I’ve read Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion at least three times over the years. Every now and then I go back and re-read a chapter at random. Each time I do, I learn (or re-learn) something useful. Here’s an interesting study that I re-discovered on my last excursion.
The study goes back to the days when students stood in long lines at college libraries to use photocopy machines. (Yes, we actually copied physical pages rather than saving electronic pages to our hard drives). On particularly busy days — just before the end of a term, say — you might stand in line for well over an hour.
Some researchers decided to study a fairly basic question — under what conditions would students allow another student to cut into the line? Using the terminology of communication, persuasion, and compliance, the research question might be phrased: What communication techniques are most effective in persuading students to comply with a request to cut into the line?
The researchers sent students to the head of the line to test out three different messages. The students randomly asked:
A) May I please cut in line ahead of you?
B) May I please cut in line ahead of you because I have a doctor’s appointment and I’m really in a hurry.
C) May I please cut in line ahead of you because I really need to cut in line.
Being good researchers, you might create three hypotheses:
1) Message A will generate the lowest compliance rate — the message contains no reason for cutting in.
2) Message B will generate the highest compliance rate — the message contains a compelling reason to cut in.
3) Message C’s compliance rate will fall somewhere between A and B — the message contains a reason but it’s illogical.
As it happens, you would be right on Hypothesis 1. Students in the line were much less likely to comply with the request when the would-be cutter offered no reason.
On Hypothesis 2, you would be partially right. A compelling reason — the need to visit a doctor — does generate much higher compliance rates.
But does Message B generate the highest compliance rate? Well, … no… and here’s the surprise: the compliance rate for Message C was just as high as that for Message B. It appears that the logic behind the reason is not so important. The mere fact that you give a reason seems to be the important point.
Look a bit more closely at the three messages. Messages B and C contain the word because. Message A doesn’t. It seems that the students in the line responded to that specific word. If they heard because, they knew that a reason would follow. The nature of the reason didn’t seem to matter much. Just stating a reason — no matter how illogical — was sufficient to gain greater compliance. With Message A, students didn’t hear the word that introduces a reason and, therefore, were less compliant.
So the word because can be an important persuader in and of itself. If the person you’re speaking with hears the key word, they expect that a reason will follow … and they may not inspect it very closely. It’s sufficient that a reason is stated.
Of course, this doesn’t work on all occasions. If you come home with lipstick on your collar and reeking of whiskey, you better have a much better reason. In more mundane situations, however, remember the power of because. Why should you remember it? Well, just because.