Forced Compliance Technique Definition
The forced compliance technique is an experimental procedure whereby people are induced to behave in a way that is inconsistent with their attitudes, beliefs, values, or other thoughts about an issue. The procedure was initially developed for studying how inconsistency between behavior and attitudes can motivate people to change their position on a topic. According to psychological theory, when people behave in a way that is inconsistent with other important cognitions, they experience a state of discomfort similar to hunger or thirst. To reduce the discomfort, they are motivated to restore consistency by changing some of the relevant cognitions. The intriguing aspect of the forced compliance paradigm is that because the inconsistent behavior is often impossible to take back, the path of least resistance for restoring consistency is to change preexisting attitudes or beliefs so that they are consistent with the behavior. Thus, being forced to comply with a request to commit a discrepant act can cause people to justify or rationalize the inconsistent behavior.
The Forced Compliance Technique
The forced compliance technique basically requires that people do or say something that is against importantly held attitudes or beliefs. For example, in the original version of the forced compliance technique, participants first worked for an hour on a very boring task (e.g., turning spools on a board). They were then asked if they would help the experimenter by telling the next participant that the task was very interesting and enjoyable. To control the level of discomfort, participants were offered either $1 or $20 for telling the next participant that the boring task was fun. Thus, participants were induced or forced to comply with a request to mislead a stranger about the nature of the experimental task.
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After delivering the misleading information to the waiting student (who was actually a confederate), participants completed a survey for the psychology department about their experience in the study. As predicted, participants who were paid only $1 for lying about the task rated the task as more enjoyable than did participants who were paid $20 for telling the same fabrication. That is, participants were feeling discomfort from the inconsistency between the thoughts “The task was boring” and “I told someone the task was enjoyable.” However, the discomfort for the participants in the $20 condition was reduced because they had an additional thought that was consistent with their behavior: They were paid a large sum of money to mislead the waiting person. In contrast, the discomfort for the participants in the $1 condition remained high because, though sufficient to force the participants to comply with the request, the small $1 payment was insufficient to provide a clear justification (i.e., a consonant cognition) for their dishonesty. Participants in the $1 condition had to find another way to reduce their discomfort, and since it was impossible to take back the lie, changing their behavior was not an option. Instead, participants altered their view of what they had done by changing their attitude toward the boring task. Thus, participants in the $1 condition reduced their discomfort by coming to believe that the task was actually not boring after all—it was enjoyable!
The original study had a tremendous impact on the field of psychology, in part because it revealed a reverse incentive effect—larger rewards were associated with less positive attitudes toward an object—a clear challenge to the idea that the more someone is rewarded for a behavior, the more they like it. It inspired research labs around the world to further explore the reverse incentive effect and its implications for understanding human social behavior.
Follow-up research on the reverse incentive effect led to several evolutions in the forced compliance technique. Today, the most widely used version requires participants to write a counterattitudinal essay in which they state a position on a topic that is inconsistent with their own. In the first study to use the essay-writing approach, students at Yale University wrote an essay in support of the aggressive actions taken by the New Haven Police against students on campus. Students at Yale were strongly opposed to the police response, but they were induced to write an essay supporting the police action for $0.50, $1, $5, or $10. Participants then reported their attitudes toward the police action, and the data revealed the same reverse incentive effect: The less they were paid for their essay, the more positive their attitudes were toward the police actions. Presumably, the less they were paid, the more discomfort participants experienced about stating a position that was inconsistent with their beliefs. However, since they could not take back what they had written, participants reduced their discomfort by changing their attitudes toward the issue.
Research on the forced compliance technique revealed several factors that influence the level of discomfort and attitude change that follow from inconsistent behavior. For example, attitude change is greater when participants believe that they chose, and were not forced, to engage in an inconsistent act and when participants perceive that the act has led to negative consequences that they could have foreseen. Other research challenged the discomfort interpretation of the attitude change effects observed in the forced compliance technique. Some researchers proposed that a logical conclusion about the behavior, and not a motivation to restore consistency, was the most credible explanation for the reverse incentive effects. Others argued that the observed attitude change effects were not real changes; they only represented attempts to present oneself in a positive light to the experimenter. However, both alternative interpretations were later dismissed in research showing that arousal was present when participants stated a position outside of what they could accept, and that participants changed their attitudes even when the experimenter had no way to know what they had said.
Researchers continue to investigate the psychological processes that contribute to the changes observed following forced compliance. Recent research has examined variables that determine whether people are motivated to change their attitudes to fit their inconsistent behavior, such as individual differences in self-esteem, cultural background, and other personality factors that influence how people perceive an inconsistency. Other research has looked at how individuals respond when an important leader or peer behaves in a way that is inconsistent with important attitudes and beliefs held by the observer. The forced compliance technique continues to be an important tool for investigating how discrepancies between behavior and belief influence an individual’s perceptions of reality.
- Harmon-Jones, E., Brehm, J. W., Greenberg, J., Simon, L., & Nelson, D. E. (1996). Evidence that the production of aversive consequences is not necessary to create cognitive dissonance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(1), 5-16.
- Stone, J., & Cooper, J. (2003). The effect of self-attribute relevance on how self-esteem moderates dissonance processes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39, 508-515.