Financial control: Are cashless payments making it easier or harder to feel in control of our finances?

A TFI Research Challenge project by Emma Woodley and Jez Groom
Posted on April 04, 2018

The research project "Financial control: Are cashless payments making it easier or harder to feel in control of our finances?" is one of the eight projects selected last year for the TFI Research Challenge.

In this report, Emma Woodley & Jez Groom use two innovative research techniques to understand how in control consumers feel about using cashless payments when compared to cash. This study provides insights for financial institutions and the growing fintech industry about how we can make it easier for consumers to feel in control of their finances in an increasingly cashless society.  


As adoption of new cashless payment technologies takes off, understanding how consumers feel about using contactless cards, online payment systems like Paypal,  phone payments via Apple Pay and Google Pay, and even voice-activated purchases via devices such as Amazon Echo is of increasing importance to both the established financial institutions and the growing fintech sector.

Since the early 1990s, a number of observers have foreseen the increased use of a cashless payment system and predictions of a cashless society and there is no doubt of the significant benefits that a cashless society can bring such as cost savings and efficient use of resources. However, some commentators have put forward their cases that a cashless society will have an overall adverse affect, leading to an increase in overall consumption, increasing personal debt and a negative impact upon savings levels. Whilst this study does not tackle these macro economic issues and impact of cashless payments, we did want to understand if these new payment methods helped consumers feel more, or indeed less, in control of their finances.

Interestingly, at the same time as the accelerated take up of cashless payments, we’ve also seen a new area of economics take off.  Underpinned by psychology, this new field encompasses how consumers really feel and behave and the term ‘behavioural economics’ is now more commonly known and increasingly understood.

Nobel Prize winning psychologists and economists propose that humans possess two thinking systems: one fast, operating deep in the subconscious, and seemingly irrational, the second far slower, far more rational and sitting within our consciousness . It’s suggested that the majority of our behaviour is in fact driven by our fast thinking system, often making decisions for ourselves without really taking time to think at all. This simple model goes a long way to explaining what many researchers have believed for a long time – asking consumers what they feel and why they do the things they do might not give us the full answer.

And therein lies the heart of this research challenge: if we asked consumers for their conscious attitudes around cashless payments and control, how close to the truth would their answers really be ? If we conducted focus groups and traditional surveys, often addressing our rational minds, would consumers truly acknowledge if they felt out of control using cashless payments and could they accurately quantify how they felt when using these new methods of payment ?

“In this report, the authors use two innovative research techniques to understand how in control consumers feel about newer cashless payments such as contactless cards and Apple Pay when compared to traditional cash.”

For this challenge, we have chosen two innovative techniques to get a better emotional quantification of such feelings. We believe that asking consumers how they feel about such issues (in standard explicit quantitative surveys and qualitative focus groups) only scratches the surface and often does not elicit the true subconscious feelings of the individual.

We use Implicit Response Test (IRT) methodology to quantify the strength of associations consumers have with control for both cashless and cash payments. The IRT is an online test that measures automatically evoked associations and attitudes by measuring changes in reaction times in a word sorting task when participants are ‘primed’ by exposure to images.

The process for participants includes giving them an objective sorting task whereby they are told words will appear in a sequence in the centre of their computer screen at timed intervals and they should ‘sort’ each word that appears by matching it to one of two ‘pole’ words, constantly displayed on either side of the screen. In this study the pole words were ‘Uncontrolled’ (displayed on the left of the screen) and ‘Controlled’ (displayed on the right of the screen). One at a time, either the word ‘Controlled’ or ‘Uncontrolled’ appeared in the centre of the screen, for sorting, in a random sequence. These reaction speed times are measured accurately down to the millisecond level.

Then the main task is introduced. Now individual images of cash or cashless payments types flash up before each word, the participants are instructed to ignore the images and continue to only sort the words. Again, their response times are measured, but now for the average of each image-word pairing.

If a ‘priming’ effect occurs, whereby the image primes an association with the word that subsequently appears such that it helps them react faster, then we can say that the image has facilitated their response and represents a greater association with that pole eg. Uncontrolled, than its opposite. Similarly, a slowed response to the opposite pole is also an indication of a lower association with that opposite attribute e.g. controlled.

The  second technique, Mind Metaphor Interview (MMI) methodology  is grounded in a number of different disciplines including verbal and non-verbal communication, visual sociology, visual anthropology, semiotics, mental imagery and cognitive neuroscience.  The principles behind the approach are that thoughts often occur in patterns and pictures, not always as words, as most human meaning is exchanged nonverbally and emotion and reason are equally important.

We devised a 1-hour in-depth one-on-one interview in which respondents were asked to select 5-6 pictures that represent how they think and feel about cashless payments.  They were asked not to bring literal images of money, financial institutions, etc. as they carry little meaning and tell us little about their thoughts and feelings.  Our researchers met at the respondents’ homes and a videographer also captured the whole interview as a valuable tool when it came to the non-verbal analysis.

The questioning is centred on why the respondent chose that image in the first instance. This allows the respondents to freely express and expand on their thoughts and feelings, attitudes and perspectives.

When the interviewer feels they have drilled down to the appropriate level to elicit the deep metaphors for each image, all of the interviews are reviewed many times for the non-verbal analysis part of the analysis, transcripts are produced for all interviews for the verbal aspect of the analysis and all of the images are also analysed and reviewed.


“Consumers feel less in control using cashless payments and worry about overspending, fraud, social embarrassment and data privacy.”

From the IRT findings, we show how consumers feel less in control when primed with phone and voice-activated payment images such as Apple Pay, Google Pay and Amazon Echo. We also show how consumers feel less in control when primed with the aggregate of all the cashless images when compared to cash. And finally, though it is noted that this is not statistically significant, we describe how consumers have a bias to feel less in control for all but one of the cash and  cashless payment types.

From the (MMI) methodology  there were a number of deep metaphors associated with non-cash payments.  These tended to differ by payment type and the strongest of them all was Control. There were four negative aspects of this metaphor and how using cashless payments made them feel less in control. Consumers told us they worried about overspending and were concerned about fraud and criminal activity using cashless payments. They suffered from social embarrassment when the technology failed them, often when in front of a queue of people and they were frustrated over what they thought was a lack of data privacy and the idea that financial institutions may use their data against them.

The research suggests that financial institutions and fintech companies could develop interactions and experiences for customers to help them feel more in control of their finances. Using the four dimensions of control that consumers are most concerned with, we believe these institutions and companies can help with introducing spending limit notifications through apps, better highlighting of security measures, creating easier, frictionless payments and offering a greater level of transparency over how data is being used.