Please enjoy the first of a series of reviews of my upcoming book “Irrationally Yours” that I will be posting for you.
Watch it here: https://vimeo.com/127289358
“Irrationally Yours” is based on my “Ask Ariely” advice column in the Wall Street Journal, and is illustrated by cartoonist William Haefeli (who you will surely recognize from The New Yorker).
With the holiday season upon us, it’s a good time to reflect on the things we have that we truly need and the rest that is just superfluous. How greedy are you?
In line with this thought, our very own Dan Ariely and Aline Grüneisen published an article in the November/December Scientific American Mind on the price of greed.
For a juicy excerpt, read on:
Ferocious competition may occasionally lead to optimal market outcomes, but it can also have harmful side effects. Think about competition in sports. At first glance, the drive to be the best appears to propel human achievements to new heights. World records are surpassed, and yesterday’s Olympic medalists pale in comparison with today’s champions. Yet extreme dedication has costs. Athletes may not spend enough time with their friends and families, or they may sacrifice their long-term health to perform better in the short term — by overexerting their body or taking performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids.
The consequences of unchecked greed can also spill over into society. In his 2011 book The Darwin Economy, economist Robert H. Frank of Cornell University outlines some of the disastrous effects of allowing competition to run free. Take, for example, neighbors gunning for social status. Each tries to outdo the others, purchasing a slightly flashier car, bigger pool or more expensive grill. When Joe Jones down the block builds a home theater and Jane Smith across the street installs a 3-D amphitheater, you will no longer be satisfied with your meager widescreen television. We don’t simply try to keep up with the Joneses, we try to surpass them…
During my recent trip to New York City, I spent quite a bit of time sitting in taxis—taxis with ads that endlessly drill messages into your thoughts. I’ve never watched much TV, so my brain hasn’t evolved that uniquely American ability to tune out the mind-numbing commercials. As hard as I try, I just can’t look away when there’s a TV in sight.
As the commercials looped, one ad stood out to me and had me grinding my teeth each time it popped onto the screen. It wasn’t that it looked like an old-fashioned PSA, or because its protagonist donned a charmingly insincere Mr. Rogers smile. No—this ad grabbed me because of its heartbreaking ignorance of basic psychology. The goal of this ad was to get passengers to buckle up for safety, but its method was painfully misguided.
A number of strategies have been used over the years to get people to buckle their belts. For example, we have:
• Laws. This map shows the seatbelt laws in all US states, and according to the National Safety Council, seatbelt use is 13% higher in states with primary enforcement (meaning you can get stopped and ticketed just for not wearing a seatbelt) than those with secondary enforcement (88% versus 75%).
• Penalties. Although people are probably not thinking about the $69 fine they might have to pay or even the drivers license points they could rack up if they get caught, it is possible that some people may buckle up to avoid these consequences.
• Enforcement. Here, we’re talking about high-visibility enforcement such as checkpoints where all cars are stopped to check for seatbelt usage.
• Incentive awards for police officers to give tickets (ranging from small model cars awarded to individual police officers to much larger grants for police agencies).
• “Click it or Ticket.” This campaign has been particularly effective because it serves as a reminder of the immediate stakes (getting a ticket), even though they are smaller than the larger consequences (such as sustaining an injury in an accident). Reward substitution works. Fun fact: the campaign began in North Carolina, home of the Center for Advanced Hindsight, and was adopted by other states because of its success (most likely due to its catchy name).
• Safety belt reminder systems. These excruciatingly loud alarms get my passengers to buckle up in record time.
• Safety belt ignition interlocks. Some cars will refuse to start until all belts are in, although you can imagine why the idea hasn’t gained much traction.
• Education. Teaching children about seatbelt safety in school, while not an official persuasion method that I can find in any academic paper, has turned diligent recycling enthusiasts who just say no to drugs into relentless seatbelt reminder machines. I imagine that if our kids were the enforcers of just about anything, we would all be better off.
Some of these strategies work better than others, but none of them are actually detrimental to seatbelt compliance. And yet this taxicab ad, which I was forced to watch over and over in agony, conspicuously ignored what we know to be a primary motivator of behavior: social validation.
The ad gave one pivotal piece of information, which you can see in the accompanying photo: “60% of taxi passengers do not buckle up.” This kind of scare tactic is ineffective because it simply sends the wrong message.
Robert Cialdini has shown over and over again that social proof is an intoxicating principle of persuasion. We look to others to decide what to do, and when we are told about how most people behave in a given situation, we are likely to follow their lead. (This is why “word of mouth” can be so powerful, and companies pay top dollar to try and influence what their customers tell their friends.)
So, what message does this ad convey to cab riders?
This statement gives an implicit recommendation, noting that most people do not wear seatbelts. As social creatures, we look to others to determine how to behave in all kinds of situations, and riding in a taxi is no different. Rather than encouraging seatbelt use, this statement lets seatbelt-wearers know that they are in the minority while giving non-seatbelt wearers the comfort of knowing that their behavior is normal. It doesn’t matter why the majority doesn’t wear seat belts—whether it is uncool, unsanitary, too much of a hassle, or even unsafe—now they know that most people don’t do it, and that’s a good enough reason to go along with the flow.
If you want to persuade people to wear seatbelts, you should tell them that 84% of people in the US do wear seatbelts. Or you can further tap into group identity by noting that 90% of New Yorkers wear seatbelts.
It’s a shame that a message as important as “wear a seatbelt” could be so badly butchered. If companies have figured out how to use the concept of social proof to get people to spend more money, why can’t our safety promoters figure out how to use it to get us to make better decisions?
For a quick review of all six of Cialdini’s principles of persuasion (reciprocation, consistency, social validation, liking, authority and scarcity), see this article.
P.S. Some friends have informed me that you can simply turn off the taxicab TV. Noted for next time.
On my drive to Asheville, NC this past weekend, I passed a multitude of billboards like the one below. According to multimillionaire Harold Camping, tomorrow is Judgment Day. You may have heard.
The idea of imminent rapture piqued my interest, so I looked into the matter, filling my brain with more than I ever wanted to know about the mathematically-inclined radio broadcaster and his cult of hopeful followers.
Although Camping’s 1994 doomsday prediction (clearly) turned out to be false, he has no doubts that this time he is on the right track. And why not? As you can see, the bible guarantees it! The alleged proof in favor of tomorrow’s rapture not only comes from the bible, but also from “indisputable” evidence in the form of devastating natural disasters and war, technological advances, economic crises, global governments…and, of course, the rise of the gays.
However, I’ve compiled a list of my own — a compendium of evidence in support of the impending demise of humanity:
- The Great Mississippi Flood
- The Sky is Falling
- Paris Hilton has a new reality show
- Sarah Palin has a NYT bestseller
- Extrasensory Perception (ESP) exists
- Touchdown Jesus is struck
- Kate and William postponed their honeymoon
- Charlie Sheen is no longer winning
- Obama becomes a US citizen
- Osama liked porn
- And, most notably, at this very minute I find myself wearing jeggings
Enjoy the rapture tomorrow, and have a lovely Sunday