Foot-in-the-Door Technique Definition
The foot-in-the-door is an influence technique based on the following idea: If you want someone to do a large favor for you, get him or her to do a small favor first. The power of the foot-in-the-door stems from its ability to start with a small, innocuous request and move on to a large, onerous request.
Foot-in-the-Door Technique Evidence
In one of the first scientific tests of the foot-in-the-door, psychologists Jonathan L. Freedman and Scott C. Fraser began with a very small request: They had a researcher go door to door in the California suburb of Palo Alto and ask homeowners to put a small sign in their windows that said “Be a safe driver.” Why would anyone say no to such an innocuous request? After all, who’s against safe driving? Little did these homeowners realize, though, that saying yes to this small request would make them much more receptive to a large request 2 weeks later.
The large request was made by a different researcher who approached each house and asked the homeowner’s permission to put a large, ugly sign on the lawn that said “Drive Carefully.” Freedman and Fraser knew that most homeowners wouldn’t want a large, ugly sign on their lawns because when they made this request to a different set of homeowners, only 17% said yes. But when they made this request to the homeowners who had agreed 2 weeks earlier to put the small “Be a safe driver” sign in their windows, 76% said yes. The foot-in-the-door caused an increase in compliance of over 400%!
How the Foot-in-the-Door Technique Works
Psychologists have put forth a number of theories about how the foot-in-the-door works. One of the more popular theories suggests that when a person complies with the small request, the compliance changes the person’s self-image. For example, when a homeowner in Freedman and Fraser’s study agreed to display the small “Be a safe driver” sign, he or she might have started seeing herself as someone who cares a lot about road safety. And a person who cares a lot about road safety would probably be willing to put a large “Drive Carefully” sign on his or her lawn, even if it’s not the most attractive of signs.
Because the foot-in-the-door technique is so powerful, Dr. Robert Cialdini, one of the foremost researchers on social influence, rarely signs petitions, even for positions he supports. Cialdini knows that today’s petition can turn into tomorrow’s donation— and we probably won’t even realize why we so readily gave that donation.
A Real-World Example of the Foot-in-the-Door Technique
One recent example of a large-scale use of the foot-in-the-door technique was the Internet-based fundraising effort run by Howard Dean during his campaign for the Democratic nomination for the 2004 U.S. presidential election. Prior to Dean’s campaign, politicians typically raised money by soliciting large donors. Dean tried something different. Instead of seeking the relatively rare American willing and able to donate thousands of dollars to a campaign, Dean sought the much larger number of Americans willing to donate $25, $50, or $100.
Dean’s approach had a number of benefits. First, as Dean and his primary opponents discovered, with lots of donors, small donations can add up to a large campaign fund. Second, once people have donated $25, Dean could contact them again with a request for another $25 (or, perhaps, $50 or $100). Getting the first donation is the tough part. Getting the second donation is much easier. Once someone donated once, that person was not just an American but also a financial supporter of the Dean campaign. And when a person sees him- or herself as a financial supporter of the Dean campaign, that person will be a lot more likely to comply with a request for another donation.
- Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Freedman, J. L., & Fraser, S. C. (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 195-202.