Cats, Kids, Cults and Katrina – A Lesson in Compliance

My cat loves to sleep on my chest. She’ll stay there for hours unless I put my hands on her as if I’m holding her down. If I do that, she’ll growl, squirm and eventually leave.

My son will be starting high school next year at his favorite school in our city. I recently asked him where a friend of his would be going to school. He said she lived on the border between two districts and could choose between two different schools. Then he said, “I wish I had a choice.”

“But I thought you wanted to go to MacArthur High School.”

“I do,” he said. “I just wish I had a choice.”

Years ago I attended an introductory seminar put on by a cult-like organization. The first hour was devoted to asking each attendee one question: why are you here? People said things such as:

“I’m here because a friend recommended it.”

“I’ve heard good things about your organization.”

“I saw what you did for a co-worker and I wanted to learn more.”

None of these answers were sufficient. They would accept only one answer:

“I am here because I choose to be here.”

People who did not ultimately agree with that statement were asked to leave.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, our family, like many others, reached out and offered assistance. A few days later, I watched an interview with one of Katrina’s victims. She was understandably shaken and upset. Eventually, she started complaining that people weren’t doing enough to help. She said the government and the people in the rest of the country were practically ignoring them. While I still felt compassion for her, I also felt a touch of anger and resentment. We had helped and were planning to do more. Now, I wasn’t so sure.

Later, I saw an interview with another of Katrina’s victims. She, too, was shaken and upset. But as the interview was ending, this woman begged the news anchor if she could say just one more thing. He agreed. She turned to the camera with tears in her eyes and thanked everyone who was helping the people of New Orleans. She said she realized they didn’t have to do that and that she was overwhelmed with all the support she and her family were receiving. I immediately wrote another check.

Why have I shared these stories with you? Because within each is an incredibly powerful insight into persuasion. An insight that is too often overlooked. Think about it:

My cat didn’t want to leave. My cat wanted to be able to leave.

My son doesn’t want to go to another high school. He just wishes he had the choice to do so.

Cults realize that commitments made in the context of choice are deeper and more durable than those made under pressure. By having attendees make a conscious choice to be in the room, they ensure that those who stay for the introduction are more likely to stay for the indoctrination.

I wanted to give to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. But I wanted to do so freely. The moment I was made to feel guilty and told I had to do more, I shut down. But the moment I was thanked for my previous efforts and assured that I didn’t have to do what I had already done, I wanted to do more. And I did.

In our quest to gain compliance, we would be wise to remember that sometimes the best way to get people to do things is to remind them that they don’t have to.

Originally published October 2, 2005