In the early 1990s, a team of US researchers posed as panhandlers on the streets of Santa Cruz, in California. As you’d probably expect, when they asked, “Can you spare any change?” most people ignored them. When they asked, “Can you spare a quarter?” they did better. But when they asked, “Can you spare 37 cents?” or “Can you spare 17 cents?”, an amazing 75% of passersby gave money. Thus was born what became known as the “pique technique”.
To a terrifying degree, we trundle through life giving scripted responses in familiar situations: saying “fine” when someone asks how we are; sending “all best wishes” to strangers via email; and mumbling “sorry” when people demand cash. But the moment you disrupt the tedium by giving people something mildly interesting to think about, all bets are off. “It’s as if the unusual detail shakes the person out of a slumber, to see the moment as the beginning of an interaction, rather than as environmental noise to tune out,” Alex Fradera wrote recently on the Research Digest blog, reporting on a new meta-analysis that confirms the pique technique works. Derailed from their self-protective scripts, most people turn out to be fairly empathic and generous. I know, right? I can’t get my head around it, either.
A related and even more powerful form of script disruption is what psychologists call “non-complementarity”, which involves deliberately not complying with the patterns of emotion or behaviour that a situation seems to call for. A stunning real-life example from NPR’s Invisibilia podcast concerned a Washington DC dinner party interrupted by an armed robber. One fast-thinking guest offered the intruder a glass of wine and some cheese. He accepted, put the gun away, and grew quiet. “I think I’ve come to the wrong place,” he muttered. He demanded that everyone present join him in a group hug – and then he left. (With his wine glass.)
You don’t need to believe that this story shows love will always triumph over hate. It simply demonstrates that even the scariest encounters rely, at least partly, on everyone following an agreed yet unspoken choreography. As soon as one participant declines to do so, the momentum that’s been carrying things toward confrontation might suddenly fade to nothing.
I’m not sure I’d risk it at gunpoint, but in less lethal situations, it’s surely worth a try. What if you responded to a needy friend’s constant demands for reassurance by gently refusing to provide it, or to a spouse’s snippy criticism by agreeing that they might have a point? (It has been shown that therapists can trigger greater behavioural change in their patients when they opt for a non-complementary approach – for example, by abstaining from giving advice when it’s asked for.)
There’s a depressing implication to all this research, which is that most of the time we’re effectively sleepwalking through life. But there’s an uplifting one, too: it can be almost comically easy to wake us up.
Categories: The helpful column