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How To Force People To Do Anything (And Have Them Thank You For it)

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Does someone in your life not want to do something? Do you not care, even the slightest bit, about their wishes? Here's how to force them to complete a task they don't care about, and even feel superior while you're doing it.

The Endowed Progress Effect

The Endowed Progress Effect is something you'll see quite a lot in your life. It's psychological manipulation, but you'll rarely resent it, because that is how the effect works. If you've played a videogame, particularly one that lets you pick up tokens along the way, you've experienced it. If you've got a card that gets you a free cappuccino or sandwich when stamped 10 times, you've experienced it. Anything that lets you achieve small goals in pursuit of a bigger goal is the Endowed Progress Effect.


And you can turn it to your advantage. If you have a task in your life that needs doing, a person in your life who doesn't want to do it, and a cold, dark heart, you have the raw materials for the Endowed Progress Effect. Here's how you get started.


"Give Away" the First Step

Okay, here's the hard part. You have to be willing to do a little work. If you're clever, the work can be minimal, or even nonexistent. Whatever the task is, take the first step. If the task involves getting a list of hard-to-find items, buy the first item online. You can even overpay. If you need to complete a major project, make a start. The "start" can be as minor as making a list of necessary steps and crossing off the first step. (If you've got guts, the first step can even be, "make a list of necessary steps.")

This technique employs the carrot and the stick. The carrot is the "endowment." People feel like they've gotten something for free, and this motivates them. In one study of this effect, a car wash gave away two sets of rewards cards. The first set had eight spaces for stamps. Each time the customer washed their car, one space got stamped. Collect eight stamps and the ninth wash was free. The second set of cards had 10 spaces, two of which were already stamped. Earn eight "more" stamps, and the "eleventh" wash was free. The cards which had been pre-stamped were redeemed nearly twice as often as the cards that had not been stamped. People work for the carrot.

People also work for the stick. Perhaps "stick" isn't the best word for it — "brain worm" would be better. An ignored task is just an ignored task. A task in which the first step is done is an uncompleted task, and people can't let an uncompleted task go. This has its own name: the Zeigarnik Effect, named after Bluma Zeigarnik, a psychologist who studied the fact that waiters had better recollection of unpaid orders and students had better recollection of uncompleted work. An uncompleted task sticks in the mind. By starting the task, you make it so your target can't just forget that they have something to do.


What Matters is Progress, Not Value

If you want to get really manipulative, you can throw in a few "free" tasks. This doesn't mean you have to do them yourself (although you might). Throwing in free tasks could simply be putting in tasks that take only a few seconds of time. Find a phone number. Put a message up on the fridge. Move papers onto the desk.


The important thing is to make people think that they are making a lot of progress. It doesn't have to be important progress. This is illustrated by another "rewards card" scheme. A group of volunteers were asked to fill out a survey about a restaurant in the area that was supposedly starting a rewards card program. Customers buy a certain number of meals, at a certain price, and they get a meal of the same value free. Some rewards cards had spaces for 12 meal stamps, with two "free" stamps already on them. Some had spaces for 15 stamps, with five "free" stamps on them. It can't be a surprise that customers responded more favorably to the card with five stamps, even though the number of meals they had to buy was the same.

What is surprising is that customers did not respond to how much those five free meals were worth. To earn a stamp, a meal had to be of a certain value. If the meals had to be at least two dollars, then the five-stamp cards essentially "comped" customers $10. If the meals had to be at least $10, then the customers were "comped" $50. If an endowment is bigger, customers should be more eager for it, but they weren't. The actual value wasn't important. The only "endowment" that people consider is how much they seem to progress towards their goal. Give people meaningless tokens, or the satisfaction of crossing off meaningless goals, and they'll keep working.


Throw In Hindrances Only Towards the End

People don't only respond to goals. Sometimes they respond to the problems that hamper them in getting to the goal. The key is, the problem has to start when the goal is in sight. Here we don't look at humans, but at the noble lab rat, which over the years has had plenty of problems to overcome.


The experiment was simple: attach harnesses to lab rats, and put them through a maze. At the end of the maze was food, and the rat knew it. What it didn't know was that at some point during the maze, its own harness would stop in place, holding it back. The rat also didn't know that the harness would measure how hard the rat was pulling, but presumably it would not concern itself with that part of the experiment. The rat ran, and the harnessed stopped, and the rat pulled. When it was stopped towards the beginning of the maze, it pulled lightly on its harness. When it was stopped with the cheese beckoning right around the corner, it pulled much, much harder. Obstacles don't have to be stumbling blocks. They can be motivations.

So if there is an obstacle to the completion of the task, make sure it's near the end. This might be a challenge. What if the obstacle naturally will come up in the first few steps? Remember, there are no first few steps! Keep expanding the task. Break up the first steps into smaller and easier tasks. Make up a few first steps and pretend you did them already. Rearrange the task until your little rat feels like they're almost done when they hit the problem.


Make Up Some Reason For it All

In another study of the subtleties of the Endowed Progress Effect, customers at a store were given their little stamped cards and their list of conditions. If they bought enough wine, they'd get a free bottle. The researchers tried all sorts of variations, but what they found really made the difference was telling the customers why they were being favored with these cards. The customers who were told that they were getting the cards as part of a program offered to customers "with their purchase record" were much more likely to look favorably on the rewards card program than ones who were simply offered the rewards. Making up a plausible reason for the endowment motivates people, no matter how meaningless the reason is.


Looking for a reason to motivate your target? Try "Because I love you so much." That always gets 'em.

[Via The Endowed Progress Effect, How Artificial Progress Increases Effort, Endowed Progress Effect]