Why People Behave Irrationally: Q&A With Grey Matter’s CPO Mischa Coster

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No matter how much time you spend ideating, designing, and prototyping on paper, it can be all too easy to overlook what could be called one of the most essential (yet often forgotten) building blocks in the puzzle: customer behavior. It’s one thing to make your products or service offerings user-centric, but it’s a completely different issue taking into account how your customers will behave in real world situations.

Why is it that humans underestimate extremely common, yet dangerous occurrences (such as heart attacks or car accidents), while overplaying significantly smaller, less likely risks (such as freak accidents)? What is it about certain environments that cause passengers or users to just behave so dramatically differently? And is this irrationality something that can be predicted? Taking into account the different reference points of customers, especially when they’re in environments that might amplify irrational behavior, is crucial to ensuring your product is not just user-centered, but “customer-proof”.

To help you better understand the behavior economics of your customers, especially in potentially triggering environments, we’ve called in Grey Matter’s Chief Psychology Officer Mischa Coster, MA MSc to shed some light on the matter.

Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions! To start things off, how would you define irrational behavior? Can you give us a common example?

Irrational behavior is simply behavior that is inconsistent with the behaviour we would expect if the economic evaluation of options was taken into account. To give an example, think of people spending more money than they can afford because of the absence of “pain of paying” due to the use of credit cards, etc.

How does irrational behavior amplify itself in certain situations or in environments that are more public, such as mass transit hubs (airports, train stations, etc.)?

Usually we see a lot of irrational behaviour in public places. It is not that the behaviour is amplified, it’s just more observable. We can see people choosing sub-optimal strategies for queueing, getting information, etc. The fun part is that we can also use the irrational behaviour in our advantage, for instance, getting people to take stairs instead of escalators, reducing waiting time perception, and much more.

Following up on that, what do you think are some key factors that played a role in these findings? Why is that?

I think the self-focussed attitude in public spaces (primarily transportation) plays a big role. We are not there to socialize, but to get from A to B in the fastest and most comfortable way possible. This attitude results in people deferring to their fast-thinking strategies (heuristics) because of the rush they are in. These fast-thinking strategies rely heavily on the use of heuristics and biases which are, by definition, irrational.

Based on what we’ve been talking about, is there then some sort of pattern to this irrationality, or is this truly, 100% irrational and therefore unpredictable?

Psychologists study irrational behaviour. Therefore, they can predict to a fairly high level the behaviour that we will see resulting from various triggers in the public surroundings and internal state of mind. If behaviour is 100% irrational, it doesn’t necessarily imply that it is 100% unpredictable.

Do you think design affects human irrationality in certain ways? Can you give us some possible examples of how the two relate?

Absolutely! Human behaviour is partly a result from triggers in our surroundings, as well as triggers in our perception. Therefore, design play an important role in the triggering process. For instance, if we design a public space to be spacious, people will be more inclined to show more creative behaviour. When we design a more compressed space (for instance, by using low ceilings) people will become more action- and goal-oriented. If we look at graphic design, this can also play a big role in influencing behaviour. Well-designed e-mail newsletters and websites can achieve much higher conversion rates by using visual (reading) cues, chunking of information, priming images and/or decision-enhancing labels such as scarcity and social proof.

Are there any key factors that can be taken into consideration to avoid common patterns of irrationality, such as in design, tech infrastructure, etc?

It depends, of course, what your behavioural goal is. Sometimes we want to use visual cues to trigger irrational behaviour to get our target audience to exhibit certain kinds of behaviour. So, from my point of view, it is not desirable to avoid irrational behaviour — this is almost impossible — but to trigger the irrational behaviour that results in the desired behavioural outcome.

Thanks for the insights! Do you have any other burning thoughts or comments you’d like to share on the topic to wrap things up?

Definitely — I’d like to point out that there’s a difference between influencing and manipulating. This difference consists primarily of our own intention. When we use persuasion and persuasive design to sell a product that we know will not help our target audience, we are manipulating. When we use these same techniques to get people to do something that is not in their best interest, we are manipulating. Alternatively, when we use persuasion techniques to get people to do something, but the techniques are not authentic (for instance, we are lying about “the top 10 most sold products” or “limited availability”), we are also manipulating. Manipulation is always a bad idea. Even if you manage to “get away” with it, this will result in unsatisfied customers or, even worse, exposure of your unethical practices. Psychology can be a powerful tool — use it wisely!

It can be incredibly difficult for us to see outside of your own presumptions, especially when you feel that you’ve worked hard enough to make your product already user-centric. But clearly, that’s not enough. Just designing and thinking for yourself, without taking irrationality and the incredibly complex behavior of your customers into behavior, will result in services and applications useful only in ideal situations. But by taking into account the predictable irrationality of your customers, and designing around that, we can help you create a product that’s not only user-centric, but also customer-proof — making it an invaluable resource for your customers in all situations.

Mischa Coster MA MSc is a consultant, researcher and public speaker in the area of persuasion, behaviour design and nudging. “I change how people see things” is his personal slogan. He changes behaviour through changing perspectives by applying evidence-based and theory-inspired psychological tactics. Mischa is the self-employed Chief Psychology Officer at Grey Matters. He comes highly recommended by Dr. Robert Cialdini, the international expert-scientist in Consumer Pyschology and Persuasion.

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