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

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

Dorian Minors • June 12, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

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
The Dirt Psychology Does this technique sound familiar to you? Photo courtesy of It's life Jim..../Flickr

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.

It might be a little more effective as a symbol of freedom if you could actually see it from anywhere.

To summarise

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.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.