Saturday, November 02, 2013

Cheater's High

I read a great paper last night from the October (yeah, I am on time with this one) issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Nicole Ruedy and some of her colleagues.

What I like most about this stream of research is that they start out with a dialectic hypothesis.  Most research assumes the people feel bad when they do unethical things.  People feel bad when they are anticipating doing something unethical, they feel bad when doing something unethical, and then they feel bad when thinking back on an unethical thing that they have done. 

But they take what you all know is my favorite perspective – “it depends.”  Sometimes, we don’t feel bad at all.  They review a great deal of literature to demonstrate that this is not just sociopaths who have no bad feelings to have.  They are talking about all of us.  And they are not talking about the financial gain we get from some kinds of unethical activities.  There are many kinds of unethical activities where we feel a “cheater’s high” or a “duper’s delight.”  They want to know when, where, and most importantly, why.

And what they find is kind of a sad story about the human condition, but resonates with me and probably most of you.  First, let’s define the context.  If someone is going to get hurt, we don’t feel good about acting unethically.  And if we feel forced into acting unethically, we don’t feel good about that either.  But when we freely choose the behavior and when the only entity that gets hurt is some ambiguous corporation or society at large, there are many cases where we feel good acting unethically.  They speculate that this a combination of the allure of the forbidden fruit, the dopamine rush of immediate gratification, the sense of mastery that we got around constraints or outthought an entrenched opponent on his home turf. 

One of the strengths of the research is that they also looked for ways to explain the previous research where people do report feeling bad.  Otherwise, they haven’t proved anything.  They controlled for self-deception and confirmed that the people in their study knew full well they were acting unethically.  But what they found is that we are very good at self-deception in other ways.  When we are thinking about an unethical behavior in the future, we convince ourselves that we will feel bad if we do it.  And then afterwards, we convince ourselves that we feel bad as a result of having done it.  The cheater’s high that they talk about is the thrill of the moment – the only time we are really honest with ourselves.  It is the people who claim to feel bad who are fooling themselves.  This is the simple phenomenon of self-identity resonance that I have blogged about before  We like to think of ourselves as good people, so we really do believe that we will feel bad if we do something unethical.  And we really do misremember that we felt bad when we did it.

In fact, you are probably struggling with some self-identity resonance as you read this.  You probably have at least half of your brain telling you that this research doesn’t apply to you.  Perhaps other people experience cheater’s high during the unethical act and only feel remorse before and after.   But not you.  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. This doesn’t make you a bad person.  You do feel bad if someone gets hurt.  You just don’t feel bad if it is the proverbial victimless crime.  You are human.

Or maybe this resonates with you right away.  Perhaps you realize or have always realized that you feel this cheater’s high.  Maybe now you don’t feel so bad because you realize that so does everyone else.  Happy to be the bearer of good news for you.

Gamifying the Flash Deal

Most of you know that gamification is an area that I have been very interested in lately.  If you don’t know, gamification is not about designing games.  It is investigating the fundamental mechanics that make games engaging, motivating, and even addictive and then trying to apply those mechanics to other processes, like work, consumer behavior, health care, home life, and education.  This does not mean turning these things into games – that is one of the most common ways of doing it wrong.  It is also not about adding points and badges, which is also a common way of doing it wrong and pejoratively referred to as pointsification or contestification.  In stark contrast, gamification is lot more complicated and comprehensive than that.  There are dozens of game mechanics that make up the gamification toolbox and it generally requires applying quite a few of them to a process in order to have a lasting impact on performance.

OK, so with that introduction, I want to present an application of gamification that I had not thought of until I saw Jamie Madigan’s recent post at the Psychology of Games on Steam’s Summer Sale.  Steam is a store and they had a sale this past summer.  Jamie posted about it in July, but I am just getting around to blogging the ideas that it generated in me.  Perhaps if I apply some of these game mechanics to my blogging, I would get to it faster J. 

What I am going to present to you today is the gamified flash deal.  You all know what flash deals are.  Something is available for a limited time only.    The original versions of Groupon and Woot worked this way.  By putting the time constraint on it, they create the feeling of scarcity (a game motivator).  It is similar to the old infomercial trick of screaming “Limited time offer!!!  Only 3 left !!”  “Only 25 will be sold!!”   In the Web flash deal version, you had to log in (or subscribe to the email notification) every day to find out what it was and to purchase it.  In contrast to the infomercial, they didn’t scream.  They actually made it hard to find to add some mystery (another game motivator).  And you never know what the item might be – the more variety in their offerings the better (the anticipation motivator and the surprise motivator). It also makes you feel special if you are “in the know” (the secret information motivator).   

In some flash deals, a minimum number of people need to commit to buying it before the sale goes through (Groupon’s original model). This adds the social promotion motivator.  If you wanted to buy it, not only do you need to commit, you also need to tell all your friends to buy it too, just in case.  Remember how many times Farmville, and Mafia Wars announcements flooded your Facebook feed from friends who were playing?  Same idea.

We can use reward motivators in several ways.  If you frame the flash deal properly, customers will feel like they have “won” when their purchase goes through.  Perhaps counterintuitively, the more effort they invested in making the deal happen (logging in every morning, recruiting several friends to join) the bigger the reward feels when they win. This winning feeling is one of the reward motivators.  We can add a long term component to this through a loyalty program.  Building up the reward over time based on frequency, volume, duration, etc. can make the reward motivator more powerful. 

The mastery motivator is one that is rarely used with flash deals, but we can add it if we think creatively.  What if getting the flash deal requires first solving some puzzle that is related to the brand or product being sold?  If Groupon offered a $25 certification at American Apparel, perhaps users have to solve a word scramble to figure out the name before they can sign up.  The trick is to balance making it hard enough so that the customer feels that sense of accomplishment, but not so hard that any potential customers might fail or give up before they finish.  Adding effort is OK, but adding “work” is not. 

But now I am getting into mechanics – which are the ways we design the system to elicit and engage the motivators.  The word scramble would be an example of the puzzle mechanic, which leads to the mastery motivator.  Designing the flash deal to be announced at the stroke of midnight and to have a limited supply is a way to use the schedule mechanic to elicit the mastery, scarcity and secret information motivators – because they had to learn the time, make the effort to log in exactly at that time, and be faster than anyone else who tries. 

There are two ways we can elicit the social promotion motivator and the difference illustrates good gamification from weak gamification.  We can elicit the social promotion motivator by automatically posting their successful purchase to their Facebook feed.  But feeling in control is another motivator and this violates control (even as it makes your marketing department happy).  So instead, we make it really really easy for them to do it themselves.  Making it easy increases the chance they will do it (effort wouldn’t work here) and letting them make the decision adds the empowerment motivator.  So have the message already written out, in quotes to make it obvious what would be posted, editable in case they want to change it (but not mandatory in case they don’t), and a one-click activation.

You could add all kinds of loyalty, reward, and competition motivators through a loyalty program.  The cheap way is to award points for purchases and have a leaderboard to help them show off.  But this is an example of extrinsic tangible reward, with is the least effective and shortest term.  When you give points for their spending, it makes it seem like you only love them for their money.  True or not, you don’t want this to be obvious.  Instead, give them points for other actions that still benefit your company but are not directly linked to the purchase.  You can give them points for posting on their Facebook feed or writing a review of the purchased product after they use it.  And instead of points being usable for discounts or free products (which is extrinsic tangible again), use them for more intangible rewards.  Perhaps have t-shirts for the flash deal company (rather than a client) that are not for sale and can only be acquired by being a loyalty program star.  This adds to the feeling special motivator and the social promotion motivator because wearing that t-shirt demonstrates that you are star and anyone who doesn’t know how you got it might ask. 

Randomness is something that adds to the surprise motivator, similar to the mystery motivator.  We can elicit this by having a sale at noon maybe once a month but on unpredictable days and unannounced.   Someone happens to be surfing by the site, sees the sale, and WOW – dopamine rush.  They tell their friends (social promotion) either because they think their friends might want to join or just to show off their luck and good fortune.  Or perhaps every 1000 product reviews you give the reviewer a random award.  One of the special products that I mentioned earlier.  There is no way to know if you are the thousandth reviewer, so you have to keep trying (and keep reviewing).  And if you get it, the feeling of accomplishment kicks in.

If we want to make the scarcity motivator more powerful, we can make it salient.  Have a countdown clock for limited offers.  “Only 10 left, 9, 8, 7 . . . . only 1 left!!!”     

Another motivator that affects many people is the desire to collect.  We collect baseball cards, stamps, shot glasses, baseball caps, etc.  You can leverage this by giving special rewards for the 10th restaurant deal a customer joins.  You can make this visible by showing it on the page when they log in or posting it to their Facebook page.  “Joe Smith has 8 stamps on his restaurant set, with only 2 to go for a free dinner.”  This increases the motivation for Joe to purchase another restaurant deal because he wants to complete his set, he wants the free dinner, he wants the feeling of winning, and he wants his friends to know all of the above. 

Another mechanic that we can use to help motivate (or prevent demotivation) is onboarding.  When a potential customer hears about all of these great game motivators, they may want to join the fun.  But what chance to they have when there is all this secret information to learn, puzzles to master, sets to start collecting, etc.  What can we do to make this onboarding process easier and less intimidating?  “Join now and get two stamps on your restaurant card.”  Or give new users a button to solve the word scramble if they can’t figure it out – can be used up to 2 times before it disappears. 

There are so many more of these that we can add.  And this is just for a flash deal service.  Imagine what you can do for a more complex environment like high school.