Psychology research has many applications. Treating mental illness. Improving your quality of life. Getting people to do what you want.

One area of study that looks at the latter is research into compliance techniques. Compliance techniques are little tricks that can increase the likelihood of someone doing what you want – doing you a favor, buying your product, or giving you money, for example.

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Neal Petersen South African-born Neal Petersen, shares a captivating personal story of childhood physical disability, poverty and the humiliation of Apartheid in South Africa to compete in the most dangerous extreme sport known to man: solo yacht racing around the globe–27,000 miles, 9 months at sea ~ alone, via the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn, in the smallest yacht he designed and built himself.

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Some popular compliance techniques are:

  • Asking for something small to start off: This is often called the “foot-in-the-door” technique. The idea is that if you’re going to ask someone to do something, starting off by asking them for something small will get them in a more compliant mood, which makes them more likely to agree to the thing you actually want. For example, it turns out that people are more likely to donate to a humanitarian organization if they’re asked to sign a petition first. Another study found that women were more likely to agree to have a drink with random men off the street when the men first asked for directions or for a lighter.
  • Asking for something big to start off: Paradoxically, both making a small request that people will grant and making a big request that people will deny seem to have a similar effect. In contrast to the “foot-in-the-door” technique, the latter is called the “door-in-the-face” technique. A 2005 meta-analysis found that both making a large initial request that’s denied is about as effective as making a small initial request that’s accepted in making people more compliant to subsequent requests.
  • Offering to do a favor in return This one makes sense, and it works. The idea is that people appreciate reciprocity – if they’re going to do something for you, they want to know that you’re willing to do something for them. Apparently, it doesn’t even matter if they actually take you up on the favor as long as you offer. For instance, a 2016 study found that when people offered to exchange money or cigarettes for stamps, they were more likely to get the stamps, usually without having to give the money or cigarettes in the end.
  • Using contrasting emotions: People who experience contrasting emotions in quick succession tend to become more compliant with requests. This was originally called the “fear-then-relief” technique when researchers found that people who experienced anxiety and then suddenly had the source of their anxiety eliminated tended to be more compliant. More recent work suggests that the technique works for all contrasting emotions (not just fear and relief), possibly because experiencing contrasting emotions in short succession impairs people’s cognitive functioning.
  • Using props: Fundraisers have taken this technique and run with it. If you get a letter soliciting donations for a humanitarian cause, you know that letter is going to have some heart-wrenching pictures to go with it. Research has shown that using tangible objects to support a request can make the request seem more legitimate. For instance, if you ask a random person off the street for money to buy a stamp, they’re more likely to comply with your request if you’re holding an envelope.

Next time someone is trying to sell you something or get you to donate to a cause, watch for these techniques – salespeople and fundraisers sometimes have a few of these tricks up their sleeves. And if you ever need a stamp from strangers off the street, you definitely have all the psychological tools you need (evil laugh)!

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