The ‘But You Are Free’ Effect

But You Are FreeWhen you ask someone to do something, be sure to include the statement that they are free to choose to do it or not.  Adding this phrase doubles the likelihood they will do it.

A detailed analysis of more than 22K subjects in 42 separate psychology studies demonstrates this startling result. The simple act of telling people they don’t have to do something makes it much more likely they will. In the studies, subjects donated more money to charity, agreed more readily to participate in a survey, and gave more to someone asking for a bus fare home.

This ‘But You Are Free‘ effect is based on the fact humans become more closed-minded when their choices are reduced by others. Explicitly giving people the right to say no reaffirms our freedom to choose. In psychological terms, the appearance of choice increases compliance to a request.

The exact phrase used is not critical; “but obviously do not feel obliged” works just as well as “but you are free.”  While significantly stronger when done in person, this effect even works in print or in email.  As a result, marketers should consider including these phrases in the call-to-action portions of campaigns.

You should follow me on twitter (@jbecher) but you are free not to.

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13 Responses to The ‘But You Are Free’ Effect

  1. greggoryamiller March 10, 2013 at 7:42 pm #

    Such a cute ending, I will be trying this in my sales job!

  2. Sarith March 10, 2013 at 10:37 pm #

    I would add on to giving a hint on the outcome of the choices.
    By making the person aware of the outcome of his choices you not only provide the freedom of choice but also ensure he or she is aware of the consequences of their action.

    “While you are obviously not obliged to leave your comments on this blog. Doing this will help the readers and me get an outside perspective and fine tune my future posts :).”

  3. Anonymous March 11, 2013 at 4:02 am #

    The principle of ‘offering choice to increase compliance’ can also be applied to parenting. For example, my kiddos are likely to respond very differently to “if you are free, I would love to have your company at the dinner table” vs. “come now, dinner is waiting.”

    • Jonathan March 11, 2013 at 7:41 am #

      Since the experiments all included adult participants, I cannot say for sure whether this would work on kids.

  4. Niel de Vries March 11, 2013 at 10:39 am #

    Great post!I know that I’ve used sentences like that in the past. But I never knew it was scientifically proved that it works! Inspiring, I already see a multitude of uses where you can use that technique!

  5. hintofspin March 12, 2013 at 7:14 am #

    The Psychological Reactance Theory validates this technique, people respond to the loss of their freedoms by wanting them more. Freedom of behaviour is considered to be a pervasive aspect of human life. Making people to believe that they are free to make their own decison is a very successful persuasion technique, which is used all the time by advertisers and public relations professionals.

  6. Maxim Zakhartchenko March 13, 2013 at 11:13 am #

    Funny, I used this “trick” whole my life, only today realize that was an influence tool.

  7. Peter March 14, 2013 at 8:05 am #

    Fascinating post. I’ve noticed something similar in the “switch-off-your-iphone-during-this-presentation” debate. Tell people they can’t use their phones and they’re twitching for the screen within minutes. Telling them they are welcome to text, e-mail, do what they will, and suddenly those phones are left unmolested on the desk.

  8. Laura Baker July 24, 2013 at 12:49 pm #

    As I just told my manager, it worked on me! Rather than thinking, “oh work-related email, I’ll come back to it later,” I clicked on it immediately. Looking forward to trying it out tomorrow.

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