Social Influence and the Psychology of Compliance


The literature on social influence sometimes used the term compliance interchangeably with conformity. This can happen when ‘conformity’ is broadly defined to include a change in behaviour, as well as beliefs, as a consequence of group pressure. Compliance refers to behavioural response to a request by another individual, while conformity, refers to the influence of a group upon an individual.

We are confronted daily with demands and requests. Often they are put to us in a straightforward and clean manner, such as when a friend asks you to dinner, and nothing more is requested. At other times, requests have a ‘hidden agenda’; for example, an acquaintance invites you to dinner to get into the right mood to ask you to finance a new business venture. The result is often the same – we comply,.

What are the factors and situations that make us more compliant, and why is it that we are more influenced on some occasions than others? Generally, people influence us when they use effective tactics or have powerful attributes.

Tactics for enhancing compliance

To persuade people to comply with requests to buy certain products has been the cornerstone of many economies. It is not surprising, therefore, that over the years many different tactics have been devised to enhance compliance. Salespeople, especially, have designed and refined many indirect procedures for inducing compliance, as their livelihood depends on it. We have all come across these tactics.


One common tactic is ingratiation. A person attempts to influence others by first agreeing with them and getting them to like him/her. Next, various requests are made. You would be using ingratiation if you agreed with target people to appear similar or to make them feel good, made yourself look attractive, paid compliments, dropped names of those held in high esteem or physically touched target people. Smith, Pruitt and Carnevale (1982) found that shoppers, when approached to sample a new food product, were more likely to sample and buy the item when they were touched in a socially acceptable way (although they did not think the food tasted any better!).

Reciprocity principle

Use of the reciprocity principle is another tactic, based on the social norm that ‘we should treat others the way they treat us’. If we do others a favour, they feel obliged to reciprocate. Regan (1971) showed that greater compliance was obtained from people who had previously received a favour than from those who had received none. Similarly, guilt arousal produces more compliance. When an experimenter induces feelings of guilt in a participant, the latter is ready to comply with a later request: for example, participation in future experiments, making a phone call to save native trees or agreeing to donate blood (Carlsmith & Gross, 1969; Darlington & Macker, 1966; Freedman, Wallington, & Bless, 1967). In this research, in contrast, participants who were not made to feel guilty hardly ever complied.

Have you had your car windscreen washed while waiting at traffic lights? If the cleaner washes it before you can refuse, there is subtle pressure on you to pay for the service, even though you did not request it. In some cities in Portugal, people guide you into parking spaces that one could easily locate and park in without assistance, and then they ask for money. These are both examples of persuasion to donate money that involves activation of the reciprocity principle.

Multiple requests

A very effective tactic is the use of multiple requests. Instead of a single request, a two-step procedure is used, with the first request functioning as a set-up or softener for the second, real request. Three classic variations are the foot-in-the-door, the door-in-the-face and low-balling tactics.

Foot-in-the-door tactic

The food-in-the-door tactic is based on the notion that if you get someone to agree to a small request, the person will later be more willing to comply with a large request. Some telephone salespeople use this approach. At first they might ask you to answer just a few questions ‘for a small survey that we are doing’ and then entice you to join ‘the hundreds of others in your area’ who subscribe to their product.

In a study by Freedman and Fraser (1966), participants were first contacted to answer a few simple questions about the kind of soap they used at home. Later, they were more willing to comply with the larger request of allowing six people to make a thorough inventory of all the household items present. Only 22 per cent complied when they received the larger request ‘cold’, but 53 per cent complied when they had been softened up by the initial questions about the soap.

DeJong (1979) suggested that the foot-in-the-door tactic can be understood in terms of self-perception theory (discussed later in this chapter; see also Chapter 4). By complying with the small request, people become commuted to their behaviour and develop a picture of themselves as ‘giving’; the subsequent large request compels them to appear of consistent.

The foot-in-the-door tactic may not always work. If the initial requests appears too small or the second too large, the link between the multiple requests breaks down (Foss & Dempsey, 1979; Zuckerman, Lazzaro, & Waldgeir, 1979). Nevertheless, a review by Saks (1978) suggested that if the technique is tuned carefully, people can even be induced to act as donors for organ and tissue transplants.

In a refinement of the tactic, people agreed to a series of graded requests rather than jumping from a small to a large request. They were presented with two preliminary requests (of increasing difficulty) prior to the third ‘proper’ or intended request (Goldman, Creason, & McCall, 1981; Dolinski, 2000). This has proved more effective than the classic foot-in-the-door technique. Think of this, perhaps, as the ‘two-feet-in-the-door technique’! Graded requests occur often when someone asks someone out on a ‘date’. At first, a prospective partner might not agree to go out with you on a ‘date’ but might well agree to go with you to study in the library. Your next tactic is to request another meeting, and eventually a proper date.

In a Polish field experiment, Dolinski (2000) arranged for a young man to ask people in the city of Wroclaw for directions to Zubrzyckiego Street. There is no such street. Most said they did not know, although a few a gave precise directions! Further down the street, the same people were then asked by a young woman to look after huge bag for five minutes while she went to the fifth floor in an apartment building to see a friend. A control group was asked to look after the bag, but not for the street directions. Compliance with the second, more demanding request was higher in the experiment group.

Since there is reasonable evidence across a variety of studies that the foot-in-the-door technique actually works, what psychological process could account for it? Dolinski explained his results in terms of Bem’s (1967) self-perception theory. In trying to help a stranger, although unsuccessfully, the participants inferred that they were altruistic. They were therefore more susceptible to a later influence – even if that requests was more demanding. Similarly, Cialdini and Trost (1998) explain the effect in terms of the principle of self-consistency. We try to manage our self-concept in such a way that if we are charitable on the occasion then we should be charitable again on the second occasion. Gorassini and Olson )1995), however, are sceptical that something as dramatic as self-conceptual change mediates the effect. Instead, they proposed an explanation with fewer assumptions. The tactic alters people’s interpretation of situations that activate attitudes enhancing compliance. The self is left out of the loop.

The door-in-the-face-tactic

What happens if an attempt to get a foot in the door fails? Common sense suggests that this should reduce the likelihood of future compliance. Surprisingly, the opposite strategy, the door-in-the-face tactic, can prove successful (Cialdini, Vincent, Lewis, Catalan, Wheeler, & Darby, 1975; Patch, 1986). Here a person is asked a large favour first and a small request second. Politicians especially are masters of this art. To illustrate, say that the government warns you that student fees will go up 300 per cent. Are you angry? Later, however, it announces officially that the increase will ‘only’ be 75 per cent – the actual figure planned. You probably feel relieved and think ‘that’s not so bad’. and consequently are more accepting.

Cialdini and his associates (Cialdini, Vincent, Lewis, Catalan, Wheeler, & Darby, 1975) tested this tactic by approaching students with a huge request: ‘Would you serve as a voluntary counsellor at a youth offenders’ centre two hours a week for the next two years?’ Virtually no one agreed. However, when the researchers then asked for a considerably smaller request, ‘Would you chaperone a group of these offenders on two-hour trip to the zoo?’, 50 per cent agreed. When the second request was presented alone, less than 17 per cent complied. For the tactic to be effective, the researchers noted that the final request should come from the same person who made the initial request. According to them, participants perceive the scaled-down request as a concession by the influencer, and consequently they feel pressure to reciprocate. If some other person were to make the second request, reciprocation would not be necessary.

According to Ciladini, the door-in-the-face technique may well capitalise on a contrast effect: just as lukewarm water feels cool when you have just had your hand in hot water, a second request seems more reasonable and acceptable when it is contrasted with a larger request. This procedure is prevalent in sales settings. If you tell an estate agent that you would like to spend £80,000 on a small flat and she then shows you a few run-down and overpriced examples, so that the higher-priced flats (the ones she really wants to show you!) look like extremely good bargains, then she has used the door-in-the-face tactic.

The low-ball tactic

The other multiple-request technique used in similar situations is the low-ball tactic (check the first focus question). Here the influencer changes the rules halfway and manages to get away with it. Its effectiveness depends on inducing the customer to agree to a request before revealing certain hidden costs. It is based on the principle that once people are committed to an action, they are more likely to accept a slight increase in the cost of that action. This tendency for people to stick with decisions is also captured in the notion of sunk costs (e.g. Fox & Hoffman, 2002), where once a course of action is decided on people will continue to invest in it even if the costs increase drastically.

Suppose you shop around for a car and are confronted with the following chain of events. The car salesperson makes you a very attractive offer – a high trade-in-price for your old car – and suggests a reduction on the marketed purchase price for the car you have set your heart on. You decide to buy it and are ready to sign the papers. The salesperson then goes off to check the agreement with the boss, comes back, looks very disappointed and informs you that the boss will not sanction it as they would lose money on the deal. You can still have the car, but at the market price. What should you do? Surprisingly, many customers still go ahead with the deal. It seems that once you are committed, you are hooked and reluctant to back out. A commonplace example of low-balling is when someone asks ‘Could you do me a favour?’ and you agree before actually knowing what will be expected of you.

The effectiveness of low-balling was demonstrated by Cialdini, Cacioppo, Bassett and Miller (1978). They asked half of their participants to be in an experiment that began at 7am. The other half were asked first to commit themselves to participating in an experiment and then were informed that it would start at 7am. The latter group, in the low-balling situation, complied more often (56 per cent) than the control group (31 per cent) and also tended to keep their appointments.

These studies show us the circumstances in which compliance is likely to occur. In some situations, our decision to comply may be a rational choice in which we weigh the pros and cons of our action. Often, however, we act before we think. It has been argued that many of our compliant responses are ‘mindless’: that is, we agree to many requests without even giving them a thought (Langer, Blank, & Chanowitz, 1978).

Langer and her colleagues conducted experiments in which people were asked to comply with requests with little or no justification. In one experiment, a person about to use a photocopying machine was interrupted by an experimenter, who requested to have first use of the copier (1) for no reason; (2) for a non-informative reason (‘I have to make copies’); or (3) for a justified reason (‘I’m in a rush’). Their findings indicated that as long as the request was small, people were likely to agree to it, even if a spurious reason had been given. They found that less compliance occurred when no reason at all was given.

Notwithstanding the fact that mindlessness may be a deciding factor in compliant behaviour, studies of power strategies indicate that this compliance often depends on the sources of power used.

Source: “Compliance: Interpersonal Influence,” from Social Psychology, by Michael A. Hogg and Graham M. Vaughan