“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.
Shoes, slacks, shirts–which goes in the bag first? Barbara Maly, a butler at New York’s St. Regis Hotel, is a packing pro. She shows you how it’s done. Photo/Video: Adam Falk
.. The current unrest looks different. So far, the middle class and the highly educated have been more witnesses than participants. Nonviolence is not a sacred principle. The protests first intensified in small religious towns all over the country, where the government used to take its support for granted. Metropolitan areas have so far lagged behind.
.. they all mention unemployment, inflation and the looting of national wealth: A woman asks President Hassan Rouhani to live on only her salary of $300 a month
.. The chants are also different this time. “Where is my vote?” and “Free political prisoners!” dominated in 2009. Today they have been replaced with “No to inflation!” and “Down with embezzlers!” and “Leave the country alone, mullahs.”
.. emerged as a resonant, nationwide cry for justice and equality.
Fish can’t explain to you what water’s like because he’s never been out of water. And I don’t think you can really understand where you’re from until you go somewhere else and see a different form of social organization.
.. I think it was Twain, I can’t remember for certain, but I think it was Twain who said, “The man who chooses not to read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” And right now, we live in a society of people who are decreasingly, appetitively literate. The average American reads 19 minutes a day, and it’s age correlated. Older folks are reading quite a bit more than 19 minutes and younger folks much less than 19 minutes. I think Gutenberg is the true father of America. I think the sine qua non of America is mass literacy, which led to competitive ideas, healthy challenges to authority, a plural marketplace after the printing press, that then creates a First Amendment culture of free speech, press, assembly, etc.
.. Ken Burns has the great phrase that right now we have a whole lot of pluribus and very, very little unum.
SASSE: And if you think of what Ken Burns’s work is about: Jazz, and baseball, and Civil War, and Lewis and Clark, and the Dust Bowl, and his new project about to come out on Vietnam — one of the things that he’s trying to do is give us a common canon.
.. There are basically three purposes to sex. Sex is a covenant, initiation, and renewal ceremony. Sex gives you a different kind of knowledge of someone. You form a kind of bond with someone that’s different than just a random person on the street. Sex matters. Sex is for procreation and sex is for pleasure.
There really isn’t much more to it than that. And yet those three things should be differentiated because it’s not just another contact sport. I don’t think it’s helpful to have teenagers not know that sex matters, and yet you can understand it. When you’re old and you look back on your sexuality, I bet most people are going to think it was basically reducible to those three kinds of categories. So I felt like I had to talk about it a little bit, but I wanted to duck the culture wars as much as possible.
.. I think that you can’t possibly become a really good parent without developing empathy. I don’t know that you have to have clear, cognitive categories to do it. There are lots and lots of people who are good parents who are empathetic who maybe couldn’t reflect on it. But since you’re asking the question for people who are advice-seeking, I think you need to self-consciously think about the cultivation of empathy.
And the travel point that you asked is another way of thinking about why it’s important to become well read. Because when you go into books, and you go to different kinds of stories, and obviously, you’ve just written a really important nonfiction book, and this this a nonfiction book, but one of the reasons why it’s critically important for our teens to read fiction is, they need to be transported to other times and places. They need to actually be able to see through the lenses of other protagonists.
.. One of the fundamental challenges of the moment we’re at is that we believe that the digital moment will necessarily expose us to more and more diverse things, and I think what’s actually going to happen is that we’re going to become more and more siloed. And there’s a real danger of tribalism and being able to at the moment that media is going to disintermediate. We’re not going to have big common channels anymore. We’re going to have more and more niche channels. It will be possible to surround yourself only with people who already believe what you believe.
In that world where you can create echo chambers and when advertisers and marketers and Russians are going to try to surround you with echo chambers to only believe what you already believe, it’s not going to be easy to develop empathy. It’s going to be really easy to demonize the other and come to believe that the deep problems of my soul and the deep problems of my mortality could maybe just be solved if I could vanquish those other really bad people from the field.