“Sorry to bother you – I’m just after three pounds sixty-five for a bus ticket to Bromley.”
Living in an urban area you frequently hear this kind of request, which showcases a persuasion approach called the “pique technique”, whereby people are more likely to comply with requests for an unusually specific quantity, because it piques their interest. But do people really give more readily, or in higher amounts, when exposed to the technique? A meta-analysis in the journal Social Influence puts pique through its paces.
The technique was first investigated in the nineties by a trio of researchers – Michael Santos, Craig Leve and Anthony Pratkanis – with experimental assistants posing as panhandlers on Santa Cruz wharf and asking passers-by for either 17 cents or a quarter. They found the unusual sum led to more compliance from the passers-by, and so to more coinage in the cup.
The researchers hypothesised that the unusual sum is effective as it disrupts the “refusal script” that people have primed in response to generic requests, and instead generates curiosity that encourages the person to engage. The paper spawned further work exploring the technique, including its effectiveness when asking for someone’s time, but some studies found no effects or even negative effects.
To make sense of this muddied picture, Seyoung Lee and Thomas Feeley from the University of Buffalo looked across the available research, six studies in all, to verify whether there is a reliable case for the technique and what might be driving it.
Does piquing pay? Across the studies, there were 16 tests of whether successful requests led to more generous donations when the request was for an unusual sum, and the meta-analysis showed that this was not the case: donations, when given, were similar for both typical and unusual request amounts.
However, piquers earned more overall, because the technique enhanced the chances of getting a donation in the first place. The size of the effect was larger than for other tricks for gaining compliance like the foot in door technique (.27 vs. .11 in terms of statistical effect sizes). The effect size varied across different studies and conditions, so Lee and Feeley investigated what might moderate it, finding the technique more successful in studies conducted in France compared to the US, and working better for smaller requests than for those involving more than a dollar.
The analysis also showed that when the technique was used, people were more likely to respond by asking what the money was for. This is consistent with the idea that the technique disrupts automatic processes and encourages conscious engagement with the request. It’s as if the unusual detail shakes the person out of a slumber to see the moment as the beginning of an interaction, rather than as environmental noise to tune out. Unfortunately the paper doesn’t provide data on whether these curious people were more likely to donate; we do know, however, that when the piquer preemptively explained what the request was for (as per my opening example), participants were more likely to comply.
Many persuasion techniques are overtly exploitative, trying to win compliance by wearing away the target’s defences. Piquing in some way fits this mould, by dodging underneath the normal means of parrying an unsolicited request. But its basic mechanism seems legitimate: to wake us up to what’s happening right now, and then leave it to our conscience how to react. After all, even if you have a principled objection to giving to charity street reps or to the homeless, it’s no bad thing to sometimes be prompted to consciously reflect on your decision.
Coming up with the perfect recipe for crisps or the ideal marketing strategy for a soft drink used to depend on explicit measures. In focus groups and surveys, consumers were asked which product tasted best or which commercial was most appealing. But these measures are imperfect: consumers may choose to hide their true opinions or they might not be fully aware of their own preferences. Food and drinks companies need more objective measures. Currently their best hope is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
The idea is that somewhere in the brain, a “buy button” is hidden away: a region (or combination of regions) that influence your purchase decision. The promise of neuromarketing is that one day, we will be able to find this region, record its activity when you watch an ad or sample a product, and then predict how well this product will sell. So far, the success has been limited. But in a recent study in NeuroImage, Simone Kühn from the University Clinic Hamburg-Eppendorf and her colleagues claim to have found “multiple ‘buy buttons’ in the brain”.
The researchers showed six different ads for the chocolate bar “Duplo” to 18 healthy women while they underwent fMRI. In these ads, the chocolate bar was presented either next to the face of a woman; a couple; a group of people; in two hands; in two hands and with an additional slogan; or next to a toothbrush (the toothbrush was meant to serve as a control condition).
The researchers measured brain activity during the adverts in eight brain regions thought to be involved in making purchase decisions. Then they entered these measures into a formula that weighed key areas such as the nucleus accumbens and medial orbitofrontal cortex more strongly than others, which were expected to have less influence. Some areas, such as dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, were even weighed negatively, assuming that higher activity in these regions would make a purchase less likely. The team then used this “fMRI sales forecast value” to predict the sales of the chocolate bar. After the scan, the women were also asked which ad they liked most.
Next, the researchers ranked the six ads in different ways: according to the fMRI forecast; according to the women’s explicit preferences; and according to actual sales in a real German supermarket where the chocolate bar was sold in a display showing one of the six different ads, with a different advert used each week. In total, more than 63,000 customers were recorded, of whom 317 bought the chocolate bars. The six weeks were not consecutive and were carefully chosen to be uninfluenced by holidays and promotional periods.
The fMRI-based forecast was a surprisingly accurate predictor of sales, while self-reports performed poorly. The two ads which did best in the supermarket (chocolate bar in front of a group and next to a woman) were also predicted to be most successful by the fMRI sales forecast value. In contrast, the two most-liked ads from the self-reports (hands without text and, somewhat surprisingly, the toothbrush) were actually the least and third to least successful ones.
These seem like impressive results for the field of neuromarketing, but I had a number of reservations. For instance, while the authors tried to justify their selection of brain areas, arguing that these regions had previously been implicated in neuromarketing research, it is not entirely clear how they came up with their specific formula to calculate the “fMRI sales forecast value”. A clearer rationale would have been helpful.
The new results also contradict earlier studies, which found that asking people directly about their preferences was far superior over modern measures such as fMRI. Note though that in this study, people were asked which ad they liked best. But likingdoes not equalwanting. You might not like an ad very much, but it could still increase your desire for a product. A more useful question for the self-report part of this study would have been: “How much does this ad make you want to buy the chocolate?”
Also, there was a potential effect of the order in which the ads were displayed in the shops. The most successful ad, which was also predicted to be most successful by the fMRI based forecast, was the one that was used first in the German supermarket. The authors argue that most customers would have bought and eaten Duplo before, since it is a very popular sweet in Germany. However, it is easy to see how a new display in your local supermarket could encourage you to buy this product, regardless of the ad attached to it. Future studies should take this effect into account and maybe start with a shop display without any ads in the first week.
But perhaps most concerning is that one of the study authors, Enrique Strelow, is only listed in the paper as a member of the Justus-Liebig University of Gießen, even though he is also Head of Shopper Communication at Ferrero, the company that makes the chocolate bar Duplo. This is a clear conflict of interest, which was not disclosed in the paper. From reading the article, it is clear that the authors had cooperated with Ferrero, since they had early access to the advertisements which would later be placed in the supermarket. However, one of the authors being an employee of this company is a different thing altogether. Since these conflicts of interests can implicitly or explicitly influence study design, analysis, and result presentation, it is common practice to disclose any links to industry. Why this information was not made publicly available for this paper is unclear.
Nonetheless, the study highlights how neuroimaging-based market research in relatively small groups could one day reliably predict product sales on a large scale. Giving companies access to such sensitive data holds the potential for abuse and should therefore be carefully regulated. While there are strict regulations for fMRI based research in academic settings, such rules are lacking for industry applications. A public debate about the merits and dangers of neuromarketing is therefore more and more pressing.
The luxury microwave meal was delicious, the house is warm, work’s going OK, but you’re just not feeling very happy. Some positive psychologists believe this is because many of us in rich, Western countries spend too much of our free time on passive activities, like bingeing on Netflix and browsing Twitter, rather than on active, psychologically demanding activities, like cooking, sports or playing music, that allow the opportunity to experience “flow” – that magic juncture where your abilities only just meet the demands of the challenge. A new paper in the Journal of Positive Psychology examines this dilemma. Do we realise that pursuing more active, challenging activities will make us happier in the long-run? If so, why then do we opt to spend so much more time lazing around engaged in activities that are pleasant in the moment, but unlikely to bring any lasting fulfilment?
Across two studies, L. Parker Schiffer and Tomi-Ann Roberts at the Claremont Graduate University and Colorado College, surveyed nearly 300 people (presumably US citizens, average age 33/34 years) via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website about what they thought of dozens of different activities: some passive like listening to music or watching movies, others more active and potentially flow-inducing, such as making art or meditating. Specifically, the participants rated how enjoyable, effortful, and daunting they considered the activities to be, as well as how often they engaged in each of them in a typical week. The participants also identified which activities they considered the most and least conducive to lasting happiness.
There was a clear pattern in the participants’ answers: they identified more effortful activities as being more associated with lasting happiness, yet they said they spent much more time on passive, relaxation-based activities, like watching TV. Looking at their other judgments, the key factor that seemed to deter participants from engaging in more active, flow-inducing activities is that they tended to be seen as particularly daunting and less enjoyable, even while being associated with lasting happiness. The more daunting an activity was deemed to be, the less frequently it was undertaken (by contrast, and to the researchers’ surprise, the perceived effort involved in the activity did not seem to be a deterrent).
Schiffer and Roberts consider this to be a paradox of happiness: we know which kind of activities will bring us lasting happiness, but because we see them as daunting and less enjoyable in the moment, we choose to spend much more of our time doing passive, more immediately pleasant things with our free time. Their advice is to plan ahead “to try to ease the physical transition into flow activities” to make them feel less daunting. For example, they suggest getting your gym clothes and bag ready the night before, and choosing a gym that’s close and convenient; or getting your journal and pen, or easel and paintbrushes, ready in advance.
The other thing they suggest is using mindfulness, meditation or some other “controlled consciousness” technique to help yourself to disregard the initial “transition costs” of a flow activity, such as the early pain of a run, and to focus instead on its pleasurable aspects and the long-term rewards.
“Future research is needed in order to empirically back our proposal that preplanning, prearranging, and, and controlled consciousness may aid overcoming the activation energy and transition costs that stand in the way of our true happiness,” the researchers said.
British workers spend on average one hour commuting each day, and 57 per cent of commuters make their daily journeys by car. But this is a part of our lives we don’t talk much about, beyond the odd epithet about the traffic; maybe because it’s a strange time, betwixt home and work but not fully either. Potentially, the drive to work is a haven: I recall my mother’s glove compartment crammed with audio books, so she could enjoy those stretches of solo time. But it’s more liable to be caught in a crossfire of worries, fretting about Daniel’s pensive moods at the breakfast table, or anticipating criticisms about the last sales pitch. New research from the University of Haifa suggests these psychological stressors can make our time on the road not just unpleasant, but dangerous as well.