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Someone asks to cut in line at the photocopier with a lame reason - but the favour and reason combo mean the person mindlessly complies

It's an old study now known as the photocopier study. The experiment had the experimenter try to cut in line at a copy machine at a University campus. The researchers found that when the ask was small — just 5 pages to copy — asking to cut in line with the rather circular reason of 'because I have to make some copies' was almost as successful as asking to cut in for the valid reason of 'because I'm in a rush', and both of them beat providing no reason at all. The effect disappeared with a larger ask of 20 pages.

The theory was that with a small ask just providing any reason after the word 'because' may trigger an automatic script of 'Favour + Reason --> Comply' — if we don't really think about it we just see the pattern and act. Which suggests that a) if you have a small ask you might be better off providing a reason for it, no matter how small, and b) if we want to avoid acting mindlessly when people ask a favour it may benefit us to pay closer attention.

The study was led by Ellen Langer who has since gone on to write a host of books on mindfulness.

Also see narrative bias

From: Langer, E. J., Blank, A., & Chanowitz, B. (1978). The mindlessness of ostensibly thoughtful action: The role of "placebic" information in interpersonal interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(6), 635–642.


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