Another in our series of experiments that still impact marketing today.

See the other stories here:

  1. Leventhal’s Tetanus Experiments: Does Fear Persuade or Paralyse?

In the late 1970’s, Ellen Langer of Harvard University was conducting experiments on the use of ‘scripts’ in human decision making when she made a stunning discovery.

She found a subliminal technique that had the power to instantly make any claim, statement, or argument more believable and credible.

Moreover, it was a technique that significantly increased compliance to requests that were absurd and unreasonable.

What Langer would discover, is something we still use in digital marketing today.

Langer believed that much of human behaviour was automatic and controlled by processes outside the conscious mind; specifically, that we use standard responses based on past experiences to efficiently navigate through the obstacles of everyday life.

Instead of approaching each situation as a novel situation, we use our past experiences to create scripts of how to behave when faced with similar future situations. Today this is a well-accepted and understood idea but back in the 1970’s it was still in its infancy.

To test her hypothesis she and he co-researchers approached people at a photocopying area in her University Library. They tested two requests. The first was: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Sixty percent of the people complied.

The second request was: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” By adding a reason, the compliance went up to 94 percent.

In a Surprising Twist – Making Your Claims Instantly More Credible

At first it seemed that the participants thought about what the confederate said, agreed with their reasoning, and allowed her to use the copier first. Langer theorized that this was not the case at all. She claimed that the participants were not really thinking consciously; instead, they were mindlessly complying with the requester because the syntax of the request was triggering a favour ‘script’.

This was validated when the researchers asked a third request: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”

Notice that the reason is not really a reason at all.

Yet despite the redundant nature of the reason, 93 percent of people still complied with the request. If they were actually thinking about what the requester had said the compliance rate would logically have been closer to 60 percent. Instead the word because triggered the rapid cognition module that read the request as a ‘favour script’ and executed the typical behaviour, which in this case happened to be compliance.

Some 25 Years Later

Over a quarter century later, another group of researchers repeated Langer’s famous experiment, this time introducing a new factor into the equation.

They wanted to see if the placebic ‘because’ would work on people who have a higher need for cognition. In other words, they wanted to see if people who generally pay attention to what is being said and critically think through an argument would still comply with the inappropriate reason. They hypothesised that they would not.

To test their idea they recruited 129 undergraduate psychology students and put them through a series of personality and cognition tests. Then the experiment was repeated in a similar fashion to Langer’s original experiment.

Consistent with Langer’s original findings, most people still complied with the requester, provided they had a reason, even if that reason was actually unpersuasive. No surprise there.

What was surprising, however, was that they found no relationship between need for cognition and compliance. Put another way, even individuals who generally thought through arguments were no more likely to notice the lack of a valid reason than people who were a little more absent minded, again suggesting the frequent automatic nature of our decision making.

The Limits of Reason

The only thing that seemed to make a difference to the level of compliance was the size of the request. In Langer’s original experiment, she repeated the process, with the researchers saying they had twenty pages to copy.

The question was whether the participants would break out of their scripted reasoning or whether they would continue to comply with the request even when the inconvenience was higher. This time, the requests without a reason still got low compliance (24 percent), while the real reason got higher compliance (42 percent). The hollow reason got the same compliance as the no reason (24 percent). In other words, when it comes to bigger, more burdensome requests people tend to break out of their scripted behaviour and critically assess the given reason for merit.

The Take Home Lesson: Provide Good Reasons

What these experiments demonstrate so brilliantly is that giving a reason is one of the most powerful tools available to a persuasion practitioner. It has the ability to make a statement or a claim instantly more plausible and convincing. Moreover, provided it’s a small request, a reason overrides conscious thought and directly accesses the automatic part of the brain where, if the syntax is correct, the actual content does not matter that much.

However, such shortcut-based compliance has its limitations as people often break out of automatic behaviour when the stakes are higher and compliance more burdensome.

The take home lesson is to provide a reason for your claims and requests. This will strengthen your claims and increase compliance to your requests. More importantly, you should seek to use genuine reasons rather than placebic ones because many people, especially when the stakes are higher, which they often are in the real world, will tend to pay more attention to the actual reasoning rather than just the syntax.

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