A suspect—let’s call her Jane—is being interrogated by two detectives. "Bad cop" screams about what awaits Jane if she doesn't come clean: a long sentence, jailhouse, the works. "Good cop" is calmer, quieter. She reassures Jane: My colleague's a little agitated. I'm sure we can work this out without any of those horrible things happening.
According to a recent body of research, these detectives aren't just following a script from the movies. They're leveraging a powerful psychological susceptibility—the "emotional seesaw effect"—that potentially has widespread application.
In a German study published by Frontiers in Psychology, participants in a computerized trivia game were told they stood to win up to €2.50. After they gave each answer, they were told whether it was right or wrong; at the end, they learned how much they'd won. For half of the participants, the standard relationship between success and reward was inverted. Confusingly, wrong answers earned them more money, not less, and vice versa, putting the discombobulating emotional seesaw in motion.
Afterwards, all participants were stopped by an actor asking them to sign a nonsensical petition. Participants who had been seesawed were over 25 percent more likely to sign. They were also less likely to voice critical questions about the proposition.
The emotional seesaw joins a host of influence tactics well-known to social psychologists and pushy salesmen alike. This is depressing news for anyone who cherishes the idea that their will is their own. But take heart: An earlier study indicated that the seesaw effect was eliminated when, before being asked for their compliance, participants were prompted to snap out of seesaw-induced "mindlessness"—by doing basic calculations, for example. Of course, in real life, there's no researcher stepping in to help.
A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.