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Lessons learned from a fika: How behavioral science can reduce online spending

Garrett Meccariello & Tobias Nasgarde
Posted on March 09, 2018

Fika [fe:kah] is something that is taken almost religiously in Sweden (where Tobias hails from). Fika means having a break and sitting down with a coffee (lemonade or chocolate milk for the kids), a pastry and most importantly a good conversation with friends or family. Fikas have been central to the success of our research project in a number of ways. It was during one of our first fikas together that we discussed how to leverage our training in the behavioural and decision sciences in order to bridge the gap between business and academia in a way that can help people in their everyday lives.

We soon had a eureka moment. A great deal of marketing research focuses on how to get consumers to spend their money on certain products. We decided to take a different approach and look at how positive financial behavior could be stimulated by disrupting disadvantageous personal finance practices. Specifically, we focused on the relationship between consumers’ cashless spending on unnecessary purchases and the role of warning messages, a topic that is important to understand in order to make healthier financial choices possible.

Our goal is to better understand the effectiveness of the timing and content of warning messages that aim to reduce unnecessary spending behaviour in online environments. In line with research showing the influence of nudges, i.e., subtle environmental cues that guide people towards making socially optimal decisions, we believe that warnings could fulfill a similar role. By presenting warnings with the right content and timing, people might choose to reduce their online spending.

Many fika sessions later, we found ourselves in the midst of conducting an applied research experiment to assess our beliefs and test the best way to accomplish our goal of reducing unnecessary spending in cashless environments. In order to do so, we used a mock shopping environment in an online experiment. With little prior research available on how exactly to reduce, rather than raise, the amount spent online, we decided to explore the timing and content of messages that are used to disrupt unhealthy spending behaviour.

“"People value items more when they own them or have considered to buy them."”

In terms of the timing of the nudges, we theorized that placing interventions before individuals enter an online shop would reduce spending behaviour more than  placing them after the individual has already made a selection and attempts to check out in the shop. This can be explained by people’s aversion of losing (potential) possessions1. Research identified that individuals value items more when they own them or have considered to buy them. In this case it means that people would not want to reduce the number of items chosen after having already taken pseudo possession of the items by shopping for them in the online store.  

In order to identify the most effective type of content in the messages, we identified two strategies that have been proven in other aspects of behavioural science to encourage healthier behaviour: temptation bundling2and loss aversion3. Temptation bundling involves combining  “should” do behaviour, such as going to the gym, with “want” to do behaviour such as watching one’s favorite television show at the same time in order to make the should-do behaviour more pleasurable. In the context of this experiment, temptation bundling is applied to represent “should do” behaviour (such as saving a portion of the amount intended to be spent) while allowing “want to do” behaviour such as purchasing an item of desire. Loss aversion is applied in our other type of messaging to encourage the participants not to spend their money, as money spent in the present reduces their ability to reach goals that they have set for the future in an earlier part of the experiment. The earlier-discussed  pseudo possession would then come into play here as well, as the participant has hypothetically committed to the goal and wouldn’t want to lose it.

“A properly crafted and timed warning could reduce online spending up to 29%!!”

We not only took into account how individuals make choices when spending an amount of their disposable income, but also examined additional factors behind why they made that choice. The first results looked promising and revealed that a properly crafted and timed warning could reduce online spending up to 29%. Stay tuned for our full research report to see which combination of timing and content yields this effect!  

As  recent financial crises have made clear, irresponsible spending behaviour at an individual level can snowball and can have disastrous consequences at national and international levels. We are excited to generate fresh insights that can assist in empowering people to make better financial decisions for themselves by allowing them to take better control over this part of their lives.

From our fika to yours,
Garrett Meccariello & Tobias Nasgarde  

Tobias (left) and Garrett (right)

References

  • 1. Carmon, Z., Wertenbroch, K., & Zeelenberg, M. (2003). Option attachment: When deliberating makes choosing feel like losing. Journal of Consumer Research, 30, 15-29.
  • 2. Milkman, K. L., Minson, J. A., & Volpp, K. G. M. (2014). Holding the hunger games hostage at the gym: An evaluation of temptation bundling. Management Science, 60, 283–299.
  • 3. Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J. L., & Thaler, R. H. (1991). Anomalies: The endowment effect, loss aversion, and status quo bias. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5, 193-206.