Category Archives: Decision Science

Doctor Who and the Aerobics

TIMEA female friend recently asked me if I thought she looked fit.  For a male, that is a nightmare question because it is open to so many different interpretations!  Pausing a moment, I decided to play it safe and replied “Sure, have you been working out?”  Good call!  That was exactly what she meant and, given our age difference, it led to a longer conversation about ageing, exercise and health.

The psychology of ageing is interesting, of course, because its relationship to longevity and health depends very much on what you mean by “age”.   The common measure of this is our functional age, quite literally meaning the number of days (or hours or years or whatever) since we were born.  So far, so good…  Well my functional age is ##   (nope, not telling you!).  Then there is my subjective age, which is very mood and situation dependent.  Got flu this week, so feel ten years older at least.  Then again, listening to the radio in the car today, the ABBA track “Does your mother know” brought back memories of bad pub singing by me and a girl called Dawn in 1987 and I suddenly felt much younger (well, for three minutes or so!).  But what of the relationship with exercise, health and longevity?

Well, I don’t have a TARDIS, so travelling through time isn’t an option and I smoke too, so guess I need to look elsewhere for advice.  Ok, what about the idea of biological age?  Now that’s a very tricky concept!  Up to the age of about 30, so-called “aerobic power” will do for most psychology experiments.  Over-simplifying things, this is the index derived from treadmill exercises that get our heart and lungs up to maximum capacity and we see how sustainable that is.  Problem here is that beyond the age of 30, we typically decline in aerobic power at a rate of about 1% per year in the average person and other physiological factors combine to make this a less useful measure.  So, what can we do instead?

Recent work undertaken in Norway, involving almost 40k people, has sort of cracked the code.  This is based on the idea of fitness age.  Specifically, it’s a measure based on BMI (body-mass index), age, resting heart rate, etc., plus answers to questions indexing three variables; how often we exercise, how long for, and how hard we push ourselves.  If you are interested in determining your own fitness age, there’s a nice online test you can try and it’s now stimulating interesting research into the psychology of ageing and exercise.

So, what do we know so far?  Well, we are all generally healthier if we stop thinking about ways of extending the number of years we will live after birth, which is of course impossible, and instead thinking about pushing back the number of years we have left until we die.  That simple reorientation in thinking alone helps more than we might expect!  In terms of exercise, we can achieve a “younger” fitness age if we get the frequency, duration and level right relative to our chronological age, BMI, etc.  And by definition, a younger fitness age means our death has been delayed…

Alas, it is not quite that simple.  There are many benefits of exercise at my age (which I am still not telling you!).  Managed correctly, it can reduce my chances of a heart attack, delay dementia and improve my sexual health.  Even then, though, exercise means I am at greater risk of joint problems, it may make me more prone to obsessive compulsive problems, and it will also accelerate tooth decay!

So, where does all this leave us?  Not sure…but to go back to the opening question from my friend and flipping it, at least I can offer my own definition of what a “fit” man over 30 is.  Following the Norwegian logic, the man who has lost his own teeth, is limping, can’t remember his address and who keeps washing is hands just could be the fittest guy of all!  Oh, and his sexual health is probably ok too…

BOGOF takes a holiday

santaSanta is soon due to end his 364-day holiday and pay an annual visit to his workplace.  I could tell that today by all the Christmas posters and stuff littering the shop windows in Durham.  Halloween is upon us, so “trick-or-treat” will soon give way to “penny for the guy”, closely followed by carol singers.  Then, sure enough, it is mid-December and the Easter eggs are back in the shops!

Remember, though, Christmas is a time of giving…especially to retailers!  We will all spend a disproportionate amount of money relative to our monthly income as the “festive” season approaches and the retail industry knows that.  As a consequence, the behavioural economists will be out to get our hard-earned cash with their psychological tricks.  Buyer beware – indeed!

This piece published by Chicago Booth is quite timely in this respect.  It highlights the ways in which retailers exploit our heuristics and biases to increase sales, especially in the run up to the big day.  We typically discount the future, for instance, so this time of year sees a growth of enticing offers on larger items to “buy now, pay later”, the logic being that it seems less expensive if we don’t part with our cash until April 2015.  Similarly, we can also expect to see all of the cosmetics counters in department stores offering free gift sets when we buy a standard purchase, even though this desirable free item is simply a cheap bag full of samples (still, we can wrap it for someone we don’t like that much, can’t we?).

The “special offer” that almost completely vanishes soon until the new year is the “buy one, get one free” (BOGOF) deal.  I find these fascinating as they are a relatively recent invention in the scheme of things.  When I was younger, the same offer was simply called “half price”!  BOGOF off is a much clever development though because, although economically the same, it means we have to buy double the quantity in order to get the item at half-price.  Smart!

BOGOFs are hard to find from early November, however, except in the supermarkets.  They typically go on holiday until January.  Why?  Because retailers want us to work just that little bit harder to find the best deals, thereby increasing their profits during a crucial sales period.  This is the reason we see items in Boots with the little green Christmas trees on them – we buy three items with the trees, the cheapest item is free.  More a case of “buy two, get one free” (BTGOF).  Oh now that is clever…..!

Green Coke with….MORE sugar?!?

coca-cola-lifeNow here is an interesting one…  Following a successful pilot in Argentina in late 2013, Coca Cola this week announced that Coke Life is to be released throughout Europe.  As a product, it’s kind of difficult to figure out quite who this particular variant is aimed at.  It has less sugar than the standard product, that’s true, but surely those seeking this attribute would buy Diet Coke or Coke Zero?  Apparently not!

The company say that the latest variant is intended to occupy the “middle ground”, with less sugar than the standard variety but still more than Diet Coke. Mmmnnn… still don’t quite see why anybody would want that… you either want the regular product or one with less/no sugar, surely?  Be fascinating to see whether sales live up to expectations.  Yes it has less sugar then regular Coke…but it still has four teaspoons of sugar in a standard can, around 25% of a child’s recommended daily intake, so it’s hardly a “healthy option”!  Wonder if consumers will pick up on this, or  maybe they’ll assume it’s healthier than it really is  given it’s in a green can and the name is only one letter different to Coke Lite!  Sure that’s a coincidence though….

Chew your iPhone, not your gum

girl-chewing-bubble-gumThe world can be a strange place and part of this strangeness comes from the fact that very unlikely (and at times downright weird!) relationships can occur between seemingly disparate variables.  A post over on the Rocket News site caught my attention this weekend that illustrates this beautifully.  It seems that as smartphone sales have increased, there has been a corresponding and almost linear decrease in sales if chewing gum.  Most odd!

Why on earth would purchasing something like an iPhone decrease the likelihood of buying gum?!?  Masami Yamamoto, Fujitsu’s president, has put forward a plausible explanation. Smartphones keep us occupied in those spare moments throughout the day.  If we have a five minute pause in our workload, for instance, we can browse a website or send a text.  According to Yamamoto, the smartphone has thus supplanted the primary function of chewing gum which, apparently, we used to enjoy simply as a way of killing time.  He also believes that this is another example of an innovation in one industry unexpectedly impacting upon another, just like the impact the compact disc (a computer data storage device) had on sales of vinyl records.

Not sure what I make of that explanation, to be honest.  Seems to me that different people use different products for different purposes all the time, so I just don’t buy the idea that killing time is the main reason for chewing gum.  In my case, it’s more likely to be related to one of my irregular and doomed-to-fail attempts to quit smoking!  As a regular pen chewer (make of that what you will, Sigmund), I prefer the more outlandish explanation offered – we aren’t buying as much gum because we are all seeking comfort by chewing our smartphones instead.

Well, you never know…could be true…  In the meantime, here is my wacky product of the week – an iPhone stand disguised as bubble gum!



Ah, the World Cup again – shall I opt out this time?

worldcupThe World Cup is fast approaching and for those of us less-than-enthusiastic about the “beautiful game”, but who will doubtless get drawn in, I find myself beginning to look for more interesting aspects of the event than just 22 men kicking a ball around.  Marketing, of course, is pivotal to everything and there will  almost certainly be some fascinating elements of the World Cup to keep us consumer psychologists amused for a while.

This week, one piece on the World Cup caught my attention in Marketing Week, which reports on the launch of what will be the most expensive marketing and media campaign Adidas has ever undertaken.  This is the latest shot in the Adidas-Nike war, of course, and their battle to become the sportswear company most closely associated with major sporting events.  It’s got off to an impressive start for Adidas, with a truly star-studded commercial premiering on television during the climax of the European Championships, but it’s the social media dimension that is perhaps more interesting this time and I sense that, rather as happened during the Olympic Games, this will be the most online World Cup to date.

The cornerstone of this online element is the above YouTube distribution of the commercial, which ends with an opportunity to “opt in” or “opt out” in terms of access to Adidas-sponsored World Cup content.  This very much attunes to the overall campaign theme of “all in or nothing”.  I’ll be watching this with great interest, not least because I am currently researching the “opt in/out” decision in an m-commerce with colleagues.  If our work with smartphone users is anything to go by, the quality of the information those who opt in gain access to will be crucial.  It’s the perceived value to the consumer that is absolutely crucial here, so it will be the old adage “content is king” that ultimately determines the campaign’s success or failure for Adidas.  I’m tempted to opt in myself to see what’s on offer…. well, almost!

And still to come… shopping!

NewsSoap operas historically occupy the most expensive slot on TV when it comes to the sale of advertising, mass audiences commanding hefty fees to secure a slot for a ‘prime time’ commercial.   The canny advertising agency should, however, give far greater consideration to a less expensive option…

According to research undertaken by MediaScience, Television news content is information rich, demanding high levels of audience attention and amplifying the brain’s analytical and critical thinking activities.  These programmes therefore not only deliver large audiences, they also prime consumer decision-making.   The research suggests that this heightened level of cognitive functioning fosters an evaluative mindset that carries over into the commercial break, increasing the likelihood that consumers may reach a decision and follow through to a purchase.

How strong is this cognitive priming effect?  Well, compared to a control group, viewers in this study were 52% more likely to reach a decision during a news broadcast, 30% more likely to buy a product advertised during that slot, and 25% more prone to adding items to a shopping list.

More broadly, while watching the news, we process information 20% faster than during other TV shows and evaluate data with 10% greater accuracy.  So, not only are we more likely to buy a product we’ve seen during the commercial break, chances are we will make a much better decision too!