Mind wide open
Thirty years ago, a researcher pushed in front of people who were about to use a library photocopier, with the excuse ‘Because I have to make copies’. This statement, though nonsensical, boosted cooperation considerably compared with when they attempted to jump the queue without explanation. In fact it was as effective as the more sensible excuse ‘Because I’m in a rush’. Ellen Langer and colleagues at Harvard University, who conducted the research, interpreted their observations as showing that given the right structural cues – the senseless excuse had the same basic ‘form’ as a meaningful one – we often perform apparently thoughtful actions mindlessly, in this case giving way at the photocopier (Langer et al., 1978).
Since then, a wealth of research revealing the nonconscious influences on our behaviour has accumulated, supporting and exceeding the conclusions of Langer’s team more