Read this - but of course, you are free to refuse

How to double your chance of a yes with the “But You Are Free” technique.

To double your chances of someone agreeing to your request just add “but you are free” (BYAF) to the end of your sentence. It tells the person you are asking that they are free to refuse the request. Christopher Carpenter looked at 42 studies on the BYAF technique’s effectiveness and found that it worked regardless of the type of request. The technique is only less effective when the person doesn’t answer you immediately and instead has time to go and think about the request.

We spoke to Christopher about the technique and why he thinks it works.

ResearchGate: Can you tell us a little about the ‘‘But You Are Free’’ technique?

Christopher Carpenter: The technique is part of a family of compliance-gaining techniques designed to increase the likelihood that someone will agree to a request. In this case, one simply adds a few words to any request in which one openly states that the target is free to refuse. It was developed by Nicolas Guéguen and Alexandre Pascual in an article published in 2000. The traditional way of applying the technique is to add “but of course, you are free to refuse" to the end of the request.

RG: What motivated you to look into this technique?

Carpenter: I thought that of all the compliance-gaining techniques, this one was the simplest to implement and applicable to a very wide variety of requests. I was initially looking into the technique, and I thought that a good place to start would be to conduct a meta-analysis to assess both how strong of an effect it generally produces and under what occasions the technique is more or less effective.

RG: What did you find?

Carpenter: I found that the technique is generally associated with people being twice as likely to say yes to the same request delivered without the key phrase. Furthermore, that the technique has a substantially stronger effect on compliance when the request is delivered such that the target accepts or refuses immediately. In cases in which the person making the request did not immediately receive a response, the technique tended to be less effective. I found that it generally did not matter whether the request was for a good cause or to sell something. Either way it tended to improve compliance.

RG: What is your favorite study demonstrating this technique?

Carpenter: In my favorite study using this technique research assistants approached people near a post office while holding a large spider in a clear plastic box. The spider was described as “a live adult trap-door spider that was bigger than the hand of an adult man.” The targets were asked to hold the box while the requester went into the post office for a few minutes. The technique was, as usual, substantially more effective than just asking normally. What I love about this study, is that it showed the technique worked even when the request was a large one. It showed a wonderfully creative approach to finding a request that people would consider large and yet everyone could say yes to if they chose.

RG: Why does it work? What do you think the success of this technique says about us?

Carpenter: It remains unclear why it works. There have been a number of studies establishing the effectiveness of the technique in many contexts but few assessing why it works. One idea comes from Brehm's psychological reactance theory. That theory states that people do not like to have their freedom impinged on. The technique is therefore thought to make people feel better about the request because it is not impinging on their freedom to say no. Another perspective is that it is merely demonstrating respect for the target and that the target feels more obliging to a request that is respectful. I am currently working on some research with colleagues in the US and in France on exploring these explanations.

RG: Do you use the technique yourself? What is your experience with it?

Carpenter: I generally do not use compliance-gaining techniques in my private life. The risk of seeming manipulative seems greater than the possible reward of getting my way more often.

Featured image courtesy of Helloquence.