unappealing, and yet highly sought after.
With the scarcity principle operating so powerfully on the worth we assign things, it is natural that compliance professionals will do some related operating of their own. Probably the most straightforward use of the scarcity principle occurs in the “limited-number” tactic, when the customer is informed that a certain product is in short supply that cannot be guaranteed to last long. “This is one of only two unsold corner lots in the entire development.
You wouldn’t want the other one; it’s got a nasty east-west exposure.” “You may want to think seriously about buying more than one case today because production is backed way up and there’s no telling when we’ll get any more in.”
I was most impressed, however, with a particular version that extended the basic approach to its logical extreme by selling a piece of merchandise at its scarcest point—when it seemingly could no longer be had. The tactic was played to perfection in one appliance store I investigated, where 30 to 50 percent of the stock was regularly listed as
on sale. Suppose a couple in the store seemed from a distance to be moderately interested in a certain sale item. There are all sorts of cues that tip off such interest—closer-than-normal examination of the appliance, a casual look at any instruction booklets associated with the appliance, discussions held in front of the appliance, but no attempt to seek out a salesperson for further information. After observing the couple so engaged, a salesperson might approach and say, “I see you’re interested in this model here, and I can understand why; it’s a great machine at a great price. But, unfortunately, I sold it to another couple not more than twenty minutes ago. And, if I’m not mistaken, it was the last one we had.”
The customers’ disappointment registers unmistakably. Because of its lost availability, the appliance jumps suddenly in attractiveness.
Typically, one of the customers asks if there is any chance that an unsold model still exists in the store’s back room, warehouse, or other location. “Well,” the salesperson allows, “that is possible, and I’d be willing to check. But do I understand that this is the model you want and if I can get it for you at this price, you’ll take it?” Therein lies the beauty of the technique. In accord with the scarcity principle, the customers are asked to commit to buying the appliance when it looks least available—and therefore most desirable. Many customers do agree to a purchase at
this singularly vulnerable time. Thus, when the salesperson (invariably) returns with the news that an additional supply of the appliance has been found, it is also with a pen and sales contract in hand.
Related to the limited-number technique is the “deadline” tactic, in which some official time limit is placed on the customer’s opportunity to get what the compliance professional is offering. The adept merchandiser makes this tendency pay off by arranging and publicizing customer deadlines.
Orestes J. Mihaly, the New York assistant attorney general in charge of the bureau of investor protection and securities, said the companies often operate in three stages. First, Mihaly said, comes the “opening call,” in which a salesman identifies himself as representing a company with an impressive-sounding name and address. He will simply ask the potential customer to receive the company’s literature. A second call involves a sales pitch, Mihaly said. The salesman first describes the great profits to be made and then tells the customer that it is no longer possible to invest. The third call gives the customer a chance to get in on the deal, he said, and is offered with a great deal of urgency.
“The idea is to dangle a carrot in front of the buyer’s face and then take it away,” Mihaly said. “The aim is to get someone to want to buy quickly, without thinking too much about it.” Sometimes, Mihaly said, the salesman will be out of breath on the third call and will tell the customer that he “just came off the trading floor.”
A variant of the deadline tactic is much favored by some face-to-face, high-pressure sellers because it carries the purest form of decision deadline: right now. Customers are often told that unless they make an immediate decision to buy, they will have to purchase the item at a higher price or they will be unable to purchase it at all. A prospective health-club member or automobile buyer might learn that the deal offered by the salesperson is good only for that one time; should the customer leave the premises, the deal is off. A home vacuum-cleaner operation I infiltrated instructed its sales trainees to claim, “I have so many other people to see that I have the time to visit a family only once. It’s company policy that even if you decide later that you want this machine, I can’t come back and sell it to you.”
The evidence, then, is clear. Compliance practitioners’ reliance on scarcity as a weapon of influence is frequent, wide-ranging, systematic, and diverse. Whenever such is the case with a weapon of influence, we can feel assured that the principle involved has notable power in directing human action. In the instance of the scarcity principle, that power comes from two major sources. The first is familiar. Like the other weapons of influence, the scarcity principle trades on our weakness for shortcuts. The weakness is, as before, an enlightened one. In this case,
because we know that the things that are difficult to possess are typically better than those that are easy to possess, we can often use an item’s availability to help us quickly and correctly decide on its quality.
As opportunities become less available, we lose freedoms; and we hate to lose the freedoms we already have. This desire to preserve our established prerogatives is the centerpiece of psychological reactance theory. According to the
theory, whenever free choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us desire them (as well as the goods and services associated with them) significantly more than previously. So when increasing scarcity—or anything else—interferes with our prior access to some item, we will react against the interference by wanting and trying to possess the item more than before.
One Virginia-based study nicely captured the terrible twos style among boys who averaged twenty-four months in age. The boys accompanied their mothers into a room containing two equally attractive toys. The toys were always arranged so that one stood next to a transparent Plexiglas barrier and the other stood behind the barrier. For some of the boys, the Plexiglas sheet was only a foot tall—forming no real barrier to the toy behind, since the boys could easily reach over the top.
For the other boys, however, the Plexiglas was two feet tall, effectively blocking the boys’ access to one toy unless they went around the barrier. The researchers wanted to see how quickly the toddlers would make contact with the toys under these conditions. Their findings were clear. When the barrier was too small to restrict access to the toy behind it, the boys showed no special preference for either of the toys; on the average, the toy next to the barrier was touched just as quickly as the one behind. But when the barrier was big enough to be a true obstacle, the boys went directly to the obstructed toy, making contact with it three times faster than with the unobstructed toy.
An independent being is one with choices; and a child with the newfound realization that he or she is such a being will want to explore the length and breadth of the options. The tendency to fight for every liberty and against every restriction might be best understood as a quest for information. By testing severely the limits of their freedoms (and coincidentally, the patience of their parents), the children are discovering where in their worlds they can expect to be controlled and where they can expect to be in control. As we will see later, the wise parent provides highly nonexistent information.
Perhaps the passion of Romeo and Juliet was not initially so consuming that it transcended the extensive barriers
erected by the families. A romantic might suggest rare and perfect love. A social scientist, though, might point to the role of parental interference and the psychological reactance it can produce. Perhaps, instead, it was fueled to a white heat by the placement of those barriers. A study done with 140 Colorado couples, that is exactly what they do. In fact, the researchers found that although
parental interference was linked to some problems in the relationship— the partners viewed one another more critically and reported a greater number of negative behaviors in the other—that interference also made the pair feel greater love and desire for marriage. During the course of the study, as parental interference intensified, so did the love experience; and when the interference weakened, romantic feelings actually cooled.
psychological reactance flows across the broad surface of experience, always turbulent and forceful. For most
of the rest of us, the pool of reactant energy lies quiet and covered, erupting geyserlike only on occasion. Still, these eruptions manifest themselves in a variety of fascinating ways that are of interest not only to the student of human behavior but to lawmakers and policymakers as well.
Dade County (containing Miami), Florida, imposed an anti-phosphate ordinance prohibiting the use—and possession!—of laundry or cleaning products containing phosphates. First, in what seems a Florida tradition, many Miamians turned to smuggling. Compared to Tampa residents, who were not affected by the Dade County ordinance, the citizens of Miami rated phosphate detergents as gentler, more effective in cold water, better whiteners and fresheners, more powerful on stains. After passage of the law, they had even come to believe that phosphate detergents poured more easily than did the Tampa consumers. Phosphate detergents clean, whiten, and pour no better after they are banned than before. We just assume they do because we find that we desire them more.
This sort of response is typical of individuals who have lost an established freedom and is crucial to an understanding of how psychological reactance and scarcity work on us. When our freedom to have something
is limited, the item becomes less available, and we experience an increased desire for it. However, we rarely recognize that psychological reactance has caused us to want the item more; all we know is that we want it.
The intriguing thing about the effects of censoring information is not that audience members want to have the information more than they did before; that seems natural. Rather, it is that they come to believe in the information more, even though they haven’t received it. For example, when University of North Carolina students learned that a speech opposing coed dorms on campus would be banned, they became more opposed to the idea of coed dorms. Thus, without ever hearing the speech, they became more sympathetic to its argument. This raises the worrisome possibility that especially clever individuals holding a weak or unpopular position can get us to agree with that position by arranging to have their message restricted.
But from a purely psychological point of view, those favoring strict censorship may wish to examine closely the results of a study done on Purdue University undergraduates. The students were shown some advertisements for a novel. For half the students, the advertising copy included the statement, “a book for adults only, restricted
to those 21 years and over”; the other half of the students read about no such age restriction on the book. When the researchers later asked the students to indicate their feelings toward the book, they discovered the same pair of reactions we have noted with other bans: Those who learned of the age restriction (1) wanted to read the book more and (2) believed that they would like the book more than did those who thought their access to the book was unlimited.
If we are to believe the implications of the research, then the censorship is likely to increase the desire of students for sexual material and, consequently, to cause them to view themselves as the kind of individuals who like such material.
Often in a jury trial, a piece of evidence or testimony will be introduced, only to be ruled inadmissible by the presiding judge, who may then admonish the jurors to disregard that evidence. From this perspective, the judge may be viewed as a censor, though the form of censorship is odd. The presentation of the information to the jury is not banned—it’s too late for that—it’s the jury’s use of the information that is banned. How effective are such instructions from a judge? And is it possible that, for jury members who feel it is their right to consider all the available information, declarations of inadmissibility may actually cause psychological reactance, leading the jurors to use the evidence to a greater extent?
According to the scarcity principle, then, we will find a piece of information more persuasive if we think we can’t get it elsewhere. After we talked in my office one day about scarcity and exclusivity of information, he decided to do a study using his sales staff. The company’s customers—buyers for supermarkets or other retail food outlets—were phoned as usual by a salesperson and asked for a purchase in one of three ways. One set of customers heard a standard sales presentation before being asked for their orders. Another set of customers heard the standard sales presentation plus information that the supply of imported beef was likely to be scarce in the upcoming months. A third group received the standard sales presentation and the information about a scarce supply of beef, too; however, they also learned that the scarce-supply news was not generally available information— it had come, they were told, from certain exclusive contacts that the company had. Thus the customers who received this last sales presentation learned that not only was the availability of the product limited, so also was the news concerning it—the scarcity double whammy.
The results of the experiment quickly become apparent when the company salespeople began to urge the owner to buy more beef because there wasn’t enough in the inventory to keep up with all the orders they were receiving. Compared to the customers who got only the standard sales appeal, those who were also told about the future scarcity of beef bought more than twice as much. But the real boost in sales occurred among the customers who heard of the impending scarcity via “exclusive” information. They purchased six times the amount that the customers who received only the standard sales pitch did. Apparently the fact that the news carrying the scarcity of information was itself scarce made it especially persuasive.
An important practical problem, then, is to find out when scarcity works best on us. A great deal can be learned in this regard from an experiment devised by social psychologist Stephen Worchel. The basic procedure used by
Worchel and his research team was simple: Participants in a consumer preference study were given a chocolate-chip cookie from a jar and asked to taste and rate its quality. For half of the raters, the jar contained ten cookies; for the other half, it contained just two. As we might expect from the scarcity principle, when the cookie was one of the only two available, it was rated more favorably than when it was one of ten. The cookie in short supply was rated as more desirable to eat in the future, more attractive as a consumer item, and more costly than the identical cookie in abundant supply.
Rather than rating the cookies under conditions of constant scarcity, some participants were first given a jar
of ten cookies that was then replaced by a jar of two cookies. Thus, before taking a bite, certain of the participants saw their abundant supply of cookies reduced to a scarce supply. Other participants, however, knew only scarcity of supply from the outset, since the number of cookies in their jars was left at two. With this procedure, the researchers
were seeking to answer a question about types of scarcity: Do we value more those things that have recently become less available to us, or those things that have always been scarce? In the cookie experiment, the answer was plain. The drop from abundance to scarcity produced a decidedly more positive reaction to the cookies than did constant scarcity.
We are most likely to find revolutions where a period of improving economic and social conditions is followed by a short, sharp reversal in those conditions. Thus it is not the traditionally most downtrodden people—who have come to see their deprivation as part of the natural order of things—who are especially liable to revolt. Instead, revolutionaries are more likely to be those who have been given at least some taste of a better life. When the economic and social improvements they have experienced and come to expect suddenly become less available, they desire them more than ever and often rise up violently to secure them.
This pattern offers a valuable lesson for would-be rulers: When it comes to freedoms, it is more dangerous to have given for a while than never to have given at all. The problem for a government that seeks to improve the political and economic status of a traditionally oppressed group is that, in so doing, it establishes freedoms for the group where none existed before. And should these now established freedoms become less available, there will be an especially hot variety of hell to pay. Freedoms once granted will not be relinquished without a fight.
The lesson applies as well to the politics of family as country. The parent who grants privileges or enforces rules erratically invites rebelliousness by unwittingly establishing freedoms for the child. The parent who only sometimes prohibits between-meal sweets may create for the child the freedom to have such snacks. At that point, enforcing the rule becomes a much more difficult and explosive matter because the child is no longer merely lacking a never-possessed right but is losing an established one. We should not be surprised, then, when research shows that parents who enforce discipline inconsistently produce generally rebellious children.
Let’s look back to the cookie study for another insight into the way we react to scarcity. We’ve already seen from the results of that study that scarce cookies were rated higher than abundant cookies and that newly scarce cookies were rated higher still. Staying with the newly scarce cookies now, there was a certain cookie that was the highest rated of all: those that became less available because of a demand for them.
Remember that in the experiment the participants who experienced new scarcity had been given a jar of ten cookies that was then replaced with a jar of only two cookies. Actually, the researchers did this in one of two ways. To certain participants, it was explained that some of their cookies had to be given away to other raters to supply the demand for cookies in the study. To another set of participants, it was explained that their number of cookies had to be reduced because the researcher had simply made a mistake and given them the wrong jar initially. The results showed that those whose cookies became scarce through the process of social demand liked them significantly more than those whose cookies became scarce by mistake. In fact, the cookies made less available through social demand were rated the most desirable of any in the study.
This finding highlights the importance of competition in the pursuit of limited resources. Not only do we want the same item more when it is scarce, we want it most when we are in competition for it. The feeling of being in competition for scarce resources has powerfully motivating properties. The ardor of an indifferent lover surges with the appearance of a rival. It is often for reasons of strategy, therefore, that romantic partners reveal (or invent) the attentions of a new admirer. Salespeople are taught to play the same game with indecisive customers. For example, a realtor who is trying to sell a house to a “fence-sitting” prospect will sometimes call the prospect with news of another potential buyer who has seen the house, liked it, and is scheduled to return the following day to talk about terms. The thought of losing out to a rival frequently turns a buyer from hesitant to zealous.
There is a noticeable parallel between the ways that commercial fishermen and department stores generate a competitive fury in those they wish to hook. To attract and arouse the catch, fishermen scatter some loose bait called chum. For similar reasons, department stores holding a bargain sale toss out a few especially good deals on prominently advertised items called loss leaders.
How to say no. It is easy enough to feel properly warned against scarcity pressures; but it is substantially more difficult to act on that warning. Part of the problem is that our typical reaction to scarcity hinders our ability to
think. When we watch something we want become less available, a physical agitation sets in. Especially in those cases involving direct competition, the blood comes up, the focus narrows, and emotions rise. As this visceral current advances, the cognitive, rational side retreats.
Here’s our predicament, then: Knowing the causes and workings of scarcity pressures may not be sufficient to protect us from them because knowing is a cognitive thing, and cognitive processes are suppressed by our emotional reaction to scarcity. In fact, this may be the reason for the great effectiveness of scarcity tactics. When they are employed properly, our first line of defense against foolish behavior—a thoughtful analysis of the situation—becomes less likely.
If, because of brain-clouding arousal, we can’t rely on our knowledge about the scarcity principle to stimulate properly cautious behavior, what can we use? By learning to flag the experience of heightening arousal in a compliance situation, we can alert ourselves to the possibility of scarcity tactics there and to the need for caution.
Even though the scarce cookies were rated as significantly more desirable, they were not rated as any better-tasting than the abundant cookies. So despite the increased yearning that scarcity caused (the raters said they wanted to have more of the scarce cookies in the future and would pay a greater price for them), it did not make the cookies taste one whit better. Therein lies an important insight. The joy is not in experiencing a scarce commodity but in possessing it. It is important that we not confuse the two.
We want it, instead, for its utility value; we want to eat it or drink it or touch it or hear it or drive it or otherwise use it. In such cases it is vital to remember that scarce things do not taste or feel or sound or ride or work any better because of their limited availability.
Richard sold cars, but not in a showroom nor on a car lot. He would buy a couple of used cars sold privately through the newspaper on one weekend and, adding nothing but soap and water, would sell them at a decided profit through the newspaper on the following weekend. Each prospect who was interested enough to want to see the car was given an appointment time—the same appointment time. So if six people were scheduled, they were all scheduled for, say, two o’clock that afternoon. Typically, the first prospect to arrive would begin a studied examination of the car and would engage in standard car-buying behavior, such as pointing out any blemishes or deficiencies or asking if the price was negotiable. The psychology of the situation changed radically, however, when the second buyer drove up. The availability of the car to either prospect suddenly became limited by the presence of the other. Often the earlier arrival, inadvertently stoking the sense of rivalry, would assert his right to primary consideration. “Just a minute, now.”
I was here first.” If he didn’t assert that right, Richard would do it for him. Addressing the second buyer, Richard would say, “Excuse me, but this other gentleman was here before you. So can I ask you to wait on the other side of the driveway for a few minutes until he’s finished looking at the car? Then, if he decides he doesn’t want it or if he can’t make up his mind, I’ll show it to you.”
Richard claims it was possible to watch the agitation grow on the first buyer’s face. His leisurely assessment of the car’s pros and cons had suddenly become a now-or-never, limited-time-only rush to decision over a contested resource. If he didn’t decide for the car—at Richard’s asking price—in the next few minutes, he might lose it for good to that…that…lurking newcomer over there. For his part, the second buyer would be equally agitated by the combination of rivalry and restricted availability.
If these conditions alone were not enough to secure a favorable purchase decision immediately, the trap snapped surely shut as soon as the third two-o’clock appointment arrived on the scene. According to Richard, stacked-up competition was usually too much for the first prospect to bear. He would end the pressure quickly by either agreeing to Richard’s price or by leaving abruptly. In the latter instance, the second arrival would strike at the chance to buy out of a sense of relief coupled with a new feeling of rivalry with that…that…lurking newcomer
over there. Should we find ourselves beset by scarcity pressures in a compliance situation, then, our best response would occur in a two-stage sequence. As soon as we feel the tide of emotional arousal that flows from scarcity influences, we should use that rise in arousal as a signal to stop short.
Panicky, feverish reactions have no place in wise compliance decisions. We need to calm ourselves and regain a rational perspective. Once that is done, we can move to the second stage by asking ourselves why we want the item under consideration. If the answer is that we want it primarily for the purpose of owning it, then we should use its availability to help gauge how much we want to spend for it. However, if the answer is that we want it primarily for its function (that is, we want something good to drive, drink, eat, etc.), then we must remember that the item under consideration will function equally well whether scarce or plentiful.
Very often in making a decision about someone or something, we don’t use all the relevant available information; we use, instead, only a single, highly representative piece of the total. And an isolated piece of information, even though it normally counsels us correctly, can lead us to clearly stupid mistakes—mistakes that, when exploited by clever others, leave us looking silly or worse.
We are unchallenged in the ability to take into account a multitude of relevant facts and, consequently, to make good decisions. Indeed, it is this information- processing advantage over other species that has helped make us the dominant form of life on the planet. Still, we have our capacity limitations, too; and, for the sake of efficiency,
we must sometimes retreat from the time-consuming, sophisticated, fully informed brand of decision making to a more automatic, primitive, single-feature type of responding.
We have been exploring several of the most popular of the single pieces of information that we use to prompt our compliance decisions. They are the most popular prompts precisely because they are the most reliable ones, those that normally point us toward the correct choice. That is why we employ the factors of reciprocation, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity so often and so automatically in making our compliance decisions. Each, by itself, provides a highly reliable cue as to when we will be better off saying yes than no.
We are likely to use these lone cues when we don’t have the inclination, time, energy, or cognitive resources to undertake a complete analysis of the situation. Where we are rushed, stressed, uncertain, indifferent, distracted, or fatigued, we tend to focus on less of the information available to us. When making decisions under these circumstances, we often revert to the rather primitive but necessary single-piece-of-good-evidence approach.
Because technology can evolve much faster than we can, our natural capacity to process information is likely to be increasingly inadequate to handle the surfeit of change, choice, and challenge that is characteristic of modern life. More and more frequently, we will find ourselves in the position of the lower animals—with a mental apparatus that is unequipped to deal thoroughly with the intricacy and richness of the outside environment. Unlike the animals, whose cognitive powers have always been relatively deficient, we have created our own deficiency by constructing a radically more complex world. But the consequence of our new deficiency is the same as that of the animals’ long-standing one. When making a decision, we will less frequently enjoy the luxury of a fully considered analysis of the total situation but will revert increasingly to a focus on a single, usually reliable feature of it.
When those single features are truly reliable, there is nothing inherently wrong with the shortcut approach of narrowed attention and automatic response to a particular piece of information. The problem comes when something causes the normally trustworthy cues to counsel us poorly, to lead us to erroneous actions and wrongheaded decisions. As we have seen, one such cause is the trickery of certain compliance practitioners who seek to profit from the rather mindless and mechanical nature of shortcut response. If, as seems true, the frequency of shortcut response is increasing with the pace and form of modern life, we can be sure that the frequency of this trickery is destined to increase as well.
What can we do about the expected intensified attack on our system of shortcuts? More than evasive action, I would urge forceful counterassault. There is an important qualification, however. Compliance professionals who play fairly by the rules of shortcut response are not to be considered the enemy; on the contrary, they are our allies in an
efficient and adaptive process of exchange. The proper targets for counter-aggression are only those individuals who falsify, counterfeit, or misrepresent the evidence that naturally cues our shortcut responses.
However, should a compliance practitioner try to stimulate a shortcut response by giving us a fraudulent signal for it. The enemy is the advertiser who seeks to create an image of popularity for a brand of toothpaste by, say, constructing a series of staged “unrehearsed-interview” commercials in which an array of actors posing as ordinary citizens praise the product. Here, where the evidence of popularity is counterfeit, we, the principle of social proof, and our shortcut response to it, are all being exploited.
I would recommend extending this aggressive stance to any situation in which a compliance professional abuses the principle of social proof (or any other weapon of influence) in this manner. The blitz of modern daily life demands that we have faithful shortcuts, sound rules of thumb to handle it all. These are not luxuries any longer; they are out-and-out necessities that figure to become increasingly vital as the pulse of daily life quickens. That is why we should want to retaliate whenever we see someone betraying one of our rules of thumb for profit. We want that rule to be as effective as possible.