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Disarming your opponent: Updating the ‘foot in the mouth’ paradigm

Wednesday, May 25, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

Ah, those wily telemarketers.  You simply cannot let your guard down for a minute—if you do, researchers come up with a new way to make you talk to them. You may think there is a typo in our post title and that this should say “foot in the door” technique. It isn’t a mistake. This post is about an update to an old way of making you talk to a telemarketer.

Essentially, you open the door to the caller’s presence in your life by answering an innocuous question like “Do you have a few minutes for a brief phone call?” in the affirmative. Once you have done that, all is lost—or at least, you are more likely to stay on the phone for the questionnaire completion. Here is an explanation of what researchers updating the ‘foot in the mouth’ paradigm did from the abstract [emphasis added] of their article.

A study by Howard (1990) proposed a compliance technique built on a social routine. We tested a technique based on an alternative routine. Our hypothesis was that asking people about their availability before making a request would result in increased compliance. A group of 1,791 participants were asked to answer a questionnaire by phone for a consumer survey. The results showed that compliance rates were higher when the requester inquired about respondents’ availability and waited for a response than when he pursued his set speech without waiting and inquiring about respondents’ availability. The results are discussed based on 2 complementary consistency mechanisms (Aune & Basil, 1994; Tedeschi, Schlenker, & Bonoma, 1971).

So the key is in the questioner waiting for your answer. If they wait and therefore seem to care about your time, you are more willing to give it to them. In the current research, those answering the phone were met with the following script:

“Hello, I’m a student at the technical college in Vannes, I hope I’m not disturbing you, am I?”

The caller would then wait for the answer and continue:

You probably know the regional daily paper at least by name. For our studies, we are carrying out a survey on this paper. Would you have a few minutes to answer by phone? There are only yes-or-no questions, so it should go very fast.

In the second condition, the caller would not wait for the answer to the question and simply launch into the script. In the third (control) condition, the caller would not ask the question at all and just begin reading the script.

  • What they found was that if you say, “Yes, you are disturbing me”—you were pretty unlikely to answer the questions. This is likely not a shock. But—even twenty years later with incivility everywhere, the researchers found that if they ask if they are disturbing you and wait for your response, you are much more likely to take part in a consumer survey by telephone.
  • The key is in asking questions (“how are you feeling” or “I’m not disturbing you, am I?”) often asked by friends rather than strangers. The dialogue mode encourages you to respond to a stranger as though they were your friend. The belief is that you respond automatically and without thinking—thus putting your foot in your mouth—metaphorically speaking. The research shows that people who give favorable or more neutral responses are more willing to participate in follow-up questions than those who give negative responses.

What this means (besides that we should all screen incoming calls) is intriguing.

  • You don’t want to use this strategy to garner cooperation from witnesses in court.  But, it’s still possible the witness will want to show a good face to the jury and your question may result in a subtle directive to the less sophisticated witness to interact with you as a friend.
  • You lose nothing, however, by trying out variations of this question in deposition. Like “How are you today?” and waiting for them to respond. It’s possible, you will get more compliance in response to your questions. You can think of it as another way of establishing rapport with the witness.
  • Forms of the question that might be useful in court are:
    • “Do you think it would be useful for the jury to know why…?”
      • “If you were confronted with these facts, do you think you’d wonder…?”
      • “Would you mind explaining to the jury…?”

    Photo credit

    Meineri, S., & Guegen, N. (2011). “I hope I’m not disturbing you, am I?” Another operationalization of the foot-in-the-mouth paradigm. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41 (4), 965-975

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