Psychology of social objects


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A short introduction to the ideas of badge brands and the social value of things.

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Psychology of social objects

  1. 1. Psychology of Social ObjectsWhat kind of act is reading a newspaper? Cleaning your teeth? Driving a car?Learned behaviour. It is learned from others and shaped by the social and politicalnorms that surround you – and which you take on personally.Thus a newspaper is more than a text: it is a social object. Some call this a‘badge’. Cars act as badges in the same way, though small private acts like teethcleaning have social value yet are not direct badges – they cannot be instantlyobserved by others.A social object says something about you to others. It also stimulates messages toyou about yourself.Broadly, social objects have the following characteristics:They acquired their presence in your life based on a mixture of precipitating events(your dad may have read the newspaper you now read), your self-perception, yourunderstanding of the norms of behaviour, your sense of your status (actual oraspired to) in the group.Once a social object has acquired desirability, it initiates the process of building ahabit or repeated behaviour with regard to it. That habit is based primarily in theearly days on a Governing Belief.Typical Governing Beliefs about the meaning of the social object that is a newspapermight be: makes me look smart, makes me feel empowered, makes me appear well-informed, makes me look part of the elite, singles me out from the crowd. A car saysthat you’re devil-may-care, conservation conscious, rich, fast, steady depending onwhich you choose.However, these beliefs are not Absolute Facts: they are contingent. Being as we are,social animals and responsive to others’ view of us, we seek out confirmation of ourbeliefs and signals. This is done by a process outlined in the diagram below: 1
  2. 2. e this:These things change over time too: in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s cigarette smokingwas regarded as evidence of sophistication and social grace. Increasingly thereafter,smoking came under attack on health-related issues as the links between cigarettesand lung cancer became clear. So the governing belief that smoking was cool cameunder more and more attack from new information. Ultimately that led to a paradigmshift – smoking came to be seen as the opposite of what it had once represented: asfoolish. That paradigm shift is still not universal: in places disconnected frommainstream medical influence, smoking is still seen positively.If you are asked to explore habitual or repeated behaviour, like shopping, reading apaper, going on holiday, travelling to work, going for a pizza, then this model canreally help to explore where the possibilities and problems lie. The double-loopallows you to see how a habit, even though established, can be graduallyundermined by changing norms and governing beliefs. These shifting perceptionscan be based upon momentary impressions, indifference to you among neighbourson a train, someone looking away when you make eye contact while carrying yourobject or realizing that you are not getting any functional value, even though thesocial object might be impressive (like having a fast car which is highlyuncomfortable!) and so the value of social objects is continually undergoingmodification. 2
  3. 3. There are three principle kinds of evidence that sustain or undermine governingbeliefs:1. Inner dialogues: what I say to myself about myself, others and the world2. Social proof: what others are doing around me3. Third party evidence: messages, media, supporting evidenceOf these, social proof is often the most persuasive, because third party messages arepaid for and intended to persuade, and inner dialogues are notably unreliable (wehave all been victims of our errors in interpreting signals from the world, manytimes).Summary so far:• Newspaper reading/buying is learned behaviour, and supports creation of social object – a badge• We aspire to such an object for various reasons• A governing belief then drives the acquisition of the habit of association with this object• Yet, even when acquired, this habit is continually re-evaluated in our social/public domain. A worrying finding from the latest psychological research on the nature of habits suggests that as habits fade they become more actively supervised by the conscious mind (Aarts & Dijksterhuis 2000). In other words, as they fade they are examined more closely.1. The Issue of Equity and Value 3
  4. 4. Social objects have value. But how much are they worth? And how much benefitdo you personally derive? (How much are they worth to you, personally?)First off, let’s start by calibrating value in small amounts.Here is a simple exercise:Imagine that on the table is a series of coins of small denominations. Gather up foryou the largest amount that you would consider disposable: (the test being thatyou would remove them from your pocket/purse, put them aside and forget aboutthem). That doesn’t mean these coins have zero value. But that they don’t instantlytrigger value significance. How much would that be for you?Is the face price of the Times more or less than that amount?OK, let’s say you pay a small (but significant amount for something). But then youdon’t use it fully. You only use some of it. At what level does it repay what you paidfor it (excluding the public social value)? In other words, how much of the Times doyou have to read/skim/notice for it to be worth what you paid?Then, there’s the question of what you don’t read. What meaning does that havefor you? Is it completely disposable/lacking in value? Does it make you feel a frissonof guilt as you throw it away?Here is another small experiment based on observing behaviour in your household?We call it the ‘saver test’. Do you ever, put aside some part or section of thepaper to read at a later date? Do you ever have to clear unread newspapercomponents from your house?The argument is that if you ever keep any of it then it has residual value and thatthrowing it away will evoke feelings of shame/guilt. Feelings of shame, even ifminor, are difficult to tolerate and persistent because they are internal attacks:criticisms of one part of the self by another, like a harsh voice in your mind: “Youpaid good money for that paper and you haven’t even bothered to read it!”Make no mistake about it: people go to huge lengths to avoid shame and guilt.They already have a ‘library’ or storehouse of things they are ashamed of, areunresolved or hidden and so piling more unwanted feelings into that repository isunwelcome and to be avoided if possible.So our hypothesis is that unread/unused parts of the paper lead to the building up,step by tiny step of negative equity in the product. Then, for any individual, whenthat equity reaches a point where it is larger than the positive equity formed by thepower of the governing belief + social proof, it tips over to a point where peoplelower their frequency/stop buying the newspaper.This is one key hypothesis that we would test in our investigation. This would be amain subject of the one 2 one interviews.Next we come to the issue of Differentiation. What does that Times say about youand how is it different from competitors/other social objects?2. Form and Function 4
  5. 5. We have talked a bit about differentiation in function (Empowering, informing, updating, educating, social badging etc.) but there is also the issue of differentiation in form. You have a superb example of that in the re-sizing process. You radically altered the form. Perhaps it is time to think about this again? Please follow the following link; it will only take you three minutes to watch: aper.html And here is a post on a blog about this clip that speaks straight to our issue: “I think this man has a brilliant point. I no longer read the paper, as I’m certain the vast majority of you do the same. However, when I take public transit I have access to two free newspapers that I’ll pick up and read. One, a simple free paper, with great written articles. I read this one first. The second one however, has a much more designed look to it. It just looks better – the articles aren’t as great, but I always enjoy reading that paper so much more. Redesigning the Toronto Star, or the Globe and Mail would revolutionize those newspapers and bring them into a round two.”3. The Irresistible Power of “Free!”Ariely (2208) set up a table at a large public building and offered two kinds ofchocolates – Lindt truffles (a premium brand) and Hershey’s Kisses (a mass brand).There was a large sign above his table that read:“One chocolate per customer”Once potential customers stepped closer they could see the two types of chocolateand their prices. For those unfamiliar with these products, Lindt truffles are prized fortheir creaminess and their cocoa content: they cost 30 cents each in shops.Hershey’s Kisses are massed produced (80 million per day!) and cost much less inthe shops.So what happened? Ariely set the price of each Lindt truffle at 15 cents and theprices of each Kiss at 1 cent. He was not surprised when, basing their choice notonly on price but also on quality, 73% of customers chose the Lindt truffle at 15cents.Next he changed the conditions. Keeping the relative prices exactly the same (i.e. 14cents apart), he reduced both by one cent. The Lindt down to 14 cents and the Kissto 0 cents or free.What a difference free made. The Kiss became the big favourite, 69% of customers– up from 27% before now chose the Kiss, giving up the opportunity to get the Lindttruffle for a very good price!According to standard economic theory, cost/benefit analysis, the price reductionsince it is equivalent should not lead to this massive behavioural change. We have 5
  6. 6. developed some hypotheses about this power of free and how to counteract it thatwe can explore in the research.In case you are wary of psychological experiments as ‘proof’, a similar experiencewas documented by Amazon who were amazed by the uplift in sales when theyoffered free delivery on orders over a certain amount. Except for one place, France,where there was nowhere near the same uplift.On exploring this difference, Amazon managers found that the French team had re-interpreted the “free delivery” offer to ‘very low price delivery’ in fact they chargedone franc (about 10p, before the Euro) for delivery to their customers. When theychanged the French promotion to free delivery the upsurge in sales in Francematched all of the other countries. It is clear that the gap between, say, 2 and 1 isvery small, yet the gap between 1 and zero is huge!How can we mitigate this phenomenon for the Times? 6
  7. 7. 4. The issues of access/convenience We come to the last distinction in our analysis of the current situation and the decrease in frequency. How do you get hold of the paper and once you have it, how accessible/convenient is it? Many metropolitan dwellers will share my experience. I can pick up the Metro free, without hindrance and without taking a step out of my journey on the way to work. It is in a bin, inside the underground station I use. To buy a paper, I have to go on – admittedly only 10 steps - but then must make a tiny social engagement, find coins or notes, perhaps queue, or make a decision between the alternative titles on offer. This is an ‘insult to form’ (to use strong language) – in other words I must ‘leave’ my travelling self and become my transactional/small social acts self. This requires focus and energy. It adds ‘effort’ to the cost of my newspaper – except in a shop where I have built up a sustained colloquial, conversational relationship. Buying at the shop/newsstand may also be driven by a governing belief that I should support my local shops. Next there are issues of access, the principle one being navigation. How do I know/find what’s in the 70 or so pages. As soon as I become a less habitual buyer, I have to expend work each time I acquire the paper to re-orient myself to it. How do I know I haven’t missed the best bits? Then finally in the arena of convenience, there’s the issue of disposal. What do I do with the paper when I’ve finished with it? And as we saw above, how do I know that I’m finished? Here all the ecological/chopping trees, creating litter & waste issues arise. How much cleaner to get the news from a screen. So to summarise: we think there are problems at multiple levels:What are the governing beliefs driving Inner dialoguesTimes purchase? How are these Social proofschanging? third party equityLevel 1What is the value of the social object Is there residual equity?called the Times? Is there negative equity?Level 2 Does the ‘saver test’ hold true?How is the paper differentiated in form? Is a rethink needed?Level 3 Can we refresh the form of the social object?What are the effects of the power of freeand how can these be offset?Level 4How can you manage access andnavigation difficulties and the issue ofnegative equity?Level 5Which/what domains are amenable to re-engineering/change?How can a co-ordinated programme of positioning and enrolment of frequency beimplemented? (what will work and how?) 7
  8. 8. Tomorrow, (Monday 6th April) I will outline a research plan with Richard and Carolineto deconstruct and confirm or invalidate these issues and with the help of the CHIteam, use a set of stimuli and ideas to work around or counteract those that proveinstrumental in undermining frequency.Thanks, I hope I haven’t spoiled your Sundays!!!BestRoy Langmaid 8