SEQUENTIAL REQUESTS

A stranger approaches you at the shopping mall one day and politely asks if she can have a minute of your time. You stop and say, "Yes."

The stranger goes on to describe the importance of the local blood bank to the safety and well-being of your community. (You nod your head in polite agreement, but you know there's a gimmick.) Then the stranger gets to the point:

"Would you be willing to be a blood bank volunteer? You'd have to give ten hours a week for the next year and solicit blood donations from the people of our community by contacting them over the phone or face-to-face. Will you give us your time?"

You think to yourself, "Ten hours a week? For a year?! That's crazy. Volunteering is important, yes, but no one should have to give up that kind of time!"

And so you politely tell the stranger, "No."

The stranger looks a little disappointed and says:

"Well, if you can't give your time, could you at least give a unit of blood right now? We have a station set up right down this hall."

Now this is a more reasonable request. And even though you've never given blood before you find yourself walking down that hallway with this stranger . . .

Something happened here.

A stranger stops a person. The stranger makes an extreme request. The person says, "No thanks." The stranger makes a second less extreme request. The person says, "I'll do it."

Amazing as it may sound, this persuasive strategy is a reliable means of influencing people. It is also effective at getting behavior change which can be the toughest kind of change to get. It does not work in every situation and it is very important to know its limitations, but the sequential requests strategy is simple to implement and effective in outcome.

HOW SEQUENTIAL REQUESTS ARE DONE

From our example, you can see that this tactic has two steps. The first step is a set up. The first request is not the true target. Rather it is used to get the receiver in the right frame of mind. The second step is the real target. It is the action the requester really wants you to perform.

Now, if you think about it, you can do this Two Step dance two different ways. The first way is called the door-in-the-face or DITF for short. The second way is called the foot-in-the-door or FITD. Both dances require two steps. Both do a set up on the first step. Both have the real target on the second step. The difference is how step one hits the receiver.

Our example illustrated the first tactic, the door-in-the-face. Here, the first request was aimed solely at getting the receiver to say no very quickly. The second, less extreme request then followed and is more likely to be accepted.

The other tactic, foot-in-the-door, pushes the first request in the opposite direction. Instead of starting off with an extreme request, FITD starts with a little request that almost no one would refuse. After getting a "Yes!" response to this little request, the receiver is hit with the second, larger request.

See if you understand the FITD. Take our blood donation example. Our real target is to get people to give a unit of blood right now. To do the FITD, the first request has to be small and acceptable. Then, after we get affirmative action at step one, we hit them with step two, give blood. Think of a smaller request we could make of a person that would elicit a "Yes" response before we ask for the blood donation.

We could . . .

. . . ask the person if she would sign this petition here that offers public support for the local blood bank.

That would work. It is a small request. Takes no time to sign a petition. It is for a worthy cause; everybody supports it. Almost everyone would sign that petition, wouldn't they?

Then as soon as the ink dries on the signature, the requester follows up with, "Well since you obviously support the blood bank and are willing to say so on this public petition, maybe you'd like to show a little more support and give a unit of blood right now. We have a station set up . . ."

Sequential requests are very simple to do. Here is a little diagram of their action.

First Step Second Step
DITF get No! (large request) get Yes! (real request)
FITD get Yes! (small request) get Yes! (real request)

If you have been carefully following along, you realize that both versions of the Two Step can lead to the same target. With the DITF we get to the target by starting out with a request that is extreme. With the FITD we get to the same target by starting out with a request that is small.

THE EFFECTIVENESS OF THE TWO STEP

You might be wondering just how effective the Two Step is. Over the past twenty-five years many studies of the Two Step have been completed. If you read all of them and draw conclusions, here's what we know about effectiveness.

Imagine that you make only the second request to a group of people (would you give a unit of blood right now?). Let's say for the sake of argument that 30% of the group would volunteer right on the spot if you just ask them. The question becomes, how many more volunteers could we have gotten if we had used a Two Step?

The research is in strong agreement that on average you would increase your volunteer rate about 10%. Thus in our running example, a Two Step would produce a total of 40% volunteers versus the simple request. If the simple request had gotten, say, 60% volunteers, the Two Step would have produced a 70% rate.

A ten percent improvement may not sound like much, but consider this. The requester has only to say a couple of extra sentences to get that 10%. Merely through a careful and thoughtful consideration of how to get a "No!" or a "Yes! response at step one can get on average 10% more impact.

But, there are some important limitations to the Two Step. Notice that it is a 10% improvement, on average. There are certain conditions that can boost the improvement even higher or drive it considerably lower. Let's look a bit closer.

LIMITATIONS TO THE TWO STEP

There are several important limiting conditions on the impact of the Two Step. Some conditions apply only to DITF and others apply only to FITD. First, we will examine the DITF.

Limitations on DITF. Two major limitations apply to DITF. First, the requests appear to work best if they are prosocial rather than selfish. Second, the requests work best if there is no delay between them.

The research seems to indicate that selfish appeals do not work well with the DITF. If the receiver is asked to do something that would provide a selfish benefit, there is limited influence. By contrast, if the request is done for more altruistic, it's-a-good-thing-for-everybody, reasons, the tactic is more effective.

This is great news for teachers if you think about it. We want students to change their attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors about a wide range of issues, events, objects, etc. Most of these things are prosocial in nature. We want our students to like reading or mathematics, enjoy school and learning, trust their friends and classmates. All these revolve around prosocial themes and therefore are amenable to a tactic like DITF.

The second limitation is somewhat obvious. There should be no delay between the two requests. If the requester waits for a week, a day, even a few minutes, DITF will not work.

We know that on average DITF produces about a 10% improvement in influence compared to a simple request. What happens if the above limitations are followed? If DITF is used without delay between requests on a prosocial issue, the tactic produces a larger improvement, about 20% on average.

Limitations on the FITD. There are two major limitations on FITD. First, FITD works best with prosocial requests just like DITF. Second, FITD works best when there are no extra incentives offered for performing the requests.

We have already discussed the importance of prosocial requests versus selfish requests in the DITF section. The Two Step appears to work best when the receiver is not acting for selfish gain. And, as noted before, this prosocial factor is good news for teachers. Since so many of the things we want our students to prefer or do revolve around prosocial themes.

The second limitation on FITD concerns incentives. If the receiver is offered an incentive for performing any request (the first or the second), then FITD will not work. Thus, when people are promised rewards (money, gifts, or anything that is valuable to them), they will not be influenced.

This makes common sense. We already know that the Two Step works with prosocial requests. When people are offered gifts or money to "help" others, the reason is transparent. They are doing it solely for the reward.

You will recall that on average the FITD produces about a 10% improvement in influence over the simple request rate. Now we know that there are two limiting factors on the FITD. What happens to the success rate if these factors are kept in mind? If there is a request on a prosocial topic for which the receiver has no incentive to perform, the influence rate will improve to about 20%.

WHY DOES THE TWO STEP WORK?

Surprisingly there is not widespread agreement on why either the DITF or the FITD work. Some explanations have received partial support. But at present much more theoretical work needs to be done. Here is the best current thinking.

DITF Explanation. The strongest explanation of DITF is called, "reciprocal concessions." It simply means this: I give a little, you give a little. As the requester, I make an "offer." As the receiver, you counter and say, "No!" I come back with another offer, this time a smaller one. I have made a concession, right? I am no longer asking for that big thing, but rather this little thing. In the rules of polite society, you should respond with a concession of your own. In this case you should accept my lower offer. I give a little, you give a little.

A second explanation of the DITF that has been given is called, "perceptual contrast." Unfortunately, tests of this theory have failed. Perceptual contrast holds that the first request defines a standard of comparison. When the second request comes along, it seems much smaller compared to the first one. For example, imagine if you had to judge the "heaviness" of a 20 pound weight. If you first lifted a 50 pound weight, then the 20 pound weight, those 20 pounds wouldn't feel so heavy, right? There is an intuitive appeal to the perceptual contrast explanation, but the data strongly disconfirm it.

Clearly more theoretical work needs to be done with DITF. We know that it works, but we are not sure why. The reciprocal concessions explanation has good appeal. It demonstrates that the receiver is not a helpless pawn, but rather is part of a communication interaction commonly called negotiation. The DITF, however, is a negotiation that strongly favors the requester.

FITD Explanation. The preferred explanation of FITD is self perception theory. Since this theory is covered in detail in another chapter, we will just review it here. This theory says that we learn about our internal states (attitudes, beliefs, preferences, etc.) by observing our own behavior. If we observe ourselves doing some thing (signing a petition in support of the local blood bank), then we reason that we must like the thing. Do you see the application of this to FITD? Think about it.

With FITD the first step is to get a "Yes!" response to a small request. According to self perception theory, what happens here? Right, the person observes his behavior. "Ahhh, here I am signing this petition. If I'm doing this, it must mean that I have a favorable opinion about it."

Now, the second step comes along, right in line with the first one, and what happens? The person knows he should accept the second request because he is "that" kind of person. He has already seen himself do other behaviors in support of it. He obviously supports that kind of thing, he is that kind of person. And he complies with the second request.

Another interesting explanation comes out of consistency theory. Again, this theory is covered in another chapter, so we only need a review. The basic principle of this theory is that people need to maintain psychological consistency in their thoughts, actions, and feelings. Inconsistency is painful and causes us to restore a sense of balance.

FITD fits in nicely with consistency theory. Step one gets the receivers to take a stand. "Yes! I'll sign that petition." Step two comes along and literally forces them to maintain consistency. "Well, sir, since you've signed this petition in support of the local blood bank, I'm sure you the kind of person who also wants to give blood and since we have station set up just down the hallway . . ." The receiver is in a difficult psychological position. To say, "No!" to the second request would demonstrate an obvious inconsistency. The pressure to maintain consistency, therefore, leads to compliance.

At present there is no reason to prefer self perception theory over consistency theory or vice versa. It is an interesting area of research and one that will occupy the time and effort of persuasion scientists.

A HEALTH TWOSTEP

One of my former master's students did a very interesting application of FITD in a health setting. Danielle wanted to influence more women to schedule breast cancer screening tests (mammograms). And she wanted to do this in an applied setting. So she got the cooperation of the Mon County Public Health Department and did her experiment during a health fair held at the Morgantown Mall.

The Public Health Department had a booth at the fair where they gave free vision tests to anyone who wanted one. While women were standing in line, some were randomly selected and then approached by Danielle who did a FITD tactic. She would asked selected women, "Would you be interested in learning more about the breast self-exam procedure?" As she said this, she held out a "shower head" card that displayed series of pen and ink drawings showing how a woman should do a self-exam. Every woman took the card, stuck it in her purse, then continued in line. Women in the control group were not approached. After the vision test all women (FITD and control) were told about the services offered by the Public Health clinic and were asked the key question: "Would you like to schedule a mammogram right now?"

In the control group approximately 25% of the women agreed to the request and scheduled an exam. Among the FITD women 41% agreed. Interestingly enough, this effect size difference is just about what meta-analytic research predicts it should be.

So to significantly increase this important health action, all Danielle had to do was ask one little question and get women to take a free brochure. A very small price to pay for the extra benefits the two step provides.

CONCLUSION

Doing the Two Step requires advance planning. You must know where you are headed (the second request, the real target). You must know how you will get there (start high or start low?) It is also clear that you consider the limiting factors. Your target request must have some prosocial connection; selfish appeals will not benefit from the Two Step. If you are using DITF, there can be no delay between requests. If you are using FITD, there can be no incentives for performance. If you implement the Two Step properly, however, you know you can improve your effectiveness by 20%.

REFERENCES AND RECOMMENDED READINGS

Cantril, J., & Seibold, D. (1986). The perceptual contrast explanation of sequential request strategy effectiveness. Human Communication Research, 13, 253-267.

Cialdini, R., Vincent, J., Lewis, S., Catalan, J., Wheeler, D., & Darby, B. (1975). Reciprocal concessions procedure for inducing compliance: The door-in-the-face technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 206-215.

Dillard, J. (1990). Self-inference and the foot-in-the-door technique: Quantity of behavior and attitudinal mediation. Human Communication Research, 16, 422-447.

Dillard, J. (1991). The current status of research on sequential-request compliance techniques. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17, 282-288.

Dillard, J., Hunter, J., & Burgoon, M. (1984). Sequential request persuasive strategies: Meta-analysis of foot-in-the-door and door-in-the-face. Human Communication Research, 10, 461-488.

Dolin, D., & Booth-Butterfield, S. (1994). Foot-in-the-door and cancer prevention. Health Communication, 7, 55-66.

Freedman, J., & Fraser, S. (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 195-202.


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For information or feedback contact Steve Booth-Butterfield: sbb@access.mountain.net

SRS Team, Department of Communication Studies, West Virginia University
© Steve Booth-Butterfield and the SRS Team, 1996
Created February 21, 1996; Last updated February 21, 1996.