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The Power of the Word "Because" To Get People To Do Stuff

"Because" is a magic word when you want to get people to do something.

I tend to write about the latest research, but I think it's important to go back to "foundational" (i.e. old!) research too. This post describes research conducted in 1978. Ellen Langer (Professor of Psychology at Harvard) published a research study about the power of the word "because".

Langer had people request to break in on a line of people waiting to use a busy copy machine on a college campus. (Remember that this is in the 1970′s—there weren’t computers and printers. People did a lot more copying back then, so there were often lines waiting to use a copy machine). The researchers had the people use three different, carefully worded requests to break in line:

“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine?”

“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”

“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”

Did the wording effect whether people let them break in line? Here are the results:

“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine?” [60% compliance]

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“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”[93% compliance]

“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?” [94% compliance]

Using the word “because” and giving a reason resulted in significantly more compliance. This was true even when the reason was not very compelling (“because I have to make copies"). The researchers hypothesize that people go on “automatic” behavior or “mindlessness” as a form of a heuristic, or short-cut. And hearing the word “because” followed by a reason (no matter how lame the reason is), causes us to comply.

They also repeated the experiment for a request to copy 20 pages rather than five. In that case, only the “because I’m in a rush” reason resulted in compliance.

So what does this all mean?:

When the stakes are low people will engage in automatic behavior. If your request is small then follow the request with the word "because" and give any reason.

If the stakes are high, then there is a little more resistance, but still not too much. Use the word "because" and try to come up with at least a slightly more compelling reason.

What do you think? Has this worked for you?

Here's the research citation:

Langer, E., Blank, A., & Chanowitz, B. (1978). The mindlessness of Ostensibly Thoughtful Action: The Role of “Placebic” Information in Interpersonal Interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(6), 635-642.

Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D.,is a behavioral psychologist, author, coach, and consultant in neuropsychology.

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