The “Door in the Face” Technique: Will It Backfire?

If detected, the persuasion strategy could be less effective over time than you’d like.

By on / Dispute Resolution

In a classic and rather amusing study from 1975, Arizona State University professor Robert Cialdini and his colleagues sent research assistants around campus posing as employees of the county’s juvenile detention center. They stopped people randomly on walkways and asked them if they would consider chaperoning a group of juvenile delinquents on a day trip to the zoo for no pay.

What do you think was the most common answer? That’s right: 83% of those asked passed on this unusual request.

Next, the research assistants approached different people with an even bolder request: Would they be interested in being considered to serve as an unpaid counselor at the juvenile detention center? They were told this volunteer position would require two hours of their time each week for a minimum of two years.

Not surprisingly, people didn’t exactly jump at this opportunity, either: In fact, everyone asked said no. But the researchers didn’t let them just walk away. They then asked them if they would instead be willing to consider chaperoning a group of juvenile delinquents on a day trip to the zoo for no pay.

Their responses were enlightening: A full 50% said yes, they would.

Why did people become so willing to agree to consider the significant request after turning down a much larger one? According to Cialdini and his team, when we back down from an extreme request and ask for less, the other party views this as a concession and feels compelled to reciprocate it. The norm of reciprocity compels us to try to repay in kind what someone else has “given” us, from a favor to an invitation to a concession in negotiation. Cultural anthropologists believe the drive to reciprocate was hardwired into our brains over the course of human history because it allowed us to share resources and skills in a “web of indebtedness.”

In the context of negotiation and persuasion, Cialdini refers to the strategy of following up an extreme request with a moderate one the “door in the face” (DITF) technique, playing on the image of a homeowner slamming the door in a salesperson’s face after she makes a ridiculous request. Research suggests that if a negotiator follows up the extreme request with a more moderate one, the proverbial door may stay open.

Will they get even?

Given that DITF has been studied only in one-off interactions, Professor Ricky S. Wong of Hang Seng Management College in Hong Kong and his colleagues wondered whether it could have a negative impact on a second negotiation with the same counterpart. If we sense that someone has used the DITF technique to gain an advantage, we may try to “get even” by demanding more ourselves. After all, the norm of reciprocity works both ways—we respond in kind to negative as well as positive behaviors.

For their first experiment, the researchers divided 180 undergraduate students into the role of buyer or seller. The buyers were trained on how to use the DITF in a natural manner, and some of them were instructed to use the technique in the first of two negotiations with their counterpart. Specifically, they were told to ask their seller for the lowest price possible for a display screen and then, if their offer was rejected, to immediately make a more moderate request. Other buyers, those in the control group, were told not to use DITF but to negotiate as they saw fit.

When we back down from an extreme request and ask for less, the other party views this as a concession and feels compelled to reciprocate it.

After the first negotiation, some of the sellers were educated on various negotiation strategies, including DITF, and asked whether they thought their counterpart had used any of them. Next, the same pairs engaged in a second negotiation over the sale of a microchip, playing the same roles. After the second negotiation, those in the role of seller were told they’d be codeveloping a new product with someone and were given a choice between working with the same counterpart or being assigned to a new one.

In the experiment, sellers who detected that their counterpart used DITF in the first negotiation, as compared to those who did not, made more demanding opening offers in the second negotiation and reached better outcomes. They also viewed their counterpart as less trustworthy and were more likely to choose a new partner for the collaborative project. Overall, the study results seem to suggest that using DITF, and perhaps other persuasion techniques, could backfire if your counterpart senses that you have attempted to manipulate him or her. The findings suggest a note of caution to drawing simplistic conclusions from Cialdini’s 1975 study.

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