Psychology

The Copy Machine Study Shows That One Word Can Help You Get Your Way

It's nice to think that we're all thoughtful creatures who carefully consider our actions. But over and over, research shows that we're often a lot closer to mindless automatons than rational beings. The good news is that you can use that to your advantage: to increase your chances of getting a request honored, all you have to do is give a reason — any reason at all.

Dr. Ellen Langer is a professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard University.

Full Of Excuses

Mindfulness is all the rage these days, but in the late 1970s, Dr. Ellen Langer got deep into its opposite: mindlessness. She was fascinated by the reasons people do irrational things without thinking: driving past the intersection for the grocery store, checking your phone several times in a few minutes, munching on stale chips even though you're not hungry. At a time when most psychology studies started with the premise that people think about their actions, Langer wanted to prove that wasn't a foregone conclusion. One of her most famous experiments, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1978, illustrates this beautifully.

For the experiment, researchers approached people waiting to make copies at the City University of New York graduate center and asked to go ahead of them using one of three requests:

  1. "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?"
  2. "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make copies?"
  3. "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I'm in a rush?"

As you can see, only one of these requests came with a legitimate reason: I need to cut in line because I'm in a hurry. The first didn't come with a reason, and the second came with a nonsensical reason (of course you have to make copies, otherwise you wouldn't want to use the copier in the first place). The authors called this "placebic information," the same way you might administer a sugar pill as a placebo in a drug study.

Which do you wager got the most people to agree to the request? If you said #3, the request with a legitimate reason, you're right — but not by much. Here's how the requests actually played out:

  1. "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?" got 60 percent of subjects to agree.
  2. "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make copies?" got 93 percent of subjects to agree.
  3. "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I'm in a rush?" got 94 percent of subjects to agree.

For this small request, the "placebic information" was basically just as effective as the legitimate reason.

Don't Be Mindless

There's an important caveat to these results: when the researchers repeated the experiment asking to make 20 copies instead of five, the effect disappeared. Suddenly, the study subjects only acquiesced to the legitimate reason. You can manipulate people with nonsensical reasoning, but only to a point.

Still, this is useful information both when you're making requests and when you're having requests being made of you. Need to turn in a term paper late? Even if it's just because you didn't get around to it, you're better off tacking on "because I didn't have time" than not giving any excuse at all. Likewise, when your friend asked to borrow money, ask yourself: was the reason they gave actually a good one, or did you just give in because you heard "because"?

Mindfulness vs Mindlessness

Written By
Ashley Hamer
September 16, 2017