The Copy Machine Study

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | May 02, 2015

“He who has a why can endure any how.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

As we were growing up, I think all of us heard the words “just because.” To our questions of why we should eat our vegetables or take a nap or study math, the answer all too often was simply “just because.” Without a clear rationale, it is hard to muster up the motivation to do the right thing. 

However, when there is a clear “because,” everything changes. I think this is, in part, what Friedrich Nietzsche had in mind when he said, “He who has a why can endure any how.”

In 1977, psychologist Ellen Langer and her research team at Harvard University conducted a study that would have a huge impact on our understanding of why people do what they do. It was called “The Copy Machine Study.” Langer asked her research assistants to cut in front of innocent people waiting in line at the photocopiers in the library.

A researcher would see someone waiting at the library copy machine and walk over with the intention of cutting in front of them in line. The researcher would then look at the innocent bystander and ask them one of three questions: 1) "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?" 2) "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?" 3) "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”

You will notice, of course, the third words don’t really make much sense for skipping in line because everyone in line was there to make copies. Nor did it give any new information to the innocent person in line. Remember that this was 1977, when there weren’t a lot of computers and copy machines, so the lines could get quite long. 

The research revealed some fascinating facts. To the first question, 60 percent of the people let the researcher skip in line. The second question, however, resulted in 94 percent of the people allowing the researcher to skip in line. And, to my surprise as well as the researchers, the third question resulted in a 93 percent favorable response by the people who let the researcher skip in line even though there was no new information or justification for the request.

Langer’s research was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and became famously known as The Copy Machine Study. As James Clear says in his essay, “Why We Act Irrationally: The One Word That Drives Our Senseless Habits,” this study “uncovered one of the most powerful words we use to drive our behavior: because.” 

In his popular book “Influence,” Robert Cialdini explained it this way, “A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor, we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do.” 

We respond very differently if we are told to do something “just because” and there is no explanation. But, when we are asked and someone explains a reason, a “because,” we comply much more readily. 

This same principle applies to the reasons we give to ourselves for the changes we want to make. Whether we want to lose weight or learn a language or write a book, a clear and viable “because” will often be the fulcrum on which we leverage our behavior from stagnation to improvement. 

It is why we say things like “The furnace is normal in the making of pottery” and “You do things differently with iron if you are making a butter knife or a chisel that cuts steel.” 

If our “What do we want to do?” is joined with “Why do we want to do it?” the likelihood of our being able to say “I did it” will be much greater. 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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