Just because . . .

July 9, 2006 | By | 6 Replies More

In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (1998), Robert Cialdini describes an experiment that illustrated the power of the word “because.”  

The experiment was conducted by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer, who found that people are highly motivated by the form of others’ reasons, even reasons lack persuasive content.  In her experiment, confederates approached people waiting in line to use a copy machine in a busy library. The confederates asked the people waiting in line to jump ahead in line.  They used several types of excuses.  Here are the results:

Some of the confederates asked this:

“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I am in a rush?” 

They were allowed to jump ahead in line 94% of the time. Alternatively, other confederates asked this:

“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” 

Only 60% of these confederates were allowed to jump ahead in line. Based on these first two versions, you might presume that the confederates weren’t allowed to jump ahead because they didn’t have an excuse for doing so.  That proved incorrect, based upon a third group of confederates, who asked this:

“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” 

As you can see, this “excuse” was not really an excuse at all.  Incredibly, though, 93% of these confederates were allowed to jump ahead in line.  In this third condition, no excuse was actually given, although the form of an excuse was used.  Langer focused on the power of the word “because,” which triggered the same content as would a real excuse.  The form of an argument or excuse was itself persuasive in the absence of any persuasive content.  This experiement puts the spotlight on the human vulnerability to be persuaded by things that only look like arguments.

“Because” is thus a magic word that can trigger the presumption of causation and legitimacy in many people.  This experiment is an illustration that humans are vulnerable to argument forms, even where the arguments lack validity. Perhaps this vulnerability explains the power of many religious and political arguments that don’t bear close scrutiny.


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Category: Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. Erich's Friend says:

    “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” 94%? truly amazing.

    Recently i was in line at a small airport in wyoming, early in the morning, and a pushy new yorker just cut in front of the whole line. i said excuse me, i am next. he said sorry, but I'm late and have a plane to catch. i said actually, that's also why i am standing in line at this counter and being that there is only one plane leaving, it seems i am the one who got up early enough to get on it, so please go to the end of the line. the guy went crazy, as if i took away some right he had acquired by virtue of being LATE.

    i guess my point is that there are two sides to the equation. the gullible people in line at the library copy machine were foolish enough. but it's the pushy people cutting in line, who think because they overslept they have some superior right to a place in line ahead of ME, who always amaze me.

  2. Heather says:

    Wow, the mind is a complex thing, which has so much to do with this, but also, people are just lazy. This is the exact reason why religious and political arguments don't bear close scrutiny from most folks. People are too lazy to listen…really listen to what they are hearing, and too lazy to use their brains to contemplate it. This is a sad state, but maybe a necessary one. The planet has always been split between the thinkers and the non-thinkers. I suppose it is the way of things as much as I despise that thought.

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Erich's Friend's comment reminds me of an expression I learned for keeping things in perspective when dealing with pushy people: "Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part." Of course, one does not usually vocalize this thought (there's no need to make the pushy person's day worse than it already is), but it can help to keep it in mind as you calmly deal with the situation.

    Going back to Erich's post, it's indeed fascinating that so many people can be so easily influenced by a trigger-word like "because." As Erich says, it could certainly help explain the power of many religious and political arguments that don't otherwise bear close scrutiny. I'm thinking, for example, of the circular reasoning in Christianity: "We should believe in God, *because* the Bible says so; and we should believe the Bible, *because* it is the Word of God." Likewise in politics: "We should give tax breaks to the rich, *because* it will stimulate the economy." (As if giving those tax breaks to the poor wouldn't also stimulate the economy.) If even nonsense reasons (i.e., "Excuse me, may I use the copier, because I have to make some copies?") will cause a large percentage of the population to acquiesce, then we all need to stay on the lookout for nonsense reasons, so we don't get sucked in with the rest of the crowd.

    Another example that will stick in my mind for many years to come is the nonsense reasoning that Colin Powell presented to the UN to justify Bush's invasion of Iraq. Before Powell's presentation, Bush had spent weeks deflecting questions about the justification for invading, by telling people that Powell would provide the evidence. This immediately made me suspicious: if the evidence was as clear as Bush was claiming it was, then why couldn't he (or anyone else in his Administration) clearly articulate even a tiny portion of it? My concerns were realized when I listened to Powell's presentation: it contained not one shred of concrete evidence. It was all speculation and circumstantial evidence, woven together with hyperbole and spin…and (as I suspected at the time) lies. While everyone in the Administration was firmly repeating, "We KNOW Saddam has weapons of mass destruction," there simply was no evidence — NONE AT ALL (at least nothing given to the public) — to justify the level of certainty they were all showing.

    They pointed to aluminum tubes that obviously had non-military uses, and declared them to have no non-military uses. They pointed to allegations about Saddam trying to buy yellow-cake uranium in Africa, but had nothing except the bald allegations. They pointed to Saddam's use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, but gave neither proof that Saddam still had any such weapons nor reasons that might motivate Saddam to try to use such weapons against the U.S. To the contrary, Saddam was raking in huge piles of money via the corrupt "oil for food" program, so, if anything, he was highly motivated to maintain the status quo. From the moment Powell finished his ridiculous presentation to the UN, its screaming lack of hard evidence should have been obvious to nearly everyone, and certainly should have been obvious to everyone in the Bush Administration and the U.S. Congress. It apparently was obvious to nearly everyone in the UN, because they rejected the argument. Only Britain (which apparently still had a bone to pick with Saddam from the first Gulf War) and the former Eastern Bloc countries (which were heavily paid by the Bush Administration) supported the resolution. Throughout the time that Bush and his fellow Republicans in Congress were villifying the French (and, to some extent, the Germans) for refusing to buy Powell's presentation, I was wondering why my fellow Americans were so utterly blind to the drumhead trial being waged against Saddam. Not that Saddam wasn't a bad guy (he obviously was), but there was no hard evidence that he was the serious and immediate threat that he was being portrayed to be. If there were any reason to villify the Europeans, it would be for not publicly ridiculing the huge gaps and flaws in Powell's presentation.

    Unfortunately, a huge percentage of Americans bought Bush's nonsense arguments, and it could very well be that they did so for the reason Erich highlights in this post: "Just because…."

  4. Jerry says:

    The word "because" absolutely packs some power, it seems to establish a purpose for our assertions, intentions, actions, etc. I suspect that the people who allowed those to cut in line because they "had to make some copies" weren't really convinced the flimsy excuse was valid or even made any sense, but they just didn't want to outright challenge or question them. They may have just let them cut in because they didn't want to openly debate their "reasoning". This however does seem very indicative of the way most people react towards others ideas, beliefs, behavior, etc.

  5. The globe has always been crack between the thinkers and the non-thinkers. I suppose it is the way of things as much as I despise that thought.

  6. Tim Hogan says:

    When we were kids, we asked; "why?"

    Our parents said: "Because!"

    We've heard it since our youth, and used it to beguile our own kids. Why not now?

    So, it goes…

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