• Julia Loughlin

Well, that escalated quickly! How to harness psychology in your marketing.

Last Sunday morning, I woke up, groggy-headed, dry-mouthed, with a sore head and a nagging feeling of regret.

It had started innocuously enough, with an early dinner with a friend, but a bottle of wine soon turned into cocktails, which led to dancing until, ultimately, my friend and I stumbled through our respective front doors at some wee hour of the morning.

It got me wondering: why do some things escalate so quickly? And if this is due to an underlying trait of human behaviour, how can we harness this to work in our favour?

It turns out, ‘Escalation situations’ are actually a thing.

This ‘decision pathology’ has also been labelled ‘the psychology of entrapment’, the ‘too much invested to quit syndrome’ and ‘the sunk cost effect’. You might know it by the internal monologue that goes something like, ‘It’s already late, I’ve already had a few, I’ve already spent a lot of money, let’s order another round – it’s on me!’.

People like to think they are intelligent, rational human beings. So, if we’re doing seemingly irrational, sometimes dumb, activities we will try to bridge this ‘cognitive dissonance’ by rationalising the behaviour.

If you’re a smoker, and you know it’s bad for you but you won’t quit, you might tell yourself the benefits of relaxation or weight loss outweigh the risks. Or, you might justify your earlier decisions by committing additional resources to them, like if you’re a gambler you’ll chase after your losses.

Situations escalate because of incremental decision making.

When you’re lying in your bed on a Sunday morning wondering ‘Why?’ ‘How?’, and vowing to never let it happen again, it might seem like you were not in control. It might feel like you were ‘carried away’, swept up in the wave of collective enthusiasm of those around you. But actually, psychologists say it’s quite the opposite.

When we make a choice to do something, we feel responsible. This is intensified when the choice is made public, explicit or is irreversible.

A small, seemingly trivial commitment can have a powerful effect on future actions.

One study, in particular, involved asking residents to sign a petition for the establishment of a recreation centre for people with disabilities. It was a small ask and almost everyone agreed.

Two weeks later, in a fundraising drive for the same cause, nearly all – 92% of those who had signed the petition – donated money, compared to only half who hadn’t been asked to sign the petition!

The implications are clear for those of us in the business of influence.

If you want to persuade someone to follow through with something, seek a voluntary commitment to get the escalator moving. Ask a series of logical questions people can’t disagree with.

Then, get it in writing. One study reduced missed appointments at doctors’ clinics by nearly 20% by simply asking patients, rather than the staff to write down the appointment details on the future appointment card.

Make it even stickier by making the commitment public. Testimonials or other public endorsements – like a comment in a media release or as a media case study – is effective not just to persuade the audience but also to convince the testifier themselves, because people want to believe they are right.

As for waking up on a Sunday morning with nausea and regret? I could bridge the cognitive dissonance by rationalising the consequences as worth it for the fun I had. Or, as someone who has always been conscientious in her undertakings, I could remind myself that I needn’t be so committed and consistent in all my behaviour.

Next time, ordering the Uber before the lights come on might actually be the intelligent and rational thing to do.

Note: this article originally was originally published in the CHE Proximity company newsletter, Curiously.

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