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The Copy Machine Experiment gives advice for getting your requests granted

We all ask for favors. We all make requests. Some are big and significant, some are small and mundane.

Nevertheless, we hope these favors and requests are granted.

If you’re in sales or marketing, your livelihood depends on getting a ’yes’. So pay attention.

In order to maximize our chances, we should take advice from social scientists about how to get our requests granted.

The Copy Machine Experiment

Sketchnote summary of the 1977 Copy Machine experiment by Ellen Langer et al.
Sketchnote summary of the Copy Machine Experiment and most interesting results.

In 1977, Ellen Langer, Arthur Blank and Benzion Chanowitz arranged for an experiment at the Graduate Center City University of New York.

They wanted to study how people respond to requests.

In the experiment, the experimenter asked to cut in line at a copy machine.

(Note: this was a loooong time ago, so people studied in libraries and made paper copies of things they wanted to keep.)

The experimenter had three kinds of requests:

  1. Just ask to cut in line with no specific reason.
  2. Ask to cut in line and give a non-reason, like ”because I need to make copies”.
  3. Ask to cut in line and give a valid reason, like ”because I’m in a hurry and I need to make copies”.

The had some other variables to test as well:

  • Small request vs big request. This was measured in amount of pages to copy. They tested with 5 pages and 20 pages and classified requests as big if the experimenter had more pages than the subject and small if the experimenter had less pages to copy.
  • Man vs woman. They had two different experimenters make the requests.

Results from the experiment

The results where surprising.

  • 60% of the subjects given no reason said yes.
  • 93% of the subjects given a non-reason said yes.
  • 94% of the subjects given a valid reason said yes.

These are staggering numbers! Almost equally many granted the experimenters request given any reason, valid or not.

This means we should always couple our asks with a reason for why we’re asking. The reason can be almost anything.

Important caveat

But… There’s a big but.

This part of the results is often neglected when the experiment is presented.

This result is only valid for small requests. When we look at the numbers for big requests, the results change significantly.

  • 24% of the subjects given no reason said yes.
  • 24% of the subjects given a non-reason said yes.
  • 42% of the subjects given a valid reason said yes.

The conclusion is that for larger requests reasons still work, but the reasons need to be valid.

It’s also worthwhile noting that the female experimenter got more requests granted than the male experimenter.

References and links

References: the paper published, the full text.


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