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Social Psychology in the Public Interest

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

How Salespeople Use Principles of Persuasion

The research that we have discussed in this chapter reveals some of the many ways that we can persuade people to buy our products, to vote for our candidates, and to engage in other behaviors that we would like them to engage in. We have seen that we will be more successful if we use the right communicators and if we present the right messages under the right conditions. But it must also be kept in mind that a full understanding of the techniques used by persuaders may also be useful to help us avoid being persuaded by others.

Salespeople sometimes make use of the Behavior ⟶ Attitude relationship to attempt to persuade others. Regardless of whether the change is due to the cognitive principles of self-perception or the more affective principles of dissonance reduction, the attitude change that follows behavior can be strong and long lasting. This fact creates some very interesting opportunities for changing attitudes.

One approach based on this idea is to get people to move slowly in the desired direction, such that they commit to a smaller act first. The idea is that it will be relatively easy to get people to engage in a small behavior after which their perceptions of this initial behavior will change their attitudes, making it more likely for them to engage in a more costly behavior later. The foot-in-the-door technique refers to a persuasion attempt in which we first get the target to accept a rather minor request, and then we ask for a larger request. Freedman and Fraser (1966) asked homeowners if they would be willing to place a small sticker in the window of their house that said “Be a safe driver.” Many of the homeowners agreed to this small request. Then several weeks later, the researchers came back and asked these same homeowners to put a big, ugly “DRIVE CAREFULLY” sign on their lawns. Almost 80% of the homeowners who had agreed to put the sticker in their window later agreed to put the sign up, in comparison to only about 20% who agreed when they were asked about the sign without having been asked about the sticker first. In a more recent study, Nicolas Guéguen (2002) found that students in a computer discussion group were more likely to volunteer to complete a 40-question survey on their food habits (which required 15 to 20 minutes of their time) if they had already, a few minutes earlier, agreed to help the same requestor with a simple computer-related question (about how to convert a file type) than if they had not first been given the smaller opportunity to help.

You can see that the foot-in-the-door technique is a classic case of self-perception and commitment—once people label themselves as the kind of person who conforms to the requests of others in the relevant domain (e.g., “I volunteer to help safe driving campaigns,” “I help people in my discussion group”), it is easier to get them to conform later. Similarly, imagine a restaurant owner who has problems with people who make table reservations but then don’t call to cancel when they can’t come at the appointed time. The restaurant owner could try to reduce the problem by first getting a small commitment. Instead of having the people who take the reservations say, “Please call if you change your plans,” they could instead ask, “Will you call us if you change your plans?” and then wait for the person to say yes. The act of saying yes to a simple request creates commitment to the behavior, and not following through on the promise would be likely to create cognitive dissonance. Since people don’t want to feel that they have violated their commitment, this should reduce the no-show rate.

Another approach based on the attitudes-follow-behavior idea, and which can be used by unscrupulous salespeople, is known as the low-ball technique. In this case, the salesperson promises the customer something desirable, such as a low price on a car, with the intention of getting the person to imagine himself or herself engaging in the desired behavior (in this case, purchasing the car). After the customer has committed to purchasing the car at a low price, the salesperson then indicates that he or she cannot actually sell the car at that price. In this case, people are more likely to buy the car at the higher price than they would have been if the car had first been offered at the higher price. Backing out on a commitment seems wrong and may threaten self-esteem, even if the commitment was obtained in an unethical way.

In testing the low-ball effect, Guéguen, Pascual, and Dagot (2002) asked people to watch a dog for them while they visited someone in the hospital. Some participants were told that they would need to watch the dog for 30 minutes. Other participants were first asked simply to commit to watching the dog, and then only later informed that they would have to watch it for 30 minutes. The latter group had been low-balled, and they complied more often with the request.

A close alternative to low-balling is known as the bait-and-switch technique, which occurs when someone advertises a product at a very low price. When you visit the store to buy the product, however, you learn that the product you wanted at the low price has been sold out. An example is a car dealership that advertises a low-priced car in a newspaper ad but doesn’t have that car available when you visit the dealership to purchase it. Again, people are more likely to buy an alternative higher-priced product after they have committed themselves to the purchase than they would have been without the original information. Once you imagine yourself owning the car, your attitude toward the car becomes more positive, making the idea of giving it up more costly and also making it more likely that you will buy it.

Finally, although the foot-in-the-door, low-balling, and bait-and-switch tactics take advantage of the principles of commitment and consistency, it is important to be aware that there are several other paths to persuasion (see Table 4.2). One such path is to rely on the norm of reciprocity—that is, the general expectation that people should return a favor. The door-in-the-face technique begins by making an unreasonably large request; for example, asking a fellow student if he or she would be willing to take notes on your behalf for the entire semester. Assuming the student declines, you might then suggest a compromise by requesting that the student only shares his or her notes from the most recent class. In this case, your fellow student is likely to consent to the second request largely because the student feels that he or she should mirror the concession you have offered.

The pre-giving technique also relies on the norm of reciprocity. In this case, a charitable organization might mail you a small, unsolicited gift, followed by a request for a monetary donation. Having received the gift, many people feel a sense of obligation to support the organization in return, which is, of course, what they are counting on!

Table 4.2 Potential Paths to Persuasion

Commitment and Consistency

We are more likely to honor a commitment if we commit to it orally, in writing, or in public.


We feel obligated to return a favor.

Social Proof

We tend to follow what others are doing.


We tend to obey authority figures.


We are more easily persuaded by people that we like.


Opportunities are more valuable to us when they are less available.

Source: Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and practice (4th ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.


Key Takeaways

  • As predicted by the principle of attitude consistency, if we engage in an unexpected or unusual behavior, our thoughts and feelings toward that behavior are likely to change.
  • Self-perception occurs when we use our own behavior as a guide to help us determine our thoughts and feelings.
  • Self-perception can lead to either insufficient justification—the perception that there was not enough external threat to avoid engaging in a behavior—or overjustification—the perception that our behavior was caused primarily by external factors.
  • Principles of self-perception suggest that to create true attitude change we should avoid using too much punishment or too much reward.
  • Cognitive dissonance refers to the discomfort that occurs when we behave in ways that we see as inappropriate, such as when we fail to live up to our own expectations.
  • Dissonance is reduced by changing behavior, by reducing dissonant cognitions, or by creating new consonant cognitions to counteract the dissonant cognitions.
  • Dissonance is observed in many everyday experiences, including initiation and the experience of postdecisional dissonance.
  • Engaging in dissonance reduction has many positive outcomes for our affect but may lead to harmful self-justifications and irrational actions.
  • Because dissonance involves self-concern, it is stronger when we do not feel very positively about ourselves and may be stronger in Western than in Eastern cultures.
  • Marketers use the principles of dissonance in their attempts at persuasion. Examples are the foot-in-the-door technique, low-balling, and the bait-and-switch technique.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Describe a time when your attitudes changed on the basis of your observation of your behaviors.
  2. Describe a time when you behaved in a way that was inconsistent with your self-concept and which led you to experience cognitive dissonance. How did you reduce the dissonance?
  3. Did you ever buy a product or engage in an activity as the result of the foot-in-the-door technique, door-in-the-face, low-balling, or the bait-and-switch technique? If so, describe your experience.


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