What have wireless headphones got to do with behavioral science?

This is getting expensive. I just lost yet another set of wireless headphones – maybe in Cinci airport, possibly Boston Logan, or perhaps one day I’ll find them down the back of the sofa. Regardless, this afternoon I set out to buy a replacement, and now an hour later, I look back on the behavioral science ‘forces’ that impacted my experience.

Normally for a small purchase like this I don’t do any research but I know nothing about headphones so I checked out the Red Dot design award winners first, and then Consumer Reports. So far so good – the experts had spoken and I had two good options to choose from. The problem was that when I jumped onto Amazon to make a purchase, the ratings of these two wireless headphones were horrendous – between 2.5 and 3.5 stars – and many of the reviews scathing.

So what do you do when the insights from customer reviews conflicts with the feedback from experts? Well I did what any self-respecting shopper would do in the face of this uncertainty – I gave up! So I am now sitting here writing this waiting for my son to come home from the pool – he’ll know what headphones I should get!

So what does behavioral science tell us about my experience buying headphones?

  • We look for shortcuts/’hacks’ (e.g. I often just ask my neighbor Michael what he bought because he’s one of those atypical people who does extensive and effective research before making a significant purchase decision – hence why we have exactly the same snowblower, generator, tent and countleess other items!), to enable quick, less cognitively effortful decisions.  This conservation of energy/effort is an in-built human trait, and it means that more often than not, we will take the path of least effort with our purchases, as in the rest of our lives
  • We rely tremendously on social proof to help make our decisions easier (think Yelp, Rotten Tomatoes, Angie’s List). Social proof comes in 3 forms: we are influenced in our choices by the powerful (experts, doctors, celebrities), the many (ratings & reviews, seeing lots of other people do something), the close (friends and family)
  • And in the face of ambiguity (which we just don’t like at all), my reaction i.e. inertia/status quo was the typical one
  • And finally, we are rarely looking for more information to help us make decisions – we are just looking for clarity and enough to make us feel good about the satisfactory decision that we usually make . As my 9 year old daughter is fond of telling me these days “TMI, dad.”

Many of the brands we work with are realizing that decision-making is dominated by quick, reflexive, low-effort response, and are modifying their marketing and innovation strategies accordingly. Others still have a great deal of upside that can be captured by recognizing and acting upon this dynamic. As I mentioned to one of our pharmaceutical clients last week ‘we can’t always educate our customers into submission!’


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Elys Roberts

Elys is the founder of BEESY and a self-described behavioral science "amateur enthusiast." Luckily, he knows what he doesn't know and therefore hangs out with a lot of the experts.

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