Riblet#38: Secrets for Securing Compliance

Humans, like animals, have a number of automatic fixed responses. For example, a mother turkey responds automatically to the chirping of its chicks by tending to them, cleaning them, huddling them under her to keep them warm; a human responds to being given a gift by feeling a need or obligation to reciprocate.  These responses have evolved to benefit animals/humans as actions that do not require consideration or thought – they are automatic.  However, they can also be used or abused to get animals/people to do what you want them to do, to comply.  For example, a turkey mother will treat a stuffed polecat as a chick if a recording of the chirping of a chick is being played inside the stuffed predator.


It is generally accepted human behaviour that if we ask someone for a favour, we are more likely to be successful if we provide a reason for it.  Ellen Langer, a Harvard social psychologist, tested this out repeatedly in the queue for the library photocopier. When she said: “Excuse me, I have five pages.  May I use the Xerox machine because I am in a rush,” nearly everyone complied and let her go ahead of them.  When she did not include the reason, only 60% of people let her jump in.  However, it seems that the word “because” is alone sufficient to trigger the response; when she said: “Excuse me, I have five pages.  May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies,” the response was again near total compliance with the request.  


A research project was set up at the start of the winter in Iowa.  An interviewer visited residents who heated their homes with natural gas, gave them energy-saving tips and asked them to try and conserve energy. They promised they would try.  At the end of the winter, the people interviewed had used just as much gas as residents who had not promised to try and conserve energy. Separately, another group of residents were interviewed, given energy-saving tips and asked to conserve fuel.  Those who agreed would have their names listed in the local newspaper as public-spirited, fuel-conserving citizens.  The effect was immediate; in the first month after agreeing to do so, those residents’ energy bills fell 12% compared to other residents.  The residents who had agreed were then told that it was not possible to publish their names in the newspaper after all, but they still saved on energy and at the end of the winter, their overall energy bills were 15% lower than those of citizens who had not been involved.  The conclusion was that the promise of the name listing had resulted in a commitment from the residents, and then even though the trigger – the name-listing – had been withdrawn, the inherent need to be seen to be consistent meant that they continued with the commitment.  


The experiment was repeated in the summer with a different sample of residents and with the aim of reducing electricity usage on air conditioning.  Again there was the promise of publicity and again it was withdrawn; this time the electricity savings were over 40% compared to other residents.  This response has been demonstrated many times over in social psychology experiments; if the commitment is made publicly (even if the publication does not actually happen), or in writing, then the consistency drive kicks in and people continue to comply.


Understanding and using triggers can get people to do things that they may not otherwise be willing to do, and while these tactics are used extensively in selling, they are not normally used by control functions.  Truly embedding risk management in an organisation is rarely achieved and yet it is seen as what every risk function should be striving for; social psychology would suggest that the way to achieve it is to start with a public, written commitment from the users.

Data Source: Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini

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