Gilbert and colleagues measured the preferences, values, and personalities of more than nineteen thousand adults ages eighteen to sixty-eight. Some were asked to predict how much they would change over the next decade, others to reflect about how much they had changed in the previous one. Predictors expected that they would change very little in the next decade, while reflectors reported having changed a lot in the previous one. Qualities that feel immutable changes immensely. Core values — pleasure, security, success, and honesty — transformed. Preferences for vacations, music, hobbies, and even friend were transfigured. Hilariously, predictors were willing to pay an average of $129 a ticket for a show ten years away by their current favorite band, while reflectors would only pay $80 to see a show today by their favorite band from ten years ago.
An experiment by Michael Deppe and his colleagues from the University of Munster, quantified the importance of media context. In 2005, the neurologists showed 21 consumers 30 new headlines. The respondents rated the believability of the headlines on a seven-point scale, with one being the most credible and seven the least.
The headlines appeared to come from one of four news magazines. Each headline was randomly rotated between the magazines so that each viewer saw the headlines in the context of every magazine. This allowed the researchers to address the effects of the context on the credibility of the headlines.
The scores were significantly influenced by the magazine. Headlines in the most respected magazine scored on average 1.9, compared to 5.5 in the least regarded magazine.
Information is not process neutrally. We are swayed by contextual cues.
A group of Canadian psychologists led by Tara MacDonald recently went into a series of bars and asked the patrons to read a short vignette. They were to imagine that they had met an attractive person at a bar, walked him or her home, and ended up in bed — only to discover that neither of them had a condom. The subjects were then asked to respond on a scale of 1 (very unlikely) to 9 (very likely) to the proposition: “If I were in this situation, I would have sex.” You’d think that the subjects who had been drinking heavily would be more likely to say they would have sex — and that’s exactly what happened. The drunk people came in at 5.36, on average, on the 9-point scale. The sober people came in at 3.91. The drinkers couldn’t sort through the long-term consequences of unprotected sex. But then MacDonald went back to the bars and stamped the hands of some of the patrons with the phrase “AIDs kills.” Drinkers with the hand stamp were slightly less likely than the sober people to want to have sex in that situation: they couldn’t sort through the rationalization necessary to set aside the risk of AIDS. Where the norms and standards are clear and obvious, the drinker can become more rule-bound that his sober counterpart.
Guinness and AMV publicised the slowness of the pour with “Good things come to those who wait”. The National Dairy Council alluded to the high calorific content of cream cakes with “Naughty, but Nice”. (Incidentally, that strapline was coined by Salman Rushdie while working at Ogilvy & Mather.)
Admitting weakness is a tangible demonstration of honesty and, therefore, makes other claims more believable. Further to that, the best straplines harness the trade-off effect. We know from bitter experience that we don’t get anything for free in life. By admitting a weakness, a brand credibly establishes a related positive attribute.
Guinness may take longer to pour but boy, it’s worth it. Avis might not have the most sales but it’s desperate to keep you happy.
Lung cancer proved to be a handy example. Lung cancer doctors and patients in early 1980s faced two unequally unpleasant options: surgery or radiation. Surgery was more likely to extend your life, but, unlike radiation, it came with the small risk of instant death. When you told people that they had a 90 percent chance of surviving surgery, 82 percent of patients opted for surgery. But when you told them that they had a 10 percent chance of dying from the surgery — which was of course just a different way of putting the same odds — only 54 percent chose the surgery. People facing a life-and-death decision responded not to the odds but to the way the odds were described to them.
In general people prefer something freely chosen to the same thing forced upon them. The effect is dramatically revealed in a study that did not directly involve reward or punishment. Lottery tickets costing $1 each were sold to the employees of two companies. Some of the employees were allowed to choose the number of their tickets, others had no choice but were merely handed a ticket. Just before the draw, the experimenter approached each subject offering to buy the ticket back. The subjects who had no choice were prepared to sell back for $1.96 on average, but those who had selected their own tickets held out for an average of $8.67. There could be no better demonstration that we irrationally overvalue what we freely choose.
Excerpt from: Irrationality: The enemy within by Stuart Sutherland
Take what happened when Coney Island visitors encountered entrepreneur Nathan Handwerker’s new food stand. When he went into business in 1916, the Polish immigrant decided to undercut the competition. Everyone else was charging 10 cents for the classic Coney Island meal — the hot dog — so Handwerker priced the dogs he made from his wife’s old recipe at a mere five cents. Despite the fact that Handwerker’s hot dogs were every bit as delicious as the competition’s (and were made from real beef), he attracted almost no customers. Visitors to Coney Island viewed these mysterious half-priced hot dogs as inferior and wondered what cheap, substandard ingredients went into the recipe. It didn’t help when Handwerker offered free pickles or free root beer to hot dog buyers. Sales remained flat and, if anything, giving away freebies only further cemented the value attribution.
It wasn’t until Handwerker came up with a clever new ploy that his hot dogs really started selling. He recruited doctors from a nearby hospital to stand by his shop eating his hot dogs while wearing their white coats and stethoscopes. Because people place a high value on physicians, customers figured if doctors were eating there, the food had to be good. So they soon started buying from Handwerker, and his “Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs” took off. It makes you wonder just how many times we miss out on something worthwhile because of our preconceptions about its value.
Sailing across the Aegean Sea he was captured by Sicilian pirates.
They demanded a ransom: 20 talents of silver.
(That’s about 620kg worth about $600k.)
Caesar told them they were being ridiculous.
He couldn’t possibly allow himself to be ransomed so cheaply.
The pirates hesitated, the were confused.
Caesar insisted the ransom must be more than doubled to 50 talents of silver.
(Around 1550kg worth about $1.5 million.)
Now the pirated didn’t know what to make of this.
Normally their captives tried to escape as cheaply as possible.
They didn’t understand what was going on.
But if he said he would double the ransom, why argue?
They let Caesar’s men go back to Rome to raise the money.
And in Rome, in his absence, Caesar suddenly became very famous.
No one had ever been ransomed for such a vast sum before.
He must be very special, he must be very important/
That ransom demand put Julius Caesar on the political map.
He had just invented the Veblen effect.
Consider Gosplan, the agency charged with central economic planning for the Soviet Union for most of the twentieth century. Their plans often involved setting economy-wide target amounts for commodities (wheat, tires, etc.), which broke down into production targets for specific facilities. In 1990, economist Robert Heilbroner described some of the complications with this system in “After Communism,” published in The New Yorker.
For many years, targets were given in physical terms — so many yards of cloth or tons of nails — but this lead to obvious difficulties. If cloth was reqarded by the yard, it was woven loosely to make the yarn yield more yards. If the output of nails was determined by their number, factories produced huge numbers of pin like nails; if by weight, smaller numbers of very heavy nails. The satiric magazine Krokodil once ran a cartoon of a factory manager proudly displaying his record output, a sing gigantic nail suspended from a crane.
Goodhart’s law summarizes the issue: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.
You might assume that a milkshake’s job is to be a special treat to cap off a meal. While it is true that many parents offer shakes as an after-dinner family treat, this restaurant learned that almost half of their shake customers were using them for a different job — to make their long morning commutes more interesting. People felt their trips were more enjoyable as they sipped milkshakes while moving through traffic.
Doing two jobs at once sounds great, but that usually means at least one job isn’t being done particularly well. In this case, parents didn’t like how long it took their kids to drink the shakes. Yet that was one of the key features for the commuters.
The restaurant chain realized they needed two different products to do the two different jobs well. They decided to further improve the shake for the commuters by making it even thicker, adding more chunks and moving the shake machine to the front of the stores for the fast on-the-go service that commuters wanted. They then needed to market a wholly different dessert product to kids and their parents.
When you truly understand what job people are really truing to get done by using your product, then you can focus your efforts on meeting that need.
A 2007 study by Sorensen investigated the impact of appearing in the NY Times bestseller list. He tracked the success of books that should have been included on the basis of their actual sales, but — because of time lags an accidental omissions — weren’t, and compared them to this that did make it on to the list. He found a dramatic effect: just being on the list led to an increase in sales of 13-14 per cent on average, and a 57 per cent increase in sales for first-time authors.
Transavia’s brilliant idea was to create a snack packaging that doubled as an aeroplane ticket to a low-cost destination. A €35 packet of crisps would buy you a one-way ticket from France to Barcelona, a €40 bag of gummy bears would take you to Lisbon, or a €40 cereal bar would get you to Dublin. Simply walk into your local Carrefour supermarket, buy the snack, and then enter the code found inside the packaging to redeem your ticket and choose your outbound flight.
When Howard Shultz created Starbucks, he was as intuitive businessman as Salvador Assael. He worked diligently to separate Starbucks from other coffee shops, not through price but through ambiance. Accordingly, he designed Starbucks from the very beginning to feel like a continental coffeehouse.
The early shops were fragrant with the small of roasted beans (and better-quality roasted beans than those at Dunkin’ Donuts). They sold fancy French coffee presses. The showcases presented alluring snacks — almond croissants, biscotti, raspberry custard pastries, and others. Whereas Dunkin’ Donuts had small, medium, and large coffees. Starbucks offered Short, Tall, Grande, and Venti, as well as drinks with high-pedigree names like Caffe Americano, Caffe Misto, Macchiato, and Frappuccino. Starbucks did everything in its power, in other words, to make the experience feel different — so different that we would not use the prices at Dunkin’ Donuts as an anchor, but instead would be open to the new anchor that Starbucks was preparing for us. And that, to a great extent, is how Starbucks succeeded.
With this in mind, in early 2000 the board of trustees of Ursinus College adopted a proposal designed to increase applications that at first might seem counterintuitive: The board raised tuition nearly 20 percent. The policy flew in the face of conventional economic theory, by which a drop in price is the surest way to increased demand. Unconventional or not, it worked: Applications soared. The strategy has been employed with equal success by a number of other colleges, including Bryn Mawr, Notre Dame, and Rice.
Although it is not what standard economic theory would recommend, it’s easy to see why raising tuition would increase the number of applicants. Parents want to send their kids to high-quality, prestigious schools. But academic quality and prestige are hard to assess, and so they use price as an indicator of quality. If it costs a lot, they tell themselves, it must be good.
After my first lecture, Binmore offered a version of the “low stakes” critique. He said that if he were running a supermarket, he would want to consult my research because, for inexpensive purchases, the things I studied might possibly matter. But if he were running an automobile dealership, my research would be of little relevance. At high stakes people would get stuff right.
The next day I presented what I now call the “Binmore continuum” in his honor. I wrote a list of products on the blackboard that varied from left to right based on frequency of purchase. On the left I started with cafeteria lunch (daily), then milk and bread (twice a week), and so forth up to sweaters, cars, and homes, career choices, and spouses (no more than two or three per lifetime for most of us). Notice the trend. We do small stuff often enough to learn to get it right, but when it comes to choosing a home, a mortgage , or a job, we don’t get much practise or opportunities to learn. And when it comes to saving for retirement, barring reincarnations we do that exactly once. So Binmore had it backward. Because learning takes practice, we are more likely to get things right at small stakes than at large stakes. This means critics have to decide which argument they want to apply. If learning is crucial, then as the stakes go up, decision-making quality is likely to go down.
Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials. We need ways to help people test our ideas for themselves — a “try before you buy” philosophy for the world of ideas. When we’re trying to build a case for something, most of us instinctively grasp for hard numbers. But in many cases this is exactly the wrong approach. In the sole U.S presidential debate in 1980 between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, Reagan could have cited innumerable statistics demonstrating the sluggishness of the economy. Instead, he asked a simple question that allowed voters to test for themselves: “Before you vote, ask yourself if you are better off today than you were four years ago.”
Contrast the following two statements:
- Scientists recently computed an important physical constraint to an extraordinary accuracy. To put the accuracy in perspective, imagine throwing the rock from the sun to the earth and hitting the target within one third of a mile if dead center.
- Scientists recently computed an important physical constraint to an extraordinary accuracy. To put the accuracy in perspective, imagine throwing a rock from New York to Los Angeles and hitting the target within two thirds of an inch of dead center.
Which statement seems more accurate?
As you may have guessed, the accuracy levels in both questions are exactly the same, but when different groups evaluated the two statements, 58 percent of respondents ranked the statistic about the sun to the earth as “very impressive.” That jumped to 83 percent for the statistic about New York to Los Angeles. We have no human experience, no intuition, about the distance between the sun and the earth, The distance from New York to Los Angeles is much more tangible. (Though, frankly, it’s still far from tangible. The problem is that if you make the distance more tangible — like a football field — then the accuracy becomes intangible. “Throwing, a rock the distance of a football field to an accuracy of 3.4 microns” doesn’t help.)
The problem of more data was investigated by Paul Slovic, Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon. He ran an experiment with professional horseracing handicap setters in which they were given a list of 88 variables that were useful in predicting a horse’s performance. The participants then had to predict the outcome of the race and their confidence in their prediction. They repeated these tasks with access to different levels of data: either 5, 10, 20, 30 or 40 of the variables.
The results were illuminating. Accuracy was the same regardless of the number of variables used. However, overconfidence grew as more data was harnessed. Experts overestimated the importance of factors that had a limited value. It was only when five data points were used that accuracy and confidence were well calibrated.
Marketers face a similar set of problems. They have access to more data than ever before and many believe that because the information exists they should use it. The Slovic experiment suggests otherwise. We shouldn’t harness data just because we can. Instead, as much time should be spent choosing which data sets to ignore as which to use.
Another study, conducted by Shafir and a colleague, Donald Redelmeier, demonstrates that paralysis can also be caused by choice. Imagine, for example, that you are in college and you face the following choice one evening. What would you do?
- Attend a lecture by an author you admire who is visiting just for the evening, or
- Go to the library and study.
Studying doesn’t look so attractive compared with a once in a life-time lecture. When this choice was given to actual college students only 21 percent decided to study.
Suppose, instead, you had been given three choices:
- Attend the lecture.
- Go to the library and study.
- Watch a foreign film that you’ve been wanting to see.
Does you answer differ? Remarkably, when a different group of students were given the three choices, 30 percent decided to study – double the number who did before. Giving students two good alternatives to studying rather than one paradoxically makes them less likely to choose either.
By early evening, the decision is finalised as to what the front page (“the splash”) will look like. At the Sun, this was one of the most important jobs of the editor. Before, say, 2010, the newspaper could shift an extra 100,000 copies on the strength of having a good story on its front; that is a rarity now indeed. The craftsmanship of headlines, though, is one of the great joys of tabloid journalism. Sun meeting rooms are named after famous headlines of its past: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea (on the threat of Kim Jong-Il); Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrrocious (on a Scottish football match); and so on. Headline-writing is a competitive sport: people sit at their desk, brows furrowed trying to come up with the funniest line. At the Sun there is a headline of the month competition too.
Humans are herd animals. We want to fit in, to bond with others, and to earn the respect and approval of our peers. Such inclinations are essential to our survival. For most of our evolutionary history, our ancestors lived in tribes. Becoming separated from the tribe — or worse, being cast out — was death sentence. “The lone wold dies, but the pack survives.”
Meanwhile, those who collaborated and bonded with other enjoyed increased safety, mating opportunities, and access to resources. As Charles Darwin noted, “In the long history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” As a result, one of the deepest human desires is to belong. And this ancient preference exerts a powerful influence on our modern behaviours.
In a 1992 survey by W. H. Desvousges and colleagues, people were told that birds were dying because they became mired in uncovered pools of oil at refineries. This (fictitious) problem could be solved by putting nets over the pools. The experiment asked participants to indicate how much they would be willing to pay for nets to save the birds The researchers tried telling different groups that 2,000 birds were being killed a year — or 20,000 birds, or 200,000 birds. The answers didn’t depend on the number of birds! In all cases, the average dollar amount was $80. Evidently, all that registered was A lot of birds are being killed. We should do something about it.
Here’s a more scientific example of how this tendency works. Two psychologists, Peter Ditto (of the University of California, Irvine) and David Lopez (founder and CEO of iAnalytics Statistical Consulting), told participants that they would take a test to determine whether they had a dangerous enzyme deficiency. For the test, participants had to put a drop of saliva on a strip and then wait for the results. Some learned that the strip would turn green if they had the deficiency; others learned that green meant they did not have the deficiency. The strip wasn’t a real test — it was simply a piece of paper that ever changed its color. The result? Participants who hoped to see the test strip turn green as evidence that they didn’t have the deficiency waited much longer than those who hoped not to see it turn green. That is, people waited more patiently for data when they believed the data would reassure them than when the believed it would scare them.
I give a final striking example, this time to do with publishers. In 1969, Jerzy Kosinsky’s novel Steps won the American National Book Award for fiction. Eight years later some joker had it retyped and sent the manuscript with no title under a false name to fourteen major publishers and thirteen literary agents in the US including Random House, the firm who originally published it. Of the 27 people to whom it was submitted no one recognised it had been published and all 27 rejected it.
Except from: Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland
They asked 40 owners of iPods how influenced they were by the trendiness of the product relative to their peers. The scale went from one (much less than average) to nine (much more than average), with five as average. So the neutral answer was clearly five. However, the average response from participants was 3.3.
Consider Nespresso. They sell in distinctive pods, which provide the right amount of coffee for a cup. Because they’re sold in that unit we compare their price to other places selling by the cup, such as Costa or Caffe Nero. When compared to the £2.50 Costa charge, Nespresso pods, costing 30p-37p, feel like a bargain.
But stop for a second and remember back to when they launched. If Nespresso had sold their coffee in standard packaging the natural comparison set would have other brands of roast and ground coffee, like Taylor’s or illy. Their price would have been judged against the norm for other coffees — roughly £4.00 for 227g. Even with tens of millions of pounds of advertising they could never have persuaded consumers to pay £34 for a 454g bag. But that £34 figure equates to 7p per gram, exactly what they’re charging now.
“Monstromart: where shopping is a baffling ordeal” reads the slogan of a fictional supermarket in The Simpsons.
Inside the supermarket, there were whole aisles for one type of product. There were different brands of tomato ketchup as far as the eye could see, bags sugar could be bought in hundreds of varieties, the express checkout had a sign reading: “1,000 items or less”.
In the end, the Simpsons returned to Apu’s Kwik-E-Mart. In doing so, the Simpsons were making a choice to reduce their choice. It wasn’t quite a rational choice, but it made sense. Their unconstrained freedom left them paralysed to make decisions.
There is no denying choice improves the quality of our lives. When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. Choice is essentially freedom, which is fundamental to our well-being. However, like The Simpsons, the choice paradox suggests that offering consumers too much choice can leave them paralysed to make a decision.
I recently watched a competitive swimming heat on television. The race sticks in my mind because 50% of the athletes, four in total, were from the United States. Knowing very little about each participant, nor who the favourite was for the race, at first glance, it looked like the United States had to place in the top three. The result: none of them finished in the top three.
In this case, the size of each category, the country each athlete represented, incorrectly led me to believe they had a better chance of making it into the top three. I incorrectly believed “they had the numbers on their side”.
The category size bias demonstrates how our probability judgments are often inaccurate. Category size can impact the perceived likelihood of a specific outcome, such that an outcome classified into a large (vs small) category is perceived as more likely to occur.
I was walking down the street when I was approached by an eleven- or twelve-year-old boy. He introduced himself and said that he was selling tickets to the annual Boy Scouts circus to be held on the upcoming Saturday night. He asked if I wished to buy any at five dollars apiece. Since one of the last places I wanted to send Saturday evening was with the Boy Scouts, I declined. “Well,” he said, “if you don’t want to buy any tickets, how about buying some of our big chocolate bars? They’re only a dollar each.” I bought a couple and, right away, realised that something noteworthy had happened. I know that to be the case because: (a) I do not like chocolate bars; (b) I do like dollars; (c) I was standing there with two of his chocolate bars; and (d) he was walking away with two of my dollars.
During a famine in 1774, Frederik ordered a national cultivation programme. In a response typical of many towns, the people of Kolberg declared: “The things have neither small nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?”
Frederick’s initial response was more a violent “shove” than a nudge – he threatened to cut the noses and ears off any peasant who did not plant potatoes. However, he soon changed tack. In modern parlance we’d say that he used a bit of “psychology”.
Legend has it that instead of issuing further threats, Frederik ordered his soldiers to establish a heavy and visible guard around the local royal potato fields, yet also instructed them to be deliberately lax in protecting them. At the same time, the local peasants noticed their king’s conspicuous admiration of potato flowers as well as the tubers themselves, and sneaked in to steal and plant the “royal crop”. Within a short time, many potatoes were stolen and soon being widely grown and eaten.