Updated on 09.17.14

The “Foot-In-The-Door” Money Trap

Trent Hamm

A few weeks ago, I received a simple request from a person I know in the community. She asked me to go to a website and sign a simple petition on behalf of a cause she’s passionate about. She explained the cause in detail and provided the URL, making it really easy for me to just click and sign the petition.

The cause was something I agreed with, so I was happy to click through and sign the petition for her.

Later, she emailed me again, asking if I would donate $20 to the cause. After some thought about it, I declined to donate.

What I found interesting, though, is that I thought about it much more than I would have with a cold call for donations. I had already been introduced to the cause, for one, and I had already “invested” in it a small amount by signing that petition. I felt involved already, even though I was really not, and this sense pushed me to continue my involvement by donating, even though it wasn’t the best rational decision.

This is a crystal-clear example of one of the oldest sales tricks in the book – the foot-in-the-door technique.

Here’s how it works. A person comes to you with a simple request that seems to be for a genuine good purpose. The tiny time investment you have to make seems worthwhile for the positive good generated by your action – signing a petition, granting a really simple request, even getting a freebie.

Then comes the hook – a much bigger request. You’re already invested in the situation, though, by your earlier request. So instead of simply shutting off the new request immediately, you listen – and you’re more open to this big request than you ever would have been.

This technique was described in detail in a classic article by Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, entitled Compliance Without Pressure:
The Foot-in-the-Door Technique
. In the study, a team of psychologists telephoned housewives in California and asked if the women would answer a few simple questions about the household products they used – a simple request that many complied with.

Three days later, the hammer drops. The psychologists called back, and this time, they asked if they could send a small team into the house to go through cupboards and storage places as part of a two hour investigation into how these products are used.

Guess what? Freedman and Fraser found that women were twice as likely to agree to the big request if the little request was made first. In short, by getting their foot in the door with the simple questions, Freedman and Fraser experienced twice as much success with their big requests than just cold calling.

Everyday Foot-In-The-Door Scenarios

Supermarket samples

You’re offered a free taste of food along with a bit of chit-chat with a store employee. You’re now a bit invested in the product and much more likely to go ahead and buy it.


My children often do this naturally. They’ll ask to go outside, then that will eventually translate into filling up the swimming pool or getting out the sprinkler.

Charitable giving

Just like my example mentioned above, many charities will get you interested by having you sign a petition for what seems like a good cause. Later, they’ll try to hook you with a donation.

Sales flyers

They’re having a great sale at the store! Yet, once you’re in the door, you’re already invested – so when you see another few items you need, you’re way more likely to just pick them up now, greatly reducing the value of your bargain.

Free “lunch” seminars

You’re offered a free meal in exchange for listening to an investment or real estate scheme. You’re already in the room with a free meal, so you’re already invested in it.

Avoiding The Foot-In-The-Door Trap

1. Each action is an individual choice

Just because you’ve signed a petition has no impact at all on whether you should donate to the cause. Just because you tried a free sample has no impact at all on whether you should buy the product. Slow down, think about this choice, and don’t let yourself be pushed by previous interactions.

2. There is no such thing as a free lunch

Those investment advisors aren’t giving you lunch to be nice guys – it’s part of their sale. The grocery store isn’t giving you samples because they’re awesome – it’s part of the sale. Quite often, signing a petition won’t really help the cause – it’s just a way to get you involved in the charity.

To put it simple, be mindful, especially when something seems free or seems to be too simple. Quite often, there’s a salesman at work.

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  1. Procrastamom says:

    I’m confused. Did you donate or not? First you say you “DECLINED TO DONATE”. Then in the next paragraph you say you “continue my involvement by DONATING.”

    Did you really mean DECIDED to donate?

    Now I’ve got to go back and reread the post to get the message you were really trying to communicate. :)

  2. SteveJ says:

    Timely post. This happened to me two weeks ago, a guy came by and introduced himself as having just come from my neighbor’s house, so my thought was he wanted to use the phone or something. I invited him into my home and out of the rain. Two hours later I’m desperately trying to get him to leave without physically throwing him out the door (it was a near thing). I’m big on as being as honest as possible, but I really wish I had just lied to the guy to get him gone sooner. “No thank you, I’m not interested” didn’t seem to get through. I thought it might be a good case for an etiquette expert, at what point do you say “get the heck out of my house before I call the police?”

    I’ve given some thought to putting up a no soliciting sign, but I don’t mind if the neighborhood kids come by and ask me to buy overpriced chocolate bars.

  3. david says:

    Heh. I can mostly eat a nice free lunch at Costco from all the samples, and I don’t think I’ve ever bought what was on offer. I rarely buy any prepared food. Though I did get suckered into Trader Joe’s nom-tastic hummus the other day.

  4. Alex Givant says:

    It’s one of the trick of thing called “cognitive dissonance”: person asks you for small favor first and when he/she asks for bigger favor you more likely to do it since your brain tells you: you like this person, otherwise you won’t do a first favor for him/her.

  5. Neil says:

    I was just talking to a coworker about this same idea in regard to the new $99 price on the iPhone 3G. $99 seems pretty good for such a full featured phone, so a consumer that isn’t willing to pay $200 for a phone but is willing to pay $60 might go for the $99 iPhone. Foot in door. Then they compare the $99 iPhone 3G with the $200 iPhone 3Gs. Feature wise $100 more for seems pretty good. All of a sudden the person originally only willing to pay $60 is spending $200.

  6. Jaye Sunsurn says:

    I think the technique would have been more successful if you seek out a ‘future commitment’ when the petition was signed. Asking “would you consider the cause to be worthwhile to donate to at a future time?” Because its talked about in more a theoretical sense it can be seen as a yes (and they know not to hit up those who say ‘no’), and then when they hit you back later, a person who said yes would feel ‘guilty’ if they declined, as they pre-approved the desire to help financially. This technique is covered a great deal better in Cialdini’s work.

  7. Lisa says:

    Good article Trent. It’s always good to think about each action & decision.

    BTW, I think this should be “simply” not “simple”

    “To put it simple, be mindful, especially when something seems free or seems to be too simple. Quite often, there’s a salesman at work.”

  8. Sandy E. says:

    This reminds me of those times at the make-up counters in department stores where they offer to give women a free make-over. Afterward, you would feel awful if you didn’t buy at least one of the 14 different products they used on your face. They just spent so much time on you. I’ve seen these hooks also with someone wanting to clean your glasses for free, or your jewelry – again, hoping you’ll buy the product after they spent some time on you.

  9. Noelle says:

    Thanks for this post as something similar just happened to me: an acquaintance that I used to use for personal services just called to ask to take me to lunch to discuss helping him with some writing (for free, I’m sure, or payback for the lunch) for his business that’s about to *boom* he says. I took his call because of our prior association, but I have to remember that I’m not required to participate in any new deal he’s trying to pitch.

    More aggravating, a “friend” who sells an MLM product called a few weeks ago and left a generic “call me back, it’s important” message. I was really worried about her until I discovered from her Facebook page that it was a solicitation for donations where I buy product and she donates the product and her profit. That urgent message was just sneaky and has lowered my opinion of her. She’s now a friend in quotes because I think I’ve become just another potential sale.

    Oh, and I love to eat my way through Costco at lunchtime, too. LOL.

  10. Nikki says:

    Coming from someone who works in the non-profit world, I use the foot-in-the-door technique all the time, except I don’t see it as trying to fool someone out of their money or time. When I talk to people who are interested in my work, I offer them small, easy ways to get involved and learn more about the organization. I use that as a screening tool for inviting people to get more involved, so I don’t annoy people who are totally uninterested with further requests! From my perspective, I use the foot-in-the-door out of consideration for community members, not as a manipulative tool to coerce something out of them.

  11. ell says:

    I recently read this book that talks about the techniques salespeople (and everyone we interact with) use to have “influence” over us (perhaps not always consciously). It’s called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini, and I highly recommend it.

  12. Robin Crickman says:

    Something I learned from larger businesses in my area. They allocate an amount for charitable giving at the beginning of the year. They divide
    the amount into quarters and accept proposals each quarter. They evaulate the proposals and decide which ones will be funded that quarter.

    No reason an individual family can’t do something similar. Might want to accept monthly proposals or even weekly proposals, but let anyone who wants a donation know that their request will go into the queue with others and you will only be able to fund some of all the requests. You might also want to have a special amount set aside for something which you judge worthy and urgent in addition to the regular.

    Not only will this help keep one’s finances within
    budget, it will also give a person a chance to think carefully about which possibilities they want to fund and which will have to be bypassed.

  13. One of the biggest examples of this is the free vacation offer, “just for attending our seminar”–where they put the hard sell on you. Enough people fall for it that it gets repeated over and over.

    The whole purpose of the foot-in-the-door method is to get you to lower your defenses. That’s a huge hurdle because once it’s breached you’re infinately more likely to do something you wouldn’t do under normal circumstances.

    The best salesmen I’ve seen over the years were the ones who eased the prospect in gradually, so gradually that the prospect isn’t even aware what’s happening. They gently move the prospect past each hurdle until he’s in so deep he can’t get out, or at least doesn’t think he can, and the salesman is in control.

    The best advice is that offered by author Robert Ringer, “learn to say NO, politely but firmly”. Or as it says in the Bible, “let your yes be yes, and your no be no”. The manipulators thrive on maybe.

  14. JT says:

    I’ve run into this issue via companies that try and market to you via “friends”, e.g. Avon. It works like this: A friend or distant relation of yours sets themselves up as a “rep” for a company, and throws a “party” at their house and invites you. Out of courtesy, you accept…seems harmless enough to show up. Then when you get there, they have wine & cheese, a salesperson to throw the sell on you, and the peer pressure of other friends to get you to buy something you don’t really want or need. Now that I know the drill, I politely decline these “invitations”.

  15. Steve says:

    Is this foot in the door?:
    Guy compliments girl 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…
    Guy takes girl to lunch 1,2,3,4,5…
    Guy takes girl to dinner 1,2,3,4,5…
    Guy takes girl for a walk 1,2,3,4,5…
    Guy takes girl home just to watch a movie 1,2,..
    Guy asks girl to dance to a song 1,..
    Guy & girl kiss
    Guy & girl start going out
    May be not because both parties sort of know where it may lead? None of them is unsuspecting…

  16. zaxour says:

    What was the actual wording you used while declining the donation? This has happened with me tons of times and I just don’t have the right words to decline it politely and without getting the other person offended.

  17. I really didn’t know that.. I think I usually accept such stuff subconsciously.

    Thanks for the tip :)

  18. Rajeev Singh says:

    This technique is alos used very well to sell insurance policies by the companies. They would generally call couples to a place offering them free gifts and then would try and sell them insurance policy.

  19. Mary W says:

    One technique of door-to-door sales people is to hand you something (e.g., petition, menu, clip board). Often something laminated or otherwise clearly not something they plan behind. Once you’re holding something it makes it harder to say, “no thanks” as you close the door on them.

    Once I learned that technique I resist the natural inclination to take something someone is trying to hand you.

  20. Dr C says:

    Most of this particular technique goes back to trying to keep balance in relationships (technically called Equity Theory). So, if someone does something for me, I do something for them. We are taught this very early on, or tit-for-tat. It’s to a degree the glue that keeps society together.

    A more interesting technique is door-in-the face, where someone asks you, say to buy some expensive tickets & when you say no, asks for something more reasonable ($5, spare change). This one works on the contrast effect or what is reasonable?

  21. Skip says:

    I read a study once (how’s that for specific?) that said that the human brain is more or less chemically wired to subconsciously reciprocate some sort of gift/token giving, even if the rational part of the brain realizes that it’s not a gift of any real worth. This is one of the reasons why “Airport Moonies” (if you’ll pardon the perhaps indelicate term) in the 1970s had success getting donations in airports by handing out flowers first.

    Once you feel like you’ve been “given” something, you’re implicitly involved in a transaction whereby you may feel that you “owe” something in return. (Like the “$500 Cash Back!” ads for car sales for example, instead of just lowering the price by $500.)

  22. Georgia says:

    I learned early (age 16) to say “no” and mean it. I will listen to your spiel, but will still say no. I ordered a $300 set of pots and pans for my “hope chest.” Back then (1953)they didn’t have the short period you could cancel. I paid $10 down and then decided to not go through with it. I lost my $10. That hurt because I was working 48 hours a week and clearing $19.48 a week. That $10 was the cost of $24. labor for me.

    My husband got upset because I told a baby furniture company they could give their spiel and give me a baby blanket. But I knew I could say “no”. However, husband could not. Lucky for him it was such a good buy. It was safety furniture and came in about 5 pieces that all interchanged to make almost all the baby furniture you would ever need. It lasted us through 2 kids and would have lasted through 10 more, it was that good.

    I have just been contacted yesterday for a sell. The fellow had fixed my carport and called two ladies to come and talk to me about the problem. Since he hadn’t charged me for fixing the carport, I was on the hook. But I refused to be pushed. I took their card and will examine the company thoroughly, as it does sound good.

  23. katy says:

    Nothing is more expensive than ‘free’. Great post.

  24. CPA Offers says:

    After reading this I learned some valuable info especially when you were talking about Free “lunch” seminars thank you for this post good stuff.

  25. Rachel says:

    Excellent post about a fascinating phenomenon.
    A closely related phenomenon, which could be used (or perhaps is already planned) as a follow-up post, is the “door in your face” strategy.
    In this situation, the initial request is a lot to ask of a person by any means, and when the door is effectively about to be slammed in the face (i.e. saying a definite NO), the salesman “compromises” and asks for less, with more compliance than there would have been had this been asked for from the start.

    “Can I conduct an hour-long interview on how you use our product?”
    “Well, can I just ask the basic questions then, that will only take a few minutes?”

    “Would you like to donate $100 to our worthy cause?”
    “Well, would you like to buy a button for $1?”

    And in supermarkets, less-than-wonderful sales can look a lot better if the initial price was bumped up, so it looks like you’re getting a better discount.

  26. D.B. says:

    I have had work colleagues who sponsor the “parties” that are really just shills for overpriced products. I attended a few of these in the past and have bought products – some used and some wasted. Never again.

    My policy is to decline all requests for donations, sales or MLM’s from work colleagues, even girl scout cookies. It’s a hard policy, but it’s easier than to appear to be playing favorites. It’s really hard to know how to deal with work situations like this because I feel that I am supposed to be a “team player” even if it goes against my values.

    Any advice for on the job solicitations?

  27. Shadox says:

    Great post. The example of the free real estate seminar and the free food samples you give is also an example of a different phenomenon: folks tend to reciprocate if you give them something first.

    Please who receive a food sample or more likely to buy not only because they tasted and liked the food (although that certainly happens too), but also because subconciously they feel some obligation to give something back after receiving something for free.

  28. Mick says:

    This actually happened to me some years ago. They made me sign for a book subscription and found that I had to buy books every three months for a couple of years. Worst part they were very strange editions of famous books. That money should have gone somewhere else!

  29. Jeff says:

    My 5 year old daughter has this down cold. She will ask very nicely if she can have a piece of chocolate or some small snack. Then, after I say yes, she will then say, “well, if its a small one, can I have two?” I already committed to 1, so why not 2? It is amazing that kids at that age can bargin so well.

  30. CathyG says:

    I found this interesting:

    One technique is to ask for a big thing in order to get a little thing, but the other technique is to ask for a little thing in hopes of later turning it into a bigger thing. Odd that our psychological makeup would react to both of those.

  31. Amy says:

    I’m glad Nikki responded–I really don’t lump charities in the same boat as free samples or salespeople and products/vacations. Most people aren’t just looking for new charities to donate to, so being aware of what’s out there (what your acquaintances volunteer with, what friends and family find important, etc) has to start somewhere. If the charity needs to do a foot in the door, I get it. I also get that I don’t have to donate. AND I don’t sign petitions unless I REALLY believe in them. I think a lot of folks don’t think too hard about what they sign, perhaps in an effort to get the person with the clipboard to go away.

    I do struggle with knowing when/what to support. I use charitynavigator.org to help me weed out the charities that don’t deserve my help, and I basically try not to buy stuff from coworkers, ever. On the flip side I don’t participate in candle sales and other stuff my own charity does–I don’t want to ask people to buy junk. Just donate if you want to support a group…

    A side annoyance with donations: inevitably you end up on the mailing list. I donate online because I don’t want letters in my mailbox, and I hope my donation is being used for the cause, not to mail solicitations for more money. Doesn’t seem to work that way, though.

  32. This happened at the last blood drive at work. Not happy with just a pint of the gift of life, the nurse tried to get me to do a double red cell donation. This was followed with weekly emails telling me about a shortage of platelets, and phone calls asking me to come down to the blood center because of a critical shortage over the Memorial Day weekend. A classic example of the foot-in-the-door technique. My “investment” started with my blood donation; I’m sure the next will be an appeal for bone marrow.

  33. Robin says:

    Nothing annoys me more than repetitive requests. Turns me right off. I can see where you would feel a greater inclination to donate in this situation, but when salespeople try and pull it… they get snubbed by me. Most of them are so phoney, I don’t even want to be in their presence.

  34. Ailuri says:

    zaxour- I find that a really good way to say “no” is to say “Sorry, I have a personal policy not to…” (“buy anything without talking to my family first”, “sign petitions”, “invite anyone into my home”, “purchase things at parties”, “buy blue things”) The best part is- it doesn’t have to make ANY sense, because by saying it is a “personal policy” implies that you have deeper reasons you don’t wish to discuss.

    It works really well because it plays upon the same neurobiology that the sales techniques do.
    If the person refuses to let it go and continues to push a sale after being told “It’s against my personal policy”, they are setting themselves up psychologically as the bad guy- even in their own minds- and negating any rapport they have built with you already. (Imagine how you’d feel pushing a friend or acquaintance after they told you something was against their personal beliefs)

    The hardest part of doing this is getting over the weirdness of saying you are personally against something that you might not really be against in other circumstances. I’m always “personally against” signing petitions (what I tell the people on the streetcorner), except when I want to…(when an issue makes me seek out petitions to sign)

  35. Joanne says:

    I can’t tell you how many times and how much money I have invested in different items that I would not have gone out to buy on my own. I find it hard to say “no” without feeling guilty, but after reading all of the comments here, I think I will put some of the suggestions to use. Thank you, everyone, for contributing.
    As someone once said “If I want to buy something, I will buy it. I don’t want to be SOLD something!”

  36. Mule Skinner says:

    I get very annoyed by these things. My challenge is to moderate my inclination to be very rude to them.

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