4 Powerful Social Psychology Techniques To Get What You Want

Have you ever been convinced into doing or buying something you later regretted? Have you ever stopped halfway through a favour for a friend, and thought – “Why did I even agree to this?”

Chances are someone has used one of the techniques below on you. They work on a subtle level, for many thought processes and decisions happen below your awareness. And that is what makes them so powerful.

Would you like to find out what these techniques are? How do you recognise them, and stop yourself before it is too late? Knowledge is the first step.

The Telemarketer

A few days ago, I got a phone call from a telemarketer. Normally they would try to impress me with an grand sales line when I picked up, but this one was different.

The moment I answered the phone, he assured me that he was only doing a quick phone survey, one that would only take 30 seconds. There was no personal data being collected, he said. Completely safe and anonymous, and he isn’t trying to sell me anything. Normally I would have made a polite apology, but 30 seconds didn’t seem like such a long time, so I agreed.

And that was the start of the trap. He started with small, innocent questions. What is your age group? What is your occupation? Where do you go for holidays? These questions were not intrusive, so I answered happily.

Soon he was building up to some very personal questions. Halfway through the survey, he began assuring me there was only “one last question”. I was getting annoyed and suspicious as the questions got more personal, but his rapid assurances and non-stop chatter left me little time to think properly, so I continued answering. At the end of the interview, he thanked me politely and hung up. The survey had taken five minutes, and the information I had given was very personal indeed.

“Ah well,” I thought. “At least he didn’t try to sell me anything.”

Spoken too soon

I was inspired to write this post when someone called to follow up a few days later. Immediately she called me by name and referred to some personal information I had given. No longer was she a stranger, now she appeared to be a friend. I thought it was someone I had met but forgotten.

Suddenly she reminded me of the first phone call, and congratulated me – I was one of the lucky ten people to have qualified for a special gift. All I had to do was to for a seminar (why I got the feeling there won’t be only ten people there, I don’t know). I had gone for one such session before – and this one was likely to be the same: a long, painful, sales pitch.

It was then I finally realised I had been duped – fallen for one of the most basic tricks social hucksters use!

The Foot in the Door

This technique is known, somewhat informally, as the “foot in the door technique”.

And there is a reason for the long telemarketer story. “This is just a kindergarten trick – any four-year-old child will know this!” That was my first thought when I first came across this simple technique. But when I closed the textbook, closed my eyes, and remembered a few instances from my past – I realised just how effective it was in the right hands.

This approach involves getting a person to agree to a small request, and then gradually presenting larger ones. The telemarketer used this when I agreed to answer a brief impersonal survey. He then dragged it on with endless amounts of “just one more question, sir!” until I completed the full survey, which took 5 minutes and involved a lot of personal data.

This much is obvious – if he had asked for a full 5-minute survey at the start, I would have said no. Many people would have done the same.

In general, people are far more likely to comply with a request that costs little in time, money, effort, or inconvenience. However, once you have agreed to the initial request, they would begin to ask for more.

An interesting point: In the follow up call, they reminded me immediately of the first survey. Why? Many reasons – but one I want to discuss here: they were hoping to remind me of my prior commitment.

Cognitive Dissonance

This technique revolves around the theory of cognitive dissonance. This is a large concept, so allow me to butcher it into two paragraphs.

By agreeing to the first request, they were hoping I had built a mental image of myself as a friend, a customer, or a supporter. Cognitive dissonance – discomfort – occurs when we take actions that are incongruent with this mental image. And if I agreed to the increasing requests, they were building up my image – at the same time making it harder and harder to go against it, to say no to the next request.

Experimenters have also found that people would often change their attitudes towards something to match their behaviours to avoid the discomfort that dissonance causes. For instance, after having spent 5 minutes on a survey I did not initially want to do, I might change my attitude towards the survey – “it wasn’t that bad, in fact it was quite fun to do.”

Too bad, then, that the company didn’t realise they had gotten on my nerves with their first phone call. I had built up a mental image of myself as someone who had been pushed around and lied to by their company – and cognitive dissonance worked against them.

The Low Ball

A similar technique is the Low-Ball approach. I call it the Low-Blow approach, because I just realised the guy who sold me my car used it on me.

A sales agent, for example, might get you to commit to buying a car at a certain price. They will then leave you for a few minutes, perhaps saying they need to get the paperwork. The real reason, though, is to give you time to build up your mental image. In that time, in addition to seeing yourself as a customer already, you might also convince yourself the car is a fantastic purchase.

Then the representative returns. There has been an “error” in the calculations. The price is higher than he initially thought it was. But it is much harder for you to reject the new price, for you have already strengthened your mental image.

The Principle of Reciprocity

The second phone call from the telemarketers tried to bring in another social principle – reciprocity. This is a basic concept; people have a tendency to give something back if you have given them something – even if they didn’t ask for it in the first place.

By offering me a gift at the seminar, they were increasing the pressure on me to buy whatever they were selling. That is, if I had showed up.

The principle of reciprocity is everywhere – have you ever felt guilty when you left a shop without buying anything, simply because the salesperson went out of his or her way to be helpful? Compare this to a salesperson who didn’t seem to care; you probably would have felt no guilt at walking out.

Getting the door slammed in your face is a good thing

I first heard of this next technique in a social psychology lecture. There was an informal example the lecturer used, so I can’t remember the exact details. A group of social workers managed to convince complete strangers to give up an entire Sunday to take some juvenile delinquents out on a trip to beach, without compensation or reward.

Before we continue, imagine this: someone rings your doorbell. You open the door, and it is a complete stranger. He smiles broadly and asks you – “Hi there! I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. How would you like to spend this Sunday taking a bunch of young strangers to the beach? You pay for petrol and other expenses, and there is no compensation at all.”

What would your answer likely be?

How then, did these social workers pull it off? The Door in the Face!

The Door in the Face

This technique is in many ways the opposite of the Foot in the Door. The name describes it perfectly: make a request so big the other person replies with a strong NO! They slam the door in your face, so to speak.

Next, you simply knock on the figurative door again, and present a second request, one that is much more reasonable – and is what you really wanted anyway. The real request is likelier to be accepted if it comes after an absurd request.

From memory, the social workers began by first asking for a commitment over an entire year, before toning it down to just one Sunday.

There are many reasons why this technique works. The first is comparison; the real request seems modest when it comes straight after an absurd request. The second is guilt; the person might have been feeling guilty at turning down the first request. The third is again the reciprocity principle; by “moving down”, you are seen as having done him a favour!

These reasons might seem ridiculous when presented in such a manner, but one has to remember that these principles and cognitions often occur below conscious awareness. In other words, most people do not realise that these justifications and thought processes are happening.

So there you have it

So there you have it – a small collection of social techniques, powerful and subtle if used well. Use them only if you have a conscience; if you don’t, use this knowledge as defence. Although I suspect this last paragraph might be a waste of words – if you don’t have a conscience, you’ll probably ignore this anyway.