There is a seemingly inexhaustible battery of techniques to evoke compliance (e.g. Pratkanis, 2007); however, a perfectly valid and effective alternative is to simply ask. Langer and Abelson (1972) investigated The Semantics of Asking a Favour in the context of helping behaviour.
It is well-documented that situations requiring help are often ambiguous (e.g. Latané & Darley, 1970), thus the precise wording of a request for help may be instrumental in defining the situation and giving a potential helper the relevant information to decide whether to comply in helping or not. Langer and Abelson (1972) employed subtle semantic variations in help requests by a confederate in a 2 x 2 design that manipulated: a) attention being drawn to either the confederate’s plight (victim-orientated appeal) or the participant’s duty to help (target-orientated appeal); and b) the confederate’s request as being worthy and convincing (legitimate) or presumptuous (illegitimate). The authors hypothesised that legitimate favour requests that emphasised the victim’s suffering, rather than the participant’s responsibility to help, would be met with greater compliance. Furthermore, because illegitimate requests are naturally at odds with a sympathy response, target-orientated appeals would be the best option in this situation.
A female confederate faked a knee injury and asked a passer-by to call either her husband or employer. The four conditions manipulated the sentence order of the request, such that victim-orientated conditions presented the predicament first (“My knee is killing me…”) and the request for help second (“Would you do something for me? …”) – vice versa for target-orientated conditions. Note that this study makes use of a primacy effect, or ‘control of the flow of information’ (Pratkanis, 2007), such that the first statements supposedly have the highest impact in biasing the listener towards either an empathy or responsibility frame of mind.
In legitimate request conditions, the participant was asked to call the confederate’s husband for a pick-up; the illegitimate request was to call the employer to say that the confederate will be late for work, as this would “smack of malingering” (p. 28). The results are shown in Figure 1 and are consistent with the hypotheses. The authors conducted a novel (at the time) statistical procedure to demonstrate an interaction between the two variables, such that, for example, a victim-orientated appeal was particularly effective for a legitimate request. [A brief literature search did not yield any papers that disputed this method of analysis.]
A victim-orientated appeal in a legitimate request more than doubles compliance rates as compared with a target-orientated appeal. Illegitimate requests had a better chance of compliance when the participant is presented with responsibility first (though is still only at a 50% hit rate).
[The paradox that compliance is seemingly much higher in a target-orientated illegitimate request than in a legitimate one the authors say is probably a non-significant difference.]
This version varied the quality of the confederate’s justification for asking a favour so as to maximise the legitimacy manipulation (“I have to catch a train” (legitimate) vs. “I have to go to Macy’s”). The help request in this study was to post a letter. The results are displayed in Figure 2.
The pattern in Experiment I was significant, however Experiment II demonstrates it more clearly. Interestingly, the target-orientated appeals still score fairly well, perhaps because the prospective helper is thrown into making a decision immediately (recall that in these conditions the opening line is a question, as opposed to a statement about the victim’s predicament).
The results also show a main effect of legitimacy on compliance, such that legitimate requests generally fare better (pooled results from both appeal types give an overall 67.5% compliance rate) than illegitimate ones (overall 32.5%). Legitimate requests do particularly well when coupled with a plea that emphasises the victim’s plight, whilst illegitimate requests are more or less doomed if they take this route. There was no observed main effect of appeal type, which indicates that both may have their uses, but only when applied in the correct situation – an important detail to remember for those hoping to profit from these techniques.
It is striking that mere sentence order manipulation produced notable and predictable differences in the likelihood of compliance. Never mind your ‘high status-admirer altercasts’ and ‘foot-in-the-door’ tricks – sometimes, all that is needed is an on-the-spot question or a batted eyelash.
Langer, E. J., & Abelson, R. P. (1972). The semantics of asking a favour: How to succeed in getting help without really dying. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 26-32.
Latane, B., & Darley, J. (Eds.) (1970). The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn't he help? New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Pratkanis, A. R. (Ed.) (2007). The science of social influence: Advances and future progress. Hove: Psychology Press.
- - Izzy Fawdry (Blog #3)