Pop quiz: Imagine that you need another person to help you with something.
Of the three requests below, which one is the most likely to be effective?
- “Will you help me?”
- “Won’t you help me?”
- “You will help me, won’t you?”
(We will help you by giving the answer below.)
The ability to influence other people can determine your success or failure in many ways.
Not surprisingly, the question of how to do so effectively is pervasive and popular. For example How to Win Friends and Influence People is listed as one of the “greatest” books and (more objectively) one of the bestselling books of all time.
Alongside this and many other sources of popular wisdom on the topic, scientific research on social influence has carried on for decades. We now know enough to fill entire books with proven strategies. It is estimated that there are over 100 scientifically validated techniques that increase the chances of convincing people to do what we want.
Is there an easier way?
There is a great deal to learn before really understanding social influence—but there might be a handy shortcut as well.
Researchers have recently argued that all of the techniques in the scientific literature have one thing in common: freedom of choice.
Somewhat paradoxically, saying “it’s up to you” often garners more compliance than “you must.”
There are two reasons why this might be the case.
The first is that demanding, rather than asking, can reduce compliance. This is explained by reactance theory—the idea that threatening a person’s sense of control will motivate them to regain and reassert control (in this case, by not doing what you request).
The second is that genuinely agreeing to a request requires the perception that one has the ability to comply. Asking, rather than demanding, might increase a person’s sense of control in the situation, and thus their perceived ability to say “yes.”
Evoking freedom really works
A recent analysis of 42 experiments found that compliance can be increased (in some cases as much as doubled) by following the requests made with a statement such as “you are free to say no.”
Even though it is a largely unnecessary and seemingly obvious statement, it works. Studies have found increased donations, sales, helping, and volunteering of time and effort. And it even seems that calling attention to freedom more often can further increase the effect. The researchers call this technique evoking freedom.
Sometimes, the little details matter more than you might think. Of the three requests listed in our “pop quiz” above, the first two are much less effective than the third.
If you have a choice when phrasing a question, you should go with the third type, shouldn’t you?