Because I Have to Make Copies

By Max Li | Published: January 2, 2015

How often do you think through your actions? If somebody were to ask you for a favour, what goes through your head when you decide whether or not to comply? It turns out that sometimes, it takes very little to persuade you to do something.

In 1978, the psychologists Ellen Langer, Arthur Blank, and Benzion Chanowitz conducted an experiment. In particular, they chose to experiment on people who happened to be using a photocopier at a library. When a subject used the photocopier, they approached the subject and asked them whether they could skip ahead of the subject and use the copier before them. They varied the question in two ways: the number of sheets that they needed to copy and what reason they gave. They either asked to photocopy 5 or 20 sheets. The reason they gave varied; they either gave no reason, a real reason (e.g. “I need to make the copies because I’m in a rush”), or a fake reason (e.g. “because I have to make copies”).

When the favour they asked was small (i.e. when they needed to photocopy fewer sheets than the subject), people complied to the request about 90% of the time as long as any reason was provided at all! (Comparatively, only 60% agreed when no reason was provided.) But when the favour was a larger one, the fake reason had no effect compared to providing a real reason.

So what does this mean for you? If you need to ask for a small favour, make sure you offer a reason for your request (no matter how trivial). As human beings, we tend to act somewhat mindlessly if the stakes are low. We assume that if you’re providing a reason, that it’s probably a good one; we don’t think to assess the validity of the reason until the stakes become a bit higher. And next time somebody asks you for a small favour, it might not hurt to give it a second thought before saying yes (or no).