Compliance Gaining

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I. Introduction

II. First Generation: Strategy Selection

III. Second Generation: Goal Pursuit

I. Introduction

The term compliance gaining refers to interactions during which one participant attempts to convince a second to perform some desired behavior that the second otherwise might not perform. Seeking and resisting compliance are common within personal relationships: an adolescent asks her parents if she can borrow the family automobile; a husband ignores his wife’s hints to take out the garbage; a young man suggests to the person he has been dating that they see each other exclusively. Compliance-gaining episodes also occur within professional relationships: A mid-level manager asks her boss to reorganize which employees report directly to her; a dentist emphasizes the need for a patient to floss regularly; college students assigned to work together on a class project pressure a wayward member to complete his part of the project.

Attempts to seek or resist compliance vary in several respects. The person seeking compliance (called the message source) may state explicitly what the other party should do or may only hint at the desired behavior. Message sources may or may not explain why the requested action needs to be performed, how it benefits particular parties, or how it can be performed without undue effort; they also may express indebtedness, promise rewards, reference rules, or threaten undesired consequences. The person whose compliance is being sought (called the message target) may comply almost immediately, or instead may ask questions, suggest alternatives to the requested action, offer excuses for not complying, or refuse without explanation. The target person may comply only so long as the message source is watching or may internalize a rationale and continue performing the desired behavior over time.

Compliance gaining is an important area of study for three reasons. First, attempts to seek compliance can have important instrumental outcomes. When parents ask their adolescent child never to get into a friend’s automobile if that friend has been drinking alcohol, at some point lives literally may depend on the effectiveness of this influence attempt. Second, seeking and resisting compliance are acts that reflect and impact relational closeness, commitment, and satisfaction. Couples who frequently enact demand–withdrawal sequences, for example, report lower levels of marital satisfaction (Caughlin & Huston 2002). Third, compliance-gaining interactions reveal interesting individual, situational, and cultural variations. Different people often approach the “same” situation in distinct ways, and most recognize that different situations call for different approaches. Two generations of research have explored the ways in which individuals seek and resist compliance.

II. First Generation: Strategy Selection

The term compliance gaining is closely associated with a research program initiated by Gerald R. Miller, a long-time faculty member at Michigan State University. Miller distinguished compliance gaining from traditional studies of persuasion in two respects (Miller & Burgoon 1978). First, persuasion scholars usually focus on public and mass communication contexts, whereas compliance-gaining research focuses on dyadic and group contexts. Although most people are as likely to encounter persuasive attempts from their friends, families, and co-workers as from product advertisements or political campaigns, up to that time persuasive attempts in personal relationships had been largely ignored. Second, persuasion scholars typically focus on message effects, whereas compliance-gaining research focuses on message choices. Persuasion scholars have investigated the impact of fear appeals, one-sided versus two-sided arguments, and other factors on audience attitudes. The same “effects” focus is present in research on sequential request strategies such as the “foot-in-the- door” technique (Cialdini 2001). As a complement, Miller called for research on how persons actually select means for seeking compliance.

Miller et al. (1977) conducted the pioneering investigation of compliance-gaining strategy selection. The “MBRS study” (from the initial letters of the authors’ names) was couched within a developmental view of interpersonal communication that assumes that individuals want to maintain a sense of control over their social environments and hence acquire strategies for influencing others. Message sources make predictions about the probable outcomes of using various compliance-seeking strategies, but the information used to do so changes as relationships develop. When the parties share an interpersonal relationship (i.e., know each other well), sources can rely on “psychological-level” knowledge – that is, information about how the message target is unique or different from others – to predict how the target will react to alternative strategies. In contrast, when the parties have a non-interpersonal relationship (i.e., do not know each other well), sources must rely primarily on sociological and cultural-level knowledge – that is, information about how the target is similar to others – to predict the target’s reactions. Drawing on this view, Miller et al. asked what compliance-seeking strategies were available to message sources, how their choice of strategies varied across situations, and whether there were stable individual differences in strategy choice.

Beyond setting a research agenda, the MBRS study provided a methodological exemplar for subsequent compliance-gaining research. Participants read hypothetical scenarios that varied in terms of whether the source-target relationship was interpersonal/non-interpersonal and whether the request would have short-term/long-term relational consequences and rated how likely they would be to use 16 different compliance-seeking strategies in each scenario. Participants reported greater likelihood of using a wide variety of compliance-seeking strategies when they shared a noninterpersonal rather than an interpersonal relationship with the target.

The MBRS study spurred a large body of research on how people select compliance-seeking strategies. Scholars debated the comprehensiveness of different typologies of compliance-seeking strategies and created typologies of resistance strategies. They mapped perceived dimensions of compliance-gaining situations, showing that people distinguished the source–target relationship (e.g., intimacy, power) and the nature of the request (e.g., benefits to self and other, likelihood of target resistance). Scholars investigated whether situational dimensions predicted strategy choice, and searched for individual differences (e.g., dogmatism) in strategy selection as well as sex and gender differences.

Despite this flurry of activity, first-generation studies identified few reliable predictors of compliance-seeking strategy choice. Three criticisms of such studies eventually emerged (Kellermann 1994; Wilson 2002). First, studies were employing ad hoc lists of strategies that varied in numerous, unspecified ways. This made it difficult to discern whether strategies rated as likely to be used differed from less likely strategies in terms of explicitness, reasoning, politeness, or some other quality. Second, researchers were implicitly adopting implausible models of how individuals produce messages during conversation, assuming that individuals weighed predicted outcomes for many strategies and then “selected” and enacted an optimal strategy. Third, researchers vigorously debated the validity of having people rate their likelihood of using pre-formulated compliance-seeking strategies in response to hypothetical scenarios.

Research modeled on the MBRS study greatly diminished after 1990, and some claimed the study of compliance gaining did so as well. Such claims, however, conflate the phenomenon of compliance gaining with a particular research program (Wilson 1998). A newer generation of research continues to explore how individuals seek and resist compliance.

III. Second Generation: Goal Pursuit

Contemporary compliance-gaining research is not couched within one research program; rather, research is guided by several theoretical perspectives (e.g., attribution/appraisal theories, politeness theories, the goal–plan–action model, message design logics) and methods (e.g., written responses to scenarios, observation of naturalistic episodes) (Wilson 1998). Despite this diversity, contemporary research shares three assumptions about participants in compliance-gaining interactions. First, participants frame influence episodes around goals. Individuals do not conceive of their actions in broad terms such as “seeking or resisting compliance,” but in more specific terms such as asking for assistance, giving advice/avoiding unwanted advice, seeking permission, or getting others to follow the rules (Dillard 2004).

Second, people typically pursue multiple, potentially conflicting, goals when seeking or resisting compliance. Employees may want to change their boss’s ideas about a presentation, but they want to do so without alienating the boss. A college student wants to give her sister advice, but also wants to avoid sounding parental. Multiple goals arise from general norms for efficient and polite interaction as well as cultural definitions of roles and selves (Fitch 1998; Kim 2002).

Third, people have fleeting awareness of their goals and manage limits in their ability to adapt quickly. Because altering abstract plans requires cognitive effort, people may repeat the same argument in a louder tone of voice when more fundamental shifts in what goal is being sought or how it is being sought are needed (Berger 1997). Negative affect or stress may compound such tendencies.

Aside from assumptions about people, second-generation compliance-gaining studies share four qualities. First, contemporary research is meaning-centered, exploring how participants themselves conceive of seeking and resisting compliance. Participants achieve shared definitions of situations by orienting to goals, though at times individuals in the “same” interaction have different ideas about what is, or should be, going on. People from different cultures associate somewhat different relational meanings with influence goals (Fitch 1998). People with different message design logics (i.e., implicit theories of communication) also have different ideas about what is relevant or appropriate to say when seeking or resisting compliance.

Second, contemporary compliance-gaining research is theoretically guided. Theories highlight particular behavioral features/sequences as well as factors that predict such features. As one example, attribution theories direct attention to the accounts that message targets offer when resisting compliance as well as to the persistence with which message sources seek compliance; these theories assert that factors that influence judgments about why a target is resisting shape emotions/motivations and hence these message features (Wilson 2002).

Third, contemporary research is better attuned to the incremental, interactive nature of compliance seeking (Sanders & Fitch 2001). Researchers have used techniques such as videotaping conversations and afterwards asking participants to watch the tape separately and describe what they were thinking/feeling, to bridge the individual and dyadic levels of analysis.

Finally, contemporary research tends to be contextually situated. As one example, recent work has explored how compliance-gaining interactions in families with a history of child abuse or neglect differ from those in nonmaltreating families (Wilson et al. 2006). This work illustrates why compliance gaining remains an important area of study, but it is also undertaken with awareness that child abuse and neglect are multiply determined by risk factors at many levels of analysis (individual, dyad, community, culture) and hence analyses of compliance gaining must take this into account.


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  2. Caughlin, J. P., & Huston, T. L. (2002). A contextual analysis of the association between demand/ withdraw and marital satisfaction. Personal Relationships, 9, 95–119.
  3. Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and practice, 4th edn. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  4. Dillard, J. P. (2004). The goals–plans–action model of interpersonal influence. In J. S. Seiter & R. H. Gass (eds.), Perspectives on persuasion, social influence, and compliance gaining. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, pp. 185–206.
  5. Fitch, K. L. (1998). Speaking relationally: Culture, communication, and interpersonal connection. New York: Guilford.
  6. Kellermann, K. (1994). Classifying compliance-gaining messages: Taxonomic disorder and strategic confusion. Communication Theory, 4, 3–60.
  7. Kim, M. S. (2002). Non-western perspectives on human communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  8. Miller, G. R., & Burgoon, M. (1978). Persuasion research: Review and commentary. In B. D. Ruben (ed.), Communication Yearbook 2. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, pp. 29–47.
  9. Miller, G. R., Boster, F. J., Roloff, M. E., & Seibold, D. (1977). Compliance-gaining message strategies: A typology and some findings concerning effects of situational differences. Communication Monographs, 44, 37–41.
  10. Sanders, R. E., & Fitch, K. L. (2001). The actual practice of compliance seeking. Communication Theory, 11, 263–289.
  11. Wilson, S. R. (1998). Introduction to the special issue on seeking and resisting compliance: The vitality of compliance-gaining research. Communication Studies, 49, 273–275.
  12. Wilson, S. R. (2002). Seeking and resisting compliance: Why people say what they do when trying to influence others. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  13. Wilson, S. R., Shi, X., Tirmenstein, L., Norris, A., & Rack, J. (2006). Parental physical negative touch and child noncompliance in abusive, neglectful, and comparison families: A meta-analysis of observational studies. In L. Turner & R. West (eds.), Family communication: A reference for theory and research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. 237–258.

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