The “Foot-In-The-Door” Money Trap

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.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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