January 3rd, 2013

Duhigg’s Error: Where The Power of Habit Goes Awry

By Neale Martin

Charles Duhigg’s new book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, brings renewed interest to the critical role of habits in our lives. Unfortunately, the book is fatally flawed. The author of the New York Times bestseller makes several critical errors regarding habits and their implications. Though professionals familiar with habit-based marketing know better, The Power of Habit is receiving wide readership and its unsound concepts will undoubtedly confuse those new to the subject. I’ve outlined a few of the major problems with the book here for easy reference.
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July 31st, 2012

Going Negative: Using Negative Reinforcement to Shape Consumer Behavior

By Kyle Morich


We all know the obnoxious klaxon call of the morning alarm clock.


Even before our brains can draw back the heavy drapes of sleep and form a coherent thought, we throw our bodies from underneath the covers and hurl our limbs toward the infernal contraption.


The sweet silence that follows turning off the alarm (or hitting the snooze button) is soothing and peaceful. It is also what we call negative reinforcement, and your company could benefit a great deal by incorporating it into your customer training plans.

In our habit-based model of behavior, the brain learns from feedback following a contextual behavior. If the feedback is punishing, it makes that behavior less likely to occur in the future. If the feedback is reinforcing, it makes the behavior more likely to occur. When you add something pleasant after the behavior, we call that positive reinforcement, such as giving a child a cookie after they make clean their room. When you take away something aversive, we call that negative reinforcement, as in the alarm clock scenario—getting out of bed is reinforced by the removal of the irksome alarm sound. 

The various forms of feedback

Companies often shy away from negative reinforcement except in task-oriented user interface interactions, like an ATM chiming until you remove your card or the ringing of a phone to get you to answer it (although with smartphones increasingly offering pleasant melodies or even popular songs as ringtones, the negative reinforcement dynamic of a phone call is becoming a historical artifact). One area we often see negative reinforcement shape behavior is in consumers who do not have routinized habits for “chore” activities, such as mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, or maintaining a vehicle. The chore going undone creates a negative emotional reaction in the consumer. This reaction, usually anxiety or frustration, builds and builds until the customer performs the behavior to remove that uncomfortable feeling: cutting the long and unkempt grass, vacuuming the living room rug, or getting the car’s tires rotated. This relief from anxiety reinforces that behavior, and makes it more likely to occur in the future. Even consumers who are highly habitual in their chores (e.g., mow the lawn each and every Saturday morning) will feel some measure of emotional relief from the task completion.

One variable in this negative reinforcement equation is the consumer’s personal emotional threshold, or the point at which the anxiety or frustration becomes too much to bear and the behavior must occur. One discovery I have found with my fiancée-soon-to-be-wife is that we have vastly different emotional thresholds for cleaning the house. I can let dust and dinge accumulate for days or weeks before I feel compelled to clean, whereas she can feel a single dog hair shed upon the carpet mocking her very existence. It’s not that I don’t care about cleaning our home—it just takes me longer to build up a motivating emotional response than she does. A cleaning products company whose revenue depends on how much I clean my home (such as Swiffer, Windex, or whatever brand makes my vacuum bags) could try to aim its advertising at heightening my awareness to the uncleanliness of my home or intensifying the emotions I feel about it.

The next time you have a behavior problem and want to use feedback to shape and change what your customers do, consider how negative reinforcement can help you accomplish your training goals. It’s always a good plan to offer a cookie when a customer does something right, but sometimes helping them remove something sour can be just as sweet.

1. Image by xJason.Rogersx on flickr.

September 19th, 2011

A ‘Qwikster’ End to an Unconscious Behavior: An Open Letter to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings

By Neale Martin

Sublime Behavior Marketing CEO Neale Martin in an open letter response to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ customer letter distributed earlier today.  In Hastings’ letter, he apologizes for Netflix’s bumbling of their latest price hike and discusses plans to split the company into two separate entities: Netflix, which will focus exclusively on delivering streaming video content, and “Qwikster,” a new company solely dedicated to Netflix’s legacy DVDs-by-mail service.  You may find Reed Hastings’ letter here.

Dear Mr. Hastings,

I cannot stress more how wrong I think you are in the strategic direction you are taking the company. After 12 years of brilliant strategic marketing, your recent moves and calamitous messaging are putting the entire enterprise needlessly at risk.

Netflix began as clever concept for using the web and postal service to rent DVDs, and evolved rapidly by moving to a subscription model and abolishing the dreaded late fees. Blockbuster never stood a chance. When Netflix launched video streaming to complement its DVD rental service, the company was, again, far ahead of the industry in understanding the evolving relationship customers were developing with video content across multiple platforms. By adding this service without extra cost, you dramatically increased the perception of value attached to the iconic Netflix brand. By integrating DVD and streaming, you created a nearly unassailable bulwark against competitive incursion. You built a thriving business with more than 23 millions customers and a stock price that any CEO could point to with pride.

And in a scant three months you’ve put all of that success in jeopardy.

For the past decade, I’ve researched customer behavior based on our rapidly improving understanding of how the brain works. It turns out that the vast majority of behavior is the result of unconsciously motivated habits.  Counter-intuitively, the best customers think about you the least, automatically incorporating your goods and services into their lives without a glance.  The price hike announced last month disrupted this habitual behavior and drew the conscious attention of many Netflix customers. Disrupting the habits of your customers is marketing malpractice—as you’ve seen, over a million of your former habitual customers decided that, upon reflection, the value of Netflix was not worth the price paid, despite the nominal increase equating to only a few dollars more per month for most customers.

The good news was that habits are a default state, and your customers would have likely settled back into unconscious use of Netflix in a few months.  Consciousness in the consumer space is a bit like a tuning fork: a single hit will emit a vibration for a short period of time, and then go silent. The mind does not want to consciously consider every purchase decision, and Netflix would have returned to a habitual choice, silently billing credit cards each month while delivering a reinforcing user experience.  Unfortunately, you stepped in too soon. By splitting the company into two parts with separate websites and billing systems, you are again massively disrupting the customer habits it took ten years to build.  The tuning fork is ringing louder, and more customers will begin jumping ship, either for competing services or no substitute at all.

Somehow you’ve gone from marketing genius to anti-marketing villain.  Even if the company survives and returns to previous levels of success, this risk is far too high to justify. Because, right now, nobody knows what the future will be, and the immediate reaction has been catastrophic. I do not know the underlying cost structures that necessitated the rate increase or the particular view of the future that induced you to split the businesses, as an expert in consumer behavior, I can tell you that fundamentally and unilaterally changing the relationships with your customers is very bad management. A post hoc letter rationalizing your decisions demonstrates a disconnect from your customers that should terrify investors. Qwikster? Really?

I tell my clients that the goal of marketing should be to become your customers’ habit, not their choice. In trying to position for the future, you are forcing your customers to make a conscious choice, and I fear many will choose to leave Netflix behind. I became a Netflix customer when I bought my first DVD player. I recommended your service wholeheartedly to hundreds of people since then, a large number of whom went on to become customers. I cannot imagine recommending your service to anyone today.

Best regards,

Neale Martin

June 30th, 2011

Conscious Intent vs. Actual Behavior: On Meth, Cigarettes, and Not Trusting What People Say

By Kyle Morich

The girl, barely 16, studies herself in the bathroom mirror as she confirms plans with her best friend. “Yeah, my parents think I’m sleeping at your house,” she confirms, “Okay, bye.”  She hangs up and gets into the shower.  As she begins to bathe, something catches her eye in the tub below her.  She glances down and a gasp escapes her lips—there’s blood and dirt pooling in the bathtub around her feet.  She looks around in shock, trying to find the source.  Her eyes discover the culprit, a skinny and broken girl her same age, curled into a ball at the end of the tub, face and arms are covered in fresh cuts and bruises, eyes are sunken in, and entire body laboring with each wheezy breath.  The girl’s horror becomes fully realized when she recognizes this spectral creature: it is herself.  She screams in terror.  The ghastly version of herself shakes her head and rasps, “Don’t do it.  Don’t do it.”  The screen goes to black and the slogan appears: Meth.  Not Even Once.

Titles at the end of the Meth Project “Bathtub” ad

Georgia has a meth problem.  The state of Georgia is a national center for the production, sale, and use of methamphetamine, costing the state $1.3 billion annually.  The drug is so powerful that only a fraction of those who use are successfully treated, so the Georgia Meth Project was launched to target those who have never tried meth and keep it that way. The hard-hitting ads, like the 30-second “Bathtub” spot above, are broadcast on television and radio throughout the state. Recently, the non-profit released study results that they believe demonstrate that these scare tactics are working.  Of teens participating in a “Methamphetamine Use & Attitudes” survey, 78% said the ads made them less likely to try or use meth, and 85% said the ads showed them that the drug is more dangerous than they had originally believed.

True, it is a great endeavor to ensure that Georgia teens know about the harmful effects of meth and are decreasing their intentions to use, but are these harrowing ads actually translating those intentions into behavior? Nowhere in the study were references to any changes in actual meth use, so I looked into the 2009 CDC Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, a bi-annual monitoring of health-risk behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of death and disability among youth and adults, to see how methamphetamine use has changed.  The YRBS showed no statistical difference in meth usage for Georgia 9th through 12th graders from 2007 (when the Georgia Meth Project began) to 2009.  My first assumption was that perhaps meth use remained flat while usage increased for other illegal drugs, but the YRBS shows statistically unchanged numbers for cocaine, marijuana, inhalants, and heroin over the same time period.

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March 17th, 2011

Metaphorically Speaking

By Kyle Morich

Metaphor is recurrent in human language.  We use them to decorate our poetry (“My love is like a red, red rose…”) and for emphasis (“That stock is a gold mine…”). We use metaphors to reduce complex and abstract ideas into comparable terms (“The mind is computer…”). We also use them without thinking much at all.  A 1989 study of television dialogue found characters employing one unique metaphor for every 25 words.

How should we deal with a rising crime rate in a large city?  As it turns out, depending on the metaphors employed to describe the issue, drastically different approaches will be suggested.  Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University noticed our dialogue on crime is rife with metaphor.  From their recent paper Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning:

Public discourse about crime is saturated with metaphor. Increases in the prevalence of crime are described as crime waves, surges or sprees. A spreading crime problem is a crime epidemic, plaguing a city or infecting a community. Crimes themselves are attacks in which criminals prey on unsuspecting victims. And criminal investigations are hunts where criminals are tracked and caught. Such metaphorical language pervades not only discourse about crime, but nearly all talk about the abstract and complex.  Are such metaphors just fancy ways of talking, or do they have real consequences for how people reason about complex social problems like crime?

Thibodeau and Boroditsky crafted a clever experiment in which they presented two groups with a statement about rising crime in a fictional city and asked to provide suggestions on how to fix the crime issue.  Providing detailed statistics on crime incidences and the rate at which the crime had been growing year over year, the statements were identical except for the first sentence in the passage.  This sentence described the problem of crime in Addison with a metaphor, either referring to the crime as a beast or a virus (“Crime is a beast/virus ravaging the city of Addison.”)

Depending on how crime was presented metaphorically, respondents gravitated to certain types of responses.  The virus metaphor resulted in suggestions very similar to how we would deal with a real disease epidemic.  Group members wanted to investigate the root causes of the crime and “treat” it with social reforms that would help inoculate the community (such as improving education and eradicating poverty).  When crime was a beast, participants wanted to hunt down and catch the criminals and put them in jail, and went on to propose harsher enforcement laws.

Marketers use metaphors to access latent consumer emotions and attitudes, such as in the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET). In the ZMET study, researchers ask consumers to use pictures to describe their feelings about a situation.  These images are supposed to provide access to the non-verbal unconscious mind and provide researchers with a view into the fundamental structures that guide consumer thought.



Thibodeau PH, Boroditsky L (2011) Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16782. doi:10.1371/journal.

Image by Erin Schell

March 3rd, 2011

Do I Believe Survey Data, or a Brain Scan?: An Interview with the Hindu Business Line

By Sublime Behavior

Part II of Neale Martin’s interview with the Hindu Business Line has been published.  This section of the interview delves into the worries surrounding “subliminal” marketing, the problems with the fledgling field of “neuromarketing,” and areas beyond marketing that unconscious behavior concepts can be applied.  You can find the full article here.