How to Get What You Want

Have you ever noticed how some people are more persuasive than others at getting what they want, even if their need is not necessarily greater? The secret may very well be in the words they use.

The magical word “because”

Research dating back as far as the 1970s has proven that people can exert a far greater influence over others simply by using certain words. In a 1977 study led by Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University, a team of researchers went into the Harvard library and attempted to cut in line ahead of people waiting to use the photocopiers. The researchers persuaded many of the people to let them cut in front simply by using the word because.

For the purposes of the “Copy Machine Study,” as it was called, researchers used one of the three following questions in order to get permission to cut the line:

  1. Version one: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”
  2. Version two: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?”
  3. Version three: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make copies?”

Even though the third version didn’t really make sense, since everyone in line was waiting to make copies, it was still surprisingly effective. The findings showed that 60 percent of people were persuaded by version one, 94 percent were persuaded by version two, and version three swayed 93 percent of the people waiting in line.

The research and findings of the Copy Machine Study were eventually published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It became famous for revealing how one word could have such a powerful effect on others.

Justifying our behavior makes a big difference

The word because made a big difference since it gave people a justification for an action. By providing a reason for an action (i.e. allowing the researcher to cut the line), people were more likely to allow it, even if it might not seem sensible.

As best-selling author Robert Cialdini explains in his book, Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion, “A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do.”

Our lives are likely guided by behaviors we have justified in our minds, with good reason or not. For example, not exercising because you don’t have enough time, not writing that book you dream about because you’re not sure how to start, or perhaps not pursuing an advanced degree because you’re not sure if it would help you get a better job.

It is important to realize that we are just as easily swayed by reasons that don’t have validity as we are by reasons that are rational.

Justification is more effective for small favors

In the Copy Machine Study, when researchers asked to cut in line to copy five pages, they were given permission whether the reason they offered seemed sensible or not. However, when the study was repeated, this time asking to copy 20 pages instead of five, researchers were only given permission to cut the line when they said, “… because I am in a rush.”

So it stands to reason that if you’re making a small request, the use of because followed by a general, or even vague, justification may be effective enough to get what you want. However, if you want to make a large request, it will likely require a bit more finesse to justify why someone should comply with your wishes.

In a study conducted by Arizona State University on the effects of different approaches during donation requests from the American Cancer Society, researchers wanted to test if even minute changes could bring about significant results. Researchers felt it was important to evaluate why some people say “no” and why others say “yes.”

Lead researcher and professor of psychology, Dr. Robert Cialdini, had his team use two phrases when going door-to-door to make requests for donations. The two phrases were as follows:

  1. “Would you be willing to help by giving a donation?”
  2. “Would you be willing to help by giving a donation? Every penny will help.”

While the difference between the two phrases is very subtle, the results were significant. It was found that people who were asked using the second phrase were twice as likely to agree to make a donation. A full 50 percent of people asked using the second phrase agreed to donate, compared to 28 percent of people who were asked using the first question.

Researchers concluded that people are more likely to agree to do something when the expectations are presented as being minimal. When specifying that “even a penny” could make a real difference, the request seemed less intimidating.

Of particular note, the people who donated due to the second phrase still gave the same amount as others. Even though the bar had been set low, they still contributed significant amounts.

Theory of priming

Priming is a method of persuasion that employs certain stimuli (in this case certain words) which can influence the near-term future actions and thoughts of others, even if the stimuli and the resulting effect do not appear connected. 

There are different forms of priming:

  • Conceptual priming uses related ideas to stimulate a certain response, such as saying “hat” to prime a person to think “head.” (This is also referred to as semantic priming.)
  • Non-associative semantic priming uses related concepts that are less obviously connected: using words such as “sun” and “venus.”
  • Associative priming is directly linking an idea to a stimulus, particularly one that is effective with “free association,” such as pairing “bread” with “butter.”
  • Repetitive priming influences thoughts through the repetition of a stimulus.
  • Reverse priming, as the name implies, uses reverse psychology.
  • Masked priming is the use of a stimulus that is shown so quickly that it is not consciously recognized but has a subconscious influence.

What Do You Want ?It stands to reason that priming someone with words, such as because, to justify an action could be used for manipulation. However, priming has a limited window of effectiveness. Generally, the manipulated thoughts will recede deeper into the subconsciousness after approximately 24 hours.

Other highly persuasive words and tactics

Other words that have proven to be highly successful in persuasion include you, imagine, and free.

  • You is persuasive because it naturally represents having a connection with someone else. Unlike our name, which can alert our attention, using you is casual, and so people often don’t put their guard up.
  • Imagine is powerful in persuasion because it doesn’t involve a real-life action, and therefore it seems like a harmless request, yet it engages our unconscious mind.
  • Lastly, free is persuasive because people feel like they are gaining something without making a real commitment.

Beyond the use of certain words, here are some tactics that can be applied to assist you in persuading others:

  • Be confident about what you’re saying and talk fast. Talking at a fast pace can distract people and make it harder for them to pick out flaws in your argument. As for confidence, a study conducted by the Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Behavioral Decision Research found that presenting with confidence was more successful than accuracy when it came to earning the trust of others.
  • Sometimes a little light swearing can persuade others by making you appear more approachable — not hardcore swearing, just an occasional “damn it” in a well-timed moment. For example, “I know this is surprising, but damn it, I want everyone to benefit from it too.” A study from Northern Illinois University found that the use of swearing at the beginning or end of a speech greatly increased the persuasive quality of the speaker.  
  • Make sure your argument is balanced with the pros and cons of an issue. People will naturally be suspicious if you paint a rosy picture of something without presenting another perspective. By presenting a well-rounded argument, pointing out the downsides and balancing it with the benefits, you can boost your persuasiveness.

—The Alternative Daily

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