adventures in classic psychology

This Is Apparently the Best Way to Ask Someone for a Tiny Favor

Photo: ImageSource/Corbis

And now, let’s take a little stroll together into the archives of classic psychology. Today’s topic: How to convince other people to do you a solid.

In the 1970s, Ellen Langer at Harvard University published what’s become known as “the copy machine study,” as a copy machine was a substantial set piece in the now-famous field study. For the research, experimenters hovered inconspicuously near a copier at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, waiting for someone to approach the machine and begin to use it. Just before they inserted their money, the experimenter interrupted, and asked one of the following questions:

Question 1: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”
Question 2: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”
Question 3: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”

The results that followed are kind of hilarious, and are no doubt the reason that this study was eventually considered a classic. When the experimenter simply asked for the small favor without giving a reason, the stranger let them go ahead about 60 percent of the time. Not bad, really. But when the experimenters gave a reason, the stranger let them cut in line more than 90 percent of the time — even if that reason was mostly nonsense. (For example: “May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?” Obviously you have to make copies. But so does the person you’re asking, and he was there first!)

What this means, Langer and her colleagues explain in their paper, which was published in 1978 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is that people are not really paying very close attention most of the time. We are used to people asking for a favor and explaining why they need you to do said favor, and so when asked to do something for someone else, we listen for the rhythms of this conventional social interaction. But we might not always hear the actual language used, these researchers concluded. Our actions are guided by habit and routine more than rational thought. 

In practice, this suggests that if you want something from somebody, make sure to provide a reason — any reason at all — with your request. On the flip side, when someone asks a favor of you, remember this finding before hastily agreeing. On the other hand, as linguist Mark Liberman wrote of the research, perhaps the strangers acquiesced when presented with Question 2 because the request “was so moronically self-involved that subjects may have been motivated to grant a small favor out of pity, bemusement, or reluctance to argue with an idiot.” Also entirely possible. Either way, it’s worth a try.

This Is the Best Way to Ask for a Favor