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A clever agent asks: Would you like to undergo a full-body pat-down by an agent or a quick and easy body scan in our machine?

The body scan, please.

File this under a nice reframing of a new and potentially scary technology.

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Social Security is an actuarially fair program, which means if you have an average life expectancy, it doesn’t matter when you start collecting benefits. You’re going to collect the same amount if you start at age 62, 65, or 70, and live an average lifespan. People collect more if they live longer or less if they die earlier.

Despite this fact, people can be influenced about when to start collecting benefits through particular messaging, according to three researchers. The trio tested a series of 10 frames using the behavioral economic concepts anchoring and framing. Interestingly, all of these various frames began with a short statement about the actuarially fair nature of Social Security, which appears to have been quickly overlooked.

The message that led to earliest start collection dates, a year earlier relative to the government’s current messaging, emphasized that early starters get less money, but that the “breakeven” age for people staring later was quite far down the line. For instance, the frame says that by delaying starting benefits from 62 to 63, you have to live “at least 15 more years in order to get back the $18,588.00 you forfeited by waiting one year.” In contrast, the latest benefit start dates came from messages emphasizing the gains that accompanied delaying collection and the consumption benefits of those extra dollars.

More on the experiment and findings is at the Rand Behavioral Finance Forum here.

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Alan Schwartz reports on the labeling of waste and recycling bins at a local hospital. One is for “mixed paper”; another is for “Glass – plastic – aluminum. The third, a trash bin, is not labeled “trash” or “waste,” however. Rather, it’s a nice reminder to make sure you’re not throwing out mixed paper, glass, plastic or aluminum.

Addendum: This photo is a nice example of what we’d like to post more of on our Twitter page.

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One airline (that shall remain nameless) told us recently that they “caught” some of their best reps using similar techniques to avoid dust-ups with customers over canceled flights.

For instance, imagine your 11:00 AM flight is canceled and you need to be in Cleveland tomorrow morning. There’s an evening flight that’s open. Where most reps would simply say “I can put you on a flight leaving at 9:00pm” other reps, knowing full well the 9:00 PM flight was available but seeking to manipulate the customer’s reaction, might say “well, I know I can put you on the 7:00 AM flight tomorrow, but let me see what I can do to put you on the earlier flight, which is at 9:00 PM tonight.” This technique of experience engineering is more commonly called anchoring. A less-desirable option creates a mental anchor, making the best alternative seem more acceptable. Rather than be irritated that the 11:00 AM was canceled, you’d probably be pleased that the rep has secured a seat for you on the evening flight.

Another way to think about this tactic is from a framing position. The customer service representative has shifted your reference point from 11 a.m. today to 7 a.m. tomorrow. From the first vantage point, 9 p.m. is a loss; from the second vantage point, it’s a gain.

From HBR article, “How Call Centers Use Behavioral Economics to Sway Customers.” Hat tip: Martin Bishop.

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John List (of the University of Chicago) and Tanjim Hossain run an experiment in a high-tech Chinese factory where workers’ bonuses are framed as “gains” and “losses.” Both frames boost productivity, but the loss frame boosts it slightly more.

Our study revolves around using insights gained from one of the most influential lines of behavioral research—framing manipulations—in an attempt to increase worker productivity in the facility. Using a natural field experiment, we report several insights. For example, conditional incentives framed as both “losses” and “gains” increase productivity for both individuals and teams. In addition, teams more acutely respond to bonuses posed as losses than as comparable bonuses posed as gains. The magnitude of the effect is roughly 1%: that is, total team productivity is enhanced by 1% purely due to the framing manipulation. Importantly, we find that neither the framing nor the incentive effect lose their importance over time; rather the effects are observed over the entire sample period.

The full paper is gated, unfortunately.

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As told to a software programmer:

(Seinfeld) said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. But his advice was better than that. He had a gem of a leverage technique he used on himself and you can use it to motivate yourself—even when you don’t feel like it.

He revealed a unique calendar system he uses to pressure himself to write. Here’s how it works.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.

Shakeout says this story is an example of loss aversion in that “the benefit of writing another joke seems small, but as you build up the chain you give yourself something to lose.” Loss aversion doesn’t seem like the appropriate behavioral economic lesson to apply to Seinfeld’s story.

An alternative might be research on differences in decision making when facing isolated options versus sequences. The frame of a sequence typically enables individuals to make more farsighted decisions, which is exactly what happened in Seinfeld’s case. In much of this research – the best of it done by George Loewenstein – individuals typically postpone objectively “better” outcomes until the end of a sequence (like French food versus McDonalds). Though in the Seinfeld story, the sequence itself seems to differentiate the value of initially identical products (a self-produced joke).

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Polling on the Wall Street financial crisis has some hidden lessons about the effects of question wording and framing. Pollsters and news editors love to use the word “bailout” when they write headlines for their press releases and news stories.

“57% of Public Favors Wall Street Bailout,” according to the Pew Research Center on September 22.

“Only 28% Support Federal Bailout Plan,” according to Rasmussen Reports on September 22.

“Do You Support The Financial Bailout?” asks WKRG news, for a September 26 story based on a SurveyUSA poll.

Now, pollsters don’t love the connotation-laden term when they ask voters for their opinions about what’s going on in Congress, since it dramatically alters the question’s frame.

“As you may know, the government is potentially investing billions to try and keep financial institutions and markets secure. Do you think this is the right thing or the wrong thing for the government to be doing?” asked Pew, and a majority said it is the right thing.

“Do you favor or oppose the proposal for the federal government to purchase up to $700 billion in assets from finance companies?” asked Rasmussen, and 72 percent opposed of didn’t know enough to answer.

“Do you support or oppose the specific rescue plan that the government has worked out? Or do you not yet know enough yet to say?” asked Survey USA, and 84 percent of people opposed or didn’t know enough to answer.

One person does use bailout for a poll question. Who? The unscientific pollster Bill O’Reilly who asks his viewers “Would you vote for the bailout package?” So far, 81 percent have said no.


Two goodies from Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Noah Goldstein, Steve Martin, and Robert Cialdini.

First, try using “because” plus a reason, any reason, the next time you want something.

Behavioral scientist Ellen Langer and her colleagues decided to put the persuasive power of this word to the test. In one study, Langer arranged for a stranger to approach someone waiting in line to use a photocopier and simply ask, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Faced with the direct request to cut ahead in this line, 60 percent of the people were willing to agree to allow the stranger to go ahead of them. However, when the stranger made the request with a reason (“May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”), almost everyone (94 percent) complied…

Here’s where the study gets really interesting…This time, the stranger also used the word because but followed it with a completely meaningless reason. Specifically, the stranger said “May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”

Second, if you’re running a telethon, change your standard “operators are standing by” line.

(Colleen) Szot changed the all-too-familiar call-to-action line, “Operators are waiting, please call now,” to, “If operators are busy, please call again.” On the face of it, the change appears foolhardy. After all, the message seems to convey that potential customers might have to waste their time dialing and redialing the toll-free number until they finally reach a sales representative. Yet, that surface view underestimates the power of the principle of social proof: When people are uncertain about a course of action, they tend to look outside themselves and to other people around them to guide their decisions and actions. In the Colleen Szot example, consider the kind of mental image likely to be generated when you hear “operators are waiting”: scores of bored phone representatives filing their nails, clipping their coupons, or twiddling their thumbs while they wait by their silent telephones — an image indicative of low demand and poor sales.

Now consider how your perception of the popularity of the product would change when you heard the phrase “if operators are busy, please call again.” Instead of those bored, inactive representatives, you’re probably imagining operators going from phone call to phone call without a break. In the case of the modified “if operators are busy, please call again” line, home viewers followed their perceptions of others’ actions, even though those others were completely anonymous. After all, “if the phone lines are busy, then other people like me who are also watching this infomercial are calling, too.”

Hat tip: Marginal Revolution and The Situationist


In July, Hart/Newhouse, the polling firm behind the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, included a pair of questions about the riskiness/safety of John McCain and Barack Obama as president.

When asked who “would be the riskier choice for president – John McCain or Barack Obama,” the results were 35 percent for McCain and 55 percent for Obama. When asked who “would be the safer choice for president,” the results were 46 percent for McCain and 41 percent for Obama.

The numbers should be mirror opposites, but a clear framing effect skews them. The question never appeared before July, and was dropped in the August poll. To NBC and the Wall Street Journal: On behalf of behavioral economists, political psychologists, and generally curious American voters, throw us a bone and bring back the questions.

Addendum: @ Tristan. Check out this post if you haven’t already.

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