Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Unethical Persuasion for an Ethical Cause

Over the past few weeks I have found my time becoming increasingly devoted to helping to create an ‘Ethical Guide’ to Leamington and Warwick University Campus. When finished, this will be a magazine detailing ‘ethical’ places to shop and eat out, independently owned and run, community-driven nightlife and day trip events amongst other information on sustainable and cruelty-free living. Whilst this may sound like the typical ‘save the planet’ sort of project I would usually get involved with, I started this term firmly deciding that I would not have the time to get involved with any more societies, campaigns or environmentally related projects. Predictably, however, the Ethical Guide now has me wrapped around its finger thanks to the power of the foot-in-the-door (FITD) technique.

The FITD technique involves asking the target, who is to be persuaded, to commit to a small request before asking for a larger request which was the actual intention of the agent all along. This works by inducing a sense of commitment and the target wanting to seem like a consistent person after performing the first task.

The Pivotal Text Message


In my case the first request was to come to a casual meeting where I would help out with editing one of the sections of the magazine just for half an hour. My friend encouraged me to come with him and I knew the others who would be there so I decided to go as a break from lectures. Now I find myself in the position of setting up a Kickstarter page to raise money for a graphic designer and printing costs as well as possibly emailing contacts for sponsorship or donations. I don’t feel too bad about this though, partially because its all for a good cause but also because this is a persuasion technique used successfully on people all over the world and has been replicated in psychology experiments, which means it could have happened to anyone.

Freedman and Fraser (1966) conducted a very thorough experiment investigating the FITD technique. In this experiment random Californian housewives were contacted by telephone by the researcher who was claiming to be part of the California Consumers’ Group which was interested in the household products these housewives used. There were four conditions, Performance, Agree-Only, Familiarization (all of which were contacted twice - once for a small request and once for the larger, main request) and One-Contact.

In the Performance condition, participants were asked if they would like to take part in a questionnaire about household products. If they said yes, they completed this questionnaire over the phone. The Agree-Only condition was identical but the participants did not complete the questionnaire if they agreed, due to the caller ‘just lining up respondents for now’. This was done to identify whether actually completing a smaller task before a larger one was important or whether just agreeing to it was enough. The Familiarization group was used to identify whether the familiarity of the requester played a role in higher compliance for the larger request. This was operationalized by calling up the participants and running through the questionnaire questions without the participants responding to ensure the same contact time as the Performance condition but without actually performing the small request. Finally, the One-Contact participants were not contacted at this time but were only called once for the large request.

All the conditions (One-Contact included) were then contacted again by phone three days after the initial call. This time the researcher requested the large task: five or six men coming to the participants’ home ‘for about two hours to enumerate and classify all the household products’ they have.



The results table above shows how more than double the number of participants agreed to the large request in the Performance condition than in the One-Contact condition. There is also a significant difference between the Performance and Familiarization conditions, such that more participants agreed to the large task in the Performance condition. The same finding also occurs between the Performance and Agree-Only conditions, although this difference is not significant. These results show how fulfilling a smaller request before a larger one is requested increases compliance and that familiarity with the requester isn’t as important as completing the initial request.

This research explains what happened to me perfectly. I was asked to commit to a small request (turning up to one meeting) which left me in a vulnerable position when I was later asked to carry out a larger request (managing a Kickstarter page).

Freedman, J., & Fraser, S. (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 195-202.

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