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Because: Applying the Psychology of Persuasion to Compliance Content

by Ann Allsopp

Have you ever had a conversation with a toddler going through the “why” phase? No matter what you say, there’s always a follow-up question: “Why?”

As it turns out, that “why” is a natural part of human psychology. Even as adults, we want to know why we’re doing what we’re doing. And according to psychology and marketing expert Robert B Cialdini, providing a reason for that “why” can be a powerful persuasion technique (unless you’re still talking to that toddler, in which case—good luck).

“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,” Cialdini explains in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. “People simply like to have reasons for what they do.”

Cialdini references a 1989 study by social psychologist and Harvard professor Ellen Langer:

 

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: Ninety-four percent 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 percent of those asked 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 here’s the interesting part: the people in line were more likely to comply when they were given a reason for the request, regardless of what the reason actually was. As Cialdini explains, Langer’s experiment included a third type of request:

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 percent) agreed, even though no real reason, no new information, was added to justify their compliance.

As Langer discovered, requests that include the word “because” get the best results.

This is valuable information for compliance and ethics programs. We’re in the business of persuasion—we’re asking employees to change their behaviors to protect themselves and the company. But it’s easy to get caught up in rule-making and forget the question in the back of our audience’s mind: Why?

To make your compliance and ethics content more persuasive, try adding that “because.”

So instead of:

Please take a moment to read the new Code of Conduct.

Try:

Please take a moment to read the new Code of Conduct, because it outlines important requirements you may need to follow on the job.

Give your employees a reason to comply, and they’re more likely to do so.

How often does the word “because” appear in your compliance content? If you’re ready to make your compliance program more persuasive, we can help. Set up a free consultation with the Rethink Compliance experts.

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