Reto Schneider has a great post about a study by Youngme Moon. The study took advantage of the well-known reciprocity effect. People are more likely to provide information, money, assistance, etc. to someone who has helped them. The reciprocity effect is central to many methods of persuasion. If you do someone a favor, even a small one, they will feel pressure to reciprocate. That’s why fundraisers often send you “free” return address labels — they hope that reciprocity will lead you to make a donation that far exceeds the cost of the labels (which you never wanted in the first place).
In the studies, people responded to questions about themselves on a computer. For example, the computer might ask “What do you dislike about your appearance?” or “What have you done in your life that you feel most guilty about?” Getting people to provide detailed responses to such personal questions can be challenging, but Moon found that engaging reciprocity helped. If the computer revealed something “personal” about itself, people were more likely to do the same. For example, the computer might state:
“You may have noticed that this computer looks just like most other PCs on campus. In fact, 90% of all computers are beige, so this computer is not very distinctive in its appearance. What do you dislike about your physical appearance?”
People were much more likely to reveal personal details about themselves when they were responding to the computer’s revelation. By revealing something about itself, the computer led people to reciprocate. What’s most interesting about this case is that people were affected by the reciprocity effect even though they weren’t interacting with another person — they’re responding to questions on a survey.
This approach provides a great tool for researchers who need their participants to provide personal information. But it could also be used for more nefarious purposes. Telemarketers could use it to solicit personal information. I would bet that people would be more likely to give up their online banking password in response to a reciprocity prompt as well.
Moon, Y. (2000). Using Computers to Elicit Self-Disclosure from Consumers The Journal of Consumer Research, 26 (4), 232-339