BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The well-known "door-in-the-face" (DITF)
persuasion strategy predicts greater compliance with a target
request if it is preceded by a larger and more objectionable
request. It has been a popular tool of those in the persuasion
trade since it was introduced nearly 40 years ago.
A new study by researchers at the University at Buffalo,
however, has found that while DITF has a significant effect on
verbal compliance, its effect on behavioral compliance is
statistically insignificant. In other words, it may get people to
agree to a donation, for instance, but it is not effective in
getting them to follow through with their verbal commitment.
The study, "The Door-in-the Face Persuasive Message Strategy: A
Meta-Analysis of its First 35 Years," appears in the September
issue of Communication Monographs (Routledge, Vol. 79, N0. 3).
Its authors are Thomas Hugh Feeley, PhD, professor and chair of
the UB Department of Communication; Ashley E. Anker, PhD, research
assistant professor in the UB Department of Communication; and
Ariel Aloe, PhD, assistant professor, UB Department of Counseling,
School and Educational Psychology.
They found that the strategy works in getting the receiver to
agree to the target (or "real") request, but it is far less
successful in provoking him or her to actually hand over the
In practice, the first request (say, for a loan of $500) is
rejected by the receiver. The requester, in a strategic move,
permits a metaphorical door to be slammed in his or her face.
Apparently unfazed by rejection, however, the requester immediately
seeks compliance with a comparatively lesser and more realistic
target request (a loan of $20) and, according to DITF theory, the
receiver of the request is much more likely to agree to that than
to the initial request.
"The DITF strategy was introduced in 1975 by University of
Arizona psychologist Robert Cialdini, et al., in the Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology," Feeley says, "and since then,
has become exceptionally popular among 'persuaders' in fields such
as marketing, political campaigning, sales, media advertising and
"This simple very effective strategy has been the subject of
more than 80 research studies over four decades," says Feeley.
"Many of these studies validated the claim by Cialdini et al.
that the strategy works well to achieve verbal compliance to a
request," Feeley says, "but Cialdini also claimed a level of
behavioral compliance as high as 26 percent."
Analysis of previous study results does not bear this out,
according to Feeley and co-researchers. "In fact, in our study the
correlational coefficient of DITF strategy on behavioral compliance
was .126 -- demonstrating a small effect.
"Because the problem with behavioral compliance was not evident
in prior studies, the strategy has been applied by thousands of
communications specialists who assumed all claims for the strategy
to be universally valid and reliable," Feeley says.
"The earlier studies used different conditions and contexts to
assess the effectiveness of DITF, however, and when results were
not consistent, they came up with at least six theories that offer
to explain the results of prior research," he says.
In this study, which analyzed all previous studies including two
prior meta-analyses, Feeley and his co-researchers found that the
door-in-the face strategy does indeed work much better than a
simple request for compliance in securing a verbal agreement to
help, but that agreement to help doesn't often lead to actual
No psychological tool of persuasion works in every situation and
cannot be relied upon to do so, Feeley notes. "In the end, we see
through these transparent message strategies, so people working in
sales should probably write their own material," he says.
"The strategy remains popular because marketers and campaigners
seldom rely on proven evidence to guide their communication
activities. Instead, they are lazy and use past practices that,
when examined in the light of good data, are often found to be
Feeley's research interests include the application of theories
of persuasion and social influence. He typically studies persuasion
in health contexts, such as health campaigns and patient-provider
interaction, but also is interested in communication networks in
the workplace and their role in employee assimilation and
retention. In addition, he studies measurement and analysis
concerns in communication science and currently is principal
investigator on 3 grants seeking to promote organ donation
registration among residents of New York State.