Yes, Part II

In a recent post, I extolled the virtues of Robert Cialdini‘s Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive. The book is wonderfully designed in 50 short chapters to describe the results of 50 different randomized field experiments. The format of, say, 1,800 words per chapter is a bit unusual. But I found it a great way to catch up on some really interesting research. In my previous post, I told you about the Petrified Forest study. But I can’t help but pass on a couple more of my favorite studies.

Chapter 35 describes Ellen Langer‘s great field experiment focusing on the impact of an inane excuse:

In one study, Langer arranged for a stranger to approach someone waiting in line to use a photocopier and simply ask, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Faced with this direct request to cut ahead in the line, 60 percent of the people were willing to agree to allow the stranger to go ahead of them. However, when the stranger made the request with a reason (“May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”), almost everyone (94 percent) complied. … Langer [also] tested one more version of the request. This time, the stranger also used the word “because” but followed it with a completely meaningless reason. Specifically, the stranger said, “May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?” Because you have to make copies? Who doesn’t? … Despite the hollowness of the “reason” the stranger provided, it generated nearly the same elevated levels of compliance as when the reason was wholly legitimate (93 percent).

Yes! also indulges the Freakonomics fascination with the impact of baby names. Chapter 30 argues that your name might impact your vocation. Chapter 30 quotes a scene from the NBC comedy The Office, in which Dwight Schrute is caught in a lie about going to the dentist. Dwight’s boss, Michael Scott, asks Dwight for his dentist’s name and “after a long, awkward pause, Dwight replies, ‘Crentist.’”

Michael: Your dentist’s name is Crentist?

Dwight: Yeah.

Michael: Huh … sounds a lot like dentist.

Dwight: Maybe that’s why he became a dentist.

Crentist sounds silly, but researchers have found that people named Dennis are more likely to become dentists. An article, “Why Susie Sells Seashells by the Seashore,” finds that in the U.S. population the names Jerry, Dennis, and Walter rank 39th, 40th, and 41st among male first names. But in the national directory of the American Dental Association there are close to twice as many Dennises (482) as Walters (252) and Jerrys (270). “Similarly, people whose names begin with ‘Geo’ (e.g., George, Geoffrey) are disproportionately likely to do research in the geosciences (e.g., geology).”

To be honest, I’m not fully persuaded that either of these results is true. Perhaps I was particularly on guard because the book is explicitly about persuasion. But at least 20 of the “50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive” got me thinking about possible follow-ups. If you’re looking for an easy entry point into the empirical psychology literature on persuasion, this book might be the ticket.


The dentist study does not account for age. How long does it take to become a dentist? That is how old are you if you're a young dentist? 27? Then take the population of names of males 27 and older and then compare the results to the ADA's listings. Simple error that could potentially change the whole outcome of the study.

Michael F. Martin

My favorite is the work on the rule of reciprocity. Once you start looking for this in your dealings with people you don't know, you will notice immediately that while most people honor the rule scrupulously, there are a few who regularly exploit others through it.


Perhaps the reason people let the folks with the nonsensical reason cut ahead of them a the Xerox line is because they didn't want to get into a discussion with the crazy person?

Allen Reynolds

If someone wants to cut ahead to use the copier "because they need to make some copies", I would probably let them. Because they are probably insane, and I want to keep my distance.


I suspect that the higher frequency of the name Dennis in the directory of dentists compared to the general population is affected by the popularity of this name over the years. According to the "Popular Baby Names" website, Dennis was a very popular name in the 50s and 60s -- I suspect this was due to the huge popularity of the "Dennis the Menace" TV series. The average age of dentists is much higher than the general population of males. So, names that are relatively more popular for older males are going to be more common in the directory of dentists. This all sounds good until I noticed the name Jerry has a similar pattern of popularity over the years (a Jerry Lewis effect?). So, I looked at the data more carefully. If we look at the years 1981 to 1949 (I am guessing most dentists are between 28 and 60 years of age), the average popularity of the name Dennis is 43, while Jerry is 47. So, relatively close, but could equate to thousands more Dennis's than Jerry's over this time period.


C. Larity

Are you sure the book didn't use some of its own research in the field to convince you that the book was good?


"Are you sure the book didn't use some of its own research in the field to convince you that the book was good?"

And the techniques work, he's blogging about the book, QED.


I use the Automated Post Office mailer at our Post Office about once a month to mail a large batch of envelopes and it takes me about 45 minutes.

It will only let me do $50 worth of transactions at a time and then I get a receipt and have to swipe my card again.
If I see someone come up that has one or two packages or has a kid with them, I usually just let them "cut" and it adds a few minutes to my day, so what.
But I don't always allow people to "cut".

I have had people get visible angry when I don't let them "cut" when they ask. It is as though it is a given that by "asking" I am obliged by law or something to allow them. Once an infuriated woman went to find a Post Office employee to complain about me and how I was "taking too long" at the machine and not allowing her to use it.

Another guy stood right next to me and stared at everything I did like that was going to make me go "faster" or intimidate me. After about 10 minutes of that he gave up and went to a staffed window where he was done long before me and then glared at me as he left.

Does not bother me, but for a number of other people I can imagine all they have to do is endure one of these kinds of tirades once before they will say "YES" to someone who wants to "cut" ahead of them in the future.

Is there any data on the first names of people that ask to cut in line?



Sitting in front of a screen and reading about someone asking to cut in line to make copies is a very different thing from having the person in front of you asking the question, and expecting an answer. I imagine the "that is a crazy person" thought won't occur to most people until after they've already let them cut in line out of reflex, if then.


My BS detector goes off full blast when I here "your name determines your occupation." Even if there is a correlation, causation is a very different thing. For instance, parents who want their children to become geologists (perhaps because they are geologists themselves) might pick a name beginning with "geo".


why not be polite and let someone go ahead?


The name/profession link is spurious. Andrew Gelman at Columbia Statistics Dept has written about this, see his blog.


I can just imagine parents and/or peers saying things like, "Dennis the dentist" or " George the geologist"--just to be witty. Then it comes to mind later on in life while flipping through college catalogs.

bernard cornet - belgium

If someone asks me “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” I'll definitely say yes. I know that he will only take a minute or so and that, if he is asking, he is probably truly in a rush.

But if he says "May I use the Xerox machine, because I'm in a rush?” I don't have any indications of the time he will take.


Jim says: "I have had people get visible angry when I don't let them “ cut” when they ask. It is as though it is a given that by “asking” I am obliged by law or something to allow them."

A more dangerous variant of this happened recently on a highway in the region where I work. I was one car behind a couple of guys who got into it where the road narrowed, and when they got out and were yelling at each other, I could hear what they were saying. Guy A was in the left lane, which is the lane that continued through. Guy B was in the lane that narrowed and ended. Guy B had tried to pull into the main lane and Guy A was angry that he was butting in.

Guy A had practically driven up the tailpipe of the suv in front of him after Guy B tried to get between the suv and Guy A. The car ahead of me started riding Guy A's bumper so Guy B couldn't get in. Guy B kept saying they "had" to let him in and they were blocking him. Guy A and the driver from the car behind both told Guy B he was trying to "butt in" the line. (Which he was; he pulled out from behind me half a block earlier, gunned his engine, and then tried to pull in behind the suv.) Guy B kept saying he was going to call the cops on the other drivers.

Eventually so many horns sounded they all got back in their cars, but I'm surprised no one got into a crash or shot. They pulled away just in time -- the cops came up just as everything loosened up and all parties were driving away.


John F

I'm sure it's an interesting book and I'll probably get around to reading it, eventually. But you picked a bad example to quote for people who have read his earlier work. The "inane excuse" study was also cited in Cialdini's "Influence", which makes me wonder how much fresh content I'll get from "Yes!"


Here is the link to Mr. Gelman's publication in his blog:
He gives estimates for the effect of the name on profession (apart from those of changing name preference during years).

Thanx to Jack.


My favorite one so far is the informercial one: by changing the classic "operators are standing by" to "if lines are busy, keep trying" the copywriter increased the response rate.

I suppose the point of the book is that changes that seem silly can have a large impact on the audience response.


So, then a pragmatic parent might strategically name their child Astrid (the astronaut), Anastasia (the anathesiologist) or Tony (the attorney)?