In his book Influence: Science and Practice, Robert Cialdini gives a lot of fascinating examples of how you can manipulate people. One of the best is the beggar experiment. If you approach people on the street and ask them for 5 dollars, your chances of getting them are fairly low. But what Cialdini found was that if you ask for a more unusual amount – say, 4 dollars and 50 cents – you are more likely to get it.
It doesn’t stop here, however. The researchers took the experiment further by asking for impossible amounts – “Excuse me, could you spare 4 dollars and 23 cents?” – and this increased the chances of getting money even more. Apparently, if you ask for normal numbers, people see it as begging, and will often wave you off – but if you ask for more odd numbers, people think you need the money for some specific purpose, and is more likely to give it to you.
This is in line with another experiment described by Cialdini, where the objective was to be allowed to skip the line in front of a photocopying machine. It turned out that if you simply ask “Can I jump in front of you?”, most people will say no, whereas if you ask “Can I jump in front of you, because I need to make some copies”, you will be allowed to jump the line far more often. Cialdini claims that the magical word ‘because’ triggers an automatic reaction in the listener, making cooperation more likely even if the reason is completely self-evident (why else would you be in line for a copier, if not to make copies?).
See my review of this book.