Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Value of a Leading Question

I read an interesting factoid from a “study” that was unfortunately not cited – so I can’t get further detail or verify that it is anything other than folklore – but it seems plausible.   Allegedly, researchers conducting a face-to-face study found that less than 30% of the people they confronted were willing to take the time to participate – but when the surveyor asked prospects, “Do you consider yourself to be a helpful person?” the participation rate jumped to over 70%.

Both of those numbers seem a bit high to me, but the premise is sound: it is based on the mechanisms of consistency and commitment.   Once a person states that they are “a helpful person” they feel compelled to back that statement by acting in a way that is helpful – in this case, to “help” the surveyor by taking the time to respond to the survey.   Psychologically, it feels important to maintain personal integrity by acting in a way that is consistent with one’s words (even though being a helpful person isn’t an obligation to help everyone at all times).

A more reliable and documented resource (Cialdini) reports similar results in a volunteer program: asking people if they would be willing to volunteer, then asking for a specific commitment to participate in a volunteer effort, resulted in a 700% increase in participation.  He also speaks of commitment as being a “sunk cost” that makes people continue to do something, even if it is not in their interest, to justify past events – to have answered a leading question creates a sense of investment on the part of the prospect.

Given the psychological underpinnings of this practice, I am cautious of its manipulative nature – to “hook” someone into doing something that is not in their interest is definitely unethical, but to commit someone to completing an action that is in their interest may be within the bounds – though I am cautious of whether this is merely justifying the behavior for the sake of achieving a one-sided outcome.

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