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The “underestimation-of-compliance effect”: Get up and move

Wednesday, September 13, 2017
posted by Douglas Keene

We’d really rather call this the “34 reasons you should get up and talk face-to-face rather than emailing or texting effect” but that’s probably why we’re not academics. It’s become habitual to email or text even when it is faster and perhaps easier to walk across the hall, over to another cubicle, or even take a quick ride up the elevator to speak to a colleague in person. But once you read the results of this study you may start moving around—especially when you really want someone you do not know to do something for you.

Today’s study is from researchers in Canada and the US and it’s all about our unreliable estimate of compliance by others when we make direct requests. The researchers call it the “underestimation of compliance effect” which we must admit is not particularly catchy. But the takeaway is pretty catchy for sure. Here it is:

Despite your belief that you are persuasive in emails to those you have not met, you are 34 times more persuasive in face-to-face communication.

34x you say? How can that be true? And how can they say that precise number (34x)? Apparently most of us overestimate our powers of persuasion in text and underestimate our powers of persuasion in person. The second author of this paper wrote up a plain language version of the paper for Harvard Business Review (and oddly, the summary is as long as the article itself). In the HBR piece, she offers a brief comment that explains the takeaway:

Imagine you need people to donate to a cause you care about. How do you get as many people as possible to donate? You could send an email to 200 of your friends, family members, and acquaintances. Or you could ask a few of the people you encounter in a typical day—face-to-face—to donate. Which method would mobilize more people for your cause?

Despite the reach of email, asking in person is the significantly more effective approach; you need to ask six people in person to equal the power of a 200-recipient email blast. Still, most people tend to think the email ask will be more effective.

So why does this happen? The researchers say that people you do not know are suspicious of links in emails (they were being asked to have strangers complete a survey which was housed online) and think you are untrustworthy. Conversely, the sender (that would be you) knew they were not trying to trick the recipient and that the URL was trustworthy. The sender simply failed to consider the recipients perspective (i.e., someone I don’t know wants me to click on an untrustworthy link).

The researchers did a second study where they found that “nonverbal cues requesters conveyed during a face-to-face interaction” made the difference in how legitimate the recipient thought they were—yet, the requester was oblivious to these cues.

From an office management (not to mention effectiveness) perspective, you may want to encourage communications between co-workers—even if they don’t know each other—to occur in a face-to-face interaction rather than in a text-based communication. When the person you are encouraging to discuss the issue in person rolls their eyes and considers you hopelessly “old school”, you can just whip out this study (or the article in Harvard Business Review) and let them know you are on top of new knowledge. They can get up and move and talk face-to-face—not because it’s “nice”, but because it works 34x better.

Roghanizad, MM Bohns, VK 2017 Ask in person: You’re less persuasive than you think over email. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 69, 223-226.

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