Colleagues and loyal blog readers know that I’ve been working on the PICOLA project for quite a while – practically since day one at CMU, and culminating this week with a few final programming tweaks and a paper on opinion formation.

When it came to PICOLA, I was pretty quick to drink the proverbial kool-aid – it made sense that normal opinion polls had the tendency to be fallacious, at times, due to an uninformed public (especially when it comes to political or social issues). But one of my sources for this paper suggests that informing the public doesn’t necessarily make the results better. And, I suppose I knew it all along: If there’s one thing I learned in my Psychology major, it’s that opinion formation can be fickle at best.

Then I cracked open Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and read a research summary from Harvard that I just had to share:

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. Langer demonstrated this unsurprising fact by asking a small favor of people waiting in line to use a library copying machine: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” The effectiveness of this request-plus-reason was nearly total: 94% of those asked let her skip ahead of them in line. Compare this success rate to the results when she made the request only: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Under those circumstances, only 60% of those complied.

At first glance, it appears that the crucial difference between the two requests was the additional information provided by the words “because I’m in a rush.” But a third type of request tried by Langer showed that this was not the case. It seems that it was not the whole series of words, but the first one, “because, ” that made the difference.

Instead of including a real reason for compliance, Langer’s third type of request used the word “because” and then, adding nothing new, merely restated the obvious: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?” The result was that once again nearly all (93%) agreed, even though no real reason was added to justify their compliance.

With fun results like that, it almost makes me think that people who study Psychology should swear an oath not to use it for evil (i.e., friendly manipulation). How tempting.

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The conversation continues...

  1. On May 10th, 2006 at 8:58 am, Samantha said:

    Holy cow! I am reading through, right, and everything is making sense, and then that last part… Ack! We, as a society, don’t LISTEN. I am going to start asking favors of people all the time, something like, “Hey, could you pay for my lunch today, because I am not going to,” or “Dad, will you buy me a car, because I want you to.” Okay, not the same, and it’s rather malicious, but what if it worked?

  2. On May 10th, 2006 at 9:17 am, zsz said:

    Yeah, it sounded pretty ridiculous to me too. I laughed for a long time – but probably because it was 2am and I was writing a paper (which I’m taking a break from writing now, incidentally).

    Anyway, the author talks about ways to avoid these automated responses, like listening to your gut when it gives you that reaction of “Hang on a minute!” (or “eine minuten bitte!” in German =P). You just gotta listen to that, if nothing else. If someone asked me “will you buy me a car because I want you to,” I think my gut would bring my world to a screeching hault.

What do you think?