A Single Word that Improves Results

June 10, 2014

by Dan Richards

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Last week’s article focused on this 15-word question that gets prospects to act: “What decision that you made in the past year do you regret the most today?”

For readers for whom 15 words are too many to remember, today’s article focuses on just one word that can improve results in conversations with existing and prospective clients, as well as team members and even family members. That word: Because.

The desire for reasons

A core principle of human interaction is that when we ask people to do something, our odds of success improve if we give them a reason. For small requests, it doesn’t even have to be a good reason – any reason will do. As long as people hear the familiar sequence – the request, then “because,” followed by a reason – habit kicks in and they are predisposed to say yes.

The first evidence of this is attributed to a 1970s experiment by Harvard researchers. The researchers had subjects standing in line to make photocopies. (Remember, this was in the days before personal computers and printers.) A person would walk up to the first person in line and ask to cut in, saying, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Sixty percent of the time, the subject would grant the person permission to jump the line. (Evidently, this research study was not conducted in New York City.)

Then, the researchers tried a different script: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?” With that simple change, the permission rate to jump the line went from 60% to 94%. Just by providing a plausible reason, the response rate increased by 50%.

Then the researchers set up a third scenario in which the reason provided wasn’t a good one. In this third scenario, the person asked: “Excuse me. I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I need to make some copies?” Even when they provided a nonsensical reason, the researchers got permission to cut into the line 93% of the time – effectively the same as when they’d provided the plausible excuse that they were in a hurry.

Tapping into mental shortcuts

The researchers concluded that people in line were using a simple rule of thumb. If someone asked for a small favor followed by the word “because,” they instinctively said yes. Psychologists use the technical term “heuristics” to describe this phenomenon: People take mental shortcuts to ease the burden of having to deliberate on each and every decision.

When the researchers replicated the experiment with the line-cutter asking to make 20 copies, however, they saw a significant difference. As you’d expect, the frequency of permission dropped when the person did not give a reason. But this time, the frequency also dropped when the reason provided wasn’t a good one. When a plausible reason was provided, however, there was again a substantial increase in permission to jump the line.

May I use the Xerox machine? I have 5 copies I have 20 copies
No reason  60% 24%
… because I’m in a rush 94% 42%
… because I have to make some copies 93% 24%

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