Book extract a mind full of choices

by Richard Shotton ( @rshotton) Your main task this afternoon is to interview the last two candidates for the position of manager on your team. At the close of the second interview you realise both candidates have the same relevant experience, strong academic results and practical ideas to implement once they start. You’re wondering how you’ll ever choose between them. As the final candidate gets up to leave, he catches his foot awkwardly on the table leg, upending the dregs of his coffee over the new floor. He leaves ashen-faced, but highly apologetic.

The bias was discovered in 1966 by Harvard University psychologist Elliot Aronson. He 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).

Everyone assumes that brands are fallible, so if a brand is open about its failings, it can persuade consumers that its weaknesses lie in inconsequential areas. This theory partly explains the success of budget airlines. At launch they openly admitted that the trade-off for cheap prices was compromised service: no seat reservations and a pitiful luggage allowance. If they hadn’t admitted as much, consumers may have assumed the cost-cutting had come at the expense of safety.

A twist in Aronson’s experiment suggests caution. He repeated the setup but this time the actor feigned incompetence and answered only 30% of the questions correctly. Once again students rated his appeal. In this scenario the clumsy spillage made him less appealing. The Pratfall Effect has a multiplicative effect rather than a purely positive one. It makes strong brands stronger, but weak brands weaker.

Finally, it’s not just a matter of tweaking the copy in your ads. It should affect how you deal with unflattering customer reviews. Many brands hide the negative reviews. However, a 2015 study, by Northwestern University’s Spiegel Research Centre, analysed 111 460 product reviews across 22 categories and linked ratings to probability of purchasing. It found that likelihood of purchase didn’t peak with perfect scores but at 4.2–4.5 out of 5. There was only minor variation between categories — hair care reviews, for example, peaked in effectiveness at 4.2, while 4.5 was ideal for light bulbs.

What is in the interest of the brand, the principal, is not in the interest of the marketing manager, the agent. If the campaign flops it might be the end of the brand manager’s career. Imagine explaining to your CEO as sales dive that the key message of your campaign was that the brand was expensive. Even referencing Aronson’s research won’t save you.

Everyday marketers make decisions aimed at trying to influence human buying behaviour, but few really understand why humans do what they do. Richard Shotton, author of The Choice Factory: 25 Behavioural Biases That Influence What We Buy, makes a compelling case for why this must change. The deputy head of evidence at Manning Gottlieb OMD, Shotton advocates that, before trying to influence human decision-making, marketers need to understand how and why people behave the way they do.