Something for Nothing: Why Doing Nothing Can be a Potent Persuasion Tool

Tuesday, 01 April, 2014 05:54Comments

By Steve MartinStrength

For nearly seventy years scientists who study the persuasion process have consistently revealed a simple, yet remarkable truth; when it comes to effectively influencing others, small changes can make a big difference.

Examples abound, from the subtle adjustments made to a meeting room environment that lead to improved business outcomes to the addition of an extra option that spawns disproportionate responses to an offer. In the case of adding an extra option, it is interesting to note new research that suggests, in certain contexts, the additional option to an offer doesn’t even have to be substantive.

Simply offering people the option to ‘do nothing’ can have a surprising influence on how committed they subsequently become to that choice over time.

In the latest issue of Psychological Science, Wharton Business School Professor Rom Schrift and his Georgia State University colleague Jeffrey Parker describe a series of experiments designed to test the influence that a ‘do nothing’ option had on people’s commitment to a task.

In one study participants were asked to identify as many words as possible from one of two word-search puzzles. One contained the names of famous actors and the other, capital cities. Everyone in the study was told that they would be paid for each correctly identified word and could quit the task at any time. They were then assigned to one of three conditions:

word search

1) Forced-choice: here, participants were asked to choose which of the word puzzles they would work on -- capital cities or famous actors

2) Rejectable-choice: here, participants were asked to choose which of the word puzzles they would work on and also offered a third option which was to choose neither topic and not participate further in the study. In other words choose to ‘do nothing’.

3) Forced-choice with three topics: here, study participants were given the option to choose from three topics -- famous actors, capital cities, or famous ballet dancers. This last topic was considered an unappealing option as the researchers figured that, compared to actors and cities, most people would be unfamiliar with ballet dancers.

The results showed that there was no difference in the amount of time that participants spent on the task in the forced-choice conditions (1 and 3 above). However those given the option to choose one of two word puzzles or alternatively ‘do nothing’ spent much longer on the task once they had chosen it. In other words the small act of including a ‘do nothing’ option increased participants’ commitment to the task by, on average over 40 per cent.

At first glance, the idea of adding a ‘do nothing’ option seems nonsensical. Unlike the adding of an extra topic which increased the puzzles on offer from two to three, the inclusion of a ‘do nothing’ option didn’t substantively add to the puzzles available. But this misses a crucial point; the option to ‘do nothing’ is not considered simply as an additional alternative. Instead it reinforces in the mind of the individual who does make a choice that their chosen path is a good one. If it wasn’t then, he or she would surely have opted out.

As Schrift and Parker point out, this feature is unique to no-choice options. As odd as it may first sound, adding the ‘do nothing’ option serves to boost an individual’s commitment to the choice they make which, in turn, increases their commitment and persistence to complete it.

april iir graph

But won’t adding a ‘do nothing’ option be risky? Surely it also increases the chances that some individuals will do just that? Of course this could be true. However, in some instances it may still prove to be a beneficial strategy, especially if the benefit gained by the increased commitment of those who do make a choice (and remember in the study that this was an over 40 percent increase) outweighs the loss of those that don’t. In fact with the right type of incentives in place it should be feasible to significantly reduce the number of people who choose to do nothing and still reap the benefits that adding a ‘do nothing’ option has on subsequent commitment.

Despite the initial counter-intuitiveness of this approach there are many situations where persuading an individual to commit to, and then persist with a task or goal will be important. Whether you are a personal trainer persuading clients to persist with fitness programs, a nutritionist seeking sustained compliance to diet plans, or a business coach supporting an executive in the achievement of a professional goal, the introduction or highlighting of the ‘do nothing’ option could be a small change that makes a big difference to the outcome.

I’m sure that you, dear reader, will have opinions and comments of your own. You should feel free to email me directly with them or, if you prefer, you can post them in the comments section below.

Of course you could also do nothing!



Schrift, R. Y., & Parker, J. R. (2014). Staying the Course The Option of Doing Nothing and Its Impact on Postchoice Persistence. Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797613516801.



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