Human brain is a complex machine and understanding all the factors contributing to the decision making at any given point is quite tough. However, just by knowing some of the powerful techniques that influences your every day behavior is a step forward in self-awareness.
Let’s explore one of these psychological phenomenons called the mere-measurement effect which impacts most areas of our decision making and you’ll be surprised to see how often you use it yourself.
It states that merely measuring the intent of a person to engage in a behavior makes them more likely to act on it. More specifically, the mere act of measuring a person’s intent to buy a product will increase their subsequent purchase behavior, if they hold a positive attitude about the product.
Simplest way to measure a person’s intent is to directly ask them a question like ‘Do you intend to go to college tomorrow?’, ‘Do you intend to travel outside the country this year?’ or ‘Do you intend to help Jay with his financial problems?’. These are the simplest examples and should give you an idea of how we unleash the power of this important psychological phenomenon every day without even consciously realizing it.
Let’s Explore Some Popular Experiments & Their Results
Anthony Greenwald and his co-authors published results of their powerful experiments in 1988 where they increased the voter turnout in one segment of an electorate by as much as 25%, just by measuring the intent of the people 48 hours prior to the elections. Curios what they asked their interviewees? Just two simple questions –
- Do you know the location of the polling place in your precinct? and
- Do you predict that you will vote or not vote in the primary election [the day after] tomorrow?
Here’s what they concluded from their experiments –
“The experiments applied and extended a “self-prophecy” technique, in which respondents are asked simply to predict whether or not they will perform a target action. In the present studies, voting registrants were asked to predict whether or not they would vote in an election that was less than 48 hours away. This technique, which previously increased turnout in a small study done during the 1984 US. Presidential election, was again effective among moderate prior-turnout voters in the second of the present much larger experiments.”
The first time I read these lines they triggered a chain reaction of thoughts and I had to step away from reading for a few minutes. After I explored the applicability from political grounds to reducing crime in a bizarre streak of thoughts, I glued back to the screen. I’d encourage to think more about the first thought that came to your mind after reading the lines above.
Now, let’s step back and travel back in time to 1980 when Sherman demonstrated this phenomenon for the first time by coining the term ‘the self-erasing error of prediction‘ (sounds complicated, it’s not).
He showed how respondents over-predicted their likelihood of performing a socially desirable action and the same subjects were then more likely to engage in the behavior they predicted before. So the subjects first showed an error in the prediction and then reduced the error by acting in accordance to what they predicted… almost like a self fulfilling prophecy.
Further building up on prior research, Vicki Morwitz demonstrated this effect through her experiments published in 1993, where she ran three experiments, to conclude –
“The results of our experiments suggest that measuring general intentions increases the accessibility of attitudes toward specific options in the choice set. In this study we found that participants were more likely to choose a candy bar for which they hold positive attitudes and are less likely to choose a candy bar for which they hold negative attitudes if these attitudes are made more accessible by general intentions measurement.”
As you read further, the above statement will become more apparent…
If you read through some of the important research related to the mere-measurement effect, you’ll find that there are only a few factors that can be concretely attributed to this effect. And it’s important to address them here so you can take them into consideration.
- Social desirability
Both Greenwald and Sherman showed in their research that measuring people’s intention towards a socially desirable behavior increased their likelihood of performing that behavior. This means any behavior that’s seen in a positive light by the society can be encouraged using this phenomenon.
- Accessibility of attitude
Morwitz et al (1993) also observed that whether repeatedly measuring intentions increased or decreased purchase rates depended if the product has a prior positive or negative attitude in consumer’s mind. Measurement of intention among the consumers who intended to purchase, increased the actual purchase rates. On the other hand, for people who didn’t intend to purchase, repeated measurements of intention significantly decreased the purchase rates.
Let’s finish this section with just one more experiment done by Gaston Godin and his co-authors whose results bear a huge potential in shaping our society for good.
In 2008, Godin and his co-authors randomly picked 4672 blood donors in the Quebec province of Canada. The blood donors were divided into two groups to test the effect of mere-measurement. Participants in the experimental group were sent a questionnaire that contained questions intended to know their attitudes, beliefs and intentions about blood donation during the next 6 months.
Results showed that the proportion of participants who registered at least once for blood donation at 6 months was 49.2% in the control group and 53.7% in the experimental group. At 12 months, these proportions were 65.2% (control) and 69.9% (experimental). Even the frequency of registration in the experimental group increased by 8.6% (in short term of 6 months) and by 6.4% (in the long term of 12 months). And not just this, the actual blood donation were also significantly more frequent in the experimental group.
Godin also presented a comparison on how this application could bring about a significant change back in 2006 –
“Our findings imply that distributing the questionnaire to blood donors registered with the blood agency would produce 30,000 additional blood donations. This is the equivalent of having one extra month’s donations per year that could be translated into 90,000 more life-saving blood transfusions (America’s Blood centers, 2006)”
If you think about the implications in the present day in a country like India, this could translate into many more lives being saved. In 2016, the minister for health and family welfare presented the blood donation statistics, which showed India having a shortage of 1.1 million units (1 unit =350 ml) in 2016.
Even though this shortage has come down from 2.1 million units in 2013-14 to 1.1 million units in 2016, we still have a long way to go to address the shortage and the mere-measurement effect can play a significant role.
More Common Applications
In our day to day lives, at many instances we could use the mere-measurement effect to nudge our friends, family members and even colleagues in a positive direction. By questioning someone’s intention about topics like exercising, being on time for meetings, eating healthier, quitting smoking etc, you could potentially sway them in the right direction.
In health care, this has the potential to increase blood donation and organ donation.
NGOs and other non-profits can use this to their advantage to increase the volunteer registrations, who could donate their time to help at animal shelters, orphanage, old age homes etc.
Governments can use it in public interest by increasing the desirable behavior like voter turnout in elections to decreasing risky behaviors as explained in the example below.
Reducing the risky behavior
On a recent trip, I drove to a beautiful city located in the lap of Himalayas. The weather was perfect, view was mesmerizing and it was everything I wanted for my trip.
However, one thing constantly bothered me while driving to the city and on my way back. I saw numerous drivers casually drinking alcohol while driving up the hilly roads. Like many hilly areas, the narrow roads didn’t have the necessary fencing on the sides, so even a small error in judgement could cause catastrophes.
We already know from various studies that most drivers overestimate their driving capabilities and specially under the influence of alcohol. So how can we nudge these drivers in a positive way without always enforcing strict law and order?
I believe mere-measurement effect can play a part. A simple experiment would be to setup signboards at the start of the hilly roads with a question like, “Do you intend to engage in the risky behavior of drinking and driving?” Since drinking and driving is not a socially desirable action, people will hopefully err to the side of caution and not engage in the risky behavior.
Notice that the way the above question has been framed, we are using priming effect to co-relate drinking and driving with a risky behavior by using those words associatively.
On the web, applicability of this phenomenon has sincere potential.
The simplest way for any ecommerce or SaaS businesses to use this psychological effect on their website is to implement it with the help of popups, qualaroo surveys, in-app notifications and other marketing tools at various trigger conditions.
A common example would be to measure the satisfaction of your customers once they’ve bought your product. If a person is satisfied, measuring their satisfaction could form a positive cognition which will make them more likely to buy again. Experiments done by Vicki Morwitz & Utpal M Dholakia (2002) present the evidence for this use case.
Amazon and many other companies send out feedback emails which is a neat example of implementing the mere-measurement effect.
A more specific example –
When you shop online, you’d often find ecommerce websites offering an X% discount coupon when someone is about to exit the website with the help of an exit intent technology based popup system. This is used as the last measure to prevent visitors from leaving by enticing them with the discount offer.
To introduce the mere-measurement effect, you can convert the exit popup into a two step offer wherein the first step asks visitor about their intent to buy <insert your product category name>, with two options – Yes and No.
If the visitor clicks Yes, they are taken to the next step where you offer them an X% discount coupon towards their first/next purchase in exchange for their contact information, usually an email and name.
In this approach, the mere-measurement effect in the first step is boosted with a positive act of giving something valuable to your visitors which should theoretically lead to a positive cognition of your brand name in the visitor’s mind. This positive cognition will then result in increased sales conversion on your website.
Many companies can implement it tactically with very few resources required. But another important area to test in these offers would be the language of the question itself.
Testing The Language of Intent Measuring Question
Consider an ecommerce store that sells organic products online. Let’s analyze different ways to test the framing of intent measuring question for this website.
Original question – Do you intent to buy organic products?
Introducing time frame in the question – will the impact change if a time frame is introduced in the question?
Experimental questions –
- Do you intend to buy organic products today?
- Do you intent to buy organic products this week?
- Do you intent to buy organic products in the coming days?
Introducing reasoning in the question – will the impact change if we add a reason for asking the question?
Experimental questions –
- Do you intend to buy organic products to support organic farmers?
- Do you intend to buy organic products to improve your health?
- Do you intend to buy organic products to support better environmental practices?
Notice that in the above experimental questions, the reasoning is also being implied as a benefit. This is another way of subtly nudging your website visitors.
Introducing multiple choice answers – this involves changing the choice architecture of the question from a simple Yes, No to multiple descriptive answers and asking visitors to choose one.
Again, there are multiple ways to show the pre-defined choices but our goal is to nudge the visitors in a positive direction, for which you can use the following approaches –
Choices with only one right answer – In this case the experimental question could be –
Do you intend to buy organic products because:
The goal is to have one socially desirable answer that most people are likely to choose, in this case the second option – ‘to improve the health of your family’.
If the visitor chooses the socially desirable action, they are taken to the next step where they can claim the offer by giving their contact information. This should affect the visitor’s behavior in a positive way while building an affinity towards your brand.
Choices with no single right answer – here the experimental question could be –
Do you intend to buy organic products this week to:
This approach is meant to subconsciously convey all the benefits of buying organic products and is aimed to influence the decision of your visitor by manipulating the original question with priming effect.
Notice that all the examples we’ve talked about are focused on converting your website visitors but the use of this technique is not limited to just that. You can test this technique to increase the purchase frequency of your existing customers by measuring their intent over email or reactivate the customers who are falling off the wagon by measuring their intention with the help of retargeting ads. Possibilities are endless.
Before we finish this discussion, I want to leave you with some important questions to think about before you decide to try this out.
- Is this effect powerful enough to be worth spending time and resources on?
- What’s the right time to measure the intent of the visitor throughout their journey on your website?
– It could be immediately after they land on your website to reinforce their desire to buy organic products.
– It could be when the user is already deeply engaged, to further strengthen their desire and boost affinity to your brand by offering an X% discount code (or any other tactic).
- How can this effect be used in conjunction with other psychological phenomenons (like priming) to increase its effect?
Go ahead and try it out and if you do, I’d love to hear about the results. Share them with me in the comment section below.