Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily
Researchers interested in persuasion have elucidated a wide range of principles that seem to exert a powerful influence on our decision-making process. When someone asks you to do something, how they ask often has a great deal to do with whether or not you say yes. Professor Vishton explains how one word can make all the difference.
The “Because Reflex”
The reciprocity principle—if you give a gift to someone, that person will naturally want to give something back to you—is an unconscious reflex that exists in your very human decision-making process. As it turns out, we have a lot of these reflexes—including the “because reflex.”
In the seminal study on it, experimenters went to a library, where there was a public photocopier that was used by students and faculty. The experimenter would wait until someone was using the photocopier and a second person was waiting to use it next. The experimenter would approach the waiting person and ask if he or she could use the photocopier first.
Some people would say yes, but most people would say no. If the experimenter asked to go first but gave a reason for it, a greater percentage of the people said yes.
“This makes sense,” Professor Vishton said. “If I just ask, ‘Can I go in front of you in line?’ I am less likely to get a yes than if I say, ‘Can I go in front of you in line because I’m late for class?'”
The Crucial Word in Requests
The third experimental condition of this study is revealing. It turns out that the word “because” is really important in that request.
“Because” triggers an unconscious reflex that makes us more likely to say yes. The experimenter would sometimes approach the waiting person and say, “Can I go in front of you in line because I want to go first?”
This isn’t actually a reason for going first. It’s just a restatement of the fact that you’d like to go first.
If you take out the word “because” and just say those two sentences, it would have exactly the same meaning. Amazingly, this version of the request—the one including the word “because”—led to a significantly higher number of people letting the experimenter ahead in the line.
Thus, if you want people to say yes to your request, you should give them a reason that includes the word “because.” Human decision-making functions at a largely unconscious level and is subject to a variety of influences that we don’t ever really choose. By understanding those tendencies, we can better understand our own decisions and influence the decision-making of others.
Appealing to Unconscious Impulses
“I feel the need to note that I’m a little bit on shaky ethical grounds here,” Professor Vishton said. “I’m going to continue anyway for a few reasons.”
First, people do use these techniques on a regular basis. Every time you watch a television commercial or talk with a salesperson when you are considering some purchase, principles of persuasion were applied to you.
“By understanding how other people’s decision-making can be influenced, I hope you will understand your own decision-making process,” Professor Vishton said. “I hope you understand it better and be able to avoid some of these biases that affect us all.”
Second, persuading people to do something isn’t always or even usually about taking advantage of them.
“When I try to persuade my children to try an interesting, exotic new food or to go to bed a little earlier, I have their best interests at the forefront of my mind,” Professor Vishton said. “Persuading people to recycle more is of tremendous value to our society. Persuasion is a power that can be used to accomplish tremendous good.”
Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.