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Yes, Part II—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on April 24, 2009.

Yes, Part II
By Ian Ayres ’86

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.