Our country is facing a crisis of moral leadership. From political polarization to falling private-sector dynamism, a lack of inspirational leadership is slowing our progress and making it more difficult to lift up the vulnerable. Bestselling authors Simon Sinek, TED Celebrity and Optimist, and Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, are among the country’s foremost leadership experts. Together, they will share the advice they offer leading policymakers and executives, and explain why uncovering our “why” is the key to greater effectiveness and personal happiness.
now my name is Joni I’m thinking aboutyour comment or your wife’s comment atleast we know he he’s not cheating therestatistics data shows us the 70% ofstudents are cheating now parents arecheating they’re writing their papersthey’re editing their papers so much forthat parents are saying we we finishedour applications we did this we did thatthis issue of integrity I think whichcuts through the why yeah how do youapply the golden to issuesso for example if you’re running anorganization or I run a school and I seeintegrity as a driving issue yeah thatimpacts everything that this school isdoing and the leaders are not yeahfacing this how do you apply this toissues yeah you want to take a crackwell I want to hear what you have to saybut I think it’s actually worth pointingout that every single one of us can bemore honest give me more every singleone of us shades the truth all the timeand there are lots of reasons to do itone of these to protect ourselves fromharm one of the reasons that we do it isto get ahead and what it’s just to sayto protect your reputation and sometimesis to protect other’s feelings those arelike kind of the three canonical reasonsfor shading the truth right there’s alot of research on lying actually andlying is common and is becoming morecommon and particularly among youngpeople that we find the interesting andthe alarming thing as they tend tojustify lying as if they were protectingothers when in point of fact they areprotecting themselves so well here’swhat I recommended to all of us we’retalking about cheating but thinkingabout any dishonesty thinking aboutsomething where you’re bending the ruleswhen you’ve done that why did you dothat and be honest with yourself evenbefore you’re honest with others nevershade the truth to protect yourself andnow here’s the gist goal go an hourwithout doing it and then go a whole daywithout doing it and you’re gonna pay acost by the way you’re gonna pay a costwhen somebody asks you a difficultquestion and you don’t want to give theanswer and you pretend that you’reprotecting somebody’s feelings butyou’re actually trying to protectyourself and your own reputation but thedividends are huge with respect to yourown integrity because the smart personwho is more integrated is happier ismore joyful has clearer vision SimonSimon what do you think of my answer soit’s more about integrityit goes to finite an infinite rightwhich is which is I’m playing by finiterules my kid has to get into this schoolmy kid has to get this job my kid has toget this my kid has to get that and I’lldo whatever it takes to get them thereand that’s their playing by a plankthey’re living life and manage worsethey’re managing their kids lives basedon the finite rules and the problem isthere is no winning exactly and and thatwe have this twisted concept in howwe’re managing our lives and helping ourkids in terms of wins and losses theshort term it’s the short term and andand we said it’s pervasive it’s beenbuilding and building since the 80s and90s is pervasive to the point now it’saffecting parenting exactly so so so sobye so if somebody learns leadership atwork right and I did we I’m actually nota business guy but but like during theGreat Depression the unemployment ratewas 25% during the last recession it was9 or 10 right good stable unemploymentis 4 4 so what I hear is even when 25percent I don’t have jobs 75 percent doso if you want to get two people getthem at work and it’s too hard to go toeverybody’s home and say let’s learnleadership but if I can get companies toteach leadership lots of people who workin companies are parents and you learnskills like conflict resolution youweren’t you learn things like effectivecommunication you learn things likeeffective confrontationthese are all skills that are parentingskills so the belief is that if we buildleaders in the most efficient waypossible which is at work they becomebetter parents that’s the belief we’renot teaching leadership at all there’s abook that just came out called the endof loyalty where companies are no longerloyal to people and people are no longerloyal to companies everything is aboutshort term short term short term andunfortunately that mentality nowpervades parenting so we have to do thehard work we’ve probably lost ageneration but we have to do the hardwork of going back to what– to be a parent which doesn’t meannecessarily helping your kid get the jobat any expense or get into the school atany cost we’ve run out of our formaltime but she’s gonna be outside isactually yeah because your babysitter ishas to leave we go a little but we can’ttell you what we’re gonna do we’re goingto retire to the festival but I want todo one thing before we do I want to sumup I want to sum up three big lessonsthat we’ve learned here from talking toSimon okay number one lesson number one
“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.
But that argument can’t be applied to other countries targeted by Mr. Trump. Aaron Tornell, a Mexican-born economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, noted that since the 1980s, Mexico has turned away from left-wing isolationism toward liberalized markets and closer cooperation with the U.S. on trade and security issues such as narcotics. Advocates in Mexico of this integration argued American presidents and big business would prevent the U.S. from using its enhanced leverage to punish Mexico.
Mr. Trump’s policies could “destroy the political foundations of a country that has been following liberal economic policies for the last 30 years and give more power to those who want to be like Venezuela,” Mr. Tornell said.