A few years ago, a marketing team from a major consumer goods company came to my lab eager to test some new pricing mechanisms using principles of behavioral economics. We decided to start by testing the allure of “free,” a subject my students and I had been studying. I was excited: The company would gain insights into its customers’ decision making, and we’d get useful data for our academic work. The team agreed to create multiple websites with different offers and pricing and then observe how each worked out in terms of appeal, orders, and revenue.
Several months later, right before we were due to go live, we had a meeting about the final details of the experiment—this time with a bigger entourage from marketing. One of the new members noted that because we were extending differing offers, some customers might buy a product that was not ideal for them, spend too much money, or get a worse deal overall than others. He was correct, of course. In any experiment, someone gets the short end of the stick. Take clinical medical trials, I said to the team. When testing chemotherapy treatments, some patients suffer more so that, down the road, others might suffer less. I hoped this put it in perspective. Fortunately, I said, price testing household products requires far less suffering than chemo trials.
But I could tell I was losing them. In a sense, I was impressed. It was a beautiful human sentiment they were conveying: We care about all customers and don’t want to treat any one of them unfairly. A debate ensued among the group: Are we willing to sacrifice some customers “just” to learn how the new pricing approaches work?
They hedged. They asked me what I thought the best approach was. I told them that I was willing to share my intuition but that intuition is a remarkably bad thing to rely on. Only an experiment gives you the evidence you need. In the end, it wasn’t enough to convince them, and they called off the project.
This is a typical case, I’ve found. I’ve often tried to help companies do experiments, and usually I fail spectacularly. I remember one company that was having trouble getting its bonuses right. I suggested they do some experiments, or at least a survey. The HR staff said no, it was a miserable time in the company. Everyone was unhappy, and management didn’t want to add to the trouble by messing with people’s bonuses merely for the sake of learning. But the employees are already unhappy, I thought, and the experiments would have provided evidence for how to make them less so in the years to come. How is that a bad idea?
Companies pay amazing amounts of money to get answers from consultants with overdeveloped confidence in their own intuition. Managers rely on focus groups—a dozen people riffing on something they know little about—to set strategies. And yet, companies won’t experiment to find evidence of the right way forward.
I think this irrational behavior stems from two sources. One is the nature of experiments themselves. As the people at the consumer goods firm pointed out, experiments require short-term losses for long-term gains. Companies (and people) are notoriously bad at making those trade-offs. Second, there’s the false sense of security that heeding experts provides. When we pay consultants, we get an answer from them and not a list of experiments to conduct. We tend to value answers over questions because answers allow us to take action, while questions mean that we need to keep thinking. Never mind that asking good questions and gathering evidence usually guides us to better answers.
Despite the fact that it goes against how business works, experimentation is making headway at some companies. Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, tells me he’s trying to create a culture of experimentation in which failing is perfectly fine. Whatever happens, he tells his staff, you’re doing right because you’ve created evidence, which is better than anyone’s intuition. He says the organization is buzzing with experiments.
And so is that consumer goods company. A group there is studying consumer psychology and behavioral economics and is amassing evidence that’s impressive by any academic standard. Years after our false start, they’re recognizing the dangers of relying on intuition.
Would you pay $76 for a shot glass? What about $52 for an oven mitt? And $50 for a jar of marbles?
You may shake your head and say no way, but in a recent series of eBay auctions, the consumers did just that: they shelled out considerable cash for objects that to all appearances should never have fetched more than a couple bucks.
So what made the difference? Each item came with a unique tale.
The auctions were part of the Significant Objects Project, an experiment designed to test the hypothesis that “narrative transforms the insignificant into the significant.” Or, put differently, the goal was to determine whether you could take an object worth very little and make it worth much more by giving it a story, by endowing it with meaning.
To that end, the project’s originators – NY Times columnist Rob Walker and author Josh Glenn – bought up 100 unremarkable garage sale knickknacks for no more than a few dollars each, and then had volunteer writers whip up fictional back stories for them. This, they thought, would up the trinkets’ objective value.
They were right. Whereas the objects had cost Walker and Glenn a total of $128.74 to buy, the same trinkets netted a whopping $3,612.51 on eBay when paired with stories. This Russian figurine, for example, came with the original price tag of $3 but sold for $193.50. And this kitschy toy horse made the leap from $1 to $104.50. (See also:$76 shot glass, $52 oven mitt, $50 jar of marbles)
The results may seem surprising, but this is actually something we see all the time. It’s the basic idea behind the endowment effect, the theory that once we own something, its value increases in our eyes. (In one study, Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler (1990) randomly divvyed up participants into mug owners and buyers, and found that whereas owners requested around $7 for their mugs, the buyers would only pay an average of $3.)
But ownership isn’t the only way to endow an object or service with meaning. You can also create value by investing time and effort into something (hence why we cherish those scraggly scarves we knit ourselves) or by knowing that someone else has (gifts fall under this category).
And then there’s the power of stories: spend a fantastic weekend somewhere, and no matter what you bring back – whether it’s an upper-case souvenir or a shell off the beach – you’ll value it immensely, simply because of its associations. This explains the findings of the Significant Objects Project, and also how other things like branding works
Money is an integral part of modern life. We constantly make decisions about whether we’re willing to pay for different products and, if so, how much we are willing to pay. In fact, we make decisions about money so often that we consider money to be a natural part of our environment.
However, money is a relatively recent invention, and despite its incredible economic usefulness it does come with its own set of problems. In particular, it turns out that decisions about money are often non-intuitive and, in fact, quite difficult. Consider the following situation as an example: You are thirsty, tired, and annoyed and just want a cup of coffee. You see two coffee shops across the street from each another. One is a specialty coffee shop that sells handcrafted, designer coffee and the other is Dunkin’ Donuts which sells standard, decent coffee. The price difference between the two options is $1.75 for your cup-a-joe. Now, how do you decide if the benefit of the handcrafted coffee drink is worth the additional $1.75?
What you should do (if you wanted to be rational about it) is consider all of the things that you could buy with that $1.75, now as well as in the future, and decide to buy the expensive coffee only if the difference between the two coffees is more valuable than all of those other possibilities. But of course this computation would take hours, it is incredibly complex, and who even knows all the possible options to consider?
So what do we do when we need to make decisions but making them “correctly” is too time consuming and difficult? We adopt simplifying rules, which academics call heuristics, and these heuristics provide us with actionable outcomes that might not be ideal but they help us to reach a decision. In the case of coffee and other, similar decisions, one of the heuristics we often use is to look at our own past behaviors and if we find evidence of relevant past decisions, we simply repeat those. In the case of coffee, for example, you might search your memory for other instances in which you visited regular fancy coffee shops. Assess which one of those two behaviors is more frequent and then you tell yourself “If I’ve done Action X more than Action Y in the past, this must mean that I prefer Action X to action Y” and as a consequence, you make your decision.
The strategy of looking at our past behaviors and repeating them, might seem at first glance to be very reasonable. However, it also suffers from at least two potential problems. First, it can make a few mediocre decisions into a long-term habit. For example, after we have gone to a fancy coffee shop three times in a row, we might reason that this is a great decision for us and continue with the same strategy for a long time. The second downfall is that when the conditions in the market change, we are unlikely to revise our strategy. For example, if the price difference between the fancy & standard coffee shop used to be 25¢ and over the years has increased to $1.75, we might stay with our original decision even though the conditions that supported it are no longer applicable.
In light of our current financial situation, many people these days are looking for places to cut financial spending. Once we understand how we use habits as a way to simplify our financial decision-making, we can also look more effectively into ways to save money. If we assume that our past decisions have always been sensible and reasonable then we should not scrutinize our long-term habits. After all, if we’ve done something for five years, it must be a great decision. But if we understand that long-term, repeated behaviors might reflect our habitual decision-making in the face of complex financial decisions more than they reflect what is truly best for us, we might first examine our old habits and carefully consider whether they indeed make sense or not. We can examine our subscription to the ESPN Sports Package, our annual subscription to the opera, our yearly Disneyland vacation, or our monthly visit to the hairdresser. By examining these habits, and quitting them when it makes sense to do so, we might actually discover ways in which we could reduce our spending on a long-term basis.
Yes, money is complex, and it is incredibly difficult for us to carefully examine every purchasing decision we make. But the advantage of examining our habits is that it might lead us to create good ones that will benefit us for a long time.
Change Begets Change
This is how you put a positive spin on the recession.
In a new study, Moore School of Business marketing professor Stacy Wood suggests that it’s in times of upheaval that we’re particularly inclined to leave our comfort zone and try new things.
On first thought, this sounds counter-intuitive. You would think that upon losing our job or girlfriend, we’d be more intent on crawling under the sheets with a favorite book or movie and lying low for a while – not deciding that now’s the time to quit smoking or take up sky-diving.
And yet, these are the very kinds of challenges that we’re likely to take on following a big life change, according to Wood. In her study, she ran five related experiments comparing participants’ consumer choices with the degree of stability in their lives at the time.
In the initial experiment, for instance, she had undergrads take their pick between a pack of tried-and-true Lay’s potato chips and a bag of unfamiliar and odd-flavored British crisps (Camembert and plum, anyone?). Afterwards, she handed out a questionnaire that checked for the number of changes occurring in the participants’ lives. And the result? The students who chose the unusual chips were also more likely to be experiencing lots of change at the moment.
Wood later switched up the order of the questionnaire and consumer choice task in a follow-up experiment, and in another she also expanded the choice test to include a wide range of items – and still, the results were the same. When she asked participants to think about either two big life changes or eight, those who thought of more chose the strange chips more often.
It seems that when we are confronted with one disruption to our daily routine, we become more open to other change. Or, to put it differently, when things break, we enter the right mind-frame for breaking our old habits as well. According to Wood’s rationale, this is because once something pivotal in our routine gets switched around, we’re no longer so attached to all the other habits that formed our daily script.
When it comes to our recessionary times, then, it appears that now is a good time for us to embrace all kinds of change. A tighter budget or shorter hours at work might be that catalyst you need to reevaluate your daily shot of Starbucks espresso or your aversion toward exercise. To paraphrase President Obama, (and for somewhat different reasons) now’s the time to believe in change.
Someone should remind Michael Bloomberg that free does not always mean free lunches.
In order to speed up the pace of Manhattan’s famously slow crosstown buses, mayor Bloomberg suggested eliminating the $2.25 fare on a few of the buses, as it would put an end to all the time passengers spend fumbling for their MetroCard and cash at the bus door. It would mean free bus rides for all, but without much additional cost to the city, he reasoned, since the majority of crosstown passengers are already riding for free, using their MetroCards to transfer from the subway. If we aren’t charging folks anyway, it’s not a big money loss, is the gist of his claim.
In short: win-win.
Except, there’s a flaw to his argument. If bus fare falls to zero, it’s likely that more people (many more people) will start riding the bus, which will lead to even worse congestion and potentially require the city to spend on introducing more buses.
In other words, mayor Bloomberg is harboring under the assumption that demand for the cross town bus will not change as the price drops. In all likelihood, however, the number of bus-riders will go up dramatically because free is exciting. In fact, according to our research on free, such a change will cause many people who now walk a few blocks, to switch their ways and hop on the free bus.
Our prehistoric ancestors spent much of their waking hours foraging for and consuming food, an instinct that obviously paid off. Today this instinct is no less powerful, but for billions of us it’s satisfied in the minutes it takes to swing by the store and pop a meal in the microwave. With our physical needs sated and time on our hands, increasingly we’re finding psychological outlets for this drive, by seeking out and consuming concepts.
Conceptual consumption strongly influences physical consumption. Keeping up with the Joneses is an obvious example. The SUV in the driveway is only partly about the need for transport; the concept consumed is status. Dozens of studies tease out the many ways in which concepts influence people’s consumption, independent of the physical thing being consumed. Here are just three of the classes of conceptual consumption that we and others have identified.
Consuming expectations. People’s expectation about the value of what they’re consuming profoundly affects their experience. We know that people have favorite beverage brands, for instance, but in blind taste tests they frequently can’t tell one from another: The value that marketers attach to the brand, rather than the drink’s flavor, is often what truly adds to the taste experience. Recent brain imaging studies show that when people believe they’re drinking expensive wine, their reward circuitry is more active than when they think they’re drinking cheap wine – even when the wines are identical. Similarly, when people believe they’re taking cheap painkillers, they experience less relief than when they take the same but higher-priced pills.
Consuming goals. Pursuing a goal can be a powerful trigger for consumption. At a convenience store where the average purchase was $4, researchers gave some customers coupons that offered $1 off any purchase of $6, and others coupons that offered $1 off any purchase of at least $2. Customers who received the coupon that required a $6 purchase increased their spending in an effort to receive their dollar off; more interestingly, those customers who received the coupon that required only a $2 purchase to receive the dollar off actually decreased their spending from their typical $4, though of course they would have received their dollar off had they spent $4. Consuming the specific goal implied by the coupon – receiving a savings on a purchase of a designated amount — trumped people’s initial inclinations. Customers who received the $2 coupon left the store with fewer items than they had intended to buy.
Consuming memories. One study of how memories influence consumption explored the phenomenon whereby people who have truly enjoyed an experience, such as a special evening out, sometimes prefer not to repeat it. We might expect that they would want to experience the physical consumption of such an evening again; but by forgoing repeat visits, they are preserving their ability to consume the pure memory – the concept – of that evening forever, without the risk of polluting it with a less-special evening.
While concepts can influence people to consume more physical stuff, they can also encourage them to consume less. Offering people a chance to trade undesirable physical consumption for conceptual consumption is one way to help them make wiser choices. In Sacramento, for example, if people use less energy than their neighbors, they get a smiley face on their utility bill (or two if they’re really good) – a tactic that has reduced energy use in the district and is now being employed in Chicago, Seattle, and eight other cities. In this case, people forgo energy consumption in order to consume the concept of being greener than their neighbors.
We suggest that examining people’s motivations through the lens of conceptual consumption can help policy makers, marketers, and managers craft incentives to drive desired behavior – for better or for worse.
by Dan Ariely and Michael I. Norton
Imagine that it is the last day of the month and you have $20 in your checking account. Your $2,000 salary will be automatically deposited into your bank later today. You walk down the street and buy yourself a $2.95 ice cream cone. Later you also buy yourself a copy of Predictably Irrational for $25.95, and an hour later you treat yourself to a $2.50 cup of café latte. You pay for everything with debit card, and you feel good about the day – it is payday, after all.
That night, sometime after midnight, the bank settles your account for the day. Instead of first depositing your salary and then charging you for the three purchases, they do the opposite – qualifying you for an overdraft fee. You would think this would be enough punishment, but the banks are even more nefarious. They use an algorithm that charges you for the most expensive item (the book) first. Boom, you are over your available cash and charged a $35 overdraft fee. The ice cream and the latte come next, each with its own $35 overdraft fee. A split second later, your salary is deposited and you are back in the black – only $105 poorer.
Overdraft plans connected to checking accounts are common at most major financial institutions, and the Center for Responsible Lending estimates that this practice costs consumers about $17.5 billion in fees every year. Given these numbers, it is perhaps not very surprising that most financial institutions currently enroll their account holders into this expensive method of covering overdrafts without the customer’s consent or knowledge and that when consumers try to get out of these programs they find it incredibly difficult. When I called the few banks I have accounts with last week and tried to un-enroll from these programs, the most common response I got was that it was impossible. Similarly, one New Jersey columnist reported that his own daughter was charged a $35 overdraft fee for a debit card purchase of less than $2, even when he had accompanied her to open her account and asked that transactions that would overdraw the account be denied. (Paul Mulshine, ‘Courteous’ bankers in for a rude awakening, The Newark Star-Ledger, June 7, 2007, at 15)
With the current financial challenges, I suspect that the people at the lower Social Economic Status (SES) are carrying a large part of the general financial crisis in terms of jobs and housing, as well as a large part of the overdraft fees related to overdraft protection plans. Given this, it is a good sign that the Feds are finally looking at this issue. The first thing that the policymakers are considering is whether to require banks to let their customers opt-out of the default overdraft system. This sounds like a no-brainer. A far better version of the rule would require banks to obtain explicit permission from their customers before enrolling them in this program, the “opt-in rule”. So when you sign up for a bank account, you are not enrolled in this program unless you decide that you want the bank to approve debit purchases you make even if you have no money in your account. Given what we know about defaults and behavioral economics (that most people adapt the default option as their choice, and they see it as an implicit recommendation), I suspect that with the opt-out requirements, the vast majority of consumers will become part of the program and will keep on paying these high penalties, while the opt-in approach would make consumers much less likely to join these programs. Presumably, the banks know this, which is why they are arguing for the right to put all their customers into this expensive system of overdraft coverage without asking.
But of course, this is just the first step. In addition to the pending Federal Reserve regulatory proposal, Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) has introduced legislation that, in addition to requiring that banks get explicit “opt-in” permission, would require warnings at the checkout counters and ATMs to allow customers to cancel a transaction before incurring a fee. It would also stop banks from clearing transactions from the highest to the lowest in order to increase their fees. These are useful reforms that are much needed to prevent banks from taking advantage of their customers.
The banks of course are very worried about losing this income stream, but I suspect that changing the bankers’ mindset from business as usual to one where they are actually going to start seeking their customers’ trust and products that would actually appeal to their clients is in everyone’s best interest. Adopting such programs might in fact push the banks to further improve their overdraft protection programs so that they are truly valuable for their consumers. For example, banks might start giving consumers better access to competitively priced short- term loans, better connections between saving and checking accounts, or at least they can start alerting consumers using SMS when they are in danger of overdrawing their account. In the meantime, the Federal Reserve Board’s “opt-in” rule would be a step in the right direction.
An interesting story out of the BBC: one priest, Father Tim Jones, recently gave an incredibly provocative sermon where he offered controversial advice–to shoplift. His argument is basically that those who are less fortunate may often turn to illegal means: they can rob, they can become prostitutes, etc… Jones is arguing that of these “evils,” shoplifting, especially from large corporations, has the least impact on society, and thus, somehow, is the least immoral. Of course from a psychological standpoint this is our intuition. It is easy to do harm to large corporations because we think that we are spreading our damage out evenly among more individuals, and, moreover, those individuals are faceless people wearing suits. However, giving this more thought, we can also sense that if we were to allow this to happen as a society (or be more forgiving of poor people who steal from big corporations to get by), we could very quickly slip into a system of mutual distrust. Before you know it, we will all be having to have our bags checked at entrances and exits, with costs going up for everyone. On the whole, this might leave fewer people with jobs, and the cycle could continue to spiral out of control. As we know, many of the biggest financial blunders of the recent years had to do with tiny misjudgments that added up to larger and more catastrophic costs, with the resulting mutual distrust freezing credit and badly hurting the economy. One thing we must beware of is the allure of thinking that our tiny, seemingly inconsequential decisions won’t matter much in the long run. As history and research have shown us, it’s the little decisions that we gloss over that end up hurting us most in the end.
Surowiecki starts by describing a very important observation made by Thomas Schelling about the N.H.L:
“At the time, players were allowed, but not required, to wear helmets, and most players chose to go helmet-less, despite the risk of severe head trauma. But when they were asked in secret ballots most players also said that the league should require them to wear helmets. The reason for this conflict, Schelling explained, was that not wearing a helmet conferred a slight advantage on the ice; crucially, it gave the player better peripheral vision, and it also made him look fearless. The players wanted to have their heads protected, but as individuals they couldn’t afford to jeopardize their effectiveness on the ice. Making helmets compulsory eliminated the dilemma: the players could protect their heads without suffering a competitive disadvantage. Without the rule, the players’ individually rational decisions added up to a collectively irrational result. With the rule, the outcome was closer to what players really wanted.”
In the rest of the article, Surowiecki tries to make the case that we all feel the same about cars with higher fuel-economy — and that we want to be forced into this situation.
I am not sure I agree. There are clearly situations where we want to be forced into a better social equilibrium (for example, I want other people to drive safer), but this strikes me more as a situation that we want others to start driving more fuel efficient cars and less about a social coordination.
What do you think?