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The Irrelevant "Because"

My wife has a funny habit. When she asks me to do something, even something simple like doing the dishes after dinner, she provides me with a reason. “Can you handle the kitchen for me, because I’m exhausted.” I don’t actually need her to provide a reason because I would do it anyway and she knows this. In fact, I may be exhausted too so her level of exhaustion could be irrelevant.

It turns out, though, that her strategy is a good one. Research shows that providing a reason for a request, whether relevant or not, increases compliance dramatically.

But should it?

In 1978 Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer conducted a study that revealed the power of the word “because” when attached to a request. Back then, copy machines (often referred to as “Xerox” machines) were heavily used and sometimes had a line waiting for people to use them. Her study involved having someone ask the people in line at a copier if they could use the machine instead of waiting. The request was worded in one of 3 ways:

“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”

“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”

“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”

Did people comply with the request? Logically, it would seem that providing a reason for the request would make people more compliant and it did. Adding “because I’m in a rush” increased compliance from 60% to 94%.

The surprising part comes from the other request, “...because I have to make copies.” That is irrelevant because everyone in the line has to make copies. Yet, compliance still increased to 93%, almost as much as the relevant reason.

This only happens for small asks. When the request was increased to 20 pages, which increased the level of inconvenience, the “I have to make copies” argument did not help, but the “in a rush” excuse still did.

When someone makes a request of us our brain wants to know, “Why should I?,” especially if the potential impact is big. If the reason is not obvious, simply providing a “because” may be enough to give the brain closure because the question was answered. But the bigger the request, the more convincing we need.

Relevance to decision making

How can we apply this insight to our thinking and decision making?

The obvious answer is that when you want to request something of someone, add a reason. If it’s a small request, the specific reason probably won’t matter, just add “because.”

“Can I leave work early, because my son is struggling at school?.” Sure, okay.

This, though, probably won’t work: “Can I have a raise, because I’d really like to buy a new car?”

When dealing with children, they always want to know why. “Because I said so!” may not cut it, so if you can provide even a small - even if it’s not quite relevant - reason for them to go to bed at 9 o’clock, you’ll have better luck at compliance.

On the other side, when you are the person at the receiving end of a request or proposition, first ask yourself if the reason given is relevant to the issue. If you do not consider the relevance of the reasoning, your subconscious compliance mechanism may have you agreeing to something that logically makes no sense and could be a bad decision for you. You jumped the gun because your subconscious was satisfied with just having a reason - any reason.

Please note that even if the "because" is not relevant, you still might want to comply for a different reason - because it aligns with your values. You may just want to help someone, like doing the dishes after dinner. Doing the right thing is a great reason! So is keeping your spouse happy. :)

It’s not just requests but arguments can also have sketchy but good-sounding reasoning behind them. For example, “We should not change the color of our logo because we worked really hard to build this company and in 2001 we decided blue was the best choice.”

The fact that hard-working people chose blue 20 years ago is not relevant to whether it is still a good fit with the current company today. Now, there may be real reasons that keeping the color the same is the better option, but the irrelevant reason should not be considered in the decision making process. (Do, however, consider the effect of changing a long-standing tradition would have on the feelings of attitudes of people who feel attached to the tradition, no matter how irrational.)

So remember to consider the validity and relevance of reasoning - both from yourself and others. Even though you may have a subconscious impulse to do so, don’t allow irrelevant information to play a role in your decision making process.

Think well and be well!

- Steve Haffner

Want to learn more about improving your decision performance?

Click here for my free book, 7 Strategies for Making Better Decisions


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