Social Labeling and Compliance: An Evaluation of the Link between the Label and the Request

Article excerpt

Research on the effect of a negative social labeling on compliance has shown divergent results. Sometimes, a negative labeling made after a first request leads to decreased compliance with a further request, while, in other cases, this labeling leads to increased compliance. These contradictory results could come from the presence or absence of a link between the label and the nature of the further request. An experiment was carried out in which subjects were the target of an initial negative label (unpleasant remark on the fact they ate horse meat presented on top of a shopping bag they had agreed to keep an eye on). Then, a few seconds later, they had the opportunity to carry out a prosocial behavior linked with the label (a petition in favor of animals) or without a link with it (a petition for the diminution of pollution). Results showed that compliance with the later request was affected by the initial labeling only when there was congruence between the request and the label.

Previous studies on the effect of a negative label on compliance have shown discrepancies in results. Steele (1975) was the first to point out that a negative label increased helping behavior. During an initial phone contact, the experimenter insinuated that the subject was individualistic and certainly did not care about what was taking place in the community. Two days after this phase of labeling, another experimenter phoned the same person and offered the possibility to give some time to a charity in the district. The figures reveal that this negative label led to an increase in the compliance rate: 93% in this experimental condition against 46% in a control group. For Steele the negative label decreased the subject's self-esteem. So, when the possibility of restoring it was given a little while later, it, quite naturally, led the subject to comply with the request made. This explanation in terms of restoration of self-esteem seems plausible but, regrettably, a negative label does not necessarily imply this positive effect on compliance with the request. For instance, Goldman, Seever, and Seever (1982) showed an inhibition of helping behavior following a negative label. These authors asked a first confederate to step up to students entering a library, and ask the way to such and such a place on the campus. In one of the conditions, the confederate thanked the subject warmly (positive label) whereas, in another one, the confederate behaved in a rude offensive way, questioning the helpfulness of the subject and his ability to give a direction correctly (negative label). In a third group, "thank you" was said just to be polite. The subject went into the library and was approached a few minutes later by a second confederate who asked if the subject would agree to give 2 hours', time for the benefit of a telethon which was taking place the month after. Finally, in a fourth group, the second request was made without any peliminaries. The results showed that in the positive label condition, the compliance rate with the last request was significantly higher than in the condition without labeling (67% against 40%) whereas these two groups distinguished themselves statistically from the group with a negative label (20%) and from the control group (17%). Thus, for Goldman et al. these results confirmed the self-perception theory explaining the "foot-in-the-door" effect (Freedman & Fraser, 1966) used here. The first request led the subject to perceive himself as a helpful person in the positive label condition and as a rather unhelpful person in the negative one. Once this self-perception had been activated, the subject behaved in a way congruent with this self-perception: the "helpful" line quite logically led the subject to comply with the request whereas the "non-helpful" line led to refusal of the second request. These results seem surprising because they are in sharp contrast with Steele's theory which stressed the fact that the negative label favored subsequent helping behavior. …