Why You Usually Say “Yes” When You Should Say “No”

In order to fully understand why you usually agree to do something that you don’t want to do or you know that you shouldn’t do, we have to think about persuasion. You see, when you agree to do anything, it’s because for one reason or another, you’ve been persuaded to do it.

It could be that you felt some kind of pressure from another person - a peer, a superior, or even a subordinate. It could also be that you felt pressure from a cause or someone that you’ve didn’t know or had never met.

But at some point, you chose to say “yes” because to you, it was more favorable to do so. To look at this another way, you felt less pain.

Psychologists and marketers have known for years that most people will do all they can to avoid pain, even if the gain is greater. In other words, it takes a lot more gain to compensate for the pain to get it.


Persuasion is all about changing behavior, either yours or someone else’s. It may be done directly or indirectly. For instance, you may be given an order - a command - by someone superior to you or who has authority over you. And then you have a choice. You have to decide if obedience is better than non-compliance.

It’s likely that in many cases, you don’t give this much thought, and that’s probably just as well because if you carefully considered the pros and cons of everything in which you had to make choices, you’d go nuts, as Malcolm Gladwell so aptly points out in his book, Blink!

But if you’ve said “yes” too often, at least to the extent that you’ve overloaded your schedule or agreed to do things that you really didn’t want to do, and there was no real reason why you should, then it’s likely that although the opportunity to think about it was there, you chose to ignore it. And so we need to explore a bit why that happened, and why it happens so often.


Halo Effect

There’s a phenomenon known as the Halo Effect which according to Robert Cialdini, in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, “occurs when one positive characteristic of a person dominates the way that person is viewed by others” (p. 171). And as Cialdini points out, this is especially true when it comes to appearance.

For example, those who are attractive appeal to jurors more than those who aren’t, and it could well be that you’re more likely to agree to something if it comes from someone who you find attractive than someone who isn’t.

Attractiveness extends to things such as height, hair, and apparent fitness. The last UK Prime Minister who was bald, for example, was Winston Churchill.

Appearance is also why the decision to hire a candidate or not is often made within the first 30 seconds of meeting someone. The interview is almost a formality. If you’re attracted positively by the way someone looks when you first meet them, then you’re more likely to give them a job than someone you dislike, and that’s before either one of you says anything important.



Reciprocity is the feeling of inherent obligation to repay someone for a kindness they’ve shown you. (Revenge is the negative side of this - the desire to get even. Evenness, because you’ve felt a loss, or deficit, because of a real or imagined wrong done to you.)

Saying, “Thank you,” is a form of reciprocity. Someone gives you something, and then you thank them for it. The loop has been closed. If you just took it and walked away, then the conversation would feel open - awkward.

Anytime someone does you a favor, or you ask them for one, you create the right atmosphere for reciprocity. That’s because it creates a feeling of indebtedness. To a greater or lesser extent, they feel that they “owe” you.

You can see right away how easily people can be manipulated. In fact, those who ask you to do things, even though they know that you’d rather not, may be doing this deliberately. The feeling you have of indebtedness can be so strong that you’ll cave-in even to demands that ordinarily you’d refuse.

The thing about favors is that it’s hard to refuse them. Someone can hold the door open for you, bring you a coffee, or retrieve your wheelie bin from the street because it’s as easy to do it with one as it is with two. And if you do refuse a favor, then it can seem like ingratitude. Why would anyone turn down the opportunity for someone to do something nice for them?

Imagine the school-boy who’s eager to impress a young lady. In the old days, he’d offer to carry her books for her. Few girls were so brash as to refuse, but just imagine how it made the boy feel when she did.

That’s the power of reciprocity, and the only way to thwart it, is to refuse the gift.

It’s why Government employees are prohibited from accepting anything above a certain value from people working for a foreign government, or in a business, or why politicians will often pay their own way, instead of accepting gratuities from someone they don’t know or don’t know well. It’s the only way that they can prevent themselves from becoming psychologically obligated to another person.

There was a time when stores provided free samples - food, cosmetics, etc. This was done because it increased sales. People found it irresistible to simply accept the sample, and then walk away without buying the whole pack.


An effective tactic for getting you to say “Yes” when you want to say “No,” is to offer a concession - a sort of “discount” in the request.

“Would you do X? If not, will you do Y instead?”

Of course, there’s conversation between the two questions, but if the first request seems unacceptable, then by comparison, the second one seems reasonable, even if it isn’t.

In friendships, of course, favors are common, and people are less likely to feel that sense of obligation because they know that friends do things for one another because of the relationship. But when a stranger does it, or someone at work that you’re not particularly close to does it, then it can create a sense that you’ve come out of the arrangement ahead of them, and in one way or the other you’ll attempt to redress that balance.


How do you say “no” when you feel compelled to say “yes”?

So how do you say “no” when that’s what you want?

You have to reframe the request that is made to you. In other words, you can’t take it at face value. Instead, you have to reword so that you understand why you’re being asked. This requires preparation on your part. More than that, you have to develop a healthy suspicion.

What does that mean?

It means that you have to assume that when you’re given something, it’s because either consciously or subconsciously that person expects to get something else in return. It could be that that person expects nothing more than a smile. Smiles are powerful. When people smile at you, then it makes you feel better about yourself.

People also like to feel appreciated, and doing something for you may be the only way they can think of to get you to do that.

Much of this occurs subconsciously, but it’s nevertheless very real.

The thing is that if you regularly are asked and accept tasks that you don’t want to do, then the strategy that you use to avoid that has to be more drastic than for someone who doesn’t have that problem. And so whether a favor actually means that the other person is trying to manipulate you or not, you have to persuade yourself that when it occurs it’s because that person wants to activate the reciprocity trigger in you.

Cialdini suggests this in his book. He explains how in the United States, fire inspectors would visit homes to talk to people about safety. They’d provide information, make an inspection, and maybe even give people a fire extinguisher. And then they’d suggest that people upgrade their fire detection systems. Cialdini says that it would be easier to resist the temptation - the reciprocal pressure - to buy such a system if you reinterpreted what the inspectors gave you as sales devices, rather than gifts or favors. In other words, homeowners had to assume that the inspectors had come with an ulterior motive.

Of course, when you reframe gifts and requests from others in this way, it makes you suspicious of them, rather than just their motives; and so you have to be careful that you don’t destroy the trust that you have in each other. But the reciprocity trigger explains why the saying is true: If you want to get anything done, give it to a busy person. Busy people do get more done, but it could also be that the reciprocity trigger has been exercised on them more than on others.


Law of Consistency

There’s a third factor that pressures you to say “yes” when you’d rather say “no”, and that’s something call the Law of Consistency.

This law is about being true to yourself; being consistent with yourself.

Perhaps you say “yes” because you want to be helpful, and if you say “no”, then you can’t. You shut yourself out of that possibility.

Maybe you just like to please people. You want their approval. You want to be a team player. You don’t want them to frown because of something that you do or say. And that’s normal. But it’s not normal for you to say “yes” consistently when you want to say “no”.

Consistency is a kind of reciprocity in that if you say “yes” to someone, then you’re more likely to say “yes” to them again.

It’s easier to resist at the beginning, than it is to do so later. You’ve heard of the “thin edge of the wedge.” This is it personified.

You say “yes,” then you say it again, and again and again. The more we say “yes,” the harder it is to say “no.” Just ask any dieter.

If you’re in the habit of saying “yes,” then to break that pattern, you’re going to have to get used to feeling uncomfortable when you say “no.” And it’s that niggle of doubt or hollowness in the pit of your stomach that will pressure you to change your mind.

You’ll try to be consistent with your past decisions because in so doing, you justify them and yourself. To say, “no’” would mean that you had to admit that there was something wrong with what you’d decided before. This is why people tend not to reverse big decisions. It would be inconsistent with their convictions to do so. They’d have to deny themselves.

And people want to be seen as consistent. Subconsciously, they don’t want to be seen as vacillating - changing their minds depending on which way the wind blows. Such people are perceived as unreliable. The problem can occur, however, when you’re automatically consistent; when you don’t give any thought to it.

And so the solution is to pause to think about it; to avoid agreeing simply because it’s your habit to do so.


You must also guard against agreeing to “small” requests, too. It’s the thin edge of the wedge again. It’s easier to agree to something big if it’s preceded by one or more smaller requests, than it is if you’re asked outright.

Of course, you can’t scrutinize every choice you’re offered. And so you must find a way to decide when a decision - when the opportunity to automatically say “yes” - requires more thought. This will take practice. It’s not something that you’ll do automatically. In fact, you’ll have to work at it because it’s so contrary to what you’ve done in the past.

In essence, you’re creating a new habit; and for something of this magnitude, that will time.


Want to know more about why you usually say yes when you should say no? Contact me here


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