What I (Didn't Know I) Did on My Summer Vacation

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Summer Vacation
Summer Vacation

Like many people, I took a summer vacation this year. And like any good vacationer, I tried to forget about work for the week.

So it was only when I returned to the office, and began to answer the bevy of “What did you do on your vacation?” questions, that I realized exactly what I had done.

There, on Cape Cod, I'd fallen victim to some of the newest tricks in the book.

Let me explain. For 49 weeks of the year, I work at a direct and digital agency that specializes in the emerging discipline of inserting behavioral science into marketing.

In other words, we take what social scientists and behavioral economists have found about how people make decisions—or more specifically the decision-making shortcuts we all instinctively use—and we factor it into our strategies and creative executions. Social scientists have proven that these decision-making shortcuts, and the automatic behaviors that result, can be prompted, and our work includes the prompts.

So I know what to watch out for. In theory, I should be immune. But that's not what happened when I was on vacation.

First example: Authority principle

I'm strolling down the main drag around dinnertime and I start to feel hungry. There are lots of restaurants to choose from, but in the window of the Lobster Pot is a sign thats says Zagat ranked it a “top restaurant on the cape,” Cape Cod Life put the Pot on its “Best Of” list, and Coastal Living called the restaurant its “favorite seafood dive.”

Even though I'm not a huge lobster fan, this is is where I want to eat.

Back at the office I realized I'd been influenced by the “authority Principle,” which explains that we're more easily persuaded by those in authority (in this particular case, Zagat, et al.).

Second example: Social proof

The next day, standing in line at the Pilgrim Pool bar, I watch the bartender ring a small ship's bell each time he receives a large tip. As person after person leaves the bar with their drinks, the bell rings. So, of course, by the time I order my Cuba Libre, I already have a nice tip ready for his jar. I mean, everyone else in the line is a big tipper, right?

Back at the office, I saw just how much “social proof” had influenced me. Essentially, when we're uncertain of what to do, we let the actions of others determine our own.

Third example: Loss aversion

By Thursday night I'm looking for a little entertainment, and there are a number of options available—music, theater, comedy. To be truthful, I'm a theater junkie. But then something catches my eye. The singer Roslyn Kind is performing that night—for two shows only! If I don't see one of them, I lose my chance. Naturally, that's the ticket I go for.

Back at my desk, I clearly saw “loss aversion at work”--or as social scientists explain, people tend to strongly prefer avoiding losses than acquiring gains.

Fourth example: Reciprocity principle

Saturday night finds me at the Red Inn bar, where I think I'll order a glass of Cabernet. The place is cozy, the view is terrific, and the prices are a little, well, pricey. I decide on a glass of the Hayes Ranch, which is somewhere in the middle price range, and ask the bartender what he thinks.

“It's good,” he replies. “But what's really good is the Obsidian Ridge.” I smile and tell him that I'm sure it is, but I'm not really looking to spend $21 on a glass of wine tonight.

He smiles and nods and goes off to pour my wine.

A few minutes later he returns with two glasses, each with an ample taste of wine in them. “Here's the Hayes Ranch,” he says. “And here's the Obsidian Ridge.”

Naturally, I taste both. And while each is good, the Obsidian Ridge is quite nice. And the bartender has given me a free taste. I would feel kind of bad not ordering the more expensive wine at this point. After all, I am on vacation. Why not splurge a little? Obsidian Ridge it is.

Back in Boston, I realized that the social scientists would've had a field day with me at that bar. First, not really sure which wine to order, I opted for a mid-priced option. “The pull of the magnetic middle,” they would've all exclaimed.

Then, choosing the pricier glass after having been given a free taste—which I had not requested—was a shining example of the “reciprocity principle.” “See?” the social scientists would've gushed. “She feels compelled to do something for him, because he first did something for her.”

Of course, there were no social scientists with me on the Cape. I had a great vacation and forgot about work for the week. But that week make it clear that humans really are hardwired to behave in certain ways. And that's something at least one restaurant, one singer, and two Cape Cod bartenders should appreciate.


Nancy Harhut is the chief creative officer at Wilde Agency, where she combines direct and digital marketing best practices with behavioral science in order to get people to act. Contact her at
Nancy.Harhut@WildeAgency.com.

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