In the mid-1960s psychologists Jonathan Freedman and Scott Fraser published an astonishing set of data. They reported the result of an experiment in which a researcher, posing as a volunteer worker, had gone door to door in a residential California neighborhood making a preposterous request of homeowners. The homeowners were asked to allow a public-service billboard to be installed on their front lawns. To get an idea of just how the sign would look, they were shown a photograph depicting an attractive house, the view of which was almost completely obscured by a very large, poorly lettered sign reading DRIVE CAREFULLY. Although the request was normally and understandably refused by the great majority (83 percent) of the other residents in the area, this particular group of people reacted quite favorably. A full 76 percent of them offered the use of their front yards.
The prime reason for their startling compliance has to do with something that had happened to them about two weeks earlier: They had made a small commitment to driver safety. A different volunteer worker had come to their doors and asked them to accept and display a little three-inch-square sign that read BE A SAFE DRIVER. It was such a trifling request that nearly all of them had agreed to it. But the effects of that request were enormous. Because they had innocently complied with a trivial safe-driving request a couple of weeks before, these homeowners became remarkably willing to comply with another such request that was massive in size.
Before starting out on this change of venue, they first collected data on the amount of paper hand towels used in the mens restroom for a period of 15 days to work out the average amount of paper towels typically used each day. Once this had been done they then introduced a large recycling bin near the sinks with signs indicating that the restrooms were participating in a paper hand towel recycling program, and that any used hand towels placed in the bin would be recycled. For the next 15 days, they then simply measured the amount of paper hand towels used.
Consistent with their laboratory studies, paper towel usage increased after the introduction of the recycling bin by an average of half a paper towel per person. At first glance this small increase doesn’t seem that big a deal. However, given that the restroom was typically used over a hundred times each work day, the increase in usage was substantial: It totaled about 12,500 paper hand towels annually for this one restroom alone.
I’ve been to several scientific conferences at which Professor Kahneman has spoken; and, when Daniel Kahneman talks, people listen. I am invariably among them. So I took special notice of his answer to a fascinating challenge to put to him not long ago by an online discussion site. He was asked to specify the one scientific concept that, if appreciated properly, would most improve everyone’s understanding of the world. Although in response he provided a full five-hundred-word essay describing what he called “the focusing illusion,” his answer is neatly summarized in the essay’s title: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.”
Evidence for the success of this strategy has been found outside the domain of advertising as well. Consider an example of its use in law: in a study conducted by behavioural scientist Kip Williams and colleagues, when jurors heard a lawyer mention a weakness in his own case before the opposing attorney mentioned it, they rated him as more trustworthy and were more favourable to his overall case in their verdicts because of that perceived honesty. Additionally, anyone who is considering a career change may be interested to learn that a recruitment study found that applicants whose curriculum vitae contained only wholly positive references were invited to fewer interviews than those whose curriculum vitae first highlighted a weakness or slight limitation before going on to describe positive characteristics.
When asking ourselves about such a person’s trustworthiness, we should keep in mind a little tactic compliance practitioners often use to assure us of their sincerity: They will seem to argue to a degree against their own interest. Correctly done, this can be a subtly effective device for proving their honesty. Perhaps they will mention a small shortcoming in their position or product (“Oh, the disadvantages of Benson & Hedges”). Invariably, though, the drawback will be a secondary one that is easily overcome by a more significant advantages — “Listerine, the taste you hate three times a day”; “Avis: We’re number two, but we try harder”; “L’Oreal, a bit more expensive but worth it.” By establishing their basic truthfulness on minor issues, the compliance professionals who se this ploy can then be more believable when stressing the important aspects of their argument.
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.
We found that over the next several weeks, those who had been consuming more energy than their neighbours reduced their energy consumption, by 5.7 per cent. Not much of a surprise there. More interesting, however, was the finding that those who had been consuming less energy than their neighbours actually increased their energy consumption by 88.6 per cent. These results show that what most others are doing acts as something of a “magnetic middle”, meaning that people who deviate from the average tend to be drawn towards it – they change their actions to be more in line with the norm regardless of whether they were previously behaving in a socially desirable or undesirable way.
Take, as proof, what happened when psychologist Thomas Moriarty staged thefts on a New York City beach to see if onlookers would risk personal harm to halt the crime. In the study, a research accomplice would put a beach blanket down five feet from the blanket of a randomly chosen individual – the experimental subject. After a couple of minutes on the blanked spent relaxing and listening to music from a portable radio, the accomplice would stand up and leave the blanket to stroll down the beach, A few minutes later, a second researcher, pretending to be a thief, would approach, grab the radio, and try to hurry away with it. As you might guess, under normal conditions, subjects were very reluctant to put themselves in harms way by challenging the thief – only four people did so in the twenty times that the theft was staged. But when the same procedure was tried another twenty times, with a slight twist, the results were drastically different. In these incidents before taking his stroll, the accomplice would simple ask the subject to please “watch my things,” which each of them agreed to do. Now, propelled by the rule for consistency, nineteen of the twenty subjects became virtual vigilantes, running after and stopping the thief.
Those who employ it can cash in on its influence without any appearance of having structured the situation in their favor. Retail clothiers are a good example. Suppose a man enters a fashionable men’s store and says that he wants to buy a three-piece suit and a sweater. If you were the salesperson, which would you show him first to make him likely to spend the most money?
Clothing stores instruct their sales personnel to sell the costly item first. Common sense might suggest the reverse: If a man has just spent a lot of money to purchase a suit, he may be reluctant to spend very much more on the purchase of a sweater. But clothiers know better. They behave in accordance with what the contrast principle would suggest: Sell the suit first, because when it comes time to look at sweaters, even expensive ones, their prices will not seem as high in comparison. A man might bulk at the idea of spending $95 for a sweater, but if he has just bought a $495 suit, a $95 sweater does not seem excessive. The same principle applies to a man who wishes to buy the accessories (shirts, shoes, belt) to go along with his new suit.
Contrary to the commonsense view, the evidence supports the contrast-principle prediction. As sales motivation analysts Whitney, Hubin, and Murphy state, “The interesting thing is that even when a man enters a clothing stores with the express purpose of purchasing a suit, he will almost always pay more for whatever accessories he buys if he buys them after the suit purchase than before.”
At a busy New York City subway station we hired researchers to count the number of commuters who donated to a street musician as they walked past.
After a short time a small change was made to the situation that had an immediate and impressive impact. Just before an approaching (and unsuspecting) commuter reached the musician, another person (who was in on the act) would drip a few coins into the musician’s hat in view of the approaching commuter. The result? An eight-fold increase in the number of commuters who chose to make a donations.
In a series of post-study interviews with commuters who did donate, every one of them failed to attribute their action to the fact that they had just seen someone else give money first. Instead they provided alliterative justifications: “I liked the song he was playing”; “I’m a generous person”; and “I felt sorry for the guy.”
After we talked in my office one day about scarcity and exclusivity of information, he decided to do a study using his sales staff. The company’s customers—buyers for supermarkets or other retail food outlets—were phoned as usual by a salesperson and asked for a purchase in one of three ways. One set of customers heard a standard sales presentation before being asked for their orders. Another set of customers heard the standard sales presentation plus information that the supply of imported beef was likely to be scarce in the upcoming months. A third group received the standard sales presentation and the information about a scarce supply of beef, too; however, they also learned that the scarce-supply news was not generally available information—it had come, they were told, from certain exclusive contacts that the company had. Thus the customers who received this last sales presentation learned that not only was the availability of the product limited, so also was the news concerning it—the scarcity double whammy.
The results of the experiment quickly become apparent when the company salespeople began to urge the owner to buy more beef because there wasn’t enough in the inventory to keep up with all the orders they were receiving. Compared to the customers who got only the standard sales appeal, those who were also told about the future scarcity of beef bought more than twice as much.
Research scientists Christopher Hsee and Yuval Rottenstreich have asserted that people’s judgement and decision-making abilities can be impaired by an event such as the SARS outbreak, not because it induces negative feelings, but rather because it is an emotionally charged issue, regardless of the nature of the feelings it produces. Specifically, they argue that emotions lead people to become less sensitive to differences in the magnitude of numbers; they’re more likely to pay attention to the simple presence or absence of an event. In business terms, what this means is that people are more likely to pay attention to the simple presence or absence of an emotion-laden offer than to the specific numbers involved.
To test this idea, the researchers asked participants to spend a brief period of time thinking about some issues either emotionally or non-emotionally. Shortly afterwards, these research subjects were told to imagine that someone they knew was selling a set of Madonna CDs. Half of them were told that there were five CDs in the bundle, whereas the other half were told that there were ten. Participants were then asked to report the maximum amount they’d be willing to pay for the bundle.
The researchers found that those who had earlier practised thinking in an unemotional manner were willing to pay more for the set of ten CDs than for the set of five, which is quite rational. More interestingly, however, those who had earlier practised thinking in an emotional manner were less sensitive to the difference in the number of CDs, reporting that they would pay roughly the same for each set.
The results of this research suggest that emotional experience can have a detrimental impact on decision-making, perhaps allowing you to be persuaded by an offer when you shouldn’t be.
In the experiment conducted by Wilson on 5 classes of Australian students a man was introduced as a visitor from Cambridge University in England. However, his status at Cambridge was represented differently in each of the classes. To one class, he was presented as a student; to a second class, a demonstrator; to another, a lecturer; to yet another, a senior lecturer; to a fifth, a professor. After he left the room, each class was asked to estimate his height. It was found that with each increase in status, the same man grew in perceived height by an average of a half inch, so that as the “professor” he was seen as two and a half inches taller than as the “student.”
Errors in the medicine patients receive can occur for a variety of reasons. However, a book entitled Medication Errors: Causes and Prevention by two Temple University pharmacology professors, Michael Cohen and Neil Davis, attributes much of the problem to the mindless deference given the “boss” of the patient’s case: the attending physician. According to Professor Cohen, “in case after case, patients, nurses, pharmacists, and other physicians do not question the prescription.” Take, for example, the strange case of the “rectal earache” reported by Cohen and Davis. A physician ordered ear drops to be administered to the right ear of a patient suffering pain and infection there. But instead of writing out completely the location “right ear” on the prescription, the doctor abbreviated it so that the instructions read “place in R ear. Upon receiving the prescription. the duty nurse promptly put the required number of ear drops into the patient’s anus.
But Marshall… not only admits his tricks… he seems to revel in them. On one episode of his [then] top-rated Laverne and Shirley series, for example, he says, “We had a situation where Squiggy’s in a rush to get out of his apartment and meet some girls upstairs. He says: ‘Will you hurry up before I lose my lust?’ But in the script we put something even stronger, knowing the censors would cut it. They did; so we asked innocently, well, how about ‘lose my lust’? ‘That’s good,’ they said. Sometimes you gotta go at ’em backward.”
On the Happy Days series, the biggest censorship fight was over the word “virgin.” That time, says Marshall, “I knew we’d have trouble, so we put the word in seven times, hoping they’d cut six and keep one. It worked. We used the same pattern again with the word ‘pregnant.’”
In their field experiments Keizer and his colleagues tested to what extent various subtle signs of disorder in an environment could influence the proliferation of other undesirable behaviors. In one study the researchers found the perfect setting for their test: an alleyway near a Dutch shopping mall where shoppers typically parked their bikes. While the shoppers were at the mall, the researchers affixed one of the store’s advertisements on the handlebar of each bicycle with an elastic band. In one condition, the researchers left the alleyway just as they found it; in a second condition, they added graffiti to the alleyway. Because there were no garbage bins in the area, shoppers returning from the mall to find a printed advertisement attached to the handlebars of their bicycle had a simple choice. Do they remove the advertisement and take it home with them—or do they instead drop it on the ground?
The results revealed that 33 percent of the bicycle owners littered the paper when there was no graffiti to be seen in the alleyway. However, 69 percent did so when graffiti was present.
Several studies have demonstrated that we are more likely to help those who dress like us. In one study, done in the early 1970s when young people tended to dress either in “hippie” or “straight” fashion, experimenters donned hippie or straight attire and asked college students on campus for a dime to make a phone call. When the experimenter was dressed in the same way as the student, the request was granted in more than two thirds of the instances; but when the student and requester were dissimilarly dressed, the dime was provided less than half the time. Another experiment shows how automatic our positive response to similar others can be. Marchers in an antiwar demonstration were found to be not only more likely to sign the petition of a similarly dressed requester, but also to do so without bothering to read it first. Click, whirr.