I stumbled across a very interesting research study from 1966 yesterday. It was about how to get people to say yes to your requests. Two researchers—Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser decided to test out how to get people to do something they would not normally do.
They went door to door in a small neighborhood and asked people if they would put a large sign on their front lawn that said “Drive Carefully.” Only 20% of people said that they would put the sign up in their yard. I was actually surprised a full 20% said yes, but it was still a small percent. Then they tried asking people if they would put a smaller three-inch sign saying “Drive Carefully” in their window, many more people said yes to this. Then the researchers came back three weeks later and asked those same people to put the much bigger sign in their yard. This time 76% of the people said they would put the larger sign on their lawn.
What does this study tell us? A LOT. It is the perfect example of how asking for a small request first will help you get a ‘yes’ to bigger request later. Why does this work? I theorize that people who put the first small sign up began to believe that they were helpful. They also went into a mental as well as physical agreement with the researchers to drive safely. In fact, these people most likely felt like very good citizens for putting the sign up. Therefore, when researchers returned and asked for the larger sign, they had very few barriers to break. The homeowners had already been in agreement with the researchers, had already thought of themselves has helpful citizens and they had already changed the look of their house by adding a message. Making it bigger, would take very little mental change and this is why 76% said yes the second time.
How does this ‘foot-in-the-door’ technique work with teens and kids? The answer is: very well. We must get them used to the idea of a) saying yes to us b) being helpful. I love using this during speaking engagements. Anyone who has spoken to an audience of teens knows how difficult it can be for them to be quiet and engaged. I like audiences to interact with me, but often times when I ask teens to get involved or speak up the room falls silent. So I typically start with small asks. For example, I used to ask teen audiences right away if anyone had ever had any problems with social networking and friends. I know EVERY teen has had some kind of problem on social networks with friends, but no one ever raised their hands. Then I started with smaller asks. Raise your hand if you are on a social network. Easy, every hand went up. Then a few minutes later, raise your hand if you ever had something bad happen to you on a social network. A bit more uncomfortable, but people were comfortable enough to raise their hands. I asked consistently harder and more specific questions until a few teens are dying to tell their story. This usually means teens raise their hands before I even ask for stories.
Parents can also do this. I saw a mom do it the other day and it worked brilliantly. She wanted her son to dress nicely for their grandparent’s 50th anniversary party, but knew he would hate the idea of wearing a suit, shaving and combing his hair. So she started with a small, relevant, easy ask: “Hey honey will you try to help your brother into a suit on Sunday before the party. I might forget and I want him to look nice.” He didn’t love this, but it wasn’t too big of an ask so he gave a slow yes. The next day mom asked if he could show his little brother how he was combing his ‘big brother’ hair. He had already agreed to helping his little brother, so this was also no problem and now mom knew both boys hair would be combed. Last, mom told her teen son that she would put both his suit and his younger brother’s suit on the closet door. At this point, the older son had already gotten used to the idea of wearing a suit and matching his younger brother because of the small asks. No fight!
The small ask could be a bit more work, but it usually does work. Start with a small ask and you will get a yes to the big one.
This is part of our Science of Family series. If you would like to read more articles on the scientific research and studies behind relationships, families and teens, please visit our Science of Families page for tips and updated research.
Jonathan L Freedman and Scott C Fraser. “Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 4(2), 195-202.