How 25 Behavioural Biases Influence the Products We Decide to Buy

Richard Shotton, author of The Choice Factory, recently visited DDB Vancouver to talk to their staff about how behavioural science can be applied to advertising.  Below he covers some of the main questions he discussed…

Why should brands be interested in behavioural science?

Brand should be interested in behavioural science for three big reasons: it’s relevant, it’s robust and it offers a range of insights.

First, it’s relevant. Our role as marketers is simple: persuade customers to pay more, switch to our brand or purchase more frequently. It all comes down to behaviour. What could be more relevant than the science of behaviour change?

Second, the findings in this field are robust. They’re based on more than a hundred years of experiments by leading scientists from around the world, such as those by Richard Thaler, Robert Cialdini and Leon Festinger.

Surely, it’s better to base your advertising approach on their experiments, rather than take a gamble on the opinion of the most eloquent person in the room?

Third, the range of biases that have been discovered means there’s an insight for whatever problem you’re facing.

Does behavioural science manipulate consumers?

The word “manipulate” is a loaded one. It suggests that nudges hypnotise a foolish public and beguile them into a particular course of action. While many advertisers crave such power, it’s unrealistic. Nudges never persuade everyone, all the time. They just increase the probability that communications have the desired effect.

​If we accept that nudges don’t bamboozle consumers then what really is the complaint? That the communications are successful? Surely, if ads for a product are permitted, you can’t then object to them being effective?

As David Halpern, CEO of the UK government’s Nudge Unit, says “If we think it’s appropriate and acceptable for such communications to occur, it seems sensible to expect those designing or writing them to make them effective and easy to understand”.

In which part of marketing is behavioural science most applicable?

The strength of behavioural science is that it is valuable at every stage of marketing: from buying your media to setting your product’s price, from writing your creative to running your promotions.

It’s particularly valuable in setting brand strategy. My favourite bias that can be applied in this area is the pratfall effect.

Brands tend to show off and bombard the listeners with a monotonous list of the reasons why they’re wonderful. It sounds sensible, but evidence from Harvard psychologist, Elliot Aronson, suggests it might be the wrong tactic.

In his 1966 experiment, Aronson recorded an actor answering a series of quiz questions. In one strand of the experiment, the actor – armed with the right responses – answers 92% of the questions correctly. After the quiz, the actor then pretends to spill a cup of coffee over himself (a small blunder, or pratfall).

The recording was played to a large sample of students, who were then asked how likeable the contestant was. However, Aronson split the students into cells and played them different versions: one with the spillage included and one without. The students found the clumsy contestant more likeable.

Aronson called the insight that flaws made us more appealing the ‘pratfall effect’.

The smartest brands have recognised this and used the pratfall effect to stand out from their braggard competitors. Just think of VW (Ugly is only skin deep), Stella (Reassuringly expensive) and Avis (When you’re only No. 2 you try harder). Three of the most successful campaigns of all time are based on this simple psychological insight.

Is behavioural science ever misapplied?

Have you ever seen the charity appeal on Wikipedia that announces most readers don’t bother donating?

It’s a common tactic, trying to shock people with daunting figures about the scale of a problem. But it’s an approach that exacerbates the issue it’s trying to solve.

These messages fail because they stress that unwanted behaviour is commonplace. Unfortunately, as we’re social animals who mimic others, this only encourages the very behaviour they’re trying to stop.

Robert Cialdini, Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, has called this social proof.

He measured the effect of social proof on anti-social behaviour at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, which was being slowly eroded by the 3% of visitors who pilfered pieces of the beautiful rock-like wood. Cialdini created signs highlighting the scale of the problem: ‘Please don’t take wood because the park is being changed by the many visitors who steal’.

This sign led to a near tripling of theft compared to the message free control. A full 8% of visitors pocketed a piece of wood. By publicising the scale of the problem, he lessened the sense of crime: surely it couldn’t be that bad if everyone was at it? In Cialdini’s words, “This wasn’t a crime prevention strategy; it was a crime promotion strategy.”

The misuse of social proof is so commonplace – especially among charities and public-sector advertising – that Cialdini has called it the “big mistake”.

If behavioural science is so useful, why doesn’t every brand use it?

One of the reasons marketers have failed to embrace nudging is an unhealthy disdain for the past. Nudging is sometimes tarnished as being “old-fashioned” as it draws on psychology experiments stretching back to the early twentieth century.

But that doesn’t matter. After all, human nature is remarkably consistent. Bill Bernbach, probably the most influential ad creative ever, summed it up best,

“It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”

The desire to demonstrate the consistency of our fundamental motivations was one of the reasons I started conducting my own experiments. Over the last decade, I’ve run hundreds of experiments and repeatedly shown that the insights discovered by psychologists, even those from one hundred years ago, still apply today.

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