One simple sentence literally doubles your persuasiveness - But-You-Are Free

June 12, 2015

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Wish you could get more people to say 'yes'? Well, according to thirteen years of research, by adding one sentence to your arsenal of persuasive techniques, you could literally double your success in...

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Unfiled: this is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.


Wish you could get more people to say 'yes'? Well, according to thirteen years of research, by adding one sentence to your arsenal of persuasive techniques, you could literally double your success in almost any context. Seriously, it has that robust an effect! So if you want to find out what it is, read on. It's up to you, of course. Coined in 2000 by one Nick Guéguen and one Alexandre Pascual, it's called the 'but you are free' technique, and the sentence is some variation of:

...but you're free to accept or refuse

Adding this sentence to a request to give money for a cause on the street, Guéguen and Pascual increased the amount of people who donated from 10% to 47.5%! Five years later, they did another test when handing out a survey and adding the same sentence increased response rates from about 3/4 to 90%.

Too good to be true?

Nope. In 2013, psychologist Chris Carpenter thought the same thing. So he reviewed studies testing this phenomenon over the course of the last thirteen years and found that on average, across 43 studies encompassing some 22,000 people, compliance was doubled by adding that one simple sentiment to a request.

Even more interestingly, those studies suggest that the actual structure of the sentence doesn't matter. Chris notes that one study compared the classic sentence with 'do not feel obligated', and it worked just as well. Have you ever wondered why Morpheus' proposal stuck with you after all these years?

you take the blue pill; the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill; you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes

But the devil is in the details

It seems to work face to face, as long as you aren't clearly a salesman, almost every time. You'd be pressed to find situations where it didn't. It even works via writing (they tested it with email and it works, although less effectively), which suggests that part of the reason you're reading this is because I swindled you with the first paragraph of this article. But the key might not be in the sentence.

Even more interestingly, what seems to be important is emphasising the concept of freedom. It may not really have much to do with the actual sentence at all. Recent research by the same guys who found the effect in 2000 and some colleagues found that printing 'Liberty' on a shirt produced a similar effect, where a picture of the Statue of Liberty did not. They think it has to do with 'reactance theory', which essentially covers the fact that when we feel like our control and freedom is limited, our brains rebel and a motivation to do the opposite or adopt an opposing attitude develops. But really, we're not sure. What seems to matter is that we like the fact that someone reinforced our right to choose so much, we're more likely to respond in favour.

To summarise

  • If you want to significantly increase your chances of getting someone to agree with you, emphasise their freedom to choose
  • Do it in person if you can, but doing it via writing also works
  • Embroider 'liberty' on all of your stuff
  • However, don't use this all the time; studies show effectiveness declines with frequency
  • As I mentioned earlier, if people associate it with sales, it becomes far less effective, possibly because people are more likely to have their guard up

Sign up for the next issue of The Dirt down below, our free weekly publication giving you the latest dirt from here and around the web without all the clutter and fluff, but you're obviously not obliged. Speaking of persuasion, check out this article on a persuasion technique that changes your mind even if you don't trust the message (especially if you don't trust where the message came from). Talking about communication that works is all well and good, but you should check out our mini-series on communication that doesn't work, starting with four things that get in the way of men and women talking to each other. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

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