My wife was shopping at H&M and noticed that before ringing up customers, the cashiers were asking them if they wanted to donate $1 to the Boys and Girls Club. Most people said “no.”
A minute later, after the cashiers rang up the order, they asked again, but slightly differently. The cashiers said something along the lines of “Would you like to round up your purchase to the nearest dollar and donate the extra change to the Boys and Girls Club?” Many people who had said “no” now said “yes.”
What created the power of persuasion? Why were so many customers saying “no” to a $1 donation and then donating when asked again a couple minutes later? It wasn’t the ease of tossing their change into a bucket, because most people were paying with credit cards. And the store was in a very wealthy suburb, so although the difference between $1 and 20 cents was a large percentage, it probably wasn’t meaningful to the donors.
Robert Cialdini, a professor of marketing and psychology, has a section in his fantastic book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition, that explains why the H&M customers’ behavior my wife witnessed isn’t a fluke. It’s actually predictable.
In one research experiment, Cialdini’s team approached college students and claimed to be from the County Youth Counseling Program. The team members asked the students to chaperone troubled kids on a trip to the zoo; 83% refused. In the next phase of the experiment, Cialdini was able to dramatically shift results with one change. Prior to asking students to volunteer as chaperones, his team asked them to mentor a troubled kid for two hours a week for at least two years. After the students declined, the researchers asked if they would chaperone the single trip. Three times as many students agreed to chaperone when asked as a follow-up than did similar students who were asked only about chaperoning.
More backup is a study conducted by social psychologists at UCLA and related to negotiation. (This study, also mentioned in Cialdini’s book, was performed by Benton, Kelley and Liebling.) They found that the negotiators who got the most from another party started with an offer that was a bit extreme and then conceded to something more reasonable. They were able to close more deals than negotiators who started with the exact same reasonable deal but wouldn’t concede anything. When the offer was exactly the same, a significantly higher percentage of people accepted when it was a concession rather than the first offer.
According to the researchers, here’s what’s happening:
- Psychologists say that the rule of reciprocity makes most of us want to do something for people who do something for us first. When people make a second request that’s smaller than the first, we consider their concession (asking for less) as doing something for us. That’s why, like H&M customers, student volunteers, and negotiators, we would say “yes” to the second request when we wouldn’t agree to it if it had been the only request.
- If the first ask is a big commitment, the second request made right afterwards seems small in comparison.
Many people, after asking for something and getting a “no,” simply try to redirect. They ask why not, try to overcome hurdles, and then if that fails, vow to find a new approach. If your pitch doesn’t work, you should definitely try those tactics. But if they fail, ask for something smaller and different. Have a backup pitch. If you’re asking someone to donate $100 to your charity and he says no, follow up by asking if he’d buy a $10 raffle ticket. If you’re trying to get someone to join your Board of Directors and she says no, ask if you can call her for advice once in a while.
Before reading Cialdini’s book, I understood that it’s easier to close a deal when you make a concession. I hadn’t realized that making a concession would get people to say “yes” to things they would normally refuse.
If you’re interested in learning more about the power of persuasion, check out Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition.