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Xerox Mindfulness Experiment


Main Findings

As long as the request is small, giving a nonsense reason for a request is a much more effective strategy than giving no reason, due to our mindless activation of "scripts."

Video Introduction

Summary

Langer and colleagues conducted a series of experiments to find out how much of our behavior is a result of not paying attention to the information in the environment. Langer referred to this as mindless behavior, or not paying attention to the substantive elements that are relevant for the successful resolution of the situation (Langer, Blank, & Chanowitz, 1978).  When we are acting mindlessly, we are reenacting prior scripts, or sequences of events in a familiar situation—like driving your child to school on a Saturday.

The most well-known of these experiments was their experiment #1 where two confederates (one male and one female actor working with the experimenters) approached a total of 120 adults about to make copies (each confederate approached about half of the subjects).  The confederate asked one of three questions:

  1. Request only.  "Excuse me, I have 5 (20) pages.  May I use the Xerox machine?"
  2. Placebic information.  "Excuse me, I have 5 (20) pages.  May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?"
  3. Real information. "Excuse me, I have 5 (20) pages.  May I use the Xerox machine, because I'm in a rush?"

The difference in number of pages (5 or 20) was based on the approximate number of pages the subject had, which determined either the "small request" or "large request" conditions.  For example, if the subject was about to make just a few copies, and the confederate asked to make 20 copies, this would be considered a "large request."

Results

If the subjects were processing the information (being mindful), it shouldn't matter whether they made the request only or gave placebic (bogus) information (followed the request with "because I have to make copies").  Only when the confederate gave real additional information ("because I am in a rush") should the results of the request be any different—assuming the subjects were being mindful.  The results were clear: when the request was small (jump ahead to make fewer copies than the subject), the subjects defaulted to a script of "favor is asked -> reason is given -> comply" and 93% of the subjects complied when the bogus response was given versus only 60% when no response was given.  When the request was large (jump ahead to make more copies than the subject) the subject was mindful of the information, and it didn't matter if they gave a bogus reason, the response was the same (24%).

Applied Ideas

We can use this information to be more mindful and more persuasive.  When questions are asked of us, it might be advantageous to pause and process the information, rather than automatically respond.  If we want something from someone, we can make the request in such a way that increases the chances for compliance, simply by providing a reason—no matter how irrelevant that reason may be.

Other Details

  • Year: 1978
  • Researcher(s): Ellen Langer, Arthur Blank, and Benzion Chanowitz
  • Reference(s):
    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. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.36.6.635



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