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...just because. The persuasive pull of justified requests.

Because is an influential word. According to popular re-renderings of research, the word because can get your copies made faster, get you through airport security without waiting in line, and (sometimes) even get your children to behave.

Because is persuasive (errr) because it's a trigger. When people use the word because, it's typically the lead-in to justify a request that they have just made. With experience, we learn that pattern. Research suggests that we may learn it so well that we accept the word "because" as the reason and may not bother to listen to what comes after it.

For example, in their now classic Xerox study, Langer, Blank, and Chanowitz (1972) explored how the language of requests influences willingness to comply. To do this they observed how well different requests to cut into the line at the copier worked. They found when people ask to cut into the line to make 5 copies, they are successful about 60% of the time, no questions asked. At the baseline, people are generally polite. (For what it's worth, the actual request was also polite: "Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?")

When the requestors add a reasonable justification for cutting into the line ("...because I am in a hurry") the request becomes much more persuasive and compliance shoots up to 94%.

Because. That's why.

The part of the study that captured people's attention though, is what happens when you add "because...." paired with a meaningless justification: "Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I need to make copies?" Um. Yeah. That would be why you would be waiting to use the Xerox machine.

Despite the circular reason, the compliance rate for the "because I need to make copies" request was a somewhat stunning 93%. Giving an empty reason was just as effective as giving a good one. Based on this, Langer and colleagues suggested that in certain conditions our consideration of the actual reason for a request may be mindless. Others have extrapolated on the finding to suggest that you don't really need to bother with the reason bit. You just need to say "because." Compliance happens.

Read on. Because there's more.

There are two ways to think about the mindless response that Langer and colleagues describe. First, it might be about the word "because." Alternatively, it could be about the request. Here is the situation: You are waiting in line to make copies. Someone comes up and asks to cut in front of you and make 5 copies. Stated reason or not, asking to cut in line is fairly unusual behavior in a office. In fact, the weirdness of the unusual request makes the situation a little ambiguous. You have been socialized to be polite and (hopefully) to give others the benefit of the doubt. And, critically, the request is small. 5 copies. Will waiting for one person to make 5 more copies change the outcome of your day? Probably not. I suspect you would let them slip ahead.

Now consider another scenario: You are waiting in line to make copies. Someone comes up and asks to cut in line to make 25 copies of a document "because they need to make copies." What do you do?

25 copies isn't a huge job. But its more substantial than 5 copies. After 25 copies you are more likely to run out of paper or jam up the machine. The risk and potential cost is just a little bit higher. High enough to be a tipping point, in fact, for most people in line. When Langer and colleagues ran that condition, the compliance went down substantially. First the good news – people still tended to be polite and helpful to a colleague in need. When the request to cut in was offered with a meaningful reason, 42% of the respondents still stepped back and let their colleague cut in – even for the larger request. However, there was no difference in compliance between just asking ("Excuse me. I have 25 copies. May I use the Xerox machine?") and the empty reason ("...May I use the Xerox machine because I need to make copies"). In fact, replications of the Xerox study demonstrate that, compared with offering no reason, willingness to comply goes down when the justification for the request is empty (Folkes, 1985.)

Because sometimes I listen.

So what's going on? When a request is small, the word because triggers a reflexive mental shortcut: The person said "because." If they said "because" THEY must have some reason and if they have a reason – even if they can't articulate it well – the cost to me is small, so OK, cut in line because whatever it is, it seems important to that person. It's easier to say yes, than to listen carefully to the reason. Under these conditions, any reason will work as long as there is one. Which I know because you said the word because.

However, if the request is large – involves potential cost – I listen to the justification you give and may actively weigh it against the possible cost of your request. If the reason isn't good, I may comply. But if the reason doesn't make sense, all bets are off.

Applying influence strategies in the decision architecture design works the same way. If you ask me for something relatively painless – simple demographic information, perhaps – I should be more likely to cooperate if you offer me a reason for doing so. I may not even read your reason – as long as it's there. (Do you ever click the links that say "Why we need this info"?) But if you are asking me for something real, your reason better make sense or my momentum will be gone.

So it goes with persuasion tools. They tend to work more reflexively when the situation is ambiguous and cost perceived to be low. But they only work within limits. And, as the replication work shows, they can backfire if you cross the line.

Be mindful chasing compliance with because. Because it has limits.


Langer, E., Blank, A., and Chanowitz, B. (1978). The mindlessness of ostensibly thoughtful action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 635-642.

Folkes, V.S. (1985). Mindlessness or mindfulness: A partial replication and extension of Langer, Blank and Chanowitz. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(3), 600-604.

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

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