Harnessing the Foot-in-the-door Technique

Ben Ambridge

Walk down any high street in the UK, and the odds are you will be approached by a representative of a charity. What do they say? “Would you like to sign up for a £20 a month direct debit?”, not a chance you’ll stop and talk.

But, “Can you spare two minutes?”, “Can I just ask you a couple of questions?”, maybe you will.

This is the ‘foot-in-the-door’ technique, also known as ‘compliance and consistency’.

Once you have ‘complied’ with this small request (“OK – two minutes”), you are more likely to maintain a ‘consistent’ approach throughout the conversation, continuing to agree as the results escalate, culminating in a request for your bank details.

The foot-in-the-door technique was famously demonstrated in a classic study from 19661. The main request was for housewives to agree for a team of 5-6 men to visit their house for two hours, go through all their cupboards and catalogue the products they found.

Only about 20% agreed.

However, of housewives who had first completed a simple eight-question telephone survey, over half agreed to the large, intrusive request. Interestingly, simply getting people to agree in principle to the eight-question survey, but then not actually carrying it out, was almost as effective.

This suggests that the precise nature of the original commitment isn’t that important – all that matters is getting a foot in the door. Indeed, as early as 1991, a review2 uncovered over 40 studies supporting the effect.

So, what does this mean for your site?

If you can get visitors to comply with some small request (for example, answering a couple of fun survey questions), they are more likely to comply when you invite them to, for example, “checkout now?”.

Taking this a step further are sites that invite the visitor to design their own sofa,

or boots,

or to virtually try on their new glasses.

As well as offering a useful service, such sites make use of both the foot-in-the-door technique and – as we saw in a previous blog – the labour-love effect.

How might we develop the foot-in-the-door effect even further? One possibility is that explicitly presenting the initial task as a ‘request’ (e.g. Can I show you our virtual try-on now? [YES] [MAYBE LATER]) may make visitors more likely to comply with the checkout request (though since every site is different, you should of course always run your own tests).

One fly in the ointment is that some personality types – specifically, people who prefer change and unpredictability to consistency – are impervious to the foot-in-the-door technique, and react better to its exact opposite3 the ‘door-in-the-face’ technique. This involves initially presenting a totally unreasonable request (“Buy this jacket now for £2000?”), then following it up with a much smaller one (“How about this one for £100?”).

The future, then, may lie with sites that detect the visitor’s personality type and employ either the foot-in-the-door or door-in-the-face technique as appropriate.

[1] Freedman, J. L., & Fraser, S. C. (1966). Compliance without pressure: the foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4(2), 195.

[2] Dillard, J. P. (1991). The current status of research on sequential-request compliance techniques. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17(3), 283-288.

[3] Cantarero, K., Gamian-Wilk, M., & Dolinski, D. (in press). Being inconsistent and compliant: The moderating role of the preference for consistency in the door-in-the-face technique. Personality and Individual Differences.