Imagine that just as you were about to use the copy machine, someone asked if they could go ahead of you, saying, “I just have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make copies?”
It turns out that a whopping 93% of people complied to this in a research study, compared to just 60% in the condition where someone left off the obvious explanation of, “because I have to make copies.”
When it comes to small actions, this study suggests that we run on auto-pilot, using a social script that says, “Favor + a reason? Checks out!”
This 1978 field study by Ellen Langer and colleagues is an all-timer when it comes to popular psychology, and for obvious reasons. It’s funny, applicable, and easy to implement in your own life. But it’s also a product of its time. Given what we now know about statistical power and inadequate sample sizes, there’s reason to be skeptical of the original finding. So this week we read some conceptual replication studies that try to untangle the role of linguistic cues and social scripts on compliance:
1. “Because your participation is precious…”
As part of an intervention to increase physical activity in teenagers, researchers needed kids to wear accelerometers every day for a week. The researchers, ever the experimentalists, decided to use their morning SMS reminders to test whether including a “because <reason>” increased compliance.
Reason reminders went something like this: “Morning! Because your participation is precious, please remember to put on the motion measurement device and wear it until you go to sleep (except in the shower etc.) – thanks!” The control version of this reminder omitted the “Because your participation is precious” clause. The messages changed to keep things fresh across the 7 days, but you’ll notice they’re kind of long for a text, especially to teens.
At the end of the week, the researchers checked for any differences between the reminder conditions (as well as a third, no-reminder condition) on how many days the teens wore their accelerometers for at least 10 hours, and total time worn across the week. The results? There were no statistically reliable differences between any of the groups on either of the outcomes. Everyone wore their monitor for an average of 75 hours.
This study therefore does not show any boost to compliance from giving a “because reason.”
A few things to note: First, there were 2 waves of data collection. In wave 1, researchers had people opt in to the reminders, while in wave 2, reconsidering their default, they had people opt out of the reminders. With opt-in, they had a 54% participation rate, and with opt-out, 95%. One clear takeaway: always, always think about your defaults!
Second, it’s important to watch out for selection effects. The researchers used people who didn’t consent to receiving reminders as their control group. Allowing people to self-select into the control group complicates the causal story, at least as far as quantifying the value of reminders.
Heino, M. T., Knittle, K., Haukkala, A., Vasankari, T., & Hankonen, N. (2018). Simple and rationale-providing SMS reminders to promote accelerometer use: A within-trial randomised trial comparing persuasive messages. BMC Public Health, 18(1), 1-16.
2. “You’ll probably refuse, but…”
If you’ve ever worked to solicit street donations for a charity (or crossed the street to avoid someone doing so), you know how hard it is to get people to donate. In this field study, researchers increased a donation rate by 30% with the addition of a simple phrase to their request.
After the introductory spiel, the solicitor said, “You’re probably interested in organizations for children with health problems. I wonder if you could help us by making a donation?” In the experimental condition, they said: “You’re probably interested in organizations for children with health problems. You will probably refuse, but I wonder if you could help us by making a donation?”
The results: 25% percent of people in the control condition donated, compared to 39.1% of those who heard the refusal phrase. Why? There’s a long history of people complying with requests phrased to emphasize agency, such as, “You’re free to say no…” and this study builds on that work.
The researchers were testing the role of psychological reactance — people’s desire to assert agency and control in response to a limit. Telling people what they’ll do (“probably refuse”) kicks off reactance and seemed to move about 15% of people toward compliance.
Guéguen, N. (2016). “You will probably refuse, but…”: When activating reactance in a single sentence increases compliance with a request. Polish Psychological Bulletin 47(2), 170-173.
3. “You’re free to say no…”
Let’s dive into some of that “you’re free to say no” research. This article reports on two field studies asking people to complete a long survey, or to lend out their phone — common things we might ask our users, clients, or friends to do. But frankly, I cannot let you live another minute without reading this summary of a past study:
Perhaps the most extreme, high-stakes request involved asking post office patrons to hold a trap-door spider for a person while he picked up a package in the post office (Guéguen, Silone, David, & Pascual, 2015). The enormous spider — larger than a male human hand — was visible to the patron, as it was in a transparent plastic box. Nonetheless, 58.3% of those exposed to the evoking-freedom language agreed to the request, as compared to only 36.7% of those in the control (direct request) condition (p. 483).
So right off, we’re feeling optimistic about compliance rates. Except it turns out that most of the “free to say no” research was conducted by just 2 researchers, all in France, and with some errors that suggest, at the very least, carelessness in reporting. The current research team was interested in replicating the research to gain confidence in its accuracy and reliability.
These were very straightforward experiments. In the control condition, people were asked the favor directly: “Good afternoon, would you like to take part in this questionnaire for my class?” and, “Excuse me; my phone is dead. Can I use your phone?” In the experimental conditions, the researchers just added the phrase “Feel free to say no.”
In both situations, 45% of the control group said yes to the request. Among those reminded that they could say no, 76% said yes to the questionnaire and 95% said yes to lending their phone!
Farley, S. D., Kelly, J., Singh, S., Thornton Jr, C., & Young, T. (2019). “Free to Say No”: Evoking freedom increased compliance in two field experiments. The Journal of Social Psychology, 159(4), 482-489.
Are linguistic cues and social scripts, then, the “one simple trick” to get everyone to agree to you? Like many things, the answer is probably, “It depends.” This is still an active area of research and three articles is hardly a comprehensive review.
So if you’re trying to pin down a meeting or ask someone for a favor, it’s certainly not going to hurt to work in one of these key phrases, but don’t be too disappointed if your askee does, in fact, feel free to say no.