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Does the Door-in-the-Face Technique Really Work?

Researchers in Germany attempted to replicate a classic finding in psychology.

Key points

  • Individuals are more likely to comply with a request if it is preceded by a much larger request.
  • Researchers conducted an exact replication to see if the effect could be repeated in a different era and different country.
  • To the relief of fundraisers, the door-in-the-face effect was as strong in Germany in 2021 as it was in the US in 1975.

Practitioners of the science of persuasion are familiar with the door-in-the-face (DITF) technique, which was first identified 46 years ago by Robert Cialdini and his colleagues at Arizona State University (Cialdini et al., 1975). The two-step technique, in which Person A initially asks for more than they can reasonably expect to get and then follows up with a smaller request, is said to significantly increase the likelihood that Person B will agree to the smaller request.

To illustrate, suppose I want students to staple their term papers before turning them in. If I simply ask my students to do this small favor, some percentage of them will comply. I can, however, use a different approach. I can initially ask for a big favor, like submitting term papers in duplicate in a three-ring binder that costs $3. When the students raise objections, I can say, “No? Well, how about stapling your papers?” With this approach, a greater percentage of the students will comply. That’s the DITF. (As a teacher, I’ve never actually tried this. It feels a bit manipulative.)

The Psychology Behind the DITF

In psychological terms, why does the DITF technique work? Some people say it’s because people feel guilty after refusing the first request, but Cialdini offered a more likely explanation called “reciprocal concessions.”

When I follow the first request with a much smaller request, students see the second request as a compromise. Thanks to the universal norm of reciprocity, which says a kindness should be repaid, the students feel somewhat obligated to agree to the second request. They see that I made a concession and felt compelled to make a concession, too. “Okay, professor, we’ll staple our papers.”

Many psychology textbooks discuss the DITF, and fundraisers around the world apparently use the technique. For example, at my small college, the vice-president for development might ask a potential donor to endow a professorship to the tune of $2 million. When the donor (predictably) slams the proverbial door in the VP’s face, the VP can ask for a much smaller donation, say $50,00, to support faculty research.

But does the door-in-the-face technique really work? The original study was conducted in 1975, nearly half a century ago. The participants came from a single university in the southwestern United States. Given the replication crisis in psychology, it’s reasonable to ask if the original finding was a fluke. Is the DITF a dependable psychological phenomenon that can be observed in different time periods and different cultural settings?[1]

A Direct Replication

In a study published earlier this year, a team of researchers led by Oliver Genschow at the University of Cologne sought to replicate Cialdini’s original finding (Genschow et al., 2021). The researchers used the same procedure (with the same requests) used by Cialdini in 1975. To increase the reliability of their study, the team in Germany tested 391 participants, five times the number tested by Cialdini’s team.

The researchers carefully trained a group of assistants. Per instructions, each assistant walked alone across campus and approached a person (of the same sex) who also was walking alone. The assistant introduced himself or herself and asked for a favor.

In the smaller request-only condition, the assistant asked the passerby to chaperone a group of juvenile delinquents on a 2-hour trip to the zoo. In this condition, 34 percent of the participants agreed to chaperone.

In the large then smaller request condition, the assistant asked the passerby to work as an unpaid counselor at the Cologne Juvenile Detention Center for 2 hours a week for at least 2 years. If the person said no—and almost all of them did—the assistant asked if they would chaperone a group of juvenile delinquents on a 2-hour trip to the zoo. In this condition, 51 percent of the passersby agreed to chaperone. In this particular circumstance, leading with an unreasonably large request boosted the compliance rate by 50 percent!

The rates of compliance in the two conditions, 34 percent and 51 percent were nearly identical to the rates observed by Cialdini and his colleagues. The door-in-the-face effect was as strong in Cologne, Germany, in 2021 as it was in Tempe, Arizona, in 1975. It seems the door-in-the-face technique really works. If you listen closely, you can hear an audible sigh of relief from fundraisers around the world.

[1] In the late 20th century, researchers were generally successful in replicating Cialdini’s original findings, but we don’t know the number of failed replication attempts. The number may be large. Researchers in those years often did not submit non-replications for publication. When they did, journal editors often rejected the submissions, saying they did not publish null results. This phenomenon is called publication bias.

References

Cialdini, R. B., Vincent, J. E., Lewis, S. K., Catalan, J., Wheeler, D., & Darby, B. L. (1975). Reciprocal concessions procedure for inducing compliance: The door-in-the-face technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(2), 206-215.

Genschow, O., Westfal, M., Crusius, J., Bartosch, L., Feikes, K. I., Pallasch, N., & Wozniak, M. (2021). Does social psychology persist over half a century? A direct replication of Cialdini et al.’s (1975) classic door-in-the-face technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 120(2), e1-e7.

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