How a Sticky Note Can Trick People Into Doing Your Bidding

There are many unpleasant tactics people use when trying to get others to comply with a request: manipulating, bullying, pleading, lying, maybe even a little crying. But there is one surprisingly persuasive tool that is likely sitting on your desk right now, likely never before used in this sneaky manner: the sticky note. 

In a recent write-up at Harvard Business Review, psychologist Kevin Hogan reviews some inventive research conducted by Randy Garner at Sam Houston State University. In it, Garner found that when he asked his colleagues via interoffice mail to help him out by completing a survey — a boring, time-consuming task — they were much more likely to actually do it if he attached a handwritten Post-It to the request. 

Hogan writes of Garner’s research:

In one experiment, he sent surveys to three separate groups of 50 professors (150 professors total). Three groups received three different requests, as follows:

Group 1 received a survey with a sticky note attached asking for the return of the completed survey. 

Group 2 received a survey with the same handwritten message on the cover letter instead of an attached sticky note.

Group 3 received a survey with a cover letter, but no handwritten message. 

What happened?

Group 3: 36% of the professors returned the survey. 

Group 2: 48% of the professors returned the survey.

Group 1: 76% of the professors returned the survey.

There are a couple of reasons why this might’ve happened: First, the sticky note is noticeable — it draws your attention because it doesn’t quite belong, which makes it harder to overlook. But the real power of the little note, Hogan theorizes, was likely the handwritten message, which makes the request more personal than an anonymous and boring form that needs filling out. Hogan writes, “Ultimately, the sticky note represents one person communicating with another important person — almost as if it is a favor or special request, which makes the recipient feel important.”  

The Hidden Persuasive Powers of the Sticky Note