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The study of psychology is great for many reasons, but the main reason I became interested in it was because I wanted to learn how to become more persuasive. And the more I learn, the more I’m convinced that being a master of persuasion is the closest a person can get to having a legitimate superpower.
An aspect I find deeply satisfying about learning something new is that moment when you have a simple realization that simultaneously unlocks a massive amount of value. The realization need not be as complex as frame control or the high ground maneuver, which can take a lifetime to master. In some cases, all you need to remember is a single word. A word which, if used in the proper context, will make you feel like a Jedi. In this particular case, I would even contend that this word is the linguistic equivalent of a nuclear weapon. So use with caution.
With that hyperbolic reader bait out of the way, the word is… Because.
The power of the word “because” was discovered in 1978 by Harvard professor Ellen Langer. If you read the entire paper, she essentially obliterates the notion that humans behave rationally. Through a series of experiments, she proves that whenever a “because” is appended to a request, compliance increases by over 50 percent, regardless of whether the reason is sound. Her most notable experiment involved skipping the line at the copy machine. She posed three different questions to three different control groups.
- Question A: “Excuse me, I have some copies to make. May I use the Xerox machine?” (no reason)
- Question B: “Excuse me, I have some copies to make. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” (good reason)
- Question C: “Excuse me, I have some copies to make. May I use the Xerox machine because I need to make copies?” (bad reason)
Question A had a 60 percent compliance rate, which meant 60 percent of people let her cut in line for no reason. When she provided a legitimate reason, in question B, the percentage of people who let her skip the line shot up to 94 percent. What’s even more surprising, when framing the request in the language of question C, which offers a pretty inane reason, she got a 93 percent compliance rate!
When I first read this paper, I was so floored by the results that I had to try it out for myself. One lazy Sunday afternoon with nothing better to do, I went to a mall in Walnut Creek, CA to run my own experiments. I was just passing through, so I felt it was a good opportunity to try my new Jedi mind trick with limited social consequences.
And so, armed with nothing more than my complete lack of embarrassment, I set out to do two separate experiments. Due to time constraints, I did not ask a version of question B (offering a good reason). I only asked question A (no reason) and question C (bad reason). I recorded all of the responses in a Google spreadsheet.
The two experiments I conducted were cutting in line at a store and getting a girl’s phone number. (Quick disclaimer: I did not actually follow through after I received a positive response. I immediately explained my experiment to everyone who said yes.)
For the first experiment, I went into stores with long checkout lines. I did not bring a single item with me, but went to the back of the line and asked the person in front of me if I could cut. To limit the independent variables, I tried to use the exact same words and tone every single time. My script for question A was, “Excuse me (sir/ma’am), but could I go ahead of you?” For Question C it was, “Excuse me (sir/ma’am), but could I go ahead of you because I’m trying to pay for this real quick?” Both questions were asked in a deadpan tone.
Experiment two was a little trickier, as it involved a bit more of an extended conversation (in my limited experience, girls do not typically give out their phone number in response to a single question). But again, to limit variability, I used the following script:
- I only approached girls who were alone, sitting down, and gave me no prior indications of interest (i.e., a look or a smile).
- My opening line was always “Excuse me, do you know where the Apple Store is?”
- I followed that up by rambling about how my Bluetooth earbuds broke and I was looking to get the new Apple Airpods for working out.
- At this point, the conversation would go one of two ways: either she was completely disinterested in talking to me (in which case I politely excused myself and did not ask for her phone number), or she started talking about her own experience with Bluetooth earbuds. From there, the conversation veered onto other topics which were outside of my control. The most memorable conversation somehow segued from Bluetooth to the quality of weed in Colorado (I was wearing a Colorado hat). Regardless, I always ended the conversation in under five minutes.
- When I was ready to move on, I asked the women who were interested: “Sorry, I’ve gotta go, but you seem really interesting.” And, taking out my phone to hand it to her, “Why don’t you give me your number?” (no reason). For the women with whom I had chatted, I asked: “Sorry, I’ve gotta go, but you seem really interesting.” Again, taking out my phone, “Why don’t you give me your number so I can text you?” (bad reason).
Just to reiterate, I never actually ended up taking any numbers, as tempting as it was in some cases. After they started to type their number, I stopped them and explained my experiment. Each woman invariably laughed at how big of a nerd I am.
My results were remarkably similar to Ellen’s study! For the line-cutting experiment, I asked each question 10 times. Question A resulted in a positive response 4/10 times compared to 7/10 positive responses for question C.
For the phone number experiment, due to the somewhat lengthier nature of the interaction, I was only able to ask each question six times. Question A resulted in a positive response 1/6 times compared to 3/6 positive responses for question C!
So why does giving a reason work? Professor Robert Cialdini (a giant in the field of persuasion) explains, “People simply like to have reasons for what they do.”
Pretty obvious when you think about it. But the strange thing, as Ellen and I empirically discovered, is that it hardly matters if the reason makes sense. Isn’t it obvious that I have to pay for something I want to buy, and that I will use a girl’s phone number to text her? Yes, but apparently, saying a reason out loud, even if it’s a stupid one, makes a request much more persuasive.
So, next time you ask for something, make sure to append your request with a “because.” But remember, with great power comes great responsibility. Use your new superpower wisely.