Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

It’s all in your tone of choice

July 28th, 2011

ChoicesSo, I want you to do something… let’s say, sponsor my cat in an all-feline charity triathlon*. I give you an option:

[  ] Check here if you’d like to sponsor this cat

And perhaps you do. Or I could give you another option:

[  ] Check here if you don’t want to sponsor this cat

And you’ll be a bit more likely to become a sponsor now, because, as a previous post showed, we all tend toward the default options.

But what if I offer you this?

Choose one:

[  ] I would like to sponsor this cat

[  ] I would not like to sponsor this cat

Or even this?

[   ] I would like to sponsor this cat and assist homeless cats in making new lives for themselves

[  ] I would not like to sponsor this cat even though it would mean assisting homeless cats in making new lives for themselves

It’s harder, isn’t it? Making an active choice is more difficult than accepting or declining a single option – but it turns out that we’re also more committed to our choices when we make them this way.

A study published a few days ago tested the effects of giving people different kinds of choices and came up with some interesting results. In one experiment, study participants were more likely to choose to get a flu shot if they were asked to decide between two options rather than opting in or out of a single option.

Even more went for the flu shot when the choices were accompanied by persuasive text (“I will get a flu shot this fall to reduce my risk of getting the flu and I want to save $50″ versus “I will not get a flu shot this fall even if it means I may increase my risk of getting the flu and I don’t want to save $50”).

Another experiment asked pharmacy customers to choose whether to enrol in an automatic prescription refill program or to continue refilling their own prescriptions. Presenting an active choice doubled the number of customers who enrolled compared to presenting an opt-in choice. In addition, those who made an active choice to enrol were more likely to actually use the program.

If you’re in a position to ask people to make a choice before they can do something else (hand in a form, finish a task), presenting it as an active choice is likely to make people think harder about their options and make more careful choices. If you’re trying to get them to do something that is basically good for them (like flu shots or retirement investment plans) or change their behaviour in a positive way, this should work particularly well.

And (you saw this coming), just get in touch to sponsor one of my cats. They’re in intensive training right this minute.


* Triathlon events include mousing, laser chasing and Xtreme napping.

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