March 15, 2014

The Spotlight Effect

I don't often write thought pieces or recommend books. In fact, it has been three years since my last post of this kind ("The Delusion of Single Explanations"). But I recently came across something important that is directly applicable to our industry.

In the latest Freakonomics Radio podcast, Stephen Dubner interviews Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago and author of Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want (cover shown above).

In the interview, Professor Epley describes an experiment where undergraduates at his university were asked to put on a t-shirt with a "great big picture" of Barry Manilow on the chest, go into a room where other people were already filling out a questionnaire (arrive late), start filling out their questionnaire, then get up and leave suddenly.

Afterward, they were asked: "[H]ow many people in that room would be able to identify that it was Barry Manilow on your shirt?" Professor Epley explains the results (emphasis mine):

Whether [people were] proud of [the t-shirt] or embarrassed of it, they tended to think that lots of people would notice. In fact they thought about 50 percent of the people in the room would notice. Because [they] weren’t in there for a long time, [they] weren’t the center of attention ... People were busy on other things. But still, pretty high. The important comparison is not that, it’s how many people in the room actually did notice that it was Barry Manilow on [their] shirt ... [A]s far as we could tell, nobody was able to tell that it was Barry Manilow on [their] shirt ...

[O]ne thing that makes it hard to understand what others are thinking is that we tend to rely on our own mind perhaps a little bit too much when it’s not necessarily perfectly appropriate to do so. It may be a rational thing to do, but it still leads to inaccuracy ... And that’s just one of the many examples of ... egocentrism, our inherent focus on ourselves. You are always present when you are present. You’re always aware of yourself and your own thoughts and feeling when you’re out in the world, [and] that can sometimes lead to errors. This is one case where it will lead you to think that you’re noticed more often than you actually are.

This is called the "spotlight effect," a phrase coined by Epley's thesis advisor, Tom Gilovich. "That’s when you feel the spotlight is always shining on you, that for whatever reason people are paying attention to what you are doing," Dubner explains. "[And it] can really distort how we communicate with each other."

So what does this have to do with DR? That will become clearer in the next example from the Epley interview. Long story short, if you play "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen backward, you will probably hear -- nothing. Just gobbledygook. But if I tell you to listen for the phrase "it's fun to smoke marijuana" and play it again, you will likely hear that phrase. How is that spotlight effect? Here's Professor Epley again:

[W]hat we’ve done there is we’ve changed your own perspective on that song in a way that makes it hard for you to appreciate how somebody else ... will interpret that [song] ... [W]hen I was in graduate school some years ago, I played people those songs, those backmasked messages. One group was uninformed; they hadn’t been told what to listen for. The other group was told what to listen for, and they heard [the hidden phrase] ... So one group were novices the other group were experts.

[We] then had them predict what percentage of people who [were] told nothing about the clip would be able to hear those words in that song. And what we found was that when you ... were an expert on the song ... you thought a much higher percentage of people would be able to hear that backmasked message ... than when you knew nothing about [it], when you thought it was gibberish ...

[T]he egocentrism part is that you assume that other people’s perspectives will match your own ... You use your own as a guide. And this is a problem more generally out in the world of understanding how other people evaluate us ... When we put people in experiments, for instance, and we ... take a picture of them, and we asked them to predict how attractive they will be rated by a member of the opposite sex on a scale from zero to 10, we find that there’s virtually no correlation between how people predict they’ll be rated on the basis of this picture and how they’re actually rated on the basis of this picture.

[T]he reason is that you’re an expert about yourself. And so you, when you look at a picture of yourself, you look at every fine-grain detail. You can notice that this curl is slightly out of place, and your smile is a bit weird there. And are they really supposed to see my undershirt under the collar there? Is that right? You notice all of these fine-grained details about yourself just as an expert would. An expert is able to dial in a microscope on the problem and notice all kinds of nuances and subtleties that others can’t. Observers, just the random person isn’t an expert on you, and that creates a gap that makes it hard to know what somebody else thinks of you.

Replace the word "you" with the phrase "your commercial," and you'll see the takeaway for DR practitioners. In my development from DR novice to DR expert, one of the many revelations I had was this: Viewers at home don't see most of what we see when we watch our commercials. It's a version of the spotlight effect. We may strongly believe that Joe Blow or Jane Doe will notice a certain "fine-grain detail" -- that continuity error, that poor wardrobe choice or that blemish on the product -- but they won't. In fact, they won't notice things that 100% of company executives and staff sitting it a conference room together would notice. Why? Because that's a group of informed experts with a collective form of egocentrism.

The way I help myself and others avoid this pitfall is to ask continually: "How much will the proposed change lower our CPO?" If an educated guess can't be expressed in tens of dollars, the change is a waste of time and resources. An egocentric self-indulgence.

Some have contested this point, arguing that lots of small changes (what I call "jewelry work") can add up to big impacts. But in light of the research above, that idea is clearly flawed. If no one is going to notice the giant "Barry Manilow" in your spot, they certainly won't notice the "curls" and "undershirts." Put another way, 50 (small changes) times zero (dollars of impact on your CPO) equals zero.

The other counter-argument I hear a lot amounts to 'subliminal impact.' It's like arguing that wearing a Barry Manilow t-shirt will give people the urge to listen to his music. They don't consciously process the t-shirt, but unconsciously Manilow invades their brain.

Applied to commercials, this argument seems to make sense. But think about how highly subjective the resulting process will end up being. Someone has to decide which aspects of the commercial have the greatest subliminal impact on viewers. It isn't like we hook people up to fMRI machines (so-called neuromarketing) to figure that out. Instead, we tend to rely on the person with the strongest opinions ... and that person is also probably most susceptible to the type of distorted thinking described above.

What do you think? Share your thoughts with the group and post a comment.

1 comment:

  1. It seems to me that minor things might not need to be tweaked in a commercial, but that the more major things still matter greatly. Adjusting price points to match peoples' perceived values, the offer itself, etc., are still very important elements to test.