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Read This Article Because We Wrote It

On Friday morning, a meeting was scheduled with a couple of colleagues. Two hours before the meeting, the organizer sent an email: "Can we move the meeting to 1 p.m.?" My immediate (internal) response was, "why?" since no reason was provided. Whether you realize it or not, in both personal and professional situations, we have an internal desire to know why.

Wouldn't it be great if there were a word that would cause people to change behavior? It would be a word so powerful that it doesn't seem to matter what follows; when you use it, you can cause people to do things.

Psychologist Ellen Langer at Harvard University conducted a study that changed our understanding of human behavior. Read the details and see if you can pick out the magic word.

A researcher would spot someone waiting at the library copy machine and walk over with the intention of cutting the person in line. Then, the researcher would look at the innocent bystander and ask them one of three questions.

1. Version 1 (request only): “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the copy machine?”

2. Version 2 (request with a real reason): “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the copy machine, because I'm in a rush?”

3. Version 3 (request with a fake reason): “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the copy machine, because I have to make copies?”

Version 3 didn't make much sense. Using the phrase “because I have to make copies” was a fairly useless reason for skipping the line. Everyone waiting at the photocopier needed to make copies.

When the researchers analyzed the data, they found the following:

• Version 1: 60% of people let the researcher skip the line.

• Version 2: 94% of people let the researcher skip ahead in line.

• Version 3: 93% of people let the researcher skip ahead in line.

Langer’s research, which soon became known as The Copy Machine study, was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The study became famous because it uncovered one of the most powerful words we can use to drive behavior: because. Langer's work proved that if we could justify a behavior in our brains (“I'm doing this because…”), we would perform the behavior even if the reason didn't make sense.

Sellers, use the word "because" in your client strategy presentations to validate the plan you created solely for them. Managers, incorporating "because" a lot will help your team understand what's being asked of them. It will make them more amenable to changes they might have previously deemed as unusual or uncomfortable.

We encourage you to use the word "because" whenever you are asking people to do something – because we suggested you do so and it's a magical word.

Jeff Schmidt is the SVP of Professional Development. You can reach him at You can also connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Source: Jeff Schmidt, RAB