During the Korean War, many captured American soldiers were imprisoned in war camps run by Chinese communists. Without using violence, the captors secured their prisoners’ collaboration in activities ranging from running errands and accepting favors to making radio appeals and false confessions to informing on fellow prisoners and divulging military information. When the war ended, 21 prisoners chose to stay with the communists. Many others returned home “brainwashed,” convinced that communism was a good thing for Asia.

A key component of the Chinese “thought-control” program was their effective use of foot-in-the-door phenomenon, a tendency for people who agree to a small request to comply later with a larger one. It is a technique for eliciting compliance by preceding a request for a large commitment with a request for a small one, the initial small request serving the function of softening up the target person.

The Chinese exploited this phenomenon by gradually escalating their demands on the prisoners, beginning with harmless requests (Shein, 1956).

The technique was introduced and named by the US social psychologists Jonathan L. Freedman and Scott C Fraser in 1966. Research studies show that the foot-in-the-door tactic also helps boost charitable contributions, blood donations, and product sales.

The moral is simple, says Robert Cialdini (1993). To get people to agree to something big, “Start small and build.” And be wary of those who would exploit you with the tactic. This chicken-and-egg spiral of actions feeding attitudes feeding actions enables behavior to escalate. A trifling act makes the next act easier. Succumb to a temptation and you will find the next temptation harder to resist.

Reference: Myers, D. G. (1995). Psychology (4th ed.). Worth Publishers: New York.

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