marketing, psychology

It’s Prime Time: Psychology of Priming

As a business owner, you’re already priming your customers — whether you’re aware of it or not. And what you’re currently using to prime your customers has a MAJOR impact on your brand. That’s why it is crucial that you are aware of it. You need to actively work to make sure the priming effect makes you look good instead of, well, not good.

So what exactly is priming? More importantly, how are you using it as a business owner?

Priming is one of the most basic advertising tactics used in marketing, and a lot of marketers don’t even know they’re using it. Priming is generally accepted as a truth in social psychology, and it’s backed by behavioral research studies.

Priming is the idea that one thing affects your reaction to another thing that seems unrelated. Here’s an example:

Imagine you’re at a nice restaurant. You hear some Italian song playing — you know, When the moon hits your eyes like a big pizza pie, that’s amore

You look at the wine list, and you notice an Italian wine is being featured. You look at the price and think, “Seems reasonable.”

And you say to the waiter, “I’ll take a bottle of the featured Italian wine.”

According to this idea of priming, you were primed by the Italian song to buy the pricier wine just because it was Italian.

Notice that you didn’t really think about the connection to the song and the wine — on some level, yes, you knew they were related, but you didn’t sit down and make a list of all the things associated with that Italian song (like pasta, cheese wheels, gondolas, and wine).

A key part of this idea of priming is that it actually occurs outside of conscious awareness. Sneaky, sneaky

You might be thinking that priming is all BS and that you wanted to buy the wine because you love wine and Italy produces great wine — the song had nothing to do with it. Okay, sure…

Well, what does the research say about priming?

A group of researchers actually took images of the brain and examined movement patterns during a brain task. Scientists assigned participants a thinking task and hooked them up to brain imaging equipment. They gave them instructions, saying something like, “Do X on number A.” But what they didn’t tell participants was that they also flashed a number in front of them for just a fraction of a second — so quickly that participants didn’t even know they saw it. This type of prime is called a masked prime. Scientists found that the people who saw the masked prime actually moved differently — as in, they did X (their task) on not only number A, but they moved to do that task on the masked prime too. And they had no awareness that they’d even seen this masked prime number.

Honestly, that’s pretty freaky… Does that mean that film editors can add a microsecond of a screen that says “buy stock in Ford Motors!!” and then BOOM, you’re primed to go buy stock in Ford Motors??

According to market researcher James Vicary, flashing ads for coca-cola and popcorn increased those sales in movie theaters, even though the ads were so quick the audience never registered them. Vicary is considered one of the leaders in the study of subliminal priming. Vicary’s findings have never been repeated, and it’s generally accepted that they were a hoax.

Now, an ethics question for you… Is priming manipulative?

On the surface, it’s quite obviously manipulative, right? Upon a closer look at the research, we can see that it may not be. In my opinion, priming is not evil or slimy for two reasons:

  1. The first reason I think it’s generally fine is because there would not be an effect of priming if there was not already an association formed in whosoever brain was being primed. In fact, research that shows that subliminal priming only has an effect on participants who already have a need/want for the product. Researchers showed that people only wanted the drink (for which they were shown subliminal messaging) when they were already thirsty.
  2. The second reason I think priming is not necessarily awful is because businesses with truly stellar products really should do everything they can to sell their products to improve their customers’ lives. You could even argue that great businesses are doing the world a disservice by not priming their customers to buy their great offer. If you’re selling anything less than top-notch products, then yes — priming your audience to buy your just-okay products is not good. And if that’s the case, you’re going to have to improve your product.

But regardless of whether priming is evil,  ALL businesses are already doing it— all the time.

Literally anything can prime customers for or against your brand, and many of those things are outside of your control. For example, if you’re trying to sell your online course, and your audience sees an ad about why online courses are better than books, you might have gotten lucky! That ad may have primed your customer to buy your course.

While SO many factors account for how your audience sees your business, here are few primes you can control that can seriously help shape your customers’ experience:

  • Word choice. As a copywriter, I am constantly thinking about the the effect words have. Put another way, I’m always considering how customers can be primed (in a positive or negative way) depending on my word choice. All copywriters should do this, but having a deep understanding of priming allows me to be extra careful with every word I write. I may be biased, but words are possibly the best way to prime your audience for higher sales.
  • Colors. What colors are in your logo, your website, or your store? Do they inspire the desired mood you want customers to have? There’s a whole sector of research devoted to color psychology that demonstrates how colors affect our emotions and behavior. Choose your colors wisely.
  • Logo. What does your logo look like? I deliberately chose a simply drawn ram as my logo for two reasons. First of all, I wanted site visitors to remember my name (RAMsey, get it?). Secondly, I chose the ram because I consider the ram to represent power. I want to show that my work is powerful in that it can ramp up your sales, increase conversions, and ultimately change the face of your business if employed properly. I’m confident that all these things can happen for your business with the marketing psychology techniques I know. I choose to showcase that to help clients get to know me better.

I know that you know colors, word choice, and logo are important for selling your brand. I didn’t need to tell you that. But it’s important to know just how crucial all of these things are for your business. So, choose your brand image wisely, and if you’re using your own DIY copy, try to get a second set of eyes on your work. While you can’t control people’s perception of your brand entirely, you can certainly put your best foot forward.

How can you showcase the best of your brand using the psychology of priming?

Let me know in the comments below how you use (or want to use) priming in your business!


Is marketing evil?

Don Draper sits with his arms crossed across his chest, thinking of ways to sell tobacco. He’s just been notified of new research that shows that tobacco is unhealthy, but he doesn’t want to lose this account. He has bills to pay, and he needs to find a way to sell tobacco regardless of its dangers.

Don Draper is exactly who we DON’T want selling our products to us. He is cunning, smart, and ruthless. His goal is to sell, not to necessarily to help.

Yet Don Draper is exactly the type of copywriter all businesses want in their marketing department. Businesses want long-term clients and customers. They want their customers’ hard-earned money. And Don Draper knows how to get money into their clients’ hands.

Is marketing manipulative? Is it evil?

Honestly, maybe. The answer depends entirely on the business and product being marketed. Let’s look at two real-life examples of “evil” marketing being used to sell a dangerous product: tobacco and alcohol.

It’s no secret that tobacco is bad for you. And you can debate whether red wine is good for the heart (or whatever that claim is), but alcohol can certainly be dangerous. In fact, our government mandates that the Surgeon General’s Warning is clearly displayed on the package or bottle to discourage its sale and use.

In 1971, cigarette advertisements were banned from TV and radio. In 1998 a lawsuit resulted in new bans on tobacco advertising on billboards, cartoons, and advertising designed to appeal to kids younger than 18 years old.

In 2006, it was determined that Big Tobacco had violated racketeering laws by marketing “low tar” and “light” cigarettes. They claimed that these low tar and light cigarettes were actually less harmful than normal cigarettes. They knowingly misrepresented these products, and Big Tobacco paid the price.

In 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act granted the FDA power to regulate marketing of tobacco. This allowed the FDA to restrict sale of tobacco in retail where customers could buy it face-to-face. It also banned the sale of tobacco through vending machines. 

A few ways Big Tobacco use sneaky and mega effective marketing tactics to sell harmful products:

A. They target vulnerable populations to sell more tobacco. It is well known in marketing that you need to target your audience to sell your product. For example, selling clothes to the geriatric population is very different from selling clothes to teenagers. Teenagers are more likely to care about style, what their friends are wearing, and the latest trends. In contrast, older populations are more likely to care about being comfortable, having easy clothes to put on, and feeling their best. Different populations warrant different marketing, and Big Tobacco knows that. Tobacco was marketed to specific audiences to sell better. 

B. They use experiential marketing. Experiential marketing is a tactic used by marketers to get their audience to associate the promoted product with a certain activity. Ideally, that activity is something the audience LOVES. 

For example, Big Tobacco used the below packaging to get people to associate hip hop with tobacco.

C. They use familiar-looking products in e-cigarettes’ package designs. The names and images below elicits nostalgia for products like Vanilla Wafers, Sour Patch Kids, and Whipped Cream.

Wait, aren’t there rules against using marketing like that? How are they able to do this? 

Well, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act actually does not apply to the e-cigarettes. Big Tobacco is well within their legal rights to market these products—even though we have scientific literature on the dangers of e-cigarettes AND they blatantly exploit people’s fondness of childhood treats (to sell e-cigs). 

Another potentially harmful and addictive substance is alcohol. 

College students, open minded and ready to make friends, are major targets for Big Alcohol. Marketers use prototypes (or avatars) of their ideal customer to sell their products. They say, “who would want to buy this product?” and “what can I promise them that will sell the product?”

College students have a wide range of interests, many of which can be exploited by companies who want to sell them stuff— like alcohol. According to research published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, alcohol companies know this and use it to sell alcohol to college kids. They know that not all college students are the same. Some prefer to be seen as more free-spirited. Others want to be known as great athletes. For example, Coors is targeted at the chill, easy-going ones. Budweiser is targeted at the athletic ones. 

Think about the famous slew of Budweiser SuperBowl ads. Maybe without you even knowing, an association was formed: Budweiser + Football = Good time. BOOM. 

Consider the Coors “Made to Chill” campaign. It targets millennials who are staying at home, chilling— with a beer (in the shower, apparently). Coors wants to attract those go-with-the-flow types to buy Coors.

These target advertisement campaigns work. Coors and Budweiser are popular with college kids, and I think that’s due to a concerted effort of the companies.

Sounds slimy, right? Marketing can definitely be manipulative, but it can also be immensely helpful. Now that you know the dark side of marketing, see my article here on nudging to see why and how it can be helpful.

So, is marketing evil? It absolutely can be. Business psychology in advertising is incredibly powerful. That’s why, as writers, we need to be careful who we work for. If you’re a freelancer, you need to be extra vigilant. Don’t work for businesses whose products don’t TRULY benefit the consumer. ONLY work for those businesses that you can proudly support with your well-crafted words. 

Thanks for reading! Do you love it? Hate it? Let me know below!


Business Psychology: Reciprocity

You can’t always get what you want. Those are the words of Mick Jagger and Kieth Richards. They’re true. People struggle to get what they want. Sometimes, you just have to move on and let it go. 

But let’s say you want to sell something to someone, and they don’t know that they can actually benefit a TON from what you’re selling. For example, what if you had a program that taught people to quit smoking? What if a group of smokers wouldn’t listen to your sales pitch? But if they did stop to listen to your pitch, they might live longer after implementing your smoking cessation practice. You could argue that it would be wrong to NOT try to influence their decision. 

It’s generally difficult to influence people. The problem is confounded when you have no authority over the people you’re trying to influence. For example, a schoolteacher arguably has influence over his or her students by the very nature of the relationship. Senior employees have more influence over more junior ones. But what if a junior team member has an idea that will seriously drum up business? What if it’s a millennial pitching a smoking cessation course to baby boomers? How do these people with little authority sell their ideas?

Psychologists Allan Cohen and David Bradford explained exactly how to gain influence over people even if you have no authority over them in their 2005 article. They explained that you can use reciprocity to get what you want.

You probably already know that reciprocity is what happens when someone does something for someone else, and the receiver feels a sense of indebtedness to the giver. So they might be motivated to return the favor somehow. Reciprocity is what you see when you smile and wave at someone, and they smile and wave back at you in return. 

Another way of thinking about reciprocity is the saying “what goes around comes around.” It’s the belief that people should be repaid for what they do. If you do something good, it will come back to you. If you do something bad, you’ll be punished. You already know all this.

But what you might not know is the mechanics of how you can use reciprocity to get what you want in business— whether that’s more traffic to your site, higher sales, or more customers. If that sounds manipulative, I get it. But stay with me. Or better, read my article on how we can use responsible marketing to nudge people in the right direction. 

Cohen and Bradford (2005) designed the Influence Model to help us get more of what we want using reciprocity. As a business owner, it should be of great interest to you because you can spread your products and services further by using the Influence Model (Cohen & Bradford, 2005).

BUT you need to consider whether it’s appropriate to use the Influence Model. Don’t be slimy. Using advanced psychology on people to try to get them to buy your products should be just as beneficial to the customer as it is to you. If you sell them poor quality products or services using the Influence Model, that reflects extremely poorly on you and you won’t be trusted for future business. Use the infographic below to determine whether the Influence Model is right for your business.

View fullsize

Should You Use Influence ModelShould You Use Influence Model

If what you’re selling is worthy of the Influence Model, you may proceed! If not, improve your product — I mean it!

How to implement the Influence Model (Cohen & Bradford (2005)

A. Assume whoever you’re trying to influence is a potential ally.

If you approach the person you’re trying to influence like they’re an adversary, they’ll probably become one. It’s an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy. But if your idea landed on “Influence Away!” in the flowchart above, you truly want to help people. If you want to help them, you probably like them, and they probably like you for wanting to help them. Your offer benefits both you and the potential customer, so consider them a potential friend.

B. Get your priorities straight.

This is often easier said than done. What are your primary vs. secondary aims? Are there certain things that would be nice to have, but aren’t essential? What aspects of the deal are non-negotiable, and where can you afford to bend a little?

Let’s say you’ve landed a meeting with a high-level executive for you to pitch a new idea. In business, relationships are extremely important. You need to think carefully about exactly what you want out of the meeting when proposing a deal with your potential new business partner. Is your primary goal for them to sign a contract saying you can implement your idea? Or are you mainly just trying to maintain/improve your relationship with this person? There’s no right answer. You just need to be clear about what you want.

This step is SUPER important— because if you prioritize personal gains over more important ones, you could get sidetracked and lose the deal and the relationship. For example, if you wanted to sell someone something, but you were focused too much on being seen as more intelligent than the customer, you might lose the sale by appearing arrogant and condescending. Cohen and Bradford (2005) put it nicely: “Would you rather be right or effective?”

C. Determine what drives your ally to care about the things they care about.

Having empathy for the person you’re trying to influence is really going to help you see them more as an ally. Situational factors can influence people’s concerns, needs, and wants even more than their personality, according to Cohen and Bradford (2005). Take into account what drives them. How are they perceived or “measured” by others? For example, a woman might be seen as a good mother if she cooks lots of homemade meals. A boss might “measure” his employees by their productivity and professionalism.

D. Identify relevant currencies for both you and your ally.

Cohen and Bradford (2005) refer to values as “currencies” because they can be exchanged for things people want. For example, if a potential business partner values prestige over likability, assess your own resources. Find out if you can give him something to increase his status. Don’t underestimate yourself. Even if this person already has a great reputation, you may be able to make it even better with your resources. See below for examples.

Common CurrenciesCommon Currencies

Keep in mind that currencies may change depending on the circumstance. What worked once may not work a second time, so you need to reevaluate each time you want to influence your ally. Another thing to keep in mind is that you may be lacking in whatever currency they want. Search hard, but your discrepancy between their values and your available resources may be too great. Thankfully, a frank discussion about it is unlikely to damage your relationship with your ally. 

E. Consider your relationship with your ally.

Do you already know them? If there’s been no previous interactions with them, or even negative interactions with them, you’ll need to establish (or reestablish) trust. For example, if you approach a group of smokers and you have no prior relationship with them, you probably won’t sell your smoking cessation course to them without first demonstrating that you can be trusted. Relate to them in their preferred way, not your preferred way. If you prefer to get right down to business, but they prefer to make small talk first, take things slowly and ease into the sale. 

F. Decide how you are going to approach the deal.

What “currencies” are you going to exchange? Consider the attractiveness of your resources, your ally’s need for those resources, and how badly you want what the ally has. Think about your prior relationship with your ally (and how they want to be approached), and their willingness to take you up on your offer.

G. Don’t sacrifice the relationship just to get the job done.

Whatever task you’re trying to accomplish by using the Influence Model always involves creating or maintaining a relationship with your ally. If you accomplish your short-term goal but you burn bridges with people, your deal was not a 100% success. This can happen easily if people view you as too calculating or manipulative. If you accomplish your task, but leave people feeling duped, don’t expect beneficial long-term relationships with them. At best, they won’t work with you anymore; at worst, they’ll retaliate. Aim to improve (or, at the very least, maintain) your relationship while simultaneously accomplishing the task. 

These guidelines by Cohen and Bradford (2005) are extremely useful for businesses of all kinds. Use them to REALLY benefit the lives of your clients and customers— while also improving your business. 

What do you think? What parts of the Influence Model are valuable for your business? Leave your comments below!

Reference: Cohen, A. R., & Bradford, D. L. (2005). The influence model: Using reciprocity and exchange to get what you need. Journal of Organizational Excellence, 25, 57-80.

Copywriting, psychology

COVID-19: Sink or swim for businesses

Quarantine, pandemic, self-isolation, COVID-19, “wash your hands”, “stay home”, x new cases, rising death toll…

Hearing these words doesn’t exactly encourage spending money. These words suggest saving money in case something terrible happens.

You may be tired of hearing about the virus by now, but now is exactly the time you need to pay extra close attention. People need high quality products and services more than ever. In a market desperate for stability, poor quality products and services will be eradicated. Businesses that rise to the occasion will fare better than businesses that close up shop just when customers need them. No business, no matter how big or small, is immune to this (pun intended). Even medical providers need to step up their game. Practices that provide telemedicine and high quality medical advice remotely (online, via phone) will thrive in this market. Likewise, nonmedical businesses need to step up and cater to customers’ other needs (at a distance).

How not to operate your business during a pandemic

As of March 18, 2020, it appears as though some businesses may go under as a result of the novel coronavirus and its impact on our economy. To make sure your business survives this crash in the market, don’t do theses two things things:

  1. Refuse to adapt to the changing times. Yes, persistence is key. But being stubborn about changing your practices or delivery methods to meet new demands demonstrates rigidity, not persistence. Customers won’t appreciate your refusal to keep up with the times, and your business will suffer. Unfortunately, companies that cannot change their practices due to the nature of the business will likely take a hit regardless of what they do to adapt. Acknowledging and addressing their customers’ fears will help them recover when the economy bounces back.

  2. Refuse to acknowledge the situation. Businesses that act like everything is fine and dandy will appear insensitive. People are scared, and they need to feel seen and heard in a time like this. Acknowledging fears and concerns is paramount to maintaining healthy relationships, so practice this with customers to keep them coming back.

Questions to ask yourself as a business owner

Business owners need to think critically about customers’ evolving needs. And they need to work to meet those needs. Meet those needs by asking yourself:

  1. How can I help alleviate pain right now? Are there certain populations acutely affected that could especially benefit from my business? How can I adjust my marketing tactics to reach them?

  2. Am I offering products and services that can help people who are affected? And if not, why not?

  3. What are my audiences’ fears? Are their concerns mainly health-related or are they more about the economic downturn?

  4. How can you help quell your potential customers’ fears? Can you offer a discount in financial planning services? Can you offer delivery of goods for people quarantined? Can you post words of encouragement or positivity on social media?

The coronavirus pandemic imposes a defining moment for businesses of all kinds. Now is the time to evaluate whether your products or services are truly helping people.

The answers to these questions could determine whether you will sink or swim during a crash in the stock market, so answer them earnestly.

How to offer genuine help

I cannot overemphasize customers’ need for authentic help from businesses. I write about uncertainty from a psychological standpoint in my article here, and it really helps explain why people are panicking. Click to find out exactly how much influence uncertainty has over us (spoiler: it’s a LOT).

So, now you know what you shouldn’t do. Here’s what you should do to survive this particular economic downturn:

  1. Offer online content. If you have a service you can offer online, do it. For example, instead of throwing your hands up and canceling everything, offer online classes via Skype or Zoom.

  2. Offer delivery. You may have products that people don’t want to buy right now because they have to travel to get to them. If you have the means, consider offering delivery. For example, you may want to offer a care package with your products that you deliver to people. This would be a great gift, as a way for people to show other people they care, even if they can’t do it in person right now.

  3. Share, share share. At a time when people are cooped up inside, you know Facebook and Instagram are doing well. Now is a fantastic opportunity to build your brand and share your insights about the pandemic on social media. Share whatever it is your business is doing to help others. Share plans for the future. Share bits of positivity. Share, then share some more.

  4. Address your audience’s uncertainty. Lots of people are anxious about Coronavirus and we don’t know what’s going to happen next. Let your audience know that you understand their fear. Commiserate. Ask how you can help. People like to be heard, so hear ’em out!

If you do these things, you’ll have a much better shot at staying afloat during the coronavirus.

If you can help in any way, do it. Be sensitive to the needs and fears of your customers. This is an opportunity to foster nurturing relationships with your potential customers, so do it!

What is your business doing to stay afloat during these times? Share in the comments below!


COVID-19: A Social Experiment

Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO). Schools are being shut down, travel bans are being enforced, and people are stockpiling toilet paper and face masks in preparation for the pandemic. 

This panic seems warranted given the media’s news coverage. Headlines use language like “brace for infection”, “cancel everything”, “risk for disaster”, and “dangerous”. These words instill fear into the hearts of readers. 

Media coverage of COVID-19 has created a perfect scenario for a huge social experiment. In this anxious time, we can explore the fear of the unknown on a global scale. The media has used words that amplify the fear of the unknown, and this could be the driving force behind exploding sales in toilet paper, hand sanitizer, bottled water, and other essentials. During this strange social experiment-type situation, we need to ask whether our fear is due to the danger of the virus or the fear of the unknown perpetuated by the media. 

Fear of the unknown

Anything new can be scary just because its implications are unknown. If you see a snake on your doorstep, you’d be afraid because you might be bitten, and you might die from the bite. You’d be fearful about the outcome, maybe just because it’s unknown. 

The great thing about psychology is that we can put ideas like “fear of the unknown” to the test. We can see how afraid people are of things vs. how likely those things are to actually happen. Psychologist Nicholas Carleton has posited that fear of the unknown is possibly the fundamental fear (2016). 

Psychologists Kagan and Snidman (2004) explored fear in infants. They found that 4-month old infants did not appear to be afraid of snakes, perhaps because the fear response was not yet learned. This suggests that we are not inherently afraid of snakes. Kagan and Snidman (2004) did find, however, that 6-month old infants appeared to be afraid of unknown stimuli. This shows that unknown stimuli may be scary just because they’re unknown— not because they’re inherently scary.

Snakes vs. car crashes

Let’s examine a common fear: snakes. The WHO estimates that between 81,410 and 137,880 people die from snake bites per year globally. According to the WHO, about 20% of the more than 3,000 species of snakes are venomous. And 200+ are considered medically important. Moreover, while this number is ultimately unknown, it’s estimated that 5.4 million people per year are bitten by snakes. That means that of the ~5.4 million people bitten by snakes, only about 3% of people actually die from them. 

Another common fear is being hit by a drunk driver. The CDC estimates that 1.35 million deaths result in motor vehicle accidents around the world. So, an estimated 90% more deaths occur from motor vehicle crashes compared to snake bites.

Chapman University conducted a study in 2017 on people’s fears. Researchers asked questions about how afraid they were of certain stimuli. Results showed that 35.5% said they were afraid of being hit by a drunk driver. 23.6% said they were afraid of reptiles (including snakes).

There is no right or wrong fear, and drunk-driving only accounts for only a subset of car crashes. But there is a huge discrepancy between fear and actual incidence relating to car crashes and snakes. More people reported fear of being hit by a drunk driver compared to those who reported fear of reptiles, which makes sense given that more people die from car crashes compared to snakebites. But if we are 90% more likely to die in a car crash compared to a snake bite, why are we only about 12% more afraid of being hit by a drunk driver? 

Snakes are like the coronavirus: weird

Kagan and Snidman (2009) suggest that people are afraid of what they don’t know precisely because it is unfamiliar, and snakes are relatively unfamiliar to people. Snakes have scaly skin that is much different than humans’ or their furry pets’. They have no arms or legs, so they can’t walk; they slither. And if that’s not weird enough, they stick out their forked tongues and hiss while they do it.  So, maybe we’re afraid of snakes not because they are just so dangerous; maybe we’re just afraid of them because they’re weird. 

Snakes are strange like coronavirus is strange. In the abbreviation 2019-nCoV, the n is short for “novel”. Anything novel is fraught with uncertainty. In accordance with Carleton’s theory (2016), we see a lot of fear associated with this new, unknown coronavirus. So how much of our fear is due to our uncertainty? 

According to the WHO, there have been 125,048‬ confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection and 4,613 reported deaths as of March 12, 2020. That’s about a 3% fatality rate … the same fatality rate of snakebites. And that rate only includes confirmed cases; there is likely a higher number of COVID-19 cases that have not been confirmed, which would lower the fatality rate.

How being overly cautious can be a bad thing

I haven’t given any polls to assess fear of snakes vs. coronavirus, but I’d be willing to bet that people are much more afraid of coronavirus than they are of snakes right now, despite the similar fatality rate. It’s not a perfect comparison, because snake bites aren’t contagious like COVID-19, but the fatality rate remains approximately the same. 

I’m not saying snakes aren’t dangerous. I’m not saying coronavirus isn’t dangerous. I’m saying that people’s fear of snakes demonstrates the principle we are seeing right now in our response to coronavirus. If we are disproportionately fearful of snakes because they are weird and unfamiliar, we may also be overly afraid of coronavirus because it is novel and the outcomes are uncertain. At the time this article is written, we are arguably more familiar with snakes than we are with COVID-19, so it stands to reason we’re more afraid of coronavirus than we are of snakes. 

However, being too fearful of something is unnecessary and potentially dangerous. Research suggests that stress can impair the immune response (Reiche, Nunes, & Morimoto, 2004). An impaired immune response is not what you want if you’re stressed about a viral infection. Paranoid people rushing to buy their own personal protective equipment (PPE) has left a shortage of masks for healthcare workers who work directly with people infected with COVID-19. I’m no doctor, but I would think that it’s extremely important for healthcare workers to stay healthy so they don’t spread the virus to immunocompromised patients.

The media advertises COVID-19 in a way that scares people. Walmart, Amazon, and Target’s online sales of toilet paper are exploding, maybe as a result of the media’s anxiety-provoking messaging that implies people need to quarantine themselves. And if that’s not enough, articles on the dwindling toilet paper supplies further add to our anxiety with lines like “we don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock.” This is a great example of how uncertainty perpetuates the cycle of fear.

I’m not suggesting that Fox or CNN is in cahoots with companies that sell toilet paper. I am suggesting that the media’s use of fear-based messaging has a huge impact on consumer behavior. Fear-based messaging gets the clicks, the views, the social media shares. But can get paranoid people buying face masks unnecessarily, leaving healthcare providers with limited supply. And that could be more dangerous for everyone.

Newswriters are just people like you and me, subject to the same fears of the unknown. So do your own research. Fact-check everything you can (including this article) during this giant “social experiment”.

What have you heard about the coronavirus? Leave your comments below!


Kagan, J., & Snidman, N. (2009). The Long Shadow of Temperament. Harvard University Press.
Reiche, E. M., Nunes, S. O., & Morimoto, H. K. (2004). Stress, depression, the immune system, and cancer. The Lancet Oncology, 5, 617-625.


What a Fly Can Teach Us about Business

We like to think we’re in control of our choices. We like to think we deliberately choose our favorite things based on personal preferences and logic— our favorite cereal brands, which route to take to work, which shirt to buy. We choose which movie to see, how much liquid butter to pour on the popcorn, and which person to bring to that movie.

If someone asked you why bought shirt A versus shirt B, you might say something like, “Shirt A is higher quality and it makes my eyes pop. And it was on sale. Of course I bought shirt A.”

You’d be using reason to explain your shirt choice.

Economists who believe in rational choice theory would agree with you. Rational choice theory attests that people make rational, evidence- based decisions that align with their values.

But an airport manager who wanted less urine on his walls has shown something different.

As the story goes, a Dutch cleaning manager placed fly decals on the bottom of urinal drains in the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. The idea was to get men to aim at the flies. People usually don’t really like flies, so they generally feel okay about peeing on them… Well, that’s the idea. If men aim at the flies (in the drains), they’ll be less likely to spill outside of the urinals. There were no “Aim for the fly” signs — just little fly decals, waiting to be peed on.

Now, I’m not a man, so I can’t say this with much authority… But it seems like men already aim in the drain, right? I mean, would a little insect target actually change their pee trajectory?

As it turns out, the flies were astonishingly effective at directing pee into the drain. After placing the flies decals, urine outside the urinal reportedly dropped by a whopping 80%. This translated to an estimated 8% reduction in overall bathroom cleaning costs.

So what were these men aiming at before? Did they know they were spraying 80% more urine onto the floor and walls? Probably not. These men most likely had no idea they were missing the drain by that much.

This experiment demonstrates a key element of behavior economics: that even the slightest nudge, even one as small as a fly, can alter our behavior in huge ways.

You might be saying to yourself, “Okay, but that’s just pee. People aren’t that impressionable when it comes to big decisions like money. This doesn’t bear weight on business decisions.”

You’d be surprised. Behavior economics is a field dedicated to understanding the effects of psychology, culture, and emotion on economic decisions.

Many people assume things like psychology, culture, and emotion are unrelated to economic decisions. We like to think we make decisions about money using cold, hard facts — numbers, statistics, etc. But little experiments like the airport manager’s urinal fly and other studies on behavior economics suggest otherwise. These insights into the human psyche have major implications for consumerism.

If a little tiny fly can alter the trajectory of urine by a whopping 80%, little nudges (like flies) matter a lot more than we think they do.

This brilliant idea is the topic of the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler (winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2017). In the book, authors champion nudging people to improve their life through small choices, like wearing seat belts, saving for retirement, and voting. Nudges, they say, make it easier for people to do the right thing. Couldn’t we all use a little more of that?

So what can a fly in a urinal teach us about business? That little fly demonstrates the power of a nudge to direct behavior toward the right thing. Businesses truly have the power to improve lives using nudges— whether that means designing cars to beep at unbuckled passengers or automatically enroll employees in pension plans. And that’s powerful.