It's easier than you think to get people to commit bad deeds

Posted on December 20, 2013

When asking someone to do something unethical, we underestimate what a difficult position we've put them in. New research suggests that to avoid social discomfort, many people will agree to perform a bad deed rather than say no.

Vanessa Bohns and her colleagues first asked 52 student participants (31 women) to estimate how many people they'd have to approach on campus in order to get three people to tell a white lie. The lie was to sign a form saying the participant had given them a verbal introduction to a new university course, when really he/she had done no such thing. After making the estimate, the participants went out on campus to test their persuasiveness.

On average, the participants thought they'd have to ask 8.47 people before 3 agreed; in reality they needed on average to ask just 4.39. In all, 91 per cent of the participants overestimated how many people they'd need to approach.

A second study was similar but this time 25 participants estimated how many people they'd need to ask before 3 agreed to vandalise a library book by writing the word "pickle" inside in pen (ostensibly as part of a prank the participant was involved in). The participants' average estimate was that they'd need to ask 10.73 people on campus; in fact they needed only to approach an average of 4.7 people before 3 agreed to this task. Eighty-seven per cent of participants underestimated how compliant people would be.

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Source material from British Psychological Society