So There’s a Knock at the Door…

I had an interesting experience recently. One evening, around 9 p.m., there was a knock at the door to my home. Nothing interesting about that except that I was surprised because our front lights were off and that usually signals no one is home. However, because the knock sounded different I thought perhaps it was a neighbor so I turned on the lights and opened the door.

The face was not that of a neighbor. Instead there were two young men, activists for an environmental issue, combing the neighborhood. I have to admit, had I known that’s what I would have been faced with I would not have opened the door. Once I’m at home I’m usually not too social because it’s family time or I’m trying to get things done.

Nonetheless, because I’d already opened the door I wasn’t about to say, “If I’d have known it wasn’t a friend or neighbor I would not have answered the door. Good night.” I thought about it but I’m not that rude. That meant I was obligated to listen to their presentation.

There’s a proverb in the Bible that says, “The first to present his case seems right, until another comes along.” In other words, there are two sides to every story. However, as I listened to them talk about river water being polluted because of the strip mining of mountain tops I thought, “Who could be against this?”

Since they were asking for signatures on what seemed to be a good cause I obliged. Of course, holding the clipboard and seeing the names and addresses of my neighbors made me feel more compelled to sign. That’s the power of consensus at work. We feel drawn to move with the crowd, especially when the crowd is composed of people just like us. Neighbors qualify big time in that regard.

Now to the very interesting part of the story. After I signed the petition the individual who’d done most of the talking asked for a donation. Mind you, as I already stated, I didn’t want to listen to a solicitor at 9 p.m., let alone make a donation so I politely declined. The response to my declination was something along the lines of, “We’re not looking to break anyone. Any donation will do. Most neighbors are giving anywhere from $36-$48.” Again, I said, “No” followed with, “goodbye.”

Next I walked over to my computer and started typing this. I understood exactly what was going on and felt it was a little manipulative. I’m guessing many people would have gone through a similar thought process. You hear about a good cause and think a signature to support it is no big deal. There was no mention of financial support being needed at any time during the presentation. However, after signing the petition it was very hard for me to resist giving a donation.

Why was it hard to refuse to monetarily support their cause? Because of the pull I was feeling from the principle of consistency. This principle of influence tells us people want to behave in ways that are consistent with what they’ve said or done in the past as well as remain true to their beliefs and values. Because I’d signed the petition I was implicitly saying the legislation they were proposing was good and should be pursued. I wasn’t thinking it takes money but if I stop and consider I know it does. So when I was asked to “put my money where my mouth is” it became very, very hard to refuse.

Throw on top of that more consensus pressure – not only did my neighbors sign, supposedly they were donating $36 to $48 – and that made it even harder to say no.

Even though I completely understood the psychological forces at work I still wrestled with my decision. How about people who had no idea what was going on? I think many people probably felt trapped and donated not because they wanted to but because they felt compelled to.

So what’s the moral of the story? First, be careful about what you agree to. Something as simple as signing a petition can lead to other unintended consequences.

Second, and more important, trust your gut. Your “gut feeling” is usually an accumulation of things you can’t quite put your finger on but are taking in through many of your senses. The good news is you don’t have to rationalize every feeling. If you feel trapped and uncomfortable with what’s being asked of you, just say “no.” You might feel awkward in the moment but you’ll probably feel much better when you look back on your decision.

Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes!”

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