Random Acts of Pizza probably isn’t the first place you’d think to look for serious business advice. The Reddit thread provides a forum for -- you guessed it -- soliciting others to buy you a free slice. Its motto: "The power of kindness, one slice at a time."

But at least one quantitatively minded professional is taking the site seriously (and not just as a source of a possible late night snack). Tim Althoff, a computer science PhD student at Stanford, and colleagues recently crunched through the site’s entire history of 21,000 posts looking to determine what sort of requests actually resulted in free pie. The findings were published in the MIT Technology Review.

So what useful conclusions did Althoff’s team draw from combing the data?

Tell a Good Story

Just wanting something is not enough to convince others to give it you.

The most successful posters offered a compelling reason for their need for pizza, including financial hardship and extraordinary circumstances of various kinds. A simple late night, post-drinking jones was unsurprisingly unpersuasive -- in fact these sorts of requests made less people less likely to reach into their pockets.

The takeaway here for those looking for payoffs beyond pizza seems pretty straightforward if not exactly shocking. People like stories, they like to have their emotions engaged, and they like to feel like they’re doing good in the world. If you want them to do what you desire, play on these realities of human nature.

Karma Is King

No one likes a freeloader, so getting others to purchase you pizza often seems to come down to demonstrating your intentions to reciprocate the good deed down the road. This request, for instance, is representative of the type that are generally successful: "I’ve been both a giver and receiver in RAOP before and would certainly return the favor again when I am able to reciprocate."

Karma also seems to operate in different ways on the site as well. A requester’s status within the Reddit community was also an important factor in whether they got their itch for pizza scratched. "We find that Reddit users with higher status overall (higher karma) or higher status within the subcommunity (previous posts) are significantly more likely to receive help," the researchers report.

Again, the lesson for those looking to make other types of requests seems pretty clear: relationships matter a lot. No matter how you word or present a request (politeness, for instance, had basically no effect on post effectiveness), cosmetic efforts to improve the presentation of your ask will do you little good if you haven’t put in the time to build a solid reputation and reciprocal relationships within your community before you go requesting things.

The MIT Tech Review write up sums up these lessons like this: "if you want free pizza, it helps if you really need one, that you’re willing to pay it back in future, and above all that you can turn all that into a good story."

Is a study of a free pizza site the be all and end all when it comes to persuasion science?

Of course not (though, as the MIT piece notes, it’s actually a truly clever test of how to persuade people to go against their self-interest online as everyone is asking for the same thing. Therefore, the substance of the request has no bearing on its effectiveness, only its style). But it’s noteworthy that the fundamental principles of persuasion revealed in this study jive in many ways with what has been learned elsewhere about how people generally make decisions, i.e. that our choices are often far more about stories, emotions and human connections that rationality and data. More research, however, is clearly needed to determine exactly how far these results can be extrapolated.

In the meantime that shouldn’t stop you from using these tips to get yourself some free snack food -- or whatever else your heart desires.


Published on: May 30, 2014