By Alex Fradera
“Sorry to bother you – I’m just after three pounds sixty-five for a bus ticket to Bromley.”
Living in an urban area you frequently hear this kind of request, which showcases a persuasion approach called the “pique technique”, whereby people are more likely to comply with requests for an unusually specific quantity, because it piques their interest. But do people really give more readily, or in higher amounts, when exposed to the technique? A meta-analysis in the journal Social Influence puts pique through its paces.
The technique was first investigated in the nineties by a trio of researchers – Michael Santos, Craig Leve and Anthony Pratkanis – with experimental assistants posing as panhandlers on Santa Cruz wharf and asking passers-by for either 17 cents or a quarter. They found the unusual sum led to more compliance from the passers-by, and so to more coinage in the cup.
The researchers hypothesised that the unusual sum is effective as it disrupts the “refusal script” that people have primed in response to generic requests, and instead generates curiosity that encourages the person to engage. The paper spawned further work exploring the technique, including its effectiveness when asking for someone’s time, but some studies found no effects or even negative effects.
To make sense of this muddied picture, Seyoung Lee and Thomas Feeley from the University of Buffalo looked across the available research, six studies in all, to verify whether there is a reliable case for the technique and what might be driving it.
Does piquing pay? Across the studies, there were 16 tests of whether successful requests led to more generous donations when the request was for an unusual sum, and the meta-analysis showed that this was not the case: donations, when given, were similar for both typical and unusual request amounts.
However, piquers earned more overall, because the technique enhanced the chances of getting a donation in the first place. The size of the effect was larger than for other tricks for gaining compliance like the foot in door technique (.27 vs. .11 in terms of statistical effect sizes). The effect size varied across different studies and conditions, so Lee and Feeley investigated what might moderate it, finding the technique more successful in studies conducted in France compared to the US, and working better for smaller requests than for those involving more than a dollar.
The analysis also showed that when the technique was used, people were more likely to respond by asking what the money was for. This is consistent with the idea that the technique disrupts automatic processes and encourages conscious engagement with the request. It’s as if the unusual detail shakes the person out of a slumber to see the moment as the beginning of an interaction, rather than as environmental noise to tune out. Unfortunately the paper doesn’t provide data on whether these curious people were more likely to donate; we do know, however, that when the piquer preemptively explained what the request was for (as per my opening example), participants were more likely to comply.
Many persuasion techniques are overtly exploitative, trying to win compliance by wearing away the target’s defences. Piquing in some way fits this mould, by dodging underneath the normal means of parrying an unsolicited request. But its basic mechanism seems legitimate: to wake us up to what’s happening right now, and then leave it to our conscience how to react. After all, even if you have a principled objection to giving to charity street reps or to the homeless, it’s no bad thing to sometimes be prompted to consciously reflect on your decision.