Another Way to Get What You Want

Recently I’ve been reading Robert B. Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”.

One of the “weapons of influence” he talks about is the rule of reciprocation. The reciprocation rule says that when someone provides us with something; we should try to pay them back in kind.

For example, if someone sends you a Christmas card, you feel compelled to send them one back. If someone buys you a drink, you feel compelled to return the favour. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, Les Schwab gives away $10 million in tire repairs a year. Because of this dedication, their customers have reciprocated with over $1 billion in sales at Les Schwab’s 200 tire outlets.

The Hare Krishnas use this technique. They give people an (often unwanted) flower in hopes their target will feel obligated to make a donation.

Cialdini points out that there is a second way to get people to comply for a request using the reciprocation rule.

He recounts how a few years ago, he experienced first-hand how it works. He was walking down the street one day when a boy, who was about twelve-years-old, approached him and asked him if he’d like to buy tickets to the annual Boy Scouts Circus.

He said he didn’t. Then the boy said to him “If you don’t want to buy any tickets, how about buying some of our big chocolate bars. They’re only a dollar each.”

He decided to buy a couple of chocolate bars – even though he didn’t want them.

After analyzing what happened he concluded that because the boy had made a concession to him – by letting him off the hook on the Circus tickets – he made a concession to the boy by agreeing to a smaller request. (The Circus tickets being $5 each and chocolate bars were only a dollar.)

He wanted to see if this second way of using the rule of reciprocation would work if the second request was a more sizable one (yet still smaller than the first request).

So he and a few of his colleagues set up a test. They posed as representatives of the “County Youth Counselling Program”. They approached college students and asked them if they would be willing to chaperon a group of juvenile delinquents on a day trip to the zoo. 83 percent declined the request.

To another group of college students, they put a slight twist on it. Before they asked them if they’d be willing to chaperon juvenile delinquents to the zoo, they asked them if they’d be willing to spend two hours a week as a counsellor to a juvenile delinquent for a minimum of two years.

When asked to make a larger committment first, three times as many agreed to the lesser request of chaperoning juvenile delinquents to the zoo.

Another example of what he refers to as the “rejection-then-retreat” technique can be found by looking at the circumstances that led up to the Watergate break-in.

G. Gordon Liddy was the mastermind behind the break in and bugging of the Watergate office of the Democratic National Committee and its chairman Lawrence O’Brien.

Liddy first requested $1 million dollars and proposed a program that involved, in addition to the break in and bugging, a specially equipped communications chase plane, kidnapping and mugging squads and a yacht featuring “high-class call girls” to blackmail Democratic politicians.

When he was refused he came back with a second scaled-down program that cost $500,000. This plan was refused so he came back with a third even more scaled-down plan with a $250,000 price tag.

The $250,000 plan was accepted by the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP).

CRP Director John Mitchell approved the third plan because he says “we were reluctant to send him (Liddy) away with nothing.”

Mitchell’s assistant Jeb Stuart Magruder said later that “If he had come to us at the outset and said, “I have a plan to burglarize and wiretap Larry O’Brien’s office,” we might have rejected the idea out of hand”. Magruder adds that while Liddy had asked for “the whole loaf” he suspects Liddy would have been quite content to settle for either the half or quarter million dollar program.

Most of us have used the “rejection-than-retreat” technique at times in your own life. For example, if you want to borrow ten dollars from somebody, you have a better chance of getting it if you first ask for twenty dollars and then settle for ten. It’s the same type of strategy that is often employed in labor negotiations. Labor leaders make extreme demands (if their extreme demands are met its a huge bonus) and then settle for something lesser.

The larger-then-smaller request sequence is also used by many retail stores. They show the customer the deluxe model first (which if he or she buys it’s a bonus). If the customer refuses, they show them a more reasonably priced option.

Cialdini cites proof of this model’s effectiveness by pointing to report from Sales Management magazine.

A billiard-table dealer agreed to take part in a test. One week his salesman would first show customers their low-end pool tables and then move them up in price to their most expensive table. The next week the sales people would lead with the premium table and work their way down the price scale. In both scenarios, the sales person encouraged the customer to buy the most expensive table.

In the first week the average sale was $550. In the second week, where they showed the high priced table first, the average sale was over $1,000.

So what is the reason for this? Is it just because when you start first with a high figure, in the person’s mind going for the lower-priced product is their way of making a concession?

Cialdini looked to several studies for the answer.

One study, which was published in Canada, wanted to see if victims of the “rejection-then-retreat” tactic would actually follow through on what they agreed to do.

They first asked a group of people to agree to a larger request – to volunteer for two hours per week for at least two years in a community mental-health agency. Then they asked the same group if they’d be willing to work for just two unpaid hours one day at the agency. 76% of the people who were asked to make a larger commitment first agreed to the lesser request.

A second group of people were only asked to make the 2 hour/1 day commitment. Only 29 percent agreed.

They then tracked the show-up rate for both groups. 85 percent of the people from the first group showed up to work the two unpaid hours while only 50 percent of the second group turned up.

What Cialdini deduced was there were a couple of positive by-products that came out of an act of concession. People felt a greater responsibility for their actions. They had decided which option they were going to take. They weren’t being forced into a situation. And because of this they were much more satisfied with the situation.

So as you can see the “rejection-then-retreat” is a very effective tool in getting someone to do what you want.

Most of us have been targets of this type of persuasion technique at some time in our lives. For instance, you may have received a free key chain in the mail from an organization hoping you’ll donate to their cause … or a company calls you up offers you a free home safety inspection in hopes of selling you an entire alarm system.

Cialdini says the best way to keep yourself from being manipulated is, instead of thinking of their offerings as gifts, redefine them in your mind as "sales devices".

Then hopefully, you’ll be able to withstand your natural compulsion to pay back what’s been given to you – and save yourself from doing something you may not want to do.

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Published: July 22, 2009

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