Perhaps my last post on assholes and policing got me thinking about the word cop, but in any case, I don't think I've talked much about a stream of research that I did years ago -- about 20 -- with my colleague Anat Rafaeli on "the expression of emotion in organizational life." We studied various settings in which people were expected to express certain emotions and suppress others, or used emotions strategically as part of their jobs. We studied occupations including grocery store clerks, telephone bill collectors, and cops. In particular, Anat and I published a paper that combined qualitative data that she collected on Israeli police interrogators (to be clear, these were Israeli cops trying to get confessions from Israeli citizens, as we wanted to avoid the entire Arab/Israeli and terrorist thing) and data that I gathered during a three-month ethnography of U.S. telephone bill collectors who collected overdue Visa and MasterCard payments for a large bank.
Our research, building on prior work on influence (especially Robert Cialdini's masterpiece), suggested that the reason that encountering both a nice and a nasty person was more effective than just a nice person or a nasty person was because of the "psychological contrast effect." In essence, the impact is to make the "carrots" offered by the good cop seem even sweeter and the "sticks" offered by the bad cop even harsher. Both the cops and the bill collectors used this method routinely, although as the cops worked mostly face-to-face and the bill collectors did this over the phone, there were different variations used, and of course different stakes. But the contrast effect seemed to be evident in both settings. For example, Anat's fieldnotes of an interrogation she observed indicated:
There were two interrogators in the room. There was an extreme difference in their style. One (the manager) was a real source of stress to the suspect, while the other was much less threatening, even friendly. The second one was also physically less threatening. He was slim, less muscular, more dressed up, and more delicate in his appearance. During the interrogation he also drifted along with the suspect, while the other used a much harsher tone.
It also seemed to be effective. For example, one "good cop" bill collector told me how when his friendly style isn't working, he sometimes has a "bad cop" co-worker do the call:
Then, usually, they pay pretty quick. Especially if it is Tom who does it. He has had a couple of managers tell him to cool down, where he has just pissed this person off and this person hangs up in a huff. But the next thing you know they're on the phone to the nice collector going, "What do you want, what do you want? Don't you ever have him call, I don't ever want to talk to him again, he was so rude."
We also identified some interesting variations of the good cop. bad cop method. Looking back, they sound to me like we could have used simpler language, but I was a young academic then, and was probably rewarded by the peer review process for doing so... and wasn't quite at the career stage where I was concerned about writing for human-beings. The variants include:
1. Sequential good cop, bad cop: This is the classic approach, as we saw with the above bill collector, where you start with the good cop and go back and forth between encounters with the two until your "target" complies -- in this case wither paying the bill or confessing to the crime. Just like in the movies, the targets usually caved-in to the good cop, sometimes saying things like " I never want to see that guy again."
2. Simultaneous good cop, bad cop. That was they both work on you at once. The bill collectors didnt use this method, but the police did -- and would argue openly with each other to strike fear in the heart of the suspect (Anat has notes of a bad cop saying "He looks like dirt to me" and the good cop saying "He looks like a good guy to me."
3. One person plays both bad and good cop. The idea here is to create contrast, as one interrogator explained "I speak in a very low, relaxed tone. So that way, when I yell, it really makes them jump."
4. Good cop in contrast to hypothetical bad cop. The bill collectors used this a lot, they would be customer service oriented but warn that if the debtor didn't pay now, they would be turned over to a collection agency, where not only would the people be nastier, they would be taking more aggressive action to take away their house or car.
Please note I am not endorsing these methods, especially by the police, but the fact is that good cop, bad cop is an effective tool for compliance because using it -- often in very subtle ways -- does apparently enhance the impact both the carrots and the sticks. In fact, this qualitative study is bolstered by experiments on negotiation teams by researchers Susan Brodt and Marla Tuchinsky showing that -- under most situations -- having both a good cop and a bad cop on a negotiation team is a winning strategy.
BUT there was also a twist we did not address in our research, and in fact, would have been tough to do as we were studying people in "the wilds" of organizational life. Their research shows that starting with a good cop and then using a bad cop was not effective, that the method only was effective for negotiating teams when the bad cop went first and the good cop followed. So, this may mean it really should be called "The Bad Cop, Good Cop Technique." In thinking about this finding, and looking at our old data, I notice that -- in just about all the cases we looked at -- although the cops or bill collectors started out nice at times, they would switch back and forth between good and bad cop, so there would be many times when the good cop followed a bad cop -- as the example of the nice and nasty bill collector above shows. One exception is the "hypothetical" bad cop technique, where the good cop warns that if you don't pay now, things are going to get a lot nastier -- which in the case of debts, everyone knows is not a hollow threat.
As I wrote in The No Asshole Rule, although I generally am opposed to workplace assholes, there are times when they do seem to be effective -- after all, fear and intimidation do change human behavior, despite the dangerous side-effects. The implication of this theory and research is if you are an asshole, and want to be a more effective one, you would be wise to team-up with a good cop. This isbecause doing so will make your nastiness sting even more and because good cops also often play the role of toxic handler, cleaning up the mess that asshole bosses and other nasty people leave behind.
I wonder, do other people use variations of good cop, bad cop? Or have you had it used on you?
Here are the citations to the articles:
Brodt, S.E. and Tuchinsky, M. (2000) Working together but in opposition: An examination of the “good cop/bad cop” negotiating team tactic. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 81, 155-177.
Rafaeli, A., and Sutton, R., (1991). Emotional contrast strategies as means of social influence: Lessons
from criminal interrogators and bill collectors. Academy of Management Journal, 34, 749–775.