“Only 2 rooms left? They don’t expect me to believe that do they? You see that everywhere.”
I leave with a wry smile. The client won’t be happy, but at least the project findings are becoming clear. Companies in certain sectors use the same behavioral interventions repeatedly. Hotel booking websites are one example. Their sustained, repetitive use of scarcity (e.g., “Only two rooms left!”) and social proof (“16 other people viewed this room”) messaging is apparent even to a casual browser.
For Chris the implication was clear: this “scarcity” was just a sales ploy, not to be taken seriously.
My colleagues and I at Trinity McQueen, an insight consultancy, wondered, was Chris’s reaction exceptional, or would the general public spot a pattern in the way that marketers are using behavioral interventions to influence their behavior? Are scarcity and social proof messages so overused in travel websites that the average person does not believe them? Do they undermine brand trust?
The broader question, one essential to both academics and practitioners, is how a world saturated with behavioral interventions might no longer resemble the one in which those interventions were first studied. Are we aiming at a moving target?
.. We started by asking participants to consider a hypothetical scenario: using a hotel booking website to find a room to stay in the following week. We then showed a series of nine real-world scarcity and social proof claims made by an unnamed hotel booking website.
Two thirds of the British public (65 percent) interpreted examples of scarcity and social proof claims used by hotel booking websites as sales pressure. Half said they were likely to distrust the company as a result of seeing them (49 percent). Just one in six (16 percent) said they believed the claims.
The results surprised us. We had expected there to be cynicism among a subgroup—perhaps people who booked hotels regularly, for example. The verbatim commentary from participants showed people see scarcity and social proof claims frequently online, most commonly in the travel, retail, and fashion sectors. They questioned truth of these ads, but were resigned to their use:
“It’s what I’ve seen often on hotel websites—it’s what they do to tempt you.”
“Have seen many websites do this kind of thing so don’t really feel differently when I do see it.”
In a follow up question, a third (34 percent) expressed a negative emotional reaction to these messages, choosing words like contempt and disgust from a precoded list. Crucially, this was because they ascribed bad intentions to the website. The messages were, in their view, designed to induce anxiety:
“… almost certainly fake to try and panic you into buying without thinking.”
“I think this type of thing is to pressure you into booking for fear of losing out and not necessarily true.”
For these people, not only are these behavioral interventions not working but they’re having the reverse effect. We hypothesize psychological reactance is at play: people kick back when they feel they are being coerced. Several measures in our study support this. A large minority (40 percent) of the British public agreed that that“when someone forces me to do something, I feel like doing the opposite.” This is even more pronounced in the commercial domain: seven in ten agreed that “when I see a big company dominating a market I want to use a competitor.” Perhaps we Brits are a cynical bunch, but any behavioral intervention can backfire if people think it is a cynical ploy.
Heuristics are dynamic, not static
Stepping back from hotel booking websites, this is a reminder that heuristics are not fixed, unchanging. The context for any behavioral intervention is dynamic, operating in “a coadapting loop between mind and world.” Repeated exposure to any tactic over time educates you about its likely veracity in that context. Certain tactics (e.g., scarcity claims) in certain situations (e.g., in hotel booking websites) have been overused. Our evidence suggests their power is now diminished in these contexts.
Two questions for the future
In our study, we focused on a narrow commercial domain. It would be unwise to make blanket generalizations about the efficacy of all behavioral interventions based on this evidence alone. And yet nagging doubts remain.
#1: Like antibiotic resistance, could overuse in one domain undermine the effectiveness of interventions for everyone?
If so, the toolkit of interventions could conceivably shrink over time as commercial practitioners overuse interventions to meet their short-term goals. Most would agree that interventions used to boost prosocial behavior in sectors such as healthcare have much more consequential outcomes. In time, prosocial practitioners may be less able to rely on the most heavily used tactics from the commercial domains such as social proof and scarcity messaging.
#2 : How will the growing backlash against big tech and “surveillance capitalism” affect behavioral science?
Much of the feedback from the public relates to behavioral interventions they have seen online, not offline. Many of the strategies for which big tech companies are critiqued center on the undermining of a user’s self-determination. The public may conflate the activities of these seemingly ubiquitous companies (gathering customer data in order to predict and control behavior) with those of the behavioral science community. If so, practitioners might find themselves under much greater scrutiny.
Feedback loops matter
There probably was never an era when simple behavioral interventions gave easy rewards. Human behavior—context-dependent, and driven by a multitude of interacting influences—will remain gloriously unpredictable.
Marketers should design nudges with more than the transaction in mind, not only because it is ethical or because they will be more effective over time but also because they bear responsibility toward the practitioner community as a whole.
The lesson I take from our study? Feedback loops affect the efficacy of behavioral interventions more than we realize. Just because an intervention was successful five years ago does not mean it will be successful today. Practitioners should pay as much attention to the ecosystem their interventions operate in as their customers do. There’s no better place to start than spending time with them—talking, observing, and empathizing.
We should also consider our responsibilities as we use behavioral interventions. Marketers should design nudges with more than the transaction in mind, not only because it is ethical or because they will be more effective over time but also because they bear responsibility toward the practitioner community as a whole. We owe an allegiance to the public, but also to each other.
One caveat should be noted when using peer comparisons. It is important to con-sider carefully how information is elicited. Several studies have found that, while above-average energy consumers significantly decrease their energy use, below-average con-sumers may increase their energy use.In addition, individuals with strong environmental ideologies primarily related tooverly strong environmental regulation might respond to information disseminationwith protest behaviour thus increasing their energy use. The latter effect, termed the“boomerang effect”, may call for targeting information only to expected above-aver-age consumers, or coupling the information with not only normative, but also conjunc-tive messages, e.g. in the form of unhappy “emoticons.” Receiving a happy emoticonhas been shown to remove the boomerang effect for below-average consumers.
When it comes to misguided revenge, Sons of Anarchy has nothing on Donald Trump. The President’s own man-of-mayhem trade policies have forced Harley-Davidson to move some of its motorcycle production overseas. But Mr. Trump responded to this week’s announcement by menacing the company on Twitter Tuesday morning.
.. “A Harley-Davidson should never be built in another country—never!” Mr. Trump raged. “Their employees and customers are already very angry at them. If they move, watch, it will be the beginning of the end – they surrendered, they quit! The Aura will be gone and they will be taxed like never before!” In another tweet, the President added, “Harley must know they won’t be able to sell back into U.S. without paying a big tax!”.. So the company was left with two choices: Avoid the tariff by moving operations abroad, or pay the new EU tax, which will cost the company $90 million to $100 million each year. Keep in mind that Harley is already paying $15 million to $20 million more for manufacturing this year because of Mr. Trump’s tariffs on metal... Harley is dealing with union backlash for opening a production plant in Thailand while closing one in Kansas City. Harley made that hard call after Mr. Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership last year, though that agreement would have reduced foreign tariffs on American-made motorcycles.Mr. Trump’s TPP decision made it harder for Harley to compete in the Asian market while still using U.S.-based steelworkers and machinists. Cause, meet effect.
.. We remember how Barack Obama railed against Anthem for raising insurance premiums when Democrats were distorting the health-care market. One might expect that Mr. Trump, supposedly savvier about business realities, would understand how corporations have to make tough choices to survive bad policies. Mr. Trump should rage against the man in the mirror who is the reason for Harley’s choices.
And a backlash against liberals — a backlash that most liberals don’t seem to realize they’re causing — is going to get President Trump re-elected.
People often vote against things instead of voting for them: against ideas, candidates and parties. Democrats, like Republicans, appreciate this whenever they portray their opponents as negatively as possible. But members of political tribes seem to have trouble recognizing that they, too, can push people away and energize them to vote for the other side. Nowhere is this more on display today than in liberal control of the commanding heights of American culture.
.. Liberals dominate the entertainment industry, many of the most influential news sources and America’s universities. This means that people with progressive leanings are everywhere in the public eye — and are also on the college campuses attended by many people’s children or grandkids. These platforms come with a lot of power to express values, confer credibility and celebrity and start national conversations that others really can’t ignore.
But this makes liberals feel more powerful than they are. Or, more accurately, this kind of power is double-edged. Liberals often don’t realize how provocative or inflammatory they can be. In exercising their power, they regularly not only persuade and attract but also annoy and repel.
In fact, liberals may be more effective at causing resentment than in getting people to come their way. I’m not talking about the possibility that jokes at the 2011 correspondents’ association dinner may have pushed Mr. Trump to run for president to begin with. I mean that the “army of comedy” that Michael Moore thought would bring Mr. Trump down will instead be what builds him up in the minds of millions of voters.
.. Some liberals have gotten far out ahead of their fellow Americans but are nonetheless quick to criticize those who haven’t caught up with them.
.. Liberals denounce “cultural appropriation” without, in many cases, doing the work of persuading people that there is anything wrong with, say, a teenager not of Chinese descent wearing a Chinese-style dress to prom or eating at a burrito cart run by two non-Latino women.
.. Pressing a political view from the Oscar stage, declaring a conservative campus speaker unacceptable, flatly categorizing huge segments of the country as misguided — these reveal a tremendous intellectual and moral self-confidence that smacks of superiority. It’s one thing to police your own language and a very different one to police other people’s. The former can set an example. The latter is domineering.
.. This judgmental tendency became stronger during the administration of President Barack Obama, though not necessarily because of anything Mr. Obama did. Feeling increasingly emboldened, liberals were more convinced than ever that conservatives were their intellectual and even moral inferiors.
.. college campuses — which many take to be what a world run by liberals would look like — seemed increasingly intolerant of free inquiry.
.. It was during these years that the University of California included the phrase “America is the land of opportunity” on a list of discouraged microaggressions.
.. Champions of inclusion can watch what they say and explain what they’re doing without presuming to regulate what words come out of other people’s mouths. Campus activists can allow invited visitors to speak and then, after that event, hold a teach-in discussing what they disagree with. After the Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that states had to allow same-sex marriage, the fight, in some quarters, turned to pizza places unwilling to cater such weddings. Maybe don’t pick that fight?
.. Liberals can act as if they’re not so certain — and maybe actually not be so certain — that bigotry motivates people who disagree with them on issues like immigration.
.. Without sacrificing their principles, liberals can come across as more respectful of others. Self-righteousness is rarely attractive, and even more rarely rewarded.
.. many liberals seem primed to write off nearly half the country as irredeemable.
.. But it is an unjustified leap to conclude that anyone who supports him in any way is racist, just as it would be a leap to say that anyone who supported Hillary Clinton was racist because she once made veiled references to “superpredators.”
Liberals are trapped in a self-reinforcing cycle. When they use their positions in American culture to lecture, judge and disdain, they push more people into an opposing coalition that liberals are increasingly prone to think of as deplorable. That only validates their own worst prejudices about the other America.