By Ray Williams
March 19, 2021
Actor Jim Carey was the star of a comedy entitled Yes Man, in which, following the advice of a self-help guru, made a decision to say “yes” to every request made of him, rather than the habitual “no’s” that plagued his despondent life. While the movie was entertaining, it emphasized some important points about compliance and influence in our lives, which has recently been examined by researchers. In essence, the research shows that saying no to requests is much more difficult than saying yes.
Getting up the nerve to ask your boss for a raise or promotion can feel excruciating. Although we might dread the prospect of asking the boss—or even a colleague—for a favor, a large body of evidence suggests that we’re actually much better at influencing others than we might imagine.
“Potential requesters stress about imposing on others, feel self-conscious about revealing their shortcomings, and fear the worst—rejection,” Cornell University psychological scientist Vanessa Bohns writes in an article, [(Mis)Understanding Our Influence Over Others: A Review of the Underestimation-of-Compliance Effect”in Current Directions in Psychological Science. “However, research by my colleagues and me suggests that this latter concern is often unfounded.”
Bohns and her colleagues asked study participants to make requests of more than 14,000 strangers: Whether it’s asking to borrow a cell phone or soliciting a charitable donation, their research reveals that people are far too pessimistic about their own powers of persuasion.
Their findings:” We find that participants underestimate the likelihood that the people they approach will comply with their requests. This error is robust (it persists across various samples and requests) and substantial (on average, requesters underestimate compliance by 48%). We find that this error results from requesters’ failure to appreciate the awkwardness of saying no to a request. In addition to reviewing evidence for the underestimation-of-compliance effect and its underlying mechanism of psychological influence.
Bohns says that we are constantly influenced by others—other people regularly goad us into doing, saying, believing, and buying things.
As a result of extensive literature on conformity, compliance, and persuasion, social psychologists have a fairly good understanding of what makes us susceptible to others’ influence. But, just as significantly, we are constantly influencing other people—getting themto do, say, believe, and buy things.
Imagine the following situation: You need to make a phone call, but you discover that your cell phone is dead. Your only option is to approach random strangers one by one in order to borrow a phone. How many people will you need to approach before someone agrees to loan you his or her phone? In one study, Bohns and colleagues asked participants to get three random strangers to agree to this very request. But first, they asked the participants to predict the number of people they would need to approach to get three people to agree. Participants predicted they would need to ask an average of 10.1 people. In actuality, they had to ask an average of 6.2 people. In other words, approximately one out of every two people they approached agreed to loan our participants their phones; participants had overestimated the number of people they would need to ask by more than 60%.
The researchers found the same pattern of results—and similarly large effects—when they have instructed participants to persuade strangers to fill out a questionnaire, provide intricate directions to a specified location, or commit a small act of vandalism. In one study by Bohns, 91 participants in a charity run predicted they would need to ask an average of 210.3 people to reach their fundraising goals (ranging from $2,100 to $5,000). In fact, they had to ask an average of only 122.2 people—88 fewer than they expected.
Why Do People Underestimate Compliance?
Why do people significantly underestimate the likelihood that others will comply with their requests? Bohns concluded it’s the result of requesters’ failure to appreciate how uncomfortable it would be for their targets to say “no” to a request. A target’s refusal would constitute a face-threatening act, potentially calling into question the requester’s trustworthiness or the appropriateness of the request: Refusing to turn over one’s cell phone could imply that one does not trust the requester to give it back; refusing to engage in an act that seems ethically questionable could be seen as an attack on the requester’s morality, Bohns says. In essence, by refusing a request, one risks offending one’s interaction partner—a violation of intrinsic social norms that would ultimately embarrass both parties. As a result, she concludes, many people agree to things—even things they would prefer not to do—simply to avoid the considerable dis- comfort of saying “no.”
Request Size and Kind
Bohns found that the underestimation of compliance persists even for larger requests, as well as for requests people find particularly discomforting or ethically dubious requests. In one of Bohns studies, half of the participants asked strangers to complete a brief 1-page questionnaire, while the other half asked them to complete an extensive 10-page questionnaire—a tenfold increase in the time commitment for those who complied. Requesters who were randomly assigned to make the larger request predicted lower levels of compliance than did those assigned to make the smaller request. However, an analysis of results showed actual compliance was unaffected by request size; targets found it equally difficult to say “no” to both requests.
In another study, participants asked strangers to vandalize a purported library book by writing the word “pickle” in pen on one of the pages. A number of participants voiced their discomfort, expressing concern with getting into trouble, referring to the request as “vandalism,” and conveying a general reluctance to participate. Nevertheless, more than 64% agreed to vandalize the book—a far cry from requesters’ prediction of 28%.
Is a No Really a No?
Classic research has explored the effect of repeated requests on actual compliance, finding that an initial refusal can, under certain circumstances, pave the way for future compliance. Bohns and colleagues explored the effect of repeated requests on compliance. The researchers found that requesters mistakenly assume that someone who says “no” to an initial request is inevitably more likely to say “no” to a subsequent request.
In one related study, participants approached strangers and asked them to fill out a questionnaire. Regardless of whether their targets said “yes” or “no” to this initial request, participants asked them to complete another request—to mail a letter. Although participants thought the compliance rate for targets who refused the initial request would go down 16%, compliance rates actually went up 10% following a refusal . In contrast to requesters’ expectations, targets found it just as uncomfortable—seemingly more so—to refuse some- one a second time.
Incentives for Compliance
People often offer incentives when making requests. For example, someone might offer another person gas money when asking for a ride. Bohns found that offering money—but not other types of incentives—in exchange for compliance mitigates the underestimation-of-compliance effect. In one study, participants were given either dollars, candy bars (worth $1.25 each), or no incentives to offer strangers in exchange for vandalizing a library book. Participants who offered strangers a monetary incentive for compliance were less likely to underestimate compliance than were those who offered no incentives or nonmonetary (candy) incentives.
Additional data revealed that monetary incentives affected requesters’ reactions to the request more than targets’. Despite the fact that requesters felt more comfortable and confident when offering money in exchange for compliance, the people they approached were just as willing to comply for free.
Bohns and her team found that the underestimation-of-compliance effect is more pronounced in individualistic cultures, such as the United States, than collectivistic cultures, such as China. When participants in China and the United States asked strangers to complete a questionnaire, Chinese participants were less likely than American participants to underestimate compliance.
These cross-cultural differences were explained by the greater consideration paid by Chinese participants to the awkwardness targets would experience saying “no” to their requests. This finding is consistent with the presumed tendency of Americans to emphasize the role of individual choice over social pressure and embarrassment when explaining others’ behavior. One can wonder if this phenomena was reflected in Asian cultures’ willingness to follow government and health officials’ directives regarding social distancing, mask wearing and vaccinations than in the US during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Request directness and the form it is requested
It is much more awkward—and therefore less likely—for someone to say “no” to a request asked directly and face- to-face than one asked indirectly or over e-mail. How- ever, Bohns and her colleagues found that requesters are largely oblivious to this fact. When the researchers varied request directness by manipulating how a request is posed—either indirectly, by dropping hints (“I could really use a phone right now . . .”), or via a direct request (“Will you lend me your phone?”)—we have found that targets say they would be more likely to comply with a direct request. However, requesters expect indirect requests to be more effective.
Bohns found similar effects for the medium through which a request is made. In one study, participants either asked strangers to fill out a questionnaire in person or handed out flyers printed with the same request (“Will you fill out a questionnaire?”). Participants who asked targets to complete a questionnaire face-to-face underestimated compliance, but participants who made the same request using flyers overestimated compliance. In another study, participants similarly overestimated compliance when asking strangers to fill out a questionnaire over e-mail . Altogether, the manner by which a request is made seems to impact the underestimation-of-compliance effect in important ways.
There are numerous other potential moderators of the underestimation-of-compliance effect One factor of interest is gender; however, Bohns found no reliable gender effects in her studies. Another potential moderator is the requesters’ relationship to their targets, including attributes of the relationship such as power and closeness. Despite the large sample of people our participants have approached, most of their targets have been strangers.
This latter factor may help to explain a remaining puzzle: Given that most people have ample experience asking for things, why are they so bad at predicting compliance? One possibility is that people typically make requests of others who they expect will say “yes,” such as close friends. Consequently, in everyday life, people are rarely surprised when others comply with their requests and thus have no cause to change their preconceptions about the likelihood of compliance more generally.
Conclusion: The Influencer’s Perspective
How well do we understand the influence we have over others? Can we tell when another person feels uncomfortable with our request but feels she or he can’t say “no”? Do we know how much more effective our persuasive appeal is likely to be if it is made face-to-face rather than over e-mail? Do we realize that our playful suggestion emboldened someone to engage in a behavior we didn’t mean to condone?
Research on social influence has been largely silent on such questions, focusing on understanding the psychology of those being influenced, the targets or objects of various forms of influence, while mostly neglecting the perspective of influencers. When perspectives beyond those of the “influencee” are considered, they are typically those of neutral observers asked to predict what the “average” person is likely to do or explain why some mysterious individual did what they did, a task that is different both cognitively and motivationally from predicting one’s own influence over another person. Similarly, when people are asked to forecast their own performance on a task, such tasks typically do not rely on the kinds of social skills necessary to predict one’s capacity for—for example, inferring others’ mental states.
Bohns research adds a fascinating and important perspective on the science of influence and persuasion, and why saying no to requests is more difficult than saying yes, even to strangers.
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