Susan Weinschenk Ph.D.

Brain Wise

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.

Posted Oct 15, 2013

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 by Ellen Langer at Harvard in 1978 for a study of 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 was the 1970′s. People didn't have home computers and printers. They 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, specifically 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 affect 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.
  • “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 then 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 hypothesized that people go on “automatic” behavior as a form of a heuristic, or short-cut, and that hearing the word “because” followed by a reason (no matter how lame), would cause them to comply.

They 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 heightened compliance.

So what does this all mean? When the stakes are low people will engage in automatic behavior. If your request is small, follow your request with the word "because" and give a reason—any reason. If the stakes are high, then there could be more resistance, but still not too much.

References

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.