Obstinate and Pliable

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

I Want a Treat Because I Want a Treat

Posted by John on April 2, 2008

My two-year-old son has intuitively mastered an important element of rhetoric: the structure of an argument can sometimes be as important as its content.   Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed that when he asks his mother or me for something he forms his request as, “I want X, because I want X.”  This could be an example of a child mimicking his parents, but I prefer to believe that he’s figured out that asking for things in this way actually works pretty well.

My main evidence on this subject is a few long dormant memories from grad school, where I read Robert Cialdini’s book Influence

Eric Vieth,at the blog Dangerous Intersection, provides a great summary of the relevant passages where Cialdini discusses the “magic” power of the word because: 

In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini describes an experiment that illustrated the power of the word “because.”  

The experiment was conducted by Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer, who found that people are highly motivated by the form of others’ reasons, even reasons lack persuasive content.  In her experiment, confederates approached people waiting in line to use a copy machine in a busy library. The confederates asked the people waiting in line to jump ahead in line.  They used several types of excuses.  Here are the results:

Some of the confederates asked this:

“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I am in a rush?” 

They were allowed to jump ahead in line 94% of the time. Alternatively, other confederates asked this:

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

Only 60% of these confederates were allowed to jump ahead in line. Based on these first two versions, you might presume that the confederates weren’t allowed to jump ahead because they didn’t have an excuse for doing so.  That proved incorrect, based upon a third group of confederates, who asked this:

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

As you can see, this “excuse” was not really an excuse at all.  Incredibly, though, 93% of these confederates were allowed to jump ahead in line.  In this third condition, no excuse was actually given, although the form of an excuse was used.  Langer focused on the power of the word “because,” which triggered the same content as would a real excuse.  The form of an argument or excuse was itself persuasive in the absence of any persuasive content.  This experiement puts the spotlight on the human vulnerability to be persuaded by things that only look like arguments.

“Because” is thus a magic word that can trigger the presumption of causation and legitimacy in many people.  This experiment is an illustration that humans are vulnerable to argument forms, even where the arguments lack validity.

Check out the original post here:  http://dangerousintersection.org/2006/07/09/just-because/ 

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One Response to “I Want a Treat Because I Want a Treat”

  1. Nils Jonsson said

    Fascinating. I wonder if there has been any change in this phenomenon over time due to generational differences. It is said that young people these days are more likely to work within the rules of the status quo, less likely to buck authority, than their forebears of the 1960s and 70s. Would this trait manifest itself in lending credence to an argument even if it were really just an assertion and not an argument?

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