Motivating people is an extremely difficult and delicate task as anyone who’s ever taught, managed, collaborated with or given birth to someone knows. In business, as opposed to say, child-rearing, the debate is slightly less daunting, though not always much clearer. For instance, offering incentives to employees for improved performance is a fairly common approach to encouraging higher sales —though surprisingly unproven by data.
For the most part, the effectiveness of incentives is supported by intuition and some anecdotal evidence. Wouldn’t everyone work at least a little harder for a $100 bill on top of their usual paycheck? Certainly it can’t hurt. But one important open question is whether monetary or tangible (spa retreat, ipod, dinner for two, etc) rewards more efficacious motivators?
Those who advocate for monetary incentives claim they have the greatest appeal given that the winners can do anything with them; what if someone needs an ipod like they need another hole in their head? On the other side, those in favor of tangible incentives argued that money lacks the emotional appeal of, say, a weekend for two at a romantic country inn or swank hotel. But either way, there was nothing to back up either camp.
Thankfully, there is some data on this debate. A few years ago Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company decided to test which method was more successful in an effort to improve sales of a new line of Aquatred tires. Their plan was simple and elegant: first they ranked their 60 retail districts according to previous sales, then divided them into two groups of equal performance and assigned one group to receive monetary incentives and the other to receive tangible incentives of equal value to the first group.
The results were very interesting; it turned out that the tangible-reward group increased sales by 46% more than the monetary-reward group. They also improved in terms of the mix of products sold by 37%. One explanation, and it seems to me a fairly good one, is that we can visualize tangible rewards (imagine yourself on a Hawaiian beach), which creates an emotional response. Money, on the other hand, is not accompanied by images as often (aside from maybe Scrooge McDuck swimming in piles of it), and lacks the emotional pull that tangible rewards have, so they’re less effective in motivating employees. I guess it’s called “cold, hard cash” rather than “future beach vacation cash” for a reason.
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
They say money can’t buy happiness. That might be true, but a new study suggests money holds more benefits in store than just the obvious ones. A clever set of experiments by Xinyue Zhou, Kathleen D. Vohs and Roy F. Baumeister suggest that simply handling money can dull physical and emotional pain.
Previous research has shown that social exclusion and physical pain share common underlying mechanisms. This is due to the way we evolved as social animals. In fact, a 2003 study (Eisenberger et al.) showed that the brain produces similar responses to social rejection as to physical pain. Other work (Vohs et al., 2006) revealed that thoughts of money convey feelings of self-sufficiency, thus soothing the uneasiness of social exclusion. Putting these findings together, Zhou et al. propose that money and physical pain are linked to one another, and they set out to examine this connection as well as the connection money has to social distress.
Three pairs of experiments were carried out on university students, looking to see if:
a. social exclusion and physical pain increase the desire for money
b. money can appease this pain, both physical and emotional
c. losing money intensifies these sensations. As it turns out from the study, the answer to all of these hypotheses is yes.
Since I liked the design of the study I’ll describe it succinctly as I introduce the findings. The impatient reader can skip the part in blue.
The first pair of experiments explored if the desire for money increases with social rejection and physical pain. Researchers let groups of four get acquainted with each other, and then split them to individual rooms. The subjects were then told that they were not picked by any of the others as partners for a dyad task, to stem feelings of social rejection (subjects in the control group were told everyone chose them). After this semi-cruel manipulation, the subjects’ desire for money was measured in three different measures (e.g. the sum they were willing to donate to an orphanage) and in all three the participants in the rejected condition expressed higher desire for money, compared to their ‘popular’ counterparts.
In the second experiment, half the subjects were primed to the idea of physical pain with word-completion tasks, while the other half was exposed to neutral concepts. Simply priming the notion of pain also increased the desire for money.
The next pair of experiments investigated if money can sooth pain. Subjects in the one condition were asked to count eighty $100 bills, in order to invoke the feeling of obtaining money, while the other subjects counted 80 pieces of paper (all this under the pretence of a finger-dexterity task). Then, one experiment had subject play ‘Cyberball’ – a computerized ball-tossing game with other players. The participants were lead to believe the players were human but in fact were a simple computer program. Subjects in the exclusion condition weren’t passed the ball and were effectively left out of the game by the other ‘players’. How tragic it must have been for some of them – it’s the grade school playground all over again. After the game ended participants were questioned about their experience, and – as you might have guessed it – those who counted money beforehand felt less social distress over being left out of the game, and maintained higher self-esteem than those who counted paper.
The other experiment of the pair is possibly the most interesting in the bunch. After that same money/paper counting exercise, the poor participants had to undergo a pain-sensitivity task (and all they got in return was partial course credit!). Zhou et al. used another approach – they put subjects’ hands in an immobilizing contraption and then poured hot water on their fingers. After this ‘pleasantness’, subjects rated how painful was this experience. The results indicate that simply counting money significantly reduced feelings of pain in the high-pain condition, and that it made participants feel stronger than those who counted paper.
The last pair of experiments used similar measures to show that thinking about losing money actually intensifies the sting of social rejection (Cyberball) and exacerbate physical pain (hot water again). Subjects in the money-losing condition indeed reported higher vulnerability in both cases.
To sum up, these experiments suggest that having financial resources diminishes pain, both physical pain and emotional pain caused by social rejection. Possibly the most interesting thing to pinpoint is that the method these findings were obtained indicates a general perception of money as a mean to alleviate pain and suffering. This is because money by itself had no value in the experiments as it could not “buy” any passes of the ball nor a release out of the hand constraints. It is also interesting to notice that merely thinking about having or losing money, without any actual change in resources, had the described effects since the experimenters didn’t award (or take) the subjects any money (neither as a part of the experiments nor for their participation).
This study springs several implications to mind. As for me, I wonder if there will ever come a day that a dentist appointment will kick off with a brief game of monopoly (one where the patient always accumulates great wealth) prior to the actual treatment. It just might alleviate the pain.
Before the ﬁnancial crisis of 2008, it was rather difficult to convince people that we all might have irrational tendencies.
For example, after I gave a presentation at a conference, a fellow I’ll call Mr. Logic (a composite of many people I have debated with over the years) buttonholed me. “I enjoy hearing about all the different kinds of small-scale irrationalities that you demonstrate in your experiments,” he told me, handing me his card. “They’re quite interesting-great stories for cocktail parties.” He paused. “But you don’t understand how things work in the real world. Clearly, when it comes to making important decisions, all of these irrationalities disappear, because when it truly matters, people think carefully about their options before they act. And certainly when it comes to the stock market, where the decisions are critically important, all these irrationalities go away and rationality prevails.”
Given these kinds of responses, I was often left scratching my head, wondering why so many smart people are convinced that irrationality disappears when it comes to important decisions about money. Why do they assume that institutions, competition, and market mechanisms can inoculate us against mistakes? If competition was sufﬁcient to overcome irrationality, wouldn’t that eliminate brawls in sporting competitions, or the irrational self-destructive behaviors of professional athletes? What is it about circumstances involving money and competition that might make people more rational? Do the defenders of rationality believe that we have different brain mechanisms for making small versus large decisions and yet another yet another for dealing with the stock market? Or do they simply have a bone-deep belief that the invisible hand and the wisdom of the markets guarantee optimal behavior under all conditions?
As a social scientist, I’m not sure which model describing human behavior in markets-rational economics, behavioral economics, or something else-is best, and I wish we could set up a series of experiments to ﬁgure this out. Unfortunately, since it is basically impossible to do any real experiments with the stock market, I’ve been left befuddled by the deep conviction in the rationality of the market. And I’ve wondered if we really want to build our ﬁnancial institutions, our legal system, and our policies on such a foundation.
As I was asking myself these questions, something very big happened. Soon after Predictably Irrational was published, in early 2008, the ﬁnancial world blew to smithereens, like something in a science ﬁction movie. Alan Greenspan, the formerly much-worshipped chairman of the Federal Reserve, told Congress in October 2008 that he was “shocked” (shocked!) that the markets did not work as anticipated, or automatically self-correct as they were supposed to. He said he made a mistake in assuming that the self-interest of organizations, speciﬁcally banks and others, was such that they were capable of protecting their own shareholders. For my part, I was shocked that Greenspan, one of the tireless advocates of deregulation and a true believer in letting market forces have their way, would publicly admit that his assumptions about the rationality of markets were wrong. A few months before this confession, I could never have imagined that Greenspan would utter such a statement. Aside from feeling vindicated, I also felt that Greenspan’s confession was an important step forward. After all, they say that the ﬁrst step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem.
Still, the terrible loss of homes and jobs has been a very high price to pay for learning that we might not be as rational as Greenspan and other traditional economists had thought. What we’ve learned is that relying on standard economic theory alone as a guiding principle for building markets and institutions might, in fact, be dangerous. It has become tragically clear that the mistakes we all make are not at all random, but part and parcel of the human condition. Worse, our mistakes of judgment can aggregate in the market, sparking a scenario in which, much like an earthquake, no one has any idea what is happening. All of a sudden, it looked as if some people were beginning to understand that the study of small-scale mistakes was not just a source for amusing dinner-table anecdotes. I felt both exonerated and relieved.
While this is a very depressing time for the economy as a whole, and for all of us individually, the turnabout on Greenspan’s part has created new opportunities for behavioral economics, and for those willing to learn and alter the way they think and behave. From crisis comes opportunity, and perhaps this tragedy will cause us to ﬁnally accommodate new ideas, and-I hope-begin to rebuild.
I am teaching today in class about self control problems, and approaches to regain self control. Here is a story of Buffett and his attempts at self-control:
Even the most analytical thinkers are predictably irrational; the really smart ones acknowledge and address their irrationalities. We find a great example in Alice Schroeder’s “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life.”
Warren Buffett is a numbers-driven investor whose life choices and business decisions would make the vulcan Mr. Spock seem over-emotional. A teenage horse handicapper who grew up into a deep reader of Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s reports, Buffett is the archetypal quant: a data-processing, information-consuming, hard-thinking, analytical machine. His ability to outperform the market by basing his decisions on hard data and on an uncanny understanding of business fundamentals earned him the moniker “Oracle of Omaha.”
Buffett’s success as an investor required not only deep analysis of financial documents but also a large measure of self-control to avoid getting caught in market bubbles and panics. Buffett’s rule “buy when everyone else is selling, sell when everyone else is buying” requires enormous self-assurance to execute.
And yet, even the Oracle of Omaha is not immune to the allure of irrational behavior. He is what Behavioral Economists call a sophisticate: someone who understands his irrationality and builds systems to cope with it. (The other types of people are the “rational,” who never deviates from optimal behavior, and the “naif,” who is unaware of his irrationality and therefore doesn’t do anything to address it.)
Uncommon a person as he was, Buffett had a very common concern: he feared gaining too much weight. Rational agents don’t gain weight because they always consider all the possible consequences of all actions. Naifs plan to start their diet tomorrow.
But Buffett — who breakfasted on spoonfuls of Ovaltine — understood his predictable irrationality: people eat without consideration for the long-term effects; that’s why they gain unwanted weight. Being a pragmatic person, he decided to curtail overeating with a commitment device.
He gave unsigned checks for $10,000 to his children, promising to sign them if he was over target weight by a certain date. Many people use commitment devices to try to keep their weight down, but Buffett’s idea had a big flaw: his children, spotting a rare opportunity to get money from the notoriously frugal billionaire, resorted to sabotage. Doughnuts, pizza, and fried food mysteriously appeared whenever Buffett was home.
In the end the incentives worked: even with his children’s sabotage, the Oracle kept his weight down, and his checks went unsigned. But had he been purely rational, no commitment device would have been needed.
Recently I had an interesting experience being poor. It didn’t last too long but it was quite distressing and I learned how difficult this is. The story is as follows. I was out of the country for a month and during that time my car insurance expired. When I got back I called my insurance agent and I asked them to renew my policy. “No, no, no, ” they said, “If your insurance has elapsed you can’t do it over the phone and you have to come to our office in person.” Well at that time I was living in Princeton and my insurance agency was 300 miles away in Boston. So I took the train up, got to the insurance office on time and I was ready to hand them a check and renew my insurance.
Well, here again, I was wrong. It turns out I could not do it by check. The insurance company would not take a check from me because, after all, I have shown I am financially irresponsible. “Will a credit card do?” I said. “Of course not. Only cash.” The limit I can take out with my ATM card is $800 a day and the insurance was almost $3,000 (needless to say they also increased my premium). So I could not solve it this way. “Luckily” the insurance agent had a solution at hand that was designed for this very particular problem. There is another company they told me that would finance my insurance fee. Interestingly enough, the cost of this financing included 20% interest rate on the loan itself plus a $100 fee just to enroll in this program.
I had no choice but to take this particular loan. So I paid the $100 fee, I paid the 20% in interest, and I got my insurance. I took the train back to Princeton. A few days later, of course, I canceled this terrible loan and paid it off. But here is what I learned from this distressing lesson, the moment you make one financial mistake the chances that you will be hit with all kinds of fines, all kinds of difficulties, all kinds of financial obstacles, are much, much higher.
If I was on the verge of financial difficulty there is no question that this particular incident would have pushed me over the edge, making my financial life much more difficult and maybe even impossible. I think that this is, in fact, what we do to people with financial constraints all the time. We impose substantial penalties on the people who violate financial responsibilities, not taking into account their viability and therefore make their lives much, much worse.
How can we get over this issue? I think we have to reconsider the punitive systems all the financial institutions use (insurance, banks, credit cards, etc.), and think more carefully about how we want to share responsibility and payment across people. After all when someone goes bankrupt, they of course suffer, but so does the whole system around them. From this perspective, it is easy to see how the punitive systems we are using are not only bad for the individuals but they can be very damaging for the whole society.
I wrote this about 8 months ago — but it makes particular sense right now ….
If (as is often the case) talking about sex makes people more interested in having it, does that mean that the current talk about a recession could actually be creating one? Well, maybe.
Or so one general finding of behavioral economics would have us believe. With all this chatter about a recession, consumers might, for example, hold off on buying that new dishwasher because of the “bad economy,” or pass up the more expensive restaurant because “we’re in a recession.” Without any discussion about recession, we’re unlikely to change our pattern of behavior. But talking about it can be a force that affects our decisions and alters our consumption habits.What makes me think that we’re such creatures of habit? Consider the experience of eating a Godiva truffle: The chocolate is melting in your mouth, the aroma penetrates your nose, there is a small nut inside. . . . Now think about this familiar experience and try to determine how much it’s worth to you. A quarter? $0.50? $0.75? $1.25? $2.50? While the experience of eating a truffle is very familiar, figuring out what we would be willing to pay for it proves difficult. So what do we do when we make purchasing decisions? (more…)
From the NYT op-ed
BY withholding bonuses from their top executives, Goldman Sachs and UBS may soften negative reaction from Congress and the public if their earnings reports in December are poor, as is expected. But will they also suffer because their executives, lacking the motivation that big bonuses are thought to provide, will not do their jobs well? (more…)