In 1978, Ellen Langer, a social psychologist at Harvard University, conducted an experiment to discover the hidden power of the word “because”.
The experiment took place in a college library. Each time a few people were waiting in line to use the copying machine, she’d go to the first person in line and ask if she could quickly copy five pages.
Just by asking, 60% of the people who were waiting in line let her go first.
Her next approach was slightly different: Again, she waited until a few people were in line. Then, she asked the first person in the row if she could go first and make her five copies.
But this time, she made a little addition: She said that she was in a hurry.
Once she added “because I’m in a hurry”, 93% of the people let her go first.
What’s even more fascinating is her next step: As she knew that people would let her go first if she’d say “because I’m in a hurry”, she wanted to try using a different reason.
So she did the same experiment again and said: “Can I please go first because I need to make a few copies?”
This time, even 94% let her go first.
What’s absurd is that everyone waiting in line was there to make copies. Her reason was not relevant at all. Yet, only a few people denied her request.
Through her experiments, Langer proved that we’re usually more sympathetic and understanding when we know why someone wants something, even when the reason isn’t meaningful.
A simple, redundant reason, such as “because I need to make copies”, can be enough to skip the line for the copying machine.
Various industries make use of this thinking pattern by giving us reasons for why they do something, no matter how unnecessary the explanation itself is.
If you’re driving on a freeway and need to slow down because of construction, you’ll probably be more relaxed when you see a sign saying: We are redeveloping the highway for you.
It’s apparent that they’re redeveloping the freeway. But it feels good to read it.
You might have experienced the same when waiting for a delayed flight: It’s annoying to wait at the airport and not knowing why your flight is delayed.
If you ask a stewardess why you need to wait and they don’t tell you, you’ll likely be frustrated and probably even angry.
But if they tell you that it’s because of technical reasons, you’ll be satisfied and wait patiently.
As humans, we’re why-addicted.
According to Psychology Today, why drives everything we do but also our emotional reactions.
We love to know why something happens, even if it doesn’t make a difference in our lives. Feeling well-informed gives us a sense of stability.
We listen to hour-long explanations of why businesses might have failed, how pandemics evolve, or how the leading soccer team lost a game.
And we do so because we want to know why it happened, even though it doesn’t change the outcome.
These reasons barely improve our lives or careers. Yet, they help us feel better in uncertain situations.
Plus, if you don’t know why you’re doing something, you’ll be less motivated to do it at all.
Start with why, as Simon Sinek preaches, might not be good advice for entrepreneurs but for anyone who wants to get what they want.
How to use it
Whenever you ask someone for a favor, add a “because” at the end of your request.
Not only Ellen Langer’s experiment but also Robert Cialdini’s iconic book Influence teaches how you might have better luck in getting what you want if you provide a reason for your request.
Saying I couldn’t meet the deadline because I was too busy is redundant, but in most cases, it’s enough.
“I want a raise because I deserve it.” sounds better than “I want a raise.”.
“I skipped the gym because I didn’t feel like working out.” sounds better than “I skipped the gym.”.
“Can I go to that party because it will be amazing?” sounds better than “Can I go to the party?”.
“Please clean your room because it will help us to find things easier.” is better than saying “Clean your room.”.
Sometimes, an irrelevant or even bad reason is better than no explanation.
Even if we like to think of ourselves as intelligent creatures, we’re not always that complex and even a bad reason can help us be more persuasive.
Adding “because” at the end of your desire can help you get what you want, even if the explanation itself is redundant.
This works particularly well with small requests such as skipping the line, but even when the stakes are high, giving a reason might make all the difference and help you get what you want.