Was the Push For an Assault Weapons Ban a Bad Idea? Digging into the “Door In the Face” Technique

The Senate’s sad failure to pass any kind of gun control legislation has led to the rehashing of what can now be deemed failed political tactics. Much of the focus has been on the decision of gun control advocates to initially pursue an assault weapons ban:

Congressional consideration was also delayed by gun control proponents’ insistence on a ban on assault weapons. This was a nonstarter to begin with; nearly everyone familiar with gun politics recognized that such a ban would never pass the House even if it made it through the less conservative Senate.


Gun control advocates have told me the assault weapons ban was intended to be a bargaining chip. Ask for the moon, settle for less—in this case, universal background checks. If that was the strategy, it backfired.

In psychology literature, “ask for the moon, settle for less” is known as the “door in the face” (DITF) technique. Unlike the “foot in the door” technique, in which the fulfillment of a small request makes people more likely to fulfill a large request, DITF uses an unreasonable request as a way of making somebody more likely to subsequently fulfill a more moderate request. The technique was first demonstrated by Robert Cialdini’s famous 1975 experiment (pdf) in which students became more likely to volunteer for a single afternoon after first being asked to volunteer for an afternoon every week for two years.

So, can research on DITF shed some light on why pursuing an assault weapons ban didn’t pan out? A meta-analysis conducted by Daniel O’Keefe (pdf) identified three factors that can mitigate the power of DITF: 1) the two requests are not made by the same person, 2) there is a gap in time between the two requests, and 3) the request is not for prosocial action. On the first two factors, gun control advocates were clearly in a tough spot. Certain pivotal senators may have had specific conversations with the same exact people, but in general the impersonal and amorphous nature of advocacy makes it difficult for a request to seem like it’s coming from the same person. The timing was also bad. It would have been impossible for the requests to be made in the same conversation, which is generally what happens in experiments, but even given the standard glacial pace of Congressional activity I think the process was drawn out more than gun control advocates would have liked.

In terms of the prosocial nature of the requests, it would seem that increasing gun safety is a prosocial action. However, some of O’Keefe’s other research (pdf) suggests that the effects of prosociality largely arise due to guilt over denying the initial request. It’s hard to believe Senators would feel guilty over killing an assault weapons ban when they know the policy is a non-starter.

Two other studies also suggest that DITF may be ill-suited to political behavior. The first study (pdf) investigated whether DITF could boost voter turnout. In two field experiments the researchers found that DITF not only had no significant effect on voter behavior, it actually performed worse than a standard Get-out-the-vote script. Perhaps the mechanisms behind DITF simply are not effective in a political context.

The second study is a DITF meta-analysis conducted by Thomas Feeley of the University of Buffalo. Feeley found that although DITF often makes people say they will fulfill the second request, the verbal commitment doesn’t always translate into behavior. While Feeley’s analysis doesn’t necessarily mean DITF is useless as a negotiating strategy, it does cast doubt on its efficacy in a heated political environment where many other things are working against you.

None of this is to say that the factors mentioned above doomed the prospect of new gun control legislation. Clearly, electoral concerns and the obstacle posed by a GOP-controlled House were the most important factors in the demise of universal background checks. It’s also possible that idea of an assault weapons ban was so farfetched it couldn’t properly serve the “in the face” role in the DITF plan. However, even if those circumstances had been more favorable, research suggests a political debate over gun legislation is a poor place to employ DITF. Hopefully gun control advocates have learned their lesson.
Cialdini, R., & et al, . (1975). Reciprocal concessions procedure for inducing compliance: The door-in-the-face technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31 (2), 206-215 DOI: 10.1037/h0076284

Feeley, T., Anker, A., & Aloe, A. (2012). The Door-in-the-Face Persuasive Message Strategy: A Meta-Analysis of the First 35 Years Communication Monographs, 79 (3), 316-343 DOI: 10.1080/03637751.2012.697631

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