Sorry, but you’ve been manipulated

Written by Polina Igorevna Lynch

It is not surprising that people can be induced to do things they don’t feel like doing (Freedman &Fraser, 1966). Compliance can be achieved without exerting power or fear. When you find yourself buying items you did not plan to buy or helping a neighbour while blaming yourself for not having said no, there is a possibility that you have been manipulated. Social psychology deals with techniques that enhance compliance in people. It is good to be aware of how manipulation traps and tactics work. This blog post will introduce you to three of the most common compliance effects. 

The first manipulation technique is called ‘foot-in-the-door”. Imagine someone you know asks you to help them with translating a couple of words into English. You would probably think: “It’s a small request, why not indeed”. However, a few minutes later, the same person will ask you to edit their e-mail or help them write an essay. According to Freedman and Fraser (1966), if you agreed to a trivial request, you are more likely to agree to a subsequent request, which is much larger. Why does it happen? The researchers explain that by saying “yes” to the first request, you become committed to the task of helping and view yourself as a helpful hand. Getting out of the commitment and refusing the second request threatens the self-image of a “good Samaritan”. Another explanation is offered by a self-perception theory which states that we draw conclusions about personal traits and attitudes from our own behaviour (Gorassini & Olson, 1995). To clarify this, if you donate a small amount to help local wildlife, you are more likely to be involved in other things connected with the cause (even if you never cared about the wildlife in the first place). It is surprising, but it’s the behaviour that precedes our attitudes and self-attribution in many cases. However, this technique works only if the difference between the first and second request is not too big.

The opposite of the “foot-in-the-door” is the “door-in-the-face” technique. If you want to ask a favour but are worried that you will be refused, then ask for something large first. It sounds counterproductive, but empirical evidence shows that the technique induces compliance (Cialdini et a., 1975). For example, you want to borrow someone else’s car for a day, you can ask them first if you can borrow it for the weekend. They would probably refuse your first “extreme” request. Then you ask if you can borrow the car at least for a day (that’s what you wanted in the first place). The drop in the request size makes it seem like there are only two choices, and the second one is much better. The target person thinks that they met you halfway without realizing they were manipulated. Also, they may feel satisfied with the result and utterly unaware of your tactics. The same researchers provided empirical evidence for this technique in their study, where they asked university students to accompany juvenile delinquents on a zoo trip. Not surprisingly, only a small percentage (13%) of students agreed. However, Cialdini and his colleagues also approached a different group of students using door-in-the-face trap. Firstly, they asked the target students to work as free counsellors to the delinquents for two hours a week and for a minimum of two years. This was an extreme request, and it was rejected by everyone. But when the same students were asked “a small favour” to chaperone the delinquents to the zoo, 50% agreed (Cialdini et a., 1975). 


A very similar technique is often used in shops. It is more alluring to buy something at a discount and feel more satisfied with your purchase because you have a better option. However, the first option may have never been there in the first place and was placed there as bait. This is often referred to as the “anchoring effect”.


People tend to use mental shortcuts when making decisions and rely on the available information (Morrison, 2019). Therefore, when you see a reduced item, the original price becomes the “anchor”, and the lower price seems much better. I know I have fallen victim to the anchoring many times! 


Have you ever been manipulated into doing or buying something? Is it difficult to say “no” to you?