The power of “because”

Behavioral scientist Ellen Langer and her colleagues decided to put the persuasive power of this word to the test.  In one study, Langer arranged for a stranger to approach someone waiting in line to use a photocopier and simply ask, "Excuse me, I have five pages.  May I use the Xerox machine?"  Faced with the direct request to cut ahead in this line, 60 percent of the people were willing to agree to allow the stranger to go ahead of them.  However, when the stranger made the request with a reason ("May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?"), almost everyone (94 percent) complied…

Here’s where the study gets really interesting…This time, the stranger also used the word because but followed it with a completely meaningless reason.  Specifically, the stranger said "May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?"

The rate of compliance was 93 percent.

That is from Bob Cialdini’s Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive; here is my previous post on the book.  And here is why motivational posters don’t work.


Cialdini already had a passage about the "power of because" in his much earlier book, Influence.

Perhaps his new book is just a rehash? You should still buy it though, because you should buy it.

At the same time, the prior post had an interesting point I don't remember from the prior book. It may be hard to fault the re-use of a single experiment--especially one as good as this one.

I strongly recommend this technique. It works because it's very effective. Try it and see!

I wonder how the 'because' scenarios would work on individuals trained in rhetoric, argumentation, and informal/formal logic? I'm not highly trained in those areas, but I know that when I see, or hear, a 'because' I automatically think 'ah ha, following the because is a reason, and prior to that is a conclusion.'

Isn't saying "because" a way of signalling that something is more important than normal? If doing a minor favor is somehow a big help to someone else, do I really care that they haven't fully articulated why it's so important?

"do I really care that they haven't fully articulated why it's so important?"

You do if they've read the book.

If you strolled up and said, "hey, can I break in line because my stuff is more important than yours" I'd guess you get a <60% success rate, say 30%. So, somewhere on the bell curve between 30%-60% and 94%, you can break the rules. All people are pretty much the same but for compounding small advantages over time as they achieve step changes up the success ladder. How does this relate to public choice domains and left hander success in the contest for President? Still working on a unified theory here.

Aye, there has to be SOMEWHAT of a logical connection between the statements divided by the "because."

If only because people, when faced by any sort of quasi-logical argument, tend to enter a defensive "flight or fight" response...and most people choose the flight response if there is an even inkling that they are in the moral wrong...

No? Yes? Am I totally off-base?

I will cockpunch the next person who uses a because joke.

IIRC, this study was also cited in Stumbling on Happiness

Two shameless plugs re motivational posts: I always check in to see Demotivator's latest work--paridoxically more effective than the real thing! But seriously... Alongside Klein's book and Cialdini's works on my shelf is Edward L. Deci's underrated Why we do what we do: Understanding Self-Motivation. Of no surprise (but still a point that cannot be reapeated enough) is the vital part free choice plays.

"Influence" was a real eye-opener to many economists (certainly including this one); I recommend it highly. I'm sure the new book has plenty of new gems, too. The "click, whirr" principle (that some of our decisions are automatic and biologically based) explains a lot of behavioral economic anomalies. Perhaps the highest praise came from one of my colleagues (a sociologist): "If you economists understood the principles behind Influence, you'd be REALLY dangerous."

Now, if we could only make a model of it...


nice posts and comments.

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