How To Get People to Let You Cut Ahead in Line

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Getting people to carry out your bidding might be as simple as providing with them a reason, even if that reason is kind of dumb. That’s according to the new book Magic Words: The Science and Secrets Behind Seven Words That Motivate, Engage, and Influence, in which writer Tim David draws from research in psychology to show the near-magical powers of some very ordinary words. (David, appropriately enough, is a former magician.)

I got an early copy of the book, which was published this week, and the chapter that stood out most to me explores the persuasive powers of the word because. It references a famous 1970s study by Harvard University psychologist Ellen Langer, which essentially tells us how to trick people into letting you cut ahead of them in line: 

Langer’s famous study began when there was a line of people waiting to use a photocopier. Then she tried cutting in line. She wasn’t rude about it, though. She asked politely, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Over and over she tried this and found that 60 percent of the people allowed her to go ahead of them. 

Then Langer got more specific. “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” When she gave a reason, the rate of compliance shot up to 94 percent. No real surprise there. 

The surprise comes with the third question: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” The rate of compliance stayed about the same, at 93 percent, even though she removed the reason. 

The study is a classic in psychology research, and although it’s been criticized in the two and a half decades since it was released, some researchers have managed to replicate its findings. David notes that this really only works for small, snap decisions; the more important your request, the more convincing your reason needs to be, which of course makes intuitive sense. But when you’re asking for the smallish stuff, it’s as if people are satisfied enough to stop listening after they hear the word because.