Words have the power to make things happen. They are the main channel of communication in society. When we ask for something, we usually use words. However, what we say is not always important, or at least partly so. The word “because” can work wonders.
In a dusty 1978 study on the thoughtlessness of seemingly deliberate action, a modest experiment was conducted. On the campus at one of the universities in New York, students were asked to use the photocopier out of turn. Remember how important a function this device serves in universities. Add to that the fact that this was decades ago when computers and printers were not as common as they are today.
The first time, the experimenter would make a request to the student about to start copying: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine?” Each question included requests to photocopy 5 and 20 pages, respectively. These requests were small (5) and large (20), respectively.
With a request worded in this way, 60% of the respondents agreed to make copies of 5 pages without queuing, while the willingness to let a requester pass with 20 pages was only matched by 24% of the percentages. The first thing that is striking is that the smaller request was more likely to be successful.
The next variant used a request with justification (also small and large): “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”
With a small request (for a copy of 5 pages) the success rate went up to 93%. This is very high even more so that the justification for the request was meaningless. In contrast, such a justification did not matter in the large request, i.e., for a copy of 20 pages without the wait. It remained constant at 24 %.
With a small request, there was already little room for improvement. 93% was already a very good result. Only the large request could be improved. The last option included a question: „Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”
It turned out that the response to the request improved by 1% in the small request, which was not statistically significant with the group of 120 requests in total in all variants. As for the large request with a reasonable justification, success increased as much as 42%.
As you can easily see, giving even a meaningless argument significantly increases the chances of success. A reason, any reason, is enough to achieve your goal. The authors of the study suggested that this happens because we act automatically. However, this mechanism worked only with a small request. With a larger one, it was more difficult right from the start. In every case, fewer approvals were obtained for out-of-order photocopying. Only a reasonable argument could have changed this result.
Of course, the word “because” and synonyms do not have a “magical” effect. This large mental shortcut presupposes, of course, the existence of rational reason. Otherwise, it would suffice to say meaninglessly: “I want to photocopy because, because“. The conjunction “because” and its synonyms merely introduce the explanation.
We like to have justification for our decisions. With meaningless justification, we only seemingly make a decision in a thoughtful way. All that matters is the justification. With a small request, we don’t bother to evaluate the rationality of the reason why someone needs to photocopy. Whether he has to photocopy doesn’t matter if it will only take a moment.
Having a reason allows us to see ourselves as making rational decisions. We evaluate the reason no less only when the consequences of the decision are more demanding. When expecting a large request to be fulfilled, a rational reason alone is not enough. It is also useful to engage the asker in a less engaging activity, as we will discuss in a future article.
Think about shopping in a supermarket. Did you let someone through out of turn? I think it happened more often when the person asking had very few purchases (one or two items). It often happens that a customer with a larger trolley comes out with the initiative of passing the customer with a modest purchase. This is much less likely to happen when asked to pass a customer with a full shopping cart. And certainly much more often in both cases when it is justified. Remember, however, that the more you buy, the more sensible the justification should be, and for the psychological comfort in understanding yourself as an honest person – first and foremost a real one.
- E. Langer, A. E. Blank, The mindlessness of ostensibly thoughtful action: The role of “placebic” information in interpersonal interaction, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36(6):635-642, 1978, https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1685