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.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Who Can Say No To Cake? - The Norm Of Reciprocity

Everyone loves cake. It’s just a well known fact. But who would have ever thought that cake could be used as a tool as part of a powerful force of subtle persuasion? Certainly not me, until recently. It was not long ago that I was approached by my flatmate asking if I was free at 10pm that evening. I had made no plans, and responded that I would be. Later, it can be seen that this was Step 1 in Operation Party Persuasion; the classic ‘foot in the door technique’. My flatmate then preceded to ask if I would attend his birthday party that evening, quickly followed by the fact that there would be cake (not just any cake, but an array that the birthday boy had bought himself, especially for the occasion), and that our other flatmates would also be coming. At this stage, there was an overwhelming obligation to say yes, that I would attend, but what had led me to feel this deep sense of commitment? Maybe psychology has some answers at hand.

The ‘foot in the door technique’ (Freedman & Fraser, 1966) proposes that an individual can gain someone’s commitment by firstly asking them to comply to a small request, which later compels them to comply to a larger request. This piecemeal approach (or graduated commitment) creates a bond between the requester and requestee, which once established can be difficult to break. This has been demonstrated in research by Freedman & Fraser (1966) who found that in comparison to those who had just been asked to perform the larger request (i.e: if they would be willing to let a research team explore their home to classify their household products), subjects who were asked to perform a smaller task first, (i.e: completing a telephone survey regarding their use of household products) followed by the larger request, were significantly more likely to comply with the larger demand. The fact that I had told my flatmate that I was available that evening provided a prerequisite for accepting his invitation that followed.

The norm of reciprocity can also be used to explain the success of my flatmate’s request. This norm suggests that we, as social beings, feel a sense of indebtedness to return a favour to someone if they first provide something to us, be it a gift, money, or just being there for us in times of need (Gouldner, 1960). It is considered to be a universal phenomenon and has been highlighted in many studies. For instance, Regan (1971) conducted an experiment whereby participants received a free soft drink from a confederate, and were more likely than the control group (who received nothing) to purchase raffle tickets that the confederate was later selling.  So what was it that my flatmate did which triggered this obligation? Step 2 in Operation Party Persuasion- just add cake. Although unconsciously unaware of the social contract I was entering at the time, it is clear to see now that the inclusion of cake was used as bait to activate this norm of reciprocity; he would give me cake in return for my presence at his party.

Finally, Step 3 in Operation Party Persuasion can be attributed to social norms. Social norms outline ways of behaving that conform to the majority’s view of what is acceptable in society or in particular social contexts. Those who deviate from social norms risk being ostracised from the group, or face being negatively evaluated. Research that has outlined this concept includes Asch’s study (1951; as cited in Deutsch & Gerard, 1964), whereby participants were asked to match the length of a line (target line) relative to three other comparison lines of varying length (see Figure 1). It was found that the participant was likely to go against their own instinct at least once, and provide an incorrect answer if the rest of the group (in this instance, confederates) gave a wrong answer, in 76% of trials. This can be explained in terms of the subject feeling pressured to comply with group norms in order to feel a sense of belonging (normative social influence), which outweighs the need to be right (informational social influence). Thus, this idea can help to enlighten why I was compelled to accept my flatmate’s invitation; I was aware that everyone else was attending and that declining this offer, especially for no good reason, could impact on how I would be perceived by the group in the future, and affect the social dynamics.

Figure 1 - Stimuli used in Asch's conformity experiment (1951).
Target line (left), to be matched with comparison line 'A', 'B', or 'C' (right).

So, what was the outcome? Of course, I accepted the invitation and had a wonderful evening, but it was not until deeper reflection that I was able to fully understand why I took this course of action. It is clear to see that each of the persuasive techniques outlined above played a unique and powerful role in manipulating my behaviour, and that each and every one of us will be susceptible to their influence at some point in time!

Catherine Turvey


Deutsch, M., & Gerard, H. B. (1964). A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51, 629- 636.

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.

Gouldner, A. W. (1960). The norm of reciprocity: A preliminary statement. American Sociological Review, 25, 161- 178.

Regan, D. T. (1971). Effects of favour and liking on compliance. Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, 7, 627-639. 

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