Can One Word Turn Nonsense into Powerful Persuasion?


making copies

Some words have an unusual power over us, disarming defenses and letting us be persuaded more easily. One of these words is “because.” I was reminded of some fascinating research conducted decades ago by Pubcon keynoter and persuasion legend Robert Cialdini. The study was done decades ago by Ellen Langer, then at Harvard.

The setup for the experiment was simple. The experimenter would attempt to cut into in front of a person waiting to make copies, using several variations in phrasing the request.

because-effectWhen she said, “”Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” sixty percent agreed to her request. Altering the phrase to include the word “because” with a meaningless reason, “May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?” caused the compliance rate to jump by more than half, to 93%. (This was about the same as when she offered a logical, if not highly persuasive, reason of being “in a hurry.” That came in at 94%.)

At least for small requests, we respond to the word “because” in a somewhat automaton-like fashion, and don’t critically examine the reason that follows it. Even a nonsensical reason performed as well as a more legitimate one.

I suspect, though, that if a stranger asked, “May I borrow your car, because I need to drive it?” we would see far less than 93% compliance! The more significant the request, the more likely it is that we will examine it critically.

I don’t recommend using meaningless nonsense as a reason for someone to buy your product, give you their contact info, or any other business persuasion task.

But, that doesn’t mean that marketers shouldn’t use “because.” The word sets up our brain to expect a reason, and may make that reason a little more persuasive.

So, try “because” in your next print ad or web conversion A/B test, because it just may improve your results!

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