The Psychology of Compliance

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Have you ever done something you didn't want to do simply because someone else asked? Buying something after being persuaded by a pushy salesperson or trying a particular brand of soda after seeing a commercial endorsement featuring your favorite celebrity are two examples of what is known as compliance.

What influence does it have on our social behavior? What factors affect compliance? To learn the answers to these questions, it is important to start by understanding exactly what compliance is and how it works. Learn more about what researchers have discovered about the psychology of compliance.

What Is Compliance?

In psychology, compliance refers to changing one's behavior at the request or direction of another person.

Unlike obedience, in which the individual making the request for change is in a position of authority, compliance does not rely a power differential.

Compliance involves changing your behavior because someone asked you to do so. While you may have had the option to refuse the request, you chose to comply.

There are many different situations where compliance comes into play. Some examples include:

  • Buying something because a salesperson makes a pitch and then asks you to make a purchase
  • Agreeing when a friend asks, "Can you do me a favor?"
  • Seeing an ad on a website, clicking it, and then making a purchase

Sometimes compliance can involve a direct request. Someone asks you specifically to do something, and you do it. In other cases, the request may be more subtle and even insidious.

Recap

Compliance is defined as changing behavior in response to a request. Such requestions can be direct, but they can also involve more indirect forms of social influence.

Examples of Compliance

It can be helpful to consider a few different examples of compliance to better understand how it works. Some examples of compliance include:

  • A child cleaning up their room because their parent asked them to
  • A student helping another student with their homework when asked
  • Buying an item because a saleperson encourages you to do so
  • Helping a friend because they ask you for a favor
  • Assisting someone because they have helped you in the past

Techniques Used in Compliance

Compliance is a major topic of interest within the field of consumer psychology. This specialty area focuses on the psychology of consumer behavior, including how sellers can influence buyers and persuade them to purchase goods and services. Marketers often rely on a number of different strategies to obtain compliance from consumers.

The "Door-in-the-Face" Technique

In this approach, marketers start by asking for a large commitment. When the other person refuses, they then make a smaller and more reasonable request.

For example, imagine that a business owner asks you to make a large investment in a new business opportunity. After you decline the request, the business owner asks if you could at least make a small product purchase to help them out. After refusing the first offer, you might feel compelled to comply with their second appeal.

The "Foot-in-the-Door" Technique

In this approach, marketers start by asking for and obtaining a small commitment. Once you have complied with the first request, you are more likely to also comply with a second, larger request.

For example, your coworker asks if you fill in for them for a day. After you say yes, they then ask if you could just continue to fill in for the rest of the week.

The "That's-Not-All" Technique

Often on a television infomercial, once a product has been pitched, the seller then adds an additional offer before the potential purchaser has made a decision. "That's not all," the salesperson might suggest, "If you buy a set of widgets now, we'll throw in an extra widget for free!" The goal is to make the offer as appealing as possible.

The "Lowball" Technique

This strategy involves getting a person to make a commitment and then raising the terms or stakes of that commitment. For example, a salesperson might get you to agree to buy a particular cell phone plan at a low price before adding on a number of hidden fees that then make the plan much more costly.

Ingratiation

This approach involves gaining approval from the target in order to gain compliance. Strategies such as flattering the target or presenting oneself in a way that appeals to the individual are often used in this approach.

Reciprocity

People are more likely to comply if they feel that the other person has already done something for them. We have been socialized to believe that if people extend kindness to us, we should return the favor.

Researchers have found that the reciprocity effect is so strong that it can work even when the initial favor is uninvited or comes from someone we do not like.

Research on Compliance

There are a number of well-known studies that have explored issues related to compliance, conformity, and obedience.

The Asch Conformity Experiments

Psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments to demonstrate how people conform in groups. Participants were shown three lines of different lengths, then asked to select which line matched a fourth "standard" line. When others in the group (who were planted) selected the wrong line, many participants would conform to group pressure and also select the wrong line length.

The Milgram Obedience Experiment

Stanley Milgram's famous and controversial obedience experiments revealed how the power of authority could get people to obey. In these experiments, participants were directed by the experimenter to deliver electrical shocks to another person.

Even though the shocks were not real, the participants genuinely believed that they shocked the other person. Milgram found that 65% of people would deliver the maximum, possibly fatal, electrical shocks on the orders of an authority figure.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

During the 1970s, psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment in which participants played the roles of guards and prisoners in a mock prison set up in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford University.

Originally slated to last two weeks, the Stanford prison experiment had to be terminated after just six days after the guards began displaying abusive behavior and the prisoners became anxious and highly stressed. The experiment demonstrated how people would comply with the expectations that come from particular social roles.

Recap

Several well-known psychology experiments have explored some of the conditions in which compliance occurs. Such experiments include Asch's line experiments, Milgram's obedience experiments, and the Stanford prison experiment.

Key Factors Affecting Compliance

Several essential factors influence compliance. The presence of these factors makes it more likely that people will comply.

  • Affinity: People are more likely to comply when they believe they share something in common with the person making the request.
  • Group influence: Being in the immediate presence of a group makes compliance more likely.
  • Group size: The likelihood of compliance increases with the number of people present. If only one or two people are present, a person might buck the group opinion and refuse to comply.
  • Group affiliation: When group affiliation is important to people, they are more likely to comply with social pressure. For example, if a college student places great importance on belonging to a college fraternity, they are more likely to go along with the group's requests even if it goes against their own beliefs or wishes.

A Word From Verywell

Compliance can play a role in many everyday actions that people take, from the purchases they make to the way they respond to others. Understanding how compliance works, and learning to recognize some common persuasive techniques that marketers use to obtain compliance, may help you make better decisions.

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11 Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Weiten W, Dunn DS, Hammer EY. Psychology Applied to Modern Life: Adjustment in the 21st Century. Wadsworth Cengage Learning.