The Power of “Because”

27.06.2016 |

Episode #2 of the course A quick introduction to social psychology by Andy Luttrell


The Psychology

Would you please read this whole lesson, because I want you to read this whole email?

Is that persuasive? If you’re really paying attention, it probably sounds like a stupid way to ask someone to do something, but if you were only sort of paying attention, it would be reasonably persuasive.

This is all about mindless compliance. As we move through life, we don’t have the brain capacity to carefully consider everything we see and hear, so we rely on little shortcuts to get by. If you’re shopping for a new toothbrush, are you really going to read the full packaging on every toothbrush in the store? Or are you going to just pick the one that says “#1 Recommended by Dentists”?

In psychology, heuristics are little shortcut that let you bypass all of the careful thinking that it can take to make a choice.

One powerful heuristic our brains use is: “if there’s a reason, it must be valid.” So when you hear me say “because,” it basically says to your brain, “Hey, don’t worry! He’s got a reason for asking for a favor. Go ahead and do him that favor.”


The Evidence

One early study sent an undercover researcher to a library that had a copy machine in it. As library patrons were about to use the copy machine, the researcher would approach them, posing as another library patron who needed to use the machine.

The goal was to get the person at the copy machine to let the researcher use it first, and they tried out three different versions of that request.

Sometimes the researcher just asked, “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Other times, the researcher gave a reason for needing to cut in line, asking, “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” Obviously, people would be more inclined to let you cut in line if you have a reasonable excuse. 60% of people allowed the researcher to cut in line when he simply asked, and 94% complied when he offered the excuse (“I’m in a rush”).

But could the word “because” still be effective if the actual reason is terrible? To test that possibility, sometimes the researcher asked, “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make copies?

To a rational person, this excuse is nonsense! But if you’re not paying much attention, you hear that word “because” and you think, “Oh, this person has a reason for cutting me in line.” Amazingly, 93% of people still allowed the researcher to cut in line when he gave this dumb reason.

The point is that we rely on little tricks to help us make quicker decisions. So the next time you have a small request to make, toss in a “because” just for good measure.

For more on “influence” heuristics, check out: “How Sitting Quietly Can Increase Your Influence.”


Recommended book

“Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman


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