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(Mis)Understanding Our Influence Over Others: A Review of the Underestimation-of-Compliance Effect

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I review a burgeoning program of research examining people’s perceptions of their influence over others. This research demonstrates that people are overly pessimistic about their ability to get others to comply with their requests. Participants in our studies have asked more than 14,000 strangers a variety of requests. We find that participants underestimate the likelihood that the people they approach will comply with their requests. This error is robust (it persists across various samples and requests) and substantial (on average, requesters underestimate compliance by 48%). We find that this error results from requesters’ failure to appreciate the awkwardness of saying “no” to a request. In addition to reviewing evidence for the underestimation-of-compliance effect and its underlying mechanism, I discuss some factors that have been found to strengthen, attenuate, and reverse the effect. This research offers a starting point for examining a neglected perspective in influence research: the psychological perspective of the influence source.
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Running Head: UNDERESTIMATING COMPLIANCE
(Mis)Understanding Our Influence over Others:
A Review of the Underestimation-of-Compliance Effect
Vanessa K. Bohns
Cornell University
Forthcoming in Current Directions in Psychological Science
Underestimating Compliance 2
ABSTRACT
I review a burgeoning program of research examining people’s perceptions of their influence
over others. This research demonstrates that people are overly pessimistic about their ability to
get others to comply with their requests. Participants in our studies have asked more than 14,000
strangers a variety of requests. We find that participants underestimate the likelihood that the
people they approach will comply with their requests. This error is robust (it persists across
various samples and requests) and substantial (on average, requesters underestimate compliance
by 48%). We find that this error results from requesters’ failure to appreciate the awkwardness of
saying “no” to a request. In addition to reviewing evidence for the underestimation-of-
compliance effect and its underlying mechanism, I discuss some factors that have been found to
strengthen, attenuate, and reverse the effect. This research offers a starting point for examining a
neglected perspective in influence research: the psychological perspective of the influence
source.
Underestimating Compliance 3
We are constantly influenced by others—other people regularly goad us into doing,
saying, believing, and buying things. Thanks to an extensive and enduring literature on
conformity, compliance, and persuasion, social psychologists have a fairly good understanding of
what makes us susceptible to others’ influence (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004; Petty & Cacioppo,
1986). But, just as significantly, we are constantly influencing other people—getting them to do,
say, believe, and buy things. Yet relatively little research has focused on the psychological
perspective of the person doing the influencing.
In this article, I review a small, but growing, area of research examining people’s
perceptions of their influence over others. Over the past decade, my colleagues and I have asked
participants in our studies to make a variety of requests of more than 14,000 strangers: Can I
borrow your phone? Would you sponsor me for a race? Will you lie for me? In each case, before
they made these requests, we asked participants their expectations of compliance. We then
compared participants’ predictions of compliance to actual compliance. Our findings reveal that
people are overly pessimistic about their ability to get others to comply with their requests. By
examining people’s intuitions about the effectiveness of their own influence attempts, this
research offers a starting point for exploring the important and largely neglected question of how
people view the influence process from their role as wielders of social influence over others.
THE UNDERESTIMATION-OF-COMPLIANCE EFFECT
One of the most basic influence tactics is a direct request. To procure a higher salary, we
can ask our boss for a raise. To garner support for our cause, we can ask people to sign a petition.
Yet the simplicity of this tactic belies the dread many people feel at the prospect of asking.
Potential requesters stress about imposing on others, feel self-conscious about revealing their
Underestimating Compliance 4
shortcomings, and fear the worst—rejection (DePaulo & Fisher, 1980; Milgram, 1977).
However, research by my colleagues and me suggests this latter concern is often unfounded.
Imagine the following situation: You need to make a phone call, but your cellphone is
dead. Your only option is to approach random strangers one by one in order to borrow a phone.
How many people will you need to approach before someone agrees to loan you his phone? In
one study, we asked participants to get three random strangers to agree to this very request. But
first, we asked them to predict the number of people they would need to approach to get three
people to agree. Participants predicted they would need to ask an average of 10.1 people. In
actuality, they had to ask an average of 6.2 people. In other words, approximately one out of
every two people they approached agreed to loan our participants their phones; participants had
overestimated the number of people they would need to ask by more than 60% (Flynn & Lake,
2008).
We have found the same pattern of results—and similarly large effects—when we have
instructed participants to persuade strangers to fill out a questionnaire (Bohns et al., 2011),
provide intricate directions to a specified location (Flynn & Lake, 2008), or commit a small act
of vandalism (Bohns, Roghanizad & Xu, 2014). In one study, 91 participants in a charity run
predicted they would need to ask an average of 210.3 people to reach their fundraising goals
(ranging from $2,100 to $5,000). In fact, they only had to ask an average of 122.2 people—88
fewer than they expected (Flynn & Lake, 2008). Table 1 summarizes 12 studies from five recent
articles documenting this phenomenon across a diverse range of requests. The upshot is that the
underestimation-of-compliance effect is both large and robust.
Underestimating Compliance 5
WHY DO PEOPLE UNDERESTIMATE COMPLIANCE?
Why do people err so considerably when predicting the likelihood that others will comply
with their requests? We have found that this phenomenon is the result of requesters’ failure to
appreciate how uncomfortable it would be for targets to say “no” to a request. A target’s refusal
would constitute a “face-threatening act,” potentially calling into question the requester’s
trustworthiness or the appropriateness of the request: refusing to turn over one’s cellphone could
imply one does not trust the requester to give it back; refusing to engage in an act that seems
ethically questionable could be seen as an attack on the requester’s morality (Brown & Levinson,
1978; Goffman, 1971). In essence, by refusing a request one risks offending one’s interaction
partner—a violation of intrinsic social norms that would ultimately embarrass both parties
(Sabini, Siepmann & Stein, 2001). As a result, many people agree to things—even things they
would prefer not to do—simply to avoid the considerable discomfort of saying “no.”
Yet people tend to underestimate the extent to which others’ behavior is affected by such
concerns. Although the motivation to avoid embarrassment drives much of social behavior,
outside observers consider this motivation to be trivial and discount its impact on others’
behavior and decisions (Bohns & Flynn, 2010; Sabini et al. 2001; Van Boven, Loewenstein &
Dunning, 2005). Accordingly, when requesters estimate the likelihood that others will comply
with their requests, they tend to focus on more tangible information, such as the instrumental
costs (e.g., time, money) a target would incur by agreeing to a request, and largely ignore a
target’s concerns with embarrassment. The erroneous belief that a target can easily say “no” to a
request if she is so inclined leads requesters to exaggerate the likelihood of rejection. Indeed, in
our studies we have found that the underestimation-of-compliance effect is reliably explained by
Underestimating Compliance 6
requesters’ paltry estimates of how awkward targets would feel saying “no” (Bohns et al., 2011;
Flynn & Lake, 2008; Newark, Flynn & Bohns, 2014).
FACTORS THAT DO AND DO NOT IMPACT THE UNDERESTIMATION-
OF-COMPLIANCE EFFECT
The psychological mechanism described above has informed our search for factors that
might attenuate or reverse this robust effect. It also explains why the effect persists across so
many variations of the original paradigm: It is awkward to say “no” to a request regardless of
what or how big it is (within reason). However, requesters, oblivious to how uncomfortable it is
for targets to say “no” to any request, think changing various features of the request will have a
greater effect on compliance than is actually the case. Below I describe some of the experimental
variations we have conducted and the factors that have been found to impact—and not to impact
—the underestimation-of-compliance effect.
Request Size & Type
We have found that the underestimation-of-compliance effect persists for requests of
different sizes, as well as for requests people find particularly discomfiting, such as ethically
dubious requests. In one study, half of our participants asked strangers to complete a brief one-
page questionnaire, while the other half asked them to complete an extensive ten-page
questionnaire—a tenfold increase in the time commitment for those who complied. Requesters
who were randomly assigned to make the larger request predicted lower levels of compliance
than those assigned to make the smaller request. However, actual compliance was unaffected by
request size; targets found it equally difficult to say “no” to both requests (Flynn & Lake, 2008).
Underestimating Compliance 7
In another study, participants asked strangers to vandalize a purported library book by
writing the word “pickle” in pen on one of the pages. A number of individuals approached by our
participants voiced their discomfort, expressing concern with getting into trouble, referring to the
request as vandalism, and conveying a general reluctance to participate. Nevertheless, more than
64% agreed to vandalize the book—a far cry from requesters’ prediction of 28% (Bohns et al.,
2014).
Repeated Requests
Classic research has explored the effect of repeated requests on actual compliance,
finding that an initial refusal can, under certain circumstances, pave the way for future
compliance (Cialdini et al., 1975). In contrast, we have explored requesters’ intuitions about the
effect of repeated requests on compliance. We have found that requesters mistakenly assume
someone who says “no” to an initial request is inevitably more likely to say “no” to a subsequent
request.
In one study, participants approached strangers and asked them to fill out a questionnaire.
Regardless of whether their targets said “yes” or “no” to this initial request, participants asked
them to complete another request—to mail a letter. Although participants thought the compliance
rate for targets who refused the initial request would go down 16%, compliance rates actually
went up 10% following a refusal (Newark et al., 2014). In contrast to requesters’ expectations,
targets found it just as uncomfortableseemingly more soto refuse someone a second time.
Incentives for Compliance
People often offer incentives when making requests. For example, someone might offer
gas money in exchange for a ride. We have found that offering money in exchange for
Underestimating Compliance 8
compliance mitigates the underestimation-of-compliance effect. In one study, participants who
offered strangers dollars to vandalize a library book were less likely to underestimate compliance
than those who offered no incentives or non-monetary (candy) incentives (Bohns, Newark, &
Xu, 2015).
Additional data revealed that monetary incentives affected requesters’ reactions to the
task more so than targets’. Despite the fact that requesters felt more comfortable and confident
when offering money in exchange for compliance, the people they approached were just as
willing to comply for free.
Culture
We have found that the underestimation-of-compliance effect is more pronounced in
individualistic cultures, such as the United States, than collectivistic cultures, such as China.
When participants in China and the United States asked strangers to complete a questionnaire,
Chinese participants were less likely than American participants to underestimate compliance
(Bohns et al. 2011).
These cross-cultural differences were explained by the greater consideration paid by
Chinese participants to the awkwardness targets would experience saying “no” to their requests.
This finding is consistent with the presumed tendency of Americans to emphasize the role of
individual choice over social pressure and embarrassment when explaining others’ behavior
(Sabini et al., 2001).
Request Directness & Medium
It is much more awkward—and therefore less likely—for someone to say “no” to a
request asked directly and face-to-face than one asked indirectly or over email. However, we
Underestimating Compliance 9
have found that requesters are largely oblivious to this fact. When we have varied request
directness by manipulating how a request is posed—either indirectly by dropping hints (“I could
really use a phone right now…”), or via a direct request (“Will you lend me your phone?”)—we
have found that targets say they would be more likely to comply with a direct request. However,
requesters expect indirect requests to be more effective (Flynn & Lake, 2008).
We have found similar effects for the medium through which a request is made. In one
study, participants asked strangers to fill out a questionnaire in person, or handed out flyers
printed with the same request (“Will you fill out a questionnaire?”). Participants who asked
targets to complete a questionnaire face-to-face underestimated compliance, but participants who
made the same request using flyers overestimated compliance (Flynn & Lake, 2008). In another
study, participants similarly overestimated compliance when asking strangers to fill out a
questionnaire over email (Roghanizad & Bohns, 2015). Altogether, the manner by which a
request is made seems to impact the underestimation-of-compliance effect in important ways.
Other Factors
There are numerous other potential moderators of the underestimation-of-compliance
effect. One factor of interest is gender (Eagly, 1983); however, we have found no reliable gender
effects in our studies. Another potential moderator is requesters’ relationship to their targets,
including attributes such as power and closeness. Despite the large sample of people our
participants have approached, most of their targets have been strangers.
This latter factor may help to explain a remaining puzzle: Given that most people have
ample experience asking for things, why are they so bad at predicting compliance? One
possibility is that in daily life, we typically make requests of people whom we expect will say,
Underestimating Compliance 10
“yes,” such as close friends. Consequently, we are rarely surprised when others comply with our
requests, and thus have no cause to update our preconceptions about the likelihood of
compliance in general.
CONCLUSION: THE INFLUENCER’S PERSPECTIVE
How well do we understand the influence we have over others? Can we tell when another
person feels uncomfortable with our request, but feels she can’t say “no”? Do we know how
much more effective our persuasive appeal is likely to be face-to-face rather than over email? Do
we realize when our playful suggestion emboldened someone to engage in a behavior we didn’t
mean to condone?
Research on social influence has been largely silent on such questions, focusing on
understanding the psychology of influencees, the targets or objects of various forms of influence,
while mostly neglecting the perspective of influencers. When perspectives beyond the
influencee are considered, they are typically those of neutral observers asked to predict what the
“average” person is likely to do or explain why some mysterious individual did what they did, a
task that is different both cognitively and motivationally from predicting one’s own influence
over another person [Dunning & Helzer, 2014; see Gilbert & Jones (1986) for a noteworthy
exception]. Similarly, when people are asked to forecast their own performance on a task, such
tasks typically do not rely on the kinds of perspective-taking skills necessary to predict one’s
capacity for influence (Zell & Krizan, 2014).
The research reviewed here offers a rare glimpse into the influencer’s view of the
influence process. My colleagues and I hope researchers will continue to explore this meaningful
perspective and identify not only the factors that make us more or less influential, but also the
factors that make us more or less aware of our influence over others.
Underestimating Compliance 11
REFERENCES
Bohns, V. K., & Flynn, F. J. (2010). “Why didn’t you just ask?” Underestimating the
discomfort of help-seeking. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(2), 402-409.
Bohns, V. K., Handgraaf, M. J. J., Sun, J. M., Aaldering, H., Mao, C., & Logg, J. (2011). Are social
prediction errors universal? Predicting compliance with a direct request across cultures. Journal of
Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 676-680.
Bohns, V. K., Newark, D. A., Xu, A. (2015). For a dollar, would you… How (we think)
money influences compliance with our requests. Revising for Organizational Behavior
and Human Decision Processes.
Bohns, V. K., Roghanizad, M. M., & Xu, A. Z. (2014). Underestimating our influence over
others’ unethical behavior and decisions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,
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Brown, P. & Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004). Social influence: Compliance and
conformity. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 591-621.
Cialdini, R. B., Vincent, J. E., Lewis, S. K., Catalan, J., Wheeler, D., & Darby, B. L. (1975).
Reciprocal concessions procedure for inducing compliance: The door-in-the-face
technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(2), 206.
DePaulo, B. M. & Fisher, J. D. (1980). The costs of asking for help. Basic and Applied
Social Psychology, 1, 23-35.
Dunning, D., & Helzer, E. G. (2014). Beyond the Correlation Coefficient in Studies of Self-
Underestimating Compliance 12
Assessment Accuracy Commentary on Zell & Krizan (2014). Perspectives on
Psychological Science, 9(2), 126-130.
Eagly, A. H. (1983). Gender and social influence: A social psychological analysis. American
Psychologist, 38(9), 971.
Flynn, F. J., & Lake (Bohns), V. K. B. (2008). If you need help, just ask: underestimating
compliance with direct requests for help. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
95(1), 128.
Gilbert, D. T., & Jones, E. E. (1986). Perceiver-induced constraint: Interpretations of self-
generated reality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 269–280Goffman, E.
(1971). Relations in public. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Milgram, S. (1977). The individual in a social world: Essays and experiments. Reading, MA:
Addison-Wesley.
Newark, D. A., Flynn, F. J., & Bohns, V. K. (2014). Once Bitten, Twice Shy The Effect of a
Past Refusal on Expectations of Future Compliance. Social Psychological and
Personality Science, 5, 218-225.
Petty, R. E. & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion.
Springer: NY.
Roghanizad, M. M. & Bohns, V. K. (2015). Overestimating persuasiveness through
computer-mediated communication: An application of egocentrism. Unpublished doctoral
dissertation.
Sabini, J., Siepmann, M., & Stein, J. (2001). The really fundamental attribution error in
social psychological research. Psychological Inquiry, 12, 1-15.
Van Boven, L., Loewenstein, G., & Dunning, D. (2005). The illusion of courage in social
Underestimating Compliance 13
predictions: Underestimating the impact of fear of embarrassment on other people.
Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 96(2), 130-141.
Zell, E., & Krizan, Z. (2014). Do people have insight into their abilities? A metasynthesis.
Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(2), 111-125.
Underestimating Compliance 14
RECOMMENDED READINGS
Bohns, V. K., Roghanizad, M. M., & Xu, A. Z. (2014). (See references). Empirical
evidence for the underestimation-of-compliance effect in the domain of unethical behavior.
Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004). (See references). A review of the motivations
that drive people to comply and conform.
Flynn, F. J., & Lake (Bohns), V. K. B. (2008). (See references). The first empirical
demonstration of the underestimation-of-compliance effect.
Sabini, J., Siepmann, M., & Stein, J. (2001). (See references). A fascinating
reinterpretation of a number of classic social influence findings as evidence for our tendency to
underestimate others’ embarrassment.
Van Boven, L., Loewenstein, G., Dunning, D., & Nordgren, L. F. (2013). Changing
places: A dual judgment model of empathy gaps in emotional perspective taking. Advances in
experimental social psychology, 47, 117-171. A comprehensive theory and review of emotional
perspective-taking, which includes a cogent explanation of why it is so difficult to recognize
others’ concerns with embarrassment.
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... The omission of consent as a core topic of study in psychology is even more striking considering the fact that psychologists have paid broad attention to related constructs for decades: Compliance, obedience, and persuasion are all favorite topics of social psychologists (Bohns, 2016;Burger, 2009;Cialdini, & Goldstein, 2004;Cialdini, Petty & Cacioppo, 1981;Milgram, 1963). Free will and autonomy have long consumed cognitive, moral, and motivation psychologists (Bonn, 2013;Deci & Ryan, 1980;Hebb, 1974;Nichols, 2004). ...
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Consent is central to many of today’s most pressing social issues: What counts as sexual assault? Who are the police allowed to search? Can they use my data like that? Yet despite the fact that consent is in many ways an inherently psychological phenomenon, it has not been a core topic of study in psychology. While domain-specific research on consent—most commonly, informed consent and sexual consent—has been treated as such, and has accordingly been published in specialty journals (e.g., methods and sex research journals), consent has been largely ignored as a generalizable psychological phenomenon. This has meant that consent has been mostly excluded from “mainstream” psychology as a core topic of study. This omission is particularly striking given that psychologists have paid broad attention to related constructs, such as compliance, obedience, persuasion, free will, and autonomy; and, scholars in other fields, such as law and philosophy, have paid considerably more attention to the topic of consent, despite its uniquely psychological qualities. In this article, I argue that psychologists should embrace consent—in particular, the subjective experience of consent—as a core topic of study.
... Our findings contribute in several ways to our understanding of prosocial behavior. First, it adds to a growing body of research on helping requests: what leads people to ask for help (Bohns, 2016;Flynn & Lake, 2008;Nadler & Halabi, 2006), and what leads people who are asked for help to say yes (Converse, Risen, & Carter, 2012;Cunningham, Steinberg, & Grev, 1980;Graziano, Habashi, Sheese, & Tobin, 2007;Romer, Gruder, & Lizzadro, 1986;Shnabel & Nadler, 2008). ...
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