Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily
Whether you are literally trying to sell something or simply trying to sell a person on your idea, the first step is getting your foot in the door. Professor Vishton explains.
The foot-in-the-door is a persuasion technique initially characterized in studies of door-to-door salespeople. In fact, if you have worked as a salesperson, you might already be a little familiar with this sales technique. It gets at a central part of how the human brain frames decisions.
Most people presume that we rationally weigh the pros and cons of any decision. We then pick whichever decision maximizes our benefits and minimizes our costs.
However, humans do not make decisions in a vacuum. The choice we make in the present moment can often be influenced by decisions we have made in the past. Understanding the irrational, but also quite predictable, biases that people have can help us understand decision-making better.
The basic idea of the foot-in-the-door technique is to get people to say yes to a small request. Once you’ve done this, it can frame future decisions. Humans like to be consistent and for their decisions to fit within the pattern of decisions we’ve made in the past.
The most frequently cited study of this comes from Robert Giardini’s group. They picked out an area near Phoenix, Arizona, and randomly divided those houses into two groups—the foot-in-the-door group and a control group.
For the control group, the researchers visited each house and asked them to participate in a new drive safely campaign. To help increase safe driving and reduce the number of accidents and injuries that can result from them, they asked each person if they could put a large, wooden sign in the middle of their front yard. The sign would be highly visible and contain the words “drive safely” for everyone to see.
A very large percentage of people in this neighborhood refused. It’s not that they didn’t like the idea of supporting safe driving, per se, but they didn’t want an enormous wooden sign cluttering up their front yard. Only 20% said yes.
Those were the control houses. For the people assigned to the foot-in-the-door condition, the researchers first visited the house and asked for something very small. To support their drive safely campaign, they asked people to put a small, index card-sized sign in their window.
The sign contained the same words, “drive safely,” but it was unobtrusive—barely visible from the front yard, let alone to a passing vehicle. A full 76% of the people said yes to this smaller request.
A few weeks later, the researchers visited these foot-in-the-door houses again. During the second visit, they asked the same thing that had been so unpopular with the control condition houses. “Would you be willing to let us put this large wooden sign in your front yard to support the safe driving campaign?”
It was just as large, wooden, and generally unattractive as the sign that was so frequently refused in the control condition. Now, though, a much higher proportion of the people said yes—55% overall. By asking for the small sign display first, the researchers yielded almost three times as many people willing to put in the large sign.
Why This Technique Works
At first blush, this might seem strange. Imagine that I ask you if you can lend me a quarter. You are nice, and so you say yes. I then ask you for $20; you are more likely to say yes. Somehow getting something small from you enhances the likelihood that I will get something big from you.
The foot-in-the-door name for the technique makes sense, though. The bane of the door-to-door salesperson is when people aren’t even willing to talk to you.
For example, if you announce a revolutionary new air filtering product, typically people will have no desire to hear more. They are more likely to be receptive, though, if you say this: “A lot of the houses in this neighborhood have tested positive for cancer-causing radon gas. For $1, I can provide an assessment of the air quality in your house and determine if you need to take steps to make the air you and your kids breathe safe.”
By asking for something small first, it’s as if you are one of those salespeople who has gotten his or her foot-in-the-door. Now you are inside and can start asking for something more substantial.
Robert Cialdini and his colleagues interpret this as evidence for people’s drive for consistency—an unconscious cognitive reflex. You don’t get up in the morning and think explicitly about who you are and what your values are.
Every time you make a decision, some part of your brain seems to do that. If you decide to take the time to have your air tested, then you must be someone who cares about air quality. In the future, your unconsciously controlled decision-making systems will take this into account, placing a higher value on air quality.
With the people in the drive safety study, a similar explanation applies. When they said yes to that small window sign, it reinforced in them the notion that they care about driving safety.
Now, not everyone said yes to having the big sign in their front yard. The people in the neighborhood were people who cared about keeping their yard looking good, and remained so.
However, as they weighed the pros and cons of saying yes to the big sign, a greater value was put on the self-perceived commitment to driving safety, and 400% as many people said yes.
This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.