This do you always do it? Why? Compliance

This lesson discusses compliance psychology – the study of why people agree to others’ requests.

We’ll talk about the definition of compliance within psychology and discuss some famous experiments.

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Defining Compliance Psychology

If someone tells you to do something, do you always do it? Why? Compliance psychology is a branch of psychology that deals with just this question. Why do people do things when they’re asked? Compliance psychology seeks to understand how people can be convinced to do certain things.Compliance here means a response to direct and covert requests. What do we mean by that? Compliance psychology tries to understand why people respond to a very direct request, like a person face to face, as well as to more covert requests, like when TV commercials successfully convince people to buy one product over another. Compliance psychology is concerned with social influence and conformity.

Techniques of Compliance

So, how do we get people to do things? There are a few key concepts to cover in relation to this question.

First, social psychologists have come up with a term called the foot in the door technique. No, really! This is an important principle in social psychological research on compliance. Basically, this involves asking someone to do a small favor for you, in hopes they will be more willing to agree to a bigger favor in the future. You get your foot in the door, and then ask for more.Let’s take an example.

Say your friend asks to borrow a couple of dollars for coffee. You agree. A few days later, this same friend asks to borrow money for lunch and a movie. Would you agree? According to the compliance technique, you probably would because your friend warmed you up to this request by asking for a smaller amount of money for coffee. Now, generally this technique works best when the second requests is similar in nature to the first one. So if your friend had asked you to buy her a big screen TV after the coffee, it probably would not have worked.

You could also try the door in the face technique, which is the opposite of the foot in the door technique. In this scenario, you start with a grand request and scale it down right off the bat. Try asking your friend to babysit your nephew every weekday.

When they say no, you can ask if they could just take him to the park for a couple hours on Monday. After the everyday request, this one seems much more manageable, whereas if you’d started with the smaller park request, your friend would likely have declined. This technique is often more effective.

Famous Experiments

There are several famous experiments in the field of compliance psychology.

First, let’s talk about conformity, which means complying with conventions or modeling your behavior based on what you think others want. Sometimes people do things because they want to follow along with a group.The psychologist Solomon Asch wanted to know if people would conform even when they knew something was wrong. To test this, he created an experiment where a small group of people who were in on the experiment, called confederates, were put into a room with one person, the subject, who did not know what was going on. Asch gave the participants a number of different tests, such as showing them a picture with three lines that were all clearly different lengths.

When asked, for example, which was the longest line, the confederates gave largely incorrect answers, and Asch found that the subject followed along, giving incorrect answers about 1/3 of the time. This is because the subject thought he or she was missing some information – the confederates must know better!In a different experiment, the psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to see how far people would go to comply with requests given from perceived authority. To test this, Milgram decided to see if participants would shock another person simply because an authority figure told them to. Milgram created a fake shock generator.

The subjects in the study were told that they would pose a series of questions to the person hooked up to the shock generator. if the person answered incorrectly, a shock would be administered with increasing voltage. Milgram recruited participants via an advertisement.

Now, remember, the shocks aren’t real, and the person hooked up to the machine knows what’s going on. But what Milgram found is that over half of participants were willing to increase shocks to the highest voltage even when the person hooked up to the machine seemed to be suffering. Milgram also found that compliance remained the same even if the participant was told, for example, that the person she was shocking had a heart condition.However, there’s some controversy today about the results of Milgram’s study. For example, there’s some evidence that participants were more uncomfortable continuing with shocks than Milgram’s write-up might suggest. Moreover, people’s decision to continue with shocks was not simply motivated by an authority figure telling them what to do. Actually, many people continued because they were told that they were contributing to important scientific research that would benefit society.

So, really, people weren’t just simply acting out of evil. It’s more fair to say that people were convinced in part by authority but also because they thought they might be helping.

Lesson Summary

Compliance psychology is the study of understanding why people agree to do certain things. There are several techniques that can be used to solicit compliance from people. You might start out small and increase your request for favors as you go, such as in the foot in the door technique.

Or, you might start with the door in the face technique, asking for something big and then reducing your initial request.Psychologists have been interested in compliance and its social implications. In the famous Milgram experiments, Stanley Milgram found that people are willing to comply with authority even when they believe it is causing another person harm.

Today those conclusions are questionable, with reanalysis suggesting participants were acting in part because of authority, but also in part because they thought they were contributing to the greater good.


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