Sequential Messages

Sequential Message Requests
Ah-One, Ah-Two . . . Doing The Two Step

A stranger approaches you at the shopping mall one day and politely asks if she can have a minute of your time.  You stop and say, “Yes.”

The stranger goes on to describe the importance of the local blood bank to the safety and well-being of your community.  (You nod your head in polite agreement, but you know there’s a gimmick.)  Then the stranger gets to the point:

“Would you be willing to be a blood bank volunteer?  You’d have to give ten hours a week for the next year and solicit blood donations from the people of our community by contacting them over the phone or face-to-face.  Will you give us your time?”

You think to yourself, “Ten hours a week?  For a year?!  That’s crazy.  Volunteering is important, yes, but no one should have to give up that kind of time!”

And so you politely tell the stranger, “No.”

The stranger looks a little disappointed and says: “Well, if you can’t give your time, could you at least give a unit of blood right now?  We have a station set up right down this hall.”

Now this is a more reasonable request.  And even though you’ve never given blood before you find yourself walking down that hallway with this stranger . . .

Something happened here.

A stranger stops a person.  The stranger makes an extreme request.  The person says,  “No thanks.”  The stranger makes a second less extreme request.  The person says, “I’ll do it.”

Amazing as it may sound, this persuasive strategy is a reliable means of influencing people.  It is also effective at getting behavior change which can be the toughest kind of change to get.  It does not work in every situation and it is very important to know its limitations, but the sequential requests strategy is simple to implement and effective in outcome.

How The Two Step Is Done

TwoStep SmallFrom our example, you can see that this tactic has two steps.  The first step is a set up.  The first request is not the true target.  Rather it is used to get the receiver in the right frame of mind.  The second step is the real target.  It is the action the requester really wants you to perform.

Now, if you think about it, you can do this Two Step dance two different ways.  The first way is called the door-in-the-face or DITF for short.  The second way is called the foot-in-the-door or FITD.  Both dances require two steps.  Both do a set up on the first step.  Both have the real target on the second step.  The difference is how step one hits the receiver.

Our example illustrated the first tactic, the door-in-the-face.  Here, the first request was aimed solely at getting the receiver to say, “No,” very quickly.  The second, less extreme request then followed and is more likely to be accepted.

The other tactic, foot-in-the-door, pushes the first request in the opposite direction.  Instead of starting off with an extreme request, FITD starts with a foot in the doorlittle request that almost no one would refuse.  After getting a “Yes!” response to this little request, the receiver is hit with the second, larger request.

See if you understand the FITD.  Take our blood donation example.  Our real target is to get people to give a unit of blood right now.  To do the FITD, the first request has to be small and acceptable.  Then, after we get affirmative action at step one, we hit them with step two, give blood.  Think of a smaller request we could make of a person that would elicit a “Yes” response before we ask for the blood donation.

We could . . .

. . . ask the person if she would sign this petition here that offers public support for the local blood bank.

That would work.  It is a small request.  Takes no time to sign a petition.  It is for a worthy cause; everybody supports it.  Almost everyone would sign that petition, wouldn’t they?

Then as soon as the ink dries on the signature, the requester follows up with, “Well since you obviously support the blood bank and are willing to say so on this public petition, maybe you’d like to show a little more support and give a unit of blood right now.  We have a station set up . . .”

Sequential requests are very simple to do.  Here is a little diagram of their action.

                First Step                   Second Step
DITF       get No! (large request)          real request
FITD       get Yes! (small request)         real request

If you have been carefully following along, you realize that both versions of the Two Step can lead to the same target.  With the DITF we get to the target by starting out with a request that is extreme.  With the FITD we get to the same target by starting out with a request that is small.

The Effectiveness Of The Two Step

You might be wondering just how effective the Two Step is.  Over the past twenty-five years many studies of the Two Step have been completed.  If you read all of them and draw conclusions, here’s what we know about effectiveness.

Imagine that you make only the second request to a group of people (would you give a unit of blood right now?).  Let’s say for the sake of argument that 30% of the group would volunteer right on the spot if you just ask them.  The question becomes, how many more volunteers could we have gotten if we had used a Two Step?

The research is in strong agreement that on average you would increase your volunteer rate about 10 percentage points.  Thus in our running example, a Two Step would produce a total of 40% volunteers versus the simple request.  If the simple request had gotten, say, 60% volunteers, the Two Step would have produced a 70% rate.

A ten point improvement may not sound like much, but consider this.  The requester has only to say a couple of extra sentences to get those 10 points.  Merely through a careful and thoughtful consideration of how to get a “No!” or a “Yes! response at step one can get on average 10 points more impact.

But, there are some important limitations to the Two Step.  Notice that it is a 10 point improvement, on average.  There are certain conditions that can boost the improvement even higher or drive it considerably lower.  Let’s look a bit closer.

Limitations To The Two Step

There are several important limiting conditions on the impact of the Two Step.  Some conditions apply only to DITF and others apply only to FITD.  First, we will examine the DITF.

Limitations on DITF.  Two major limitations apply to DITF.  First, the requests appear to work best if they are prosocial rather than selfish.  Second, the requests work best if there is no delay between them.

The research seems to indicate that selfish appeals do not work well with the DITF.  If the receiver is asked to do something that would provide a selfish benefit, there is limited influence.  By contrast, if the request is done for more altruistic, it’s-a-good-thing-for-everybody, reasons, the tactic is more effective.

This is great news for us if you think about it.  We want our Healthy Influence recipients to change their attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors about a wide range of issues, events, objects, etc.  Most of these things are prosocial in nature.  We want our friends or family to live longer, be safer, feel happier.  All these revolve around prosocial themes and therefore are amenable to a tactic like DITF.

The second limitation is somewhat obvious.  There should be no delay between the two requests.  If the requester waits for a week, a day, even a few minutes, DITF will not work.  Thus, DITF works best like a rapid fire comedy routine where the punch line quickly follows the setup.

We know that on average DITF produces about a 10 point improvement in influence compared to a simple request.  What happens if the above limitations are followed?  If DITF is used without delay between requests on a prosocial issue, the tactic produces a larger improvement, about 20 points on average.

Limitations on the FITD.  There are two major limitations on FITD.  First, FITD works best with prosocial requests just like DITF.  Second, FITD works best when there are no extra incentives offered for performing the requests.

We have already discussed the importance of prosocial requests versus selfish requests in the DITF section.  The Two Step appears to work best when the receiver is not acting for selfish gain.  And, as noted before, this prosocial factor is good news for us.

The second limitation on FITD concerns incentives.  If the receiver is offered an incentive for performing any request (the first or the second), then FITD will not work.  Thus, when people are promised rewards (money, gifts, or anything that is valuable to them), they will not be influenced.

This makes common sense.  We already know that the Two Step works with prosocial requests.  When people are offered gifts or money to “help” others, the reason is transparent.  They are doing it solely for the reward.

You will recall that on average the FITD produces about a 10 point improvement in influence over the simple request rate.  Now we know that there are two limiting factors on the FITD.  What happens to the success rate if these factors are kept in mind?  If there is a request on a prosocial topic for which the receiver has no incentive to perform, the influence rate will improve to about 20 points.

Why Does The Two Step Work?

Surprisingly there is not widespread agreement on why either the DITF or the FITD work.  Some explanations have received partial support.  But at present much more theoretical work needs to be done.  Here is the best current thinking.

Explaining DITF.  The strongest explanation of DITF is called, “reciprocal concessions.”  It simply means this: I give a little, you give a little.  As the requester, I make an “offer.”  As the receiver, you counter and say, “No!”  I come back with another offer, this time a smaller one.  I have made a concession, right?  I am no longer asking for that big thing, but rather this little thing.  In the rules of polite society, you should respond with a concession of your own.  In this case you should accept my lower offer.  I give a little, you give a little.

A second explanation of the DITF that has been given is called, “perceptual contrast.”  Unfortunately, tests of this theory have failed.  Perceptual contrast holds that the first request defines a standard of comparison.  When the second request comes along, it seems much smaller compared to the first one.  For example, imagine if you had to judge the “heaviness” of a 20 pound weight.  If you first lifted a 50 pound weight, then the 20 pound weight, those 20 pounds wouldn’t feel so heavy, right?  There is an intuitive appeal to the perceptual contrast explanation, but the data strongly disconfirm it.

Clearly more theoretical work needs to be done with DITF.  (And somewhere a good graduate student is suffering in a lab or a library on this very problem.)  We know that it works, but we are not sure why.  The reciprocal concessions explanation has good appeal.  It demonstrates that the receiver is not a helpless pawn, but rather is part of a communication interaction commonly called negotiation.  The DITF, however, is a negotiation that strongly favors the requester.

Explaining FITD.  The preferred explanation of FITD is self perception theory.  Since this theory is covered in detail in another chapter, we will just review it here.  This theory says that we learn about our internal states (attitudes, beliefs, preferences, etc.) by observing our own behavior.  If we observe ourselves doing some thing (signing a petition in support of the local blood bank), then we reason that we must like the thing.  Do you see the application of this to FITD?  Think about it.

With FITD the first step is to get a “Yes!” response to a small request.  According to self perception theory, what happens here?  Right, the person observes his behavior.  “Ahhh, here I am signing this petition.  If I’m doing this, it must mean that I have a favorable opinion about it.”

Now, the second step comes along, right in line with the first one, and what happens?  The person knows he should accept the second request because he is “that” kind of person.  He has already seen himself do other behaviors in support of it.  He obviously supports that kind of thing, he is that kind of person.  And he complies with the second request.

Another interesting explanation comes out of consistency theory.  Again, this theory is covered in another chapter, so we only need a review.  The basic principle of this theory is that people need to maintain psychological consistency in their thoughts, actions, and feelings.  Inconsistency is painful and causes us to restore a sense of balance.

FITD fits in nicely with consistency theory.  Step one gets the receivers to take a stand.  “Yes! I’ll sign that petition.”  Step two comes along and literally forces them to maintain consistency.  “Well, sir, since you’ve signed this petition in support of the local blood bank, I’m sure you the kind of person who also wants to give blood and since we have station set up just down the hallway . . .”  The receiver is in a difficult psychological position.  To say, “No!” to the second request would demonstrate an obvious inconsistency.  The pressure to maintain consistency, therefore, leads to compliance.

At present there is no reason to prefer self perception theory over consistency theory or vice versa.  It is an interesting area of research and one that will occupy the time and effort of persuasion scientists.

Doing The Healthy Influence Two Step

Application of the Two Step is simple and straightforward, but it does require careful advance planning.  You must clearly define your target request, then figure out how to get either the desired “No!” or “Yes!” response to the first request.  If you do not plan correctly, you will be doing the Two Step by yourself.

Using DITF.  Throw the high ball first, right?  Make an initial request that elicits a, “No!” response.  This steps up compliance with your real, second request.

Mom announces at the dinner table one day:  “I’ve been reading this really interesting magazine article about diet and health.  It says that a vegetarian diet is all that anyone needs to be healthy and strong.”

Dad and the kids exchanged panicked looks across the table.  “Is Mom reading too much?” everyone thinks, but doesn’t say.  Yet.

Mom continues with barely contained excitement.

“I think that we should go on a vegetarian diet starting tonight.  How about it everyone?  Will you go on a vegetarian diet?”

The family now gives voice to their panic.

“Well, honey, I don’t know about all that and so soon.”  Dad hedges.

“That’s gross, Mom!” a daughter offers defiantly.

“Vegetarians are dumb!” son opines.

Mom stares with dumbstruck amazement.  “You don’t want to become vegetarians?”  She pauses for effect and looks hurt.  Then her face brightens.

“Well, if you won’t do that, can we at least eat a serving of fruits and vegetables at every meal?” Mom says with a smile.

Using FITD.  Exercise provides an excellent topic for this tactic.  Experts recommend that everyone get a minimum of 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise every day.  That’s the minimum.  Now, 25% of us don’t get any exercise on any day, so the minimum recommendation looks like the Great March for couch potatoes.  For people who are sedentary, we’re gonna have to take a very Long Term Perspective.  And just as a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step, so does the path to exercise.

You’re sitting on the sofa with your spouse watching a very boring and predictable TV movie (the young guy with the dangerous good looks did it).  You turn to your spouse, Spud, and say,

“Spud, I’m feeling kinda full from dinner.  I’m gonna take a walk around the block to help my digestion.  Wanna come along?  Besides, I’ve already figured out that the young guy with the dangerous good looks did it.”  You stand up and stretch, then reach over and take your partner by the hand to help get them going.

Spud rises with you without really even thinking about it and before you know it, you’re out of the house.


Doing the Two Step requires advance planning.  You must know where you are headed (the second request, the real target).  You must know how you will get there (start high or start low?)  It is also clear that you consider the limiting factors.  Your target request must have some prosocial connection; selfish appeals will not benefit from the Two Step.  If you are using DITF, there can be no delay between requests.  If you are using FITD, there can be no incentives for performance.  If you implement the Two Step properly, however, you know you can improve your effectiveness by 20 points.

References And Recommended Readings

Okay, chances are real good that you’re not going to run right down to your favorite Research Library and check these sources out for yourself.  But, hey, they look good, they do exist, and they are the truth.  There actually is science in the social sciences.  You just have to know where and how to look.

Cantril, J., & Seibold, D. (1986).   The perceptual contrast explanation of sequential request strategy effectiveness.  Human Communication Research, 13, 253-267.

Cialdini, R., Vincent, J., Lewis, S., Catalan, J., Wheeler, D., & Darby, B. (1975). Reciprocal concessions procedure for inducing compliance: The door-in-the-face technique.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 206-215.

Dillard, J. (1990). Self-inference and the foot-in-the-door technique: Quantity of behavior and attitudinal mediation.  Human Communication Research, 16, 422-447.

Dillard, J. (1991). The current status of research on sequential-request compliance techniques.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17, 282-288.

Dillard, J., Hunter, J., & Burgoon, M. (1984).  Sequential request persuasive strategies: Meta-analysis of foot-in-the-door and door-in-the-face.  Human Communication Research, 10, 461-488.

Dolin, D. & Booth-Butterfield, S. (1995).  Cancer prevention and the foot-in-the-door technique.  Health Communication, 7, 55-66.

Freedman, J., & Fraser, S. (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 195-202.

Taylor, T., & Booth-Butterfield, S. (1993).  Getting a foot in the door with drinking and driving: A field study of Healthy Influence.  Communication Research Reports, 10, 95-101.