Team Management

The Single Word That Secretly Drives Our Behavior

Gusto Editors  
The Single Word That Secretly Drives Our Behavior

In 1977, someone ran around one of the libraries on the Harvard campus and shut down almost all of the copy machines inside.

Long lines started snaking around the remaining copier, and a wave of frustration spread throughout the entire building. No, it wasn’t some obnoxious senior prank, but the start of a groundbreaking study led by social psychology professor Ellen Langer.

As soon as the line piled up, students in Langer’s class sprung into action. They snuck to the front of the line and asked the people who were up next if they could steal their spots. Miraculously, the irritated students would just glide right over.

And it all came down to one simple, unassuming word — “because.”

The Copy Machine Study

Why did so many Harvard students allow this rude behavior? And why did it all come down to a seemingly irrelevant word? To understand the reasons why, Langer made each of her interrupters phrase their request in one of three ways:

  • No reason: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”
  • Real reason: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”
  • Fake reason: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”

The first statement was simple enough; a simple question with a dose of manners. However, the second request is where things got interesting. Everyone in line was there for the same exact reason, so the obvious explanation didn’t really justify the act. As more of Langer’s students ambushed the copy machine, a pattern began to emerge. The crowd of students allowed the interrupters through nearly 100% of the time when they included the word “because” in their appeals:

  • No reason: 60% of people let the interrupter cut ahead in line.
  • Real reason: 94% of people let the interrupter cut ahead in line.
  • Fake reason: 93% of people let the interrupter cut ahead in line.

Even if the reason that came after “because” was meaningless, like “I have to make copies,” people would still dutifully step aside. Their “mental script” only needed two things: the request and the reason, despite the fact that the given reason was pointless. When the request became more significant and required a longer wait time, the people in line started to pay more attention to the explanation, and the “real reason” got old. However, when the other illogical excuse was employed — “because I’m in a rush” — people would continue to let Langer’s students in, no questions asked.

What can we learn from all this?

Reasons matter. They can help sway us in both positive and negative ways. For example, you can justify why you can or cannot do something, and it then becomes easier to follow through with that decision. Similarly, when we ask people to do something “just because,” it’s hard to rationalize the request in their minds — you need to affix a reason to it. When you really want someone on your team to focus on a project, give them a good reason why it’s important for them. Part of that reason should include how it helps the larger goal, which will make the task more surmountable in their eyes.

If you work in sales, another way you can apply social psychology is when you get objections. Although they can be frustrating, it’s a great opportunity for you to use your expertise to influence people’s decision to buy, while weeding out prospects who aren’t a great fit for your product or service. But how do you stop feeling frustrated and start positively addressing objections? By giving people the reason why your product doesn’t include a certain feature or function. Becoming more attuned to the factors that influence our decisions puts us in a “why” frame of mind. When we peel back the real intent behind our desires, we start seeing what we’re trying to achieve in a much clearer light.

So what happened after that frustrating day at the library? Well, the copy machines were eventually turned back on. Langer’s students graduated. And we got a little closer to understanding the small but potent influences that make us do the things we do.

Back to top