Compliance refers to an overt, public action performed in accordance with a request from an external source. The request can be from another person(s) or from an object, such as an election billboard or marketing advertisement. Thus, compliance can occur in response to an explicit request, as in the former example, or an implicit request, as in the latter example. Regardless of the source of the request, if a person acts in line with the request, he or she is said to be complying with the request. Compliance does not refer to an inner state of acceptance of the behavior performed nor does it refer to an attitude change; rather, it simply refers to acting in accordance with the request. If a person acts in accordance with a request that comes from an authority figure, however, the person is demonstrating obedience.
History and Modern Usage of Compliance
In psychology, compliance is typically studied as a prosocial behavior or as a reaction to social influence. Originally, researchers began studying compliance in reaction to the events of World War II. They wondered how humans could follow orders that led to terrible crimes against humanity. Psychologists have studied both the external factors that influence people’s levels of compliance, as well as the internal, psychological processes, that influence people’s levels of compliance.
Researchers have sought to demonstrate the situations and circumstances under which people comply with others’ requests. For example, we are more likely to comply with a request that comes from a person we are close to rather than a stranger. Researchers have also examined explicit and implicit techniques that increase a person’s chances of gaining compliance from someone else. For example, door-to-door salespeople quite often try a technique where they first ask a person for a small favor, after which they will ask for larger favors. If salespeople gain compliance for the small favor, chances are people will comply for the larger, later request. This phenomenon was coined the foot-in-the-door technique.
Sometimes people are less likely to comply with explicit requests from other people (especially strangers). This can even lead to adverse effects, especially if it limits people’s options or freedom. Infringing on people’s choices or freedom can lead to people’s engaging in the opposite behavior; this is termed reactance.
People will also comply to gain acceptance or approval from a group, especially if that group is similar to the person or one to which they want to belong. Compliance often serves the purpose of allowing people to get along, cooperate, as well as build and maintain relationships. Thus, compliance is generally a behavior for the good of society, but at times our willingness to comply can be misused to have us engage in behaviors that neither for the greater good of society nor in our best interests (such as purchasing things that we do not need).
- Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004). Social influence: Compliance and conformity. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 591-621.