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"But You Are Free"


Main Findings

Simply following a request with something along the lines of "but you are free to say no" can have a significant impact on an affirmative response to a request.

Video Introduction

Summary

In 2000, Gueguen and Pascual conducted the initial demonstration of a persuasion technique now known as the "but you are free" technique at a shopping mall in France.  In the control condition, the experimenter asked a stranger (the subject) for some coins for the bus.  In the experimental condition, the experimenter added: "But you are free to accept or refuse."  Those subjects who were told they could refuse (although clearly a given) were substantially more likely to comply with the request.  On top of that, those in the experimental condition gave twice as much money in the control condition.  This simple technique might just be one of the most effective and simple of all persuasion techniques.

Since this initial study, dozens of other studies have been conducted where conditions were changed slightly (Carpenter, 2013).  The proposed mechanism behind this phenomenon is psychological reactance theory—the phrase weakens the subject's perception that his or her freedom to say "no" is threatened.

Results

Here are some of the important findings:

  • It does not matter how the message is phrased, as long as it emphasizes the subject's right to say "no."  For example, "But obviously do not feel obligated" was just as effective.
  • This technique has been consistently effective in face to face contexts, but less effective in e-mail communications.  It has been suggested that one is less threatened in an e-mail situation; thus there is not really a threat to weaken by this phrase (Carpenter, 2013).
  • This technique is less effective in sales situations (sorry salespeople!) perhaps because people are more defensive and take the time to process the information being presented.

Criticisms

A relatively small number of researchers have investigated this technique, despite the 42 different studies that confirm the result.

Applied Ideas

This technique is most effective in situations that appeal to a noble motive, such as making donations to a good cause or getting someone to do something that will make them feel good about themselves.

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