Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

I need to make a call: Mugging and placebic arguments

So I was watching Peep Show yesterday and this particular clip stuck out to me because of the weirdly effective persuasion it featured.

The clip shows Mark getting mugged by two teenagers. They ask him to ‘lend’ them his phone and when he asks why, one of them says “Well, I need to make a call”. When Mark tries once more to resist, they repeat their message – “C’mon, lend us your phone”. Obviously, the muggers induce a sense of fear (effective for persuasion) and repeat their request (also effective) but what I’m going to focus on here is the statement “I need to make a call”. This phrase is an example of a placebic argument – an argument which seems to make sense but actually lacks information; the muggers give a reason for wanting Mark’s phone but really this adds nothing to what they are actually saying. Langer, Blank and Chanowitz (1978) conducted a set of field experiments to test the effectiveness of placebic reasoning. Participants were students at the City University of New York who were in line to use a photocopier. When participants approached the copier, the experimenter made either a small request (5 pages) or a large request (20 pages) to use the machine and asked in one of three ways:
  •  “Excuse me, I have 5/20 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?
  •  “Excuse me, I have 5/20 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make copies?” 
  • “Excuse me, I have 5/20 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?”

Table 1: The results of the study showing percentages and numbers of participants who complied with the request given the three different reasons

When the request was small, any type of reason was significantly more persuasive than no information. When the request was a large one, placebic information had the same effect as no information at all, but a good reason was sufficiently more persuasive than either no or placebic information.The third question uses placebic information: ‘because I have to make copies’ contains no information. It was found that participants were more likely to comply with the request if a reason was given – even if this reason was placebic. Table 1 shows the percentages of participants who complied with the request. Also interesting to note is that female experimenters elicited compliance significantly more often than did male experimenters.  So maybe if Mark’s muggers had been female they would have been able to take his keys too.

By including the placebic statement “Well, I need to make a call” in their request, the muggers successfully manged to get Mark to relinquish his phone.  Langer, Blank and Chanowitz (1978) showed that this kind of request is more effective than one including no reason; if the muggers had not included the above statment then Mark would have been less likely to give them his phone.

When you’re asking for a favour that requires little effort make sure you provide a reason – any reason will do. If you’re asking for something a bit more taxing, make sure you’re prepared with a decent reason.

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.

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