“But WHY?!?!” demands our red-faced 9-year-old.
Her father has now denied her request (four times) to take a small, rusting boat out on our small lake with her sleepover friend.
“Because I said so,” he finally says without knowing exactly why. (Hey, it worked for HIS dad, right?)
While researching last week, I stumbled upon an article (and then 56 more) claiming that the word “because” was the most important word in sales.
Hmmmm…. said my brain. Plausible assertion, right? But .. WHY?
Turns out it’s all about a 1978 psychological paper colloquially called by marketers “The Copy Machine Experiment**.”
Yes, 1978. No, no one has replicated it since (spoiler). It went like this. At the CUNY library, Ellen Langer et al sent in researchers one at at a time (half women, half men) to cut the line at a busy copy machine with 3 different ‘reasons.’
The image below shows the results that numerous marketers quote as proof that you just need to say the word ‘because’ to get people to do what you want.
Yeah, interesting. But then marketers like Jeremy Porter, Susan Weinschenk, and James Clear quickly conclude that “giving a weak reason is better than giving no reason” when it comes to getting people to do stuff.
Just use the word BECAUSE! It doesn’t even matter what you say after that. “Seriously. Put this word in your sales calls – a lot!”
EXCEPT … NO.
Because anyone with a child – or who has ever been in a relationship with another human ever – knows for a FACT that’s some bullshit, AND
because anyone who looks at this study critically can see why.
In this example, the stakes are incredibly low. 5 copies – super quick. Sure, yeah, go ahead …. those 20 seconds are gonna cost me less time than actually arguing with you.
The numbers change considerably, though, when the stakes are higher. Not HIGH, though – it’s still 20 copies in the second test (not 200).
It’s like, “could you please put your plate in the dishwasher/ socks in the hamper?” versus “Will you invest a year’s salary in my new dishwasher?” The stakes are … medium at best.
This part of the study is what all the marketers IGNORE.
OK it’s clear that when the stakes are more-than-minor, the ‘wow’ factor of the placebic effect of the word ‘because’ disappears. This is an inconvenience. Now I want an actual reason.
But the word “because” IS STILL WORKING HERE. Especially when you give a reason that’s not tautological.
Let’s put both scenarios together, then.
To be fair, we’re still talking about copies, socks, and laundry here. The stakes are relatively low. But YEAH, it actually looks like using the word ‘because’ makes a difference in the outcome of your request.
But NOT, I would venture, for the reasons that 57 marketing articles suggest.
For lots of reasons. Let’s enumerate them.
- The argument here is for what Langer will call ‘mindless language.’ We don’t hear what comes after “because” that’s all we need to hear. Sure, when the stakes are incredibly LOW.
- When the stakes are higher (but not high), we need an actual reason. “I’m in a rush,” here seems fine for 20 copies. If it were 200, though, and your reason was, “because if I don’t I’ll lose my job,” I suspect a 90%+ compliance rate.
- It’s 1978. They’re literally using the phrases, ‘excuse me,’ and ‘may I?’ My kids only utter those when they REALLY want something.
- This study is about cached language and automatic responses in low-stakes situations of inconvenience, NOT high-stakes sales situations.
BUT I’M STILL GOING TO USE ‘BECAUSE.’ Because it’s the right thing to do when it’s real.
I say to ads clients, “Take your time with this decision because it’s a big deal and it’s important you choose the person that’s right for your business.”
I’m NOT ever going to say, “Hire me because I’m the best.” “Because I can guarantee results.” “Because you’ll be sorry if you don’t.”
BECAUSE the word carries power.
Check your copy. Are you using it in ways that feel good? Because it matters.
*epilogue: We finally conceded to let the 9-year-old take the boat out because we couldn’t give a good reason. Shenanigans ensued. They got stuck way out and it took an hour to get back. So, BECAUSE I SAID SO is sometimes just what we’ve got, parents.
**Langer’s study is actually titled, “The mindlessness of ostensibly thoughtful action: The role of “placebic” information in interpersonal interaction.”