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I know exactly how the conversation will go.

I’m interviewing Chris, a 52-year-old man
living a small coastal town, for the second time.
We’ve been exploring the new checkout process for a client’s redesigned
website. The new site isn’t performing as well as the company thought it would,
so I’m exploring why and seeing what we can learn from competitors. 

“Only two 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?

Are nudges working?

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?

This was the basis for a
research project we completed in February 2019 examining reactions of the
British public to a range of behavioral interventions. We took a nationally
representative sample of 2,102 British adults, and undertook an experimental
evaluation of some of marketers’ most commonly used tactics.

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%) 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%). Just one in six (16%)
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:

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“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%) expressed a negative emotional reaction to these messages, choosing
words like contempt and disgust from a pre-coded 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.”

Repercussions

For these people, not only are
these behavioral interventions not working but they’re having the reverse
effect. We hypothesise 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%) 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 co-adapting 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 generalisations
about the efficacy of all behavioral interventions based on this evidence
alone. And yet nagging doubts remain. 

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#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 pro-social behavior in sectors such as healthcare
have much more consequential outcomes. In time, pro-social 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.

This article originally appeared in the Behavioral
Scientist
.



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