Monkey See, Monkey Do
When trying to persuade others or convince them to do something, we tend to default to rewards or punishments. The employee of the month gets $100 and their name up on the wall. Kids are told to eat their vegetables or they won’t get ice cream for desert.
But while rewards and punishments are effective in the short term, they often undermine what they set out to achieve.
Imagine you were stuck on an alien planet and they serve two things for dinner: Zagwarts and Gallblats. You’ve never heard of either, and both look a little weird, but you’re famished, so you have to eat something.
Before you get a chance to pick one, your host says that before you eat your Zagwarts, you have to eat your Gallblats.
Which one do you think tastes better? Zagwarts or Gallblats?
Kids make similar inferences about ice cream and vegetables. They like ice cream, and while they might not love vegetables, the ice cream reward undermines any otherwise positive feelings they might have had. After all, if vegetables were good in the first place, why would they need a reward to eat them?
An ice cream reward sends a subtle signal that vegetables aren’t worth eating on their own. That kids need to be paid (in ice cream) to eat them. And when parents stop paying, kids will stop eating. Whenever they get the opportunity to make their own food choices, vegetables will be tossed to the side. The same goes for employees. They start to infer that the only reason to be on time and give good service is because they’ll get paid more, not because they care about their job.
Using social influence is more effective. Just like monkeys people mimic others’ choices and actions. If their parents can’t seem to get enough broccoli, kids will follow suit.
Unfortunately, many parents signal to their kids that vegetables are not tasty. Parents don’t put many vegetables on their own plate, and eat the chicken or steak or whatever else is being served first. And if their parents aren’t eating vegetables, why would kids want to?
But if broccoli is the first thing on their parents’ plate, and the first thing their parents eat, kids will do the same. Even better if there’s a mock argument over which parent gets to eat the last piece. The more kids see their parents eating something—and liking it—the more likely they’ll be to do the same.
A Horse of a Different Color
Differentiation isn’t just some quirk felt by teenagers or people wanting to rebel. It’s something everyone feels to some degree, albeit in varying shades. After all, it wouldn’t really be difference if everyone wanted the same amount of it.
Being aware of how distinction shapes behavior can lead to more satisfying decisions. When ordering food in groups, we’ll probably be happier if we stick to our preferred option, even if someone else selects it as well. We won’t feel unique, but we can easily order a different drink or focus on how we’re different on some other dimension. And rather than being stuck with something we like less, we’ll have the rest of the meal to enjoy what we chose.
If we’re really worried about it, we can try to be the first one to order. Just signal to the waiter. They’ll offer to take our order first and then we won’t have to worry about others’ choices affecting our own.
We can also design choices, and choice environments, to allow people to distinguish themselves. Apple produces the iPod in a wide range of colors. Some people might prefer blue or red to grey, but once you get into colors like orange and yellow, it’s beyond catering to personal preference. (Few people report yellow as their favorite color.) By creating so many variants, though, Apple enables customers to feel distinct even though the product is hugely popular and essentially the same for everyone. Your friend can have a green one, your coworker can have a purple one, your mom can have a blue one, and you can still feel unique because yours is red. It’s yours and yours alone.
Distinction also helps explain the success of places like Starbucks. Sure the beans might be a little better or the atmosphere might be a little nicer, but it’s still three to four times the price of McDonald’s or any of the other places people could easily get coffee. So why are people so happy to pay the higher price?
Starbucks isn’t just selling coffee, it’s selling a personalized experience. We can get our order customized exactly how we want it. Our Starbucks coffee isn’t just the same as the guy or gal who was in front of us in line. It’s tailored to our specific unique tastes, with what else than our (mostly) unique name written on the side. It’s a four-dollar reminder that we are special and different and not like everyone else. And that’s but a small price to pay for feeling distinct.
Social influence, then, seems to push us to be both the same and different. Imitating others and distinguishing ourselves from them. So when is it one versus the other?
Turns out it depends a lot on who those others are.
Not If They’re Doing It
Public service announcements, particularly in the health domain, often focus on information. Antismoking ads talk about the negative health effects of lighting up, and antidrug campaigns encourage parents to “talk to your kids about the dangers of drugs.” The notion is that information will change people’s minds. Tell people about the negative consequences of smoking, drugs, or unhealthy eating, and they’ll come around and do the right thing.
Unfortunately, more information doesn’t always lead to better decisions. Teens who smoke know about the risks, but they do it anyway. Kids know that candy and chips are bad for them, but that still doesn’t change their behavior.
Associating desired behaviors with aspiration groups, or desired identities, is often more effective. Popeye always ate spinach to make himself strong, and this association is believed to have boosted U.S. spinach consumption by a third.
Advertisers have long recognized this, linking stars like Michael Jordan with everything from shoes to food to soft drinks. Want to be like Mike? This product will help. If someone people idolize is doing something, they’ll want to do it as well.
Similar identity-based interventions can be beneficial in a variety of contexts. When speaking about the negative effects of “acting white,” President Obama said that America needed to “eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.”
But changing the stereotype requires more than just changing what people say. It requires shifting the identity associated with academic achievement to one that more clearly features minority students.
Lots of families own a Toyota Camry because it is a safe, reliable car. But families driving it may turn other consumers off. If you just got a big promotion at work and want to show people you’ve made it, buying a car that signals suburban dad isn’t going to cut it.
So Toyota created Lexus. The Lexus brand has a more luxurious feel and offers higher-end cars at a higher price point. Part of this is about appealing to customers who want something fancier than a Camry. But part of it is also about identity. Lexus offers people who might have driven something like a Camry a way to distinguish themselves from the families in their Camrys. A way to move up, but not out of the Toyota brand.
Meaning can also be managed by evoking broader identities. Republicans are wary of supporting a liberal cause and Democrats feel similarly about conservative ones. But framing something as a human rights issue helps it rise above partisan lines. This superordinate, or higher-level, identity is something more people can buy into. And because it evokes a broader identity, it’s less likely that people will avoid it.
Similar but Different
Integrating similarity and difference is particularly important when managing innovation. How should a new product like the Swiffer be described? Is it a revolutionary mop? A new cleaning tool? And how should it be designed? Should seats in driverless cars face forward because that is what people are used to, even if that is no longer required?
A new product or technology can be light-years ahead of the competition, but its success hinges on consumer perception. If the product seems too similar to what’s already out there, people aren’t compelled to purchase. If this year’s iWidget seems just like last year’s, why pay the extra money to replace the old one? If the innovation is too radical, though, other issues arise. Consumers don’t know how to categorize it (what is a Swiffer, anyway?), they don’t understand what it does, and they can’t tell if they really need it. Both extremes are dangerous, and carefully navigating the sweet spot in between requires effectively blending similarity and difference.
Take the introduction of the automobile. Horses had been the primary mode of transportation, but they were restrictive. Travel was slow, expensive, and even dangerous. Horse-drawn vehicles had an engine with a mind of its own, and the fatality rate in cities like Chicago were seven times what they are for cars today.
Automobiles promised a solution. They could go farther, faster, and even cut down on manure, which at the time was threatening to overrun major cities.
But getting people to adopt these early cars required a huge mind shift. Horses (and donkeys) had been the primary transportation method for thousands of years. While there were many drawbacks to this method, people were comfortable with it. They knew what to expect.
Automobiles were completely new. They required different fuel to run, different skills to drive, and different know-how to fix.
In 1899, a clever inventor proposed a solution to make people, and horses, more comfortable. Named the Horsey Horseless, it involved taking a life-size replica of a horse head, down to the shoulders, and attaching it to the front of a carriage.
The buggy had the appearance of a horse-drawn vehicle, and thus horses, and their human riders, would be less likely to be scared when it passed by. The fake head also could be used as a gas tank.
It’s easy to laugh at a fake horse head glued to the front of a car. It seems silly, almost comical. But while it might seem ridiculous today, it’s hard to imagine how scary cars were when they were first introduced. Why not add something recognizable on the front to make the novelty less threatening?
More generally, successfully introducing radical innovations often involves cloaking technology in a skin of familiarity.
Come On Baby, Light My Fire
Whether trying to inspire a sales team to work harder or encourage students to learn more, social comparisons can be a powerful motivating force. Giving people a sense of how they stack up against their peers can encourage them to work harder and be more likely to achieve their goals. At the same time, though, if not carefully designed, social comparisons can lead people to get disheartened, give up, and quit.
Unfortunately, many companies and classrooms use a winner-take-all model. The person who makes the most sales this quarter gets promoted. The top student is named valedictorian and speaks at graduation.
While this strategy motivates people who have a chance at the top slot, it often demotivates those who feel they have no shot at winning. Someone who has only half as many sales as the leader may think they are so far back that they just give up. Students that are getting Cs or Ds may feel similarly. Getting an A seems impossible, so why keep trying?
One way to encourage perseverance is to shrink the comparison set. Breaking larger groups up into smaller ones based on performance. Golf tournaments organize participants into groups of similar skill. This encourages golfers to compare themselves to others of similar ability, which decreases the chance they feel far behind and helps maintain motivation.
Similarly, rather than comparing people to everyone else, some organizations give people feedback that compares them to the person just ahead of them. Opower doesn’t compare people to their best-performing neighbor, they tell people where they are in relation to neighbors with similar homes. Just like basketball teams that were down by a point, making each person feel slightly behind increases effort and performance.
Social comparisons can also be made to other classes or firms. Rental car company Avis, for example, used to claim that they tried harder because they were number two rather than number one. Harvard professor Todd Rogers and UC Berkeley professor Don Moore tested a version of this idea in politics. They sent out e-mails to more than a million Florida Democrats suggesting that their gubernatorial candidate was either winning or losing by a little in the polls. Emphasizing that the candidate was behind raised 60 percent more money
Thinking their candidate was losing by a little motivated people to do something about it.