By Colby Morris
What does it mean to have one's 'foot in the door?' Is it painful?
Where did the phrase come from? How can it be used today? Is it used
for persuasion, propaganda or both? Is it a technique that is
successful? What do researchers say about its effectiveness?
When given the assignment to analyze what and how the phrase, 'Foot in
the Door', is used as a persuasion and/or propaganda technique, I had
no idea I would find so much research and information available. This
paper and the related blog may be used as both an informational source
and a forum for discussions which I look forward to starting. I have
an interest in investigating this phrase, as I've heard it used all of
my life. I hope after my education at Northwest Missouri State
University, and after having this class with Dr. John Fisher, I just
may have my 'foot in many doors' leading me to a successful future!
History of the phrase
Gary Martin, founder of Phrasefinder in 1997 suggests, "The phrase,
'foot- in- the- door' means an introduction or way in to something,
made in order that progress may be made later." (Martin, 1997). While
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, describes the phrase 'Foot in the
Door' (FITD) as "a compliance tactic that involves getting a person to
agree to a large request by first setting them up by having that
person agree to a modest request" (Wikipedia, 2009).
When I first read those two meanings, I felt the FITD technique
sounded deceptive in nature. When I hear the words, 'tactic' and
'setting someone up', I think of a technique that would always take
advantage of someone or something, making them in one way or another
victim. Yet as I researched, I have come to think very differently
about the phrase, FITD, and see it as a very valuable technique that
when used correctly makes a win-win situation with no victims at all.
The first uses of the phrase started way before the 1800's and it was
used in a very concrete, literal way. It literally meant something
physical, like your foot, stepping into someone's house, or using your
foot to keep a door from closing. After that, the phrase became a
classic persuasion strategy used to sell something by going door to
door. The salesman would have the hardest time getting his or her
'foot in the doorway' after knocking on a stranger's door. Many times
all they would get is a door slammed in their face, rather than an
invitation inside. I know today that sometimes I will hide and
pretend I wasn't home when I realized it was a salesman, or stranger.
It always feels weird pretending to 'not' be home, but it also saved
me the time and prevented me from being talked into buying something I
cannot afford and/or do not need. As Richard M. Perloff puts it, "If
they (salespeople) could just overcome initial resistance - get a
'foot in the door' of the domicile - they felt they could surmount
subsequent obstacles and make the sale of Avon perfume, a vacuum
cleaner, or a set of encyclopedias. Going door to door is out of date,
but starting small and moving to a larger request is still in vogue."
I think the majority of people use the phrase, FITD symbolically, and
in a positive, innocent manner. If I wanted a really important job, I
would not want my application to go into a pile of hundreds of them go
into. I would say, 'If I could just get my foot in the door, I know
they'd hire me.' Now 'how' to go about 'getting my foot in the door'
is where the process and research become important.
Many experiments have been done to test the effectiveness of the 'foot
in the door' technique. Researchers want to know if this tactic will
work well to persuade people to comply. For example:
In a classic study, Freedman and Fraser (1966) arranged for
experimenters working for a local traffic safety committee to ask
California residents if they would mind putting a 3-inch 'Be a safe
driver' sign in their cars. Two weeks later, residents were asked if
they would place a large unattractive 'Drive Carefully' sign on their
front lawns. Homeowners in a control condition were asked only the
second request. Seventeen percent of control group residents agreed
to put the large sign on their lawns. However 76% of those who agreed
to the initial request or had been approached the first time complied
with the second request.
Participants were more willing to volunteer to construct a hiking
trail if they had agreed to address envelopes for an environmental
group than if they had not acceded to the initial request (Dillard,
Individuals were most likely to volunteer a large amount of time for a
children's social skill project if they had initially assisted a child
with a small request-helping an 8-year-old get candy from a candy
machine (Rittle, 1981).
There have been more than a hundred studies on the FITD technique over
the years and all of the results show in one way or another the effect
is 'reliable and occurs more frequently than would be expected by
chance' (e.g., Dillard, Hunter, & Burgoon, 1984). Some other classic
FITD experiments were early studies with psychologists testing. For
A team of psychologists telephoned housewives in California and asked
if they would answer a few questions about the household products they
used. Three days later, the psychologists called again. This time,
they asked if they could send five or six men into the house to go
through cupboards and storage places as part of a 2-hr enumeration of
household products. The investigators found these women were more than
twice more likely to agree to the 2 hr request than a group of
housewives asked only the larger request (Freedman, J.L. &Fraser, S.
More recently, persons were asked to call for a taxi if they became
alcohol impaired. Half of the persons had also been asked to sign a
petition against drunk driving (which they all did) and half had not.
Those who had signed the petition (complied with a small request) were
significantly more likely to comply with the larger request of calling
a taxi when impaired compared to those who had not been asked to sign
the petition (Taylor, T.,& Booth-Butterfield, S.1993).
There have been more than a hundred studies on the (FITD) technique
over the years and all of the results show in one way or another the
effect is "reliable and occurs more frequently than would be expected
by chance" (e.g, Dillard, Hunter, & Burgoon, 1984).
Positives and Negatives
Now that we have so many media outlets to persuade the public of one
belief or another, the 'Foot in the Door' strategy is used in both
positive and negative ways. We are hearing persuasion and propaganda
and are totally unaware at times when it is happening. One example
would be through commercials. We may not even be paying close
attention to a commercial on the TV or radio; but a tune, picture, or
phone number given in a song, slips into our subconscious and comes up
in our minds much later. The use of the FITD technique is great and a
positive strategy for politicians, marketers, recruiters and more.
Yet it should be used in an honest, fair and helpful way, which does
not happen on too many occasions.
The Internet is now one of the main places propaganda and persuasion
tactics are used and too often, abused. Criminals of all kinds use
the FITD technique to influence people of all ages. They trick people
out of their money, make false promises and worst of all use their
'foot in the door' tactic to hurt innocent victims. The impact on
teenagers is tremendous. Just a click on the computer can take an
innocent teenager, accidentally, to places they should never have had
the chance to look at. Child abusers use the Internet to get their
'foot in the door' and slowly persuade a person to agree to a small
request like sending them a picture and then later get the person or
child to meet them some place. People, especially young people, are
so easily persuaded to do things that can put them in such danger and
many times lead to their death. This happens just by letting a
perpetrator get their 'foot in the door' and into one's mind. They
can change the behaviors and thoughts of the victim and use it over
and over before they ever get caught. Detectives have advanced their
techniques in catching these criminals, but all too often they are too
As Anthony Pratkanis and Elliott Aronson point out, "Every day we are
bombarded with one persuasive communication after another. These
appeals persuade not through the give-and-take argument and debate,
but through the manipulation of symbols and of our most basic human
emotions. For better or worse, ours is an age of propaganda"
(Pratkanis and Aronson, 1991).
The use of the FITD technique is great for politicians, marketers,
recruiters and more. The use of the Internet has accelerated the use
of persuasion and propaganda to the point of no control, and that is
scary. Today people are overloaded with information.
Have the tactics and multitudes of ways we receive communication on a
daily basis been a good thing or a bad thing? For the very first
time, people are communicating and discussing issues all over the
world in a completely uncensored way. Is that a good thing, or bad?
Sites and References
Burger, J.M. (1999).The foot-in-the-door compliance procedure: A
multiple-process analysis and review. Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology Review, 3,303-325.
Dillard, J. (1990).Self-inference and the foot-in-the-door technique:
Quantity of behavior and attitudinal mediation. Human Communication
Freedman, J.L. & Fraser, S. C. (1966). Compliance without pressure:
The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social
Gueguen, N. (2002) Foot-in-the-door technique and computer-meditated
communication, Computers in Human Behavior,18, (1),11-15.
Perloff, Richard M. (2003) The Dynamics of Persuasion: Communication
and Attitudes in the 21st Century. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,
Inc.Publisher,Mahwah, New Jersey. (2) 247-249.