Behaviour Change

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

Monday, November 7, 2016

Cosmic Ordering & The Art of Asking

"You create your opportunities by asking for them." ~ Shakti Gawain 

Ever heard of cosmic ordering? Stemming from positive thinking, this New Age philosophy is the idea that each individual possesses the energy and power to manifest their deepest desires by doing one simple thing; asking the universe (Mohr, 2001). This can be anything, from asking for a new romantic partner to requesting greater wealth. There is even a webpage dedicated to the phenomenon, ‘The Cosmic Ordering Site’ (2010), where those wishing to enhance an aspect of their life can specify their desire and when they would like it to be delivered by, and send it out to the cosmos: . But does this actually work? Can the universe really hear our innermost thoughts and desires, and bring us true fulfilment? Much criticism has surrounded the idea of cosmic ordering, with some claiming that it is a contemporary substitute for saying prayers. Others suggest that these occurrences are nothing more than pure coincidence, and that placing a cosmic order actually generates a self-fulfilling prophecy (if you really want something, you’re likely to start subconsciously striving for it). In turn, this can lead to confirmation bias, whereby events are interpreted as evidence of confirming one’s beliefs (Nickerson, 1998), in this case that the universe has endowed them with ‘x’. Having said this, some studies in psychology actually suggest that just asking for something is more powerful than originally perceived. 

Clark & Hatfield (1989) demonstrate this nicely in their study of receptivity to sexual offers in college students. It was found that when male students were approached by a random female and asked one of three requests (“Will you go out with me tonight?”, “Will you come over to my apartment?”, or “Will you go to bed with me?”), compliance rates were considerably high; 50%, 69%, and 75%, respectively (see Figure 1), suggesting that if you want something, you should just go ahead and ask! However, a study by Flynn & Lake (2008) revealed that people tend to underestimate the extent to which others will help them upon a direct request, which may explain why some people are less willing to be bold and ask for something which they desire for the fear of being rejected (and possibly why cosmic ordering has been shunned by many). In this study, participants overestimated by almost 50% how many people they would have to approach to fill in a questionnaire (the average estimation was 20.5 people, whereas in fact it only took 10.5 people). But is there anything you can actually do to increase the chance of your request being successful? Santos, Leve, & Pratkanis (1994) answered just this.

Figure 1. Male compliance rate when approached by a female and asked on a date,
to her apartment, or to sleep with her. From Clark & Hatfield (1989).

‘The Pique Technique’ (Santos et al, 1994) involves asking for the unusual in order to elicit greater compliance. This is based on the idea that individuals have pre-set answers to questions, resulting in mindless refusal when they spare little cognitive resources to process the request. This can be disrupted by a strange request which is likely to obtain the requestee’s attention and result in more mindful cognitions. The authors highlight this in their study whereby a request for a strange amount of money (e.g: 17 cents) was followed by a compliance rate of 42.5%, in comparison to a request for a typical amount of money (e.g: a quarter), in which compliance was significantly less at 30.6%.

I found this research very intriguing and decided to put the ‘Just Ask Principle’ to the test myself. I was on my way to a lecture (it was actually Behaviour Change) and spotted a friendly looking guy heading in my direction. I approached him and asked if I could borrow his phone to message my friend as I was late meeting her, and explained that my phone battery had died (a big lie on my behalf, but something I thought might have proved successful in gaining his compliance, and indeed it did). The guy willingly handed me his phone, and at this point I felt bad for lying and proceeded to explain to him that I wasn’t really wanting to use his phone and that I was actually testing a psychological theory, but thanked him for his kindness anyway. I continued to head to my lecture and was pondering if I could have tested the principle further. According to Freedman & Fraser (1966), once you have gained a person’s compliance regarding a small request (for instance, asking to borrow their phone), it is likely that they will be more willing to later comply with a larger request (e.g: asking them on a date), known as the ‘foot in the door technique’. Based on this reasoning, it seems that I may have missed the perfect opportunity to meet with this stranger again, but now that I am aware of these persuasion techniques, there’s always next time.

So what can we conclude from examining these studies? To put it simply, if you want something, just ask for it. Just like me, you may well be pleasantly surprised.

Catherine Turvey


Clark, R. D., & Hatfield, E. (1989). Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 2, 39-55.

Flynn, F. J., & Lake, V. K. B. (2008). If you need help, just ask: Underestimating compliance with direct requests for help. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 128-143.

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

Mohr, B. (2001). The cosmic ordering service. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Company.

Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2, 175-220.

Santos, M. D., Leve, C., & Pratkanis, A. R. (1994). Hey buddy, can you spare 17 cents? Mindful persuasion and the pique technique. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24, 755-764.

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