The Hidden Power of “Because”

The Hidden Power of Because

The Hidden Power of Because
Have you heard that there exists a magical word that can dramatically improve your ability to persuade others to do what you want them to? It’s a simple word that has “proven itself” over and over again to have a very powerful effect on others. By merely using this one word under the correct circumstances, you can increase your ability to gain compliance. What’s this magical word, you ask? It is the word “Because”. Does it sound hard to believe? If so, you are not alone.

It has been suggested by some marketing/sales gurus that Dr. Ellen Langer, a social psychologist at Harvard University, in a series of behavioral studies, demonstrated that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be far more successful if it is accompanied with the word “because” followed by a reason. It is interesting to note however, that Langer never arrived at this conclusion.

In her experiments, Langer and other participants walked up to individuals at the front of a line for making photocopies and asked them if they could cut ahead. When they simply asked to use the copy machine without providing a reason the compliance rate was approximately 60%. However, when the request was made accompanied by a reason it generated a 94% compliance rate.

Those who interpreted the study concluded that it did not seem to matter what the reason was, just as long as there was one. Some went so far as to state that those of us in the English-speaking world have been conditioned since childhood to respond to the word “because” as an unconsciously powerful trigger.

However, the intent of Ellen Langer’s study was not to prove the power of “reasons” or of the word “because”. The point of her exercise was to determine the degree to which humans conduct themselves in a mindless state where they fail to distinguish legitimate reasons from illegitimate ones. She observed that in everyday life we often run on automatic pilot, paying little attention to the events unfolding around us. This mindlessness increases when we are involved with routine or repetitive tasks.

For example, at a restaurant a busy cashier may ask you: “How was everything?”. You may respond: “Not good. The steak was overcooked, the potato was cold, and the waitress ignored my requests for extra napkins and water.” Because she is immersed in her routine she replies: “Excellent! Here’s your change. Enjoy the rest of your day.”

Similarly, in her mindlessness experiments Dr. Langer phrased her question in multiple ways: “Excuse me, I have five pages to copy. May I use the machine because I am in a rush?”. “Excuse me, I have five pages to copy, may I use the machine?”. “Excuse me, I have five pages to copy, may I use the machine because I have to make copies?” In most cases, those in the front of the line complied with her request regardless of how it was phrased.

What she proved was that any excuse worked, not due to the word “because” nor to the reason that followed but due to the impact or meaning of the request upon the subject. As long as the request was considered a minor one, people paid little attention and complied. However, this mindless compliance shifted to mindful objections when she made much larger requests such as “I have to make 20 copies”. This showed that when the subjects felt the request was excessive, causing a substantial inconvenience in the moment, they were more attentive to the quality of the reason provided. The idea of “because” being a word of power and influence was never discussed. In fact, Dr. Langer proved it had little to no impact.

“Because” is not alone in its impotence. Just as with any grammatical device, the word has only a function within the structure of the sentence. In this case, “because” is a conjunction. Other conjunctive and disjunctive devices such as: “and”, “or”, “neither,” “both,” “yet,” “so,” and “for” do not describe things or ideas but rather index relationships between things and ideas. They are essential connective tools to facilitate logic and reason, and nothing more.

In fact, there are no special, hidden powers in most words. The real power is in the overall meaning being delivered. The only time words have impact and power is when those interpreting the words within a specific setting or context assign significant meaning to them. Therefore, the power of words lies with the listener or reader themselves.

Finally, if you are one who has used the “Because” technique in the past and have found it to be effective, consider the idea that it was your strong belief in the power of a word that gave you the confidence you needed to be effective.

About the author

CEO of Authentic Systems, Degree in Philosophy from University of California, Berkeley.

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1 Response
  1. Biz Burnett

    VERY interesting article! Thank you. Your last sentence — “…consider the idea that it was your strong belief in the power of a word that gave you the confidence you needed to be effective.” — reminds me of the well-known “placebo effect” in the medical field.

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