Part Four – The Extra Large Medium

By: Ilan Mann

April 16, 2020

This is part four of an ongoing series about consumer behaviour. You are strongly encouraged to read part one here, part two here, and part three here before reading this post.

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Communication philosopher Marshall McLuhan sits in front of several TV screens broadcasting his famous catchphrase.

Thinking Fast and Slow, the seminal book by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman about his work with his late research partner, Amos Tversky, is full of mental tricks, riddles, illusions, and “ah-ha” moments designed to make you question whose side your brain is really on.

In the first chapter, he presents the reader with the Müller-Lyer optical illusion. The two lines in the illusion are actually the same length, but with the added context of the fins on the end of the lines, one appears to be significantly shorter than the other. Even though I am telling you that they’re the same length, and even after you take a ruler and measure them, you still won’t be able to convince your brain that they are the same length, and neither can I.

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Kahneman uses the illusion to illustrate the difference between your fast-thinking System 1 and your slow-thinking System 2. You can teach your system 2 that the lines are the same length, but you can’t stop your system 1 from immediately seeing one as shorter than the other.

I wouldn’t be much of a Canadian if I didn’t work Marshall McLuhan into a blog post sooner rather than later. The phrase that McLuhan is probably most famous for is, “the medium is the message.”

That is to say that the way in which the content is delivered is as important, if not more important, than the content itself. This is one of those great ideas that seems obvious, but only once it’s said out loud.

Where Kahneman & Tversky meet McLuhan is in understanding why and how our brains receive the same message differently when it is delivered by two different media; it is for essentially the same reason that we perceive the same line differently when it is contextualized by different directional fins.

There is a reason that fancy restaurants go to the trouble of having a well-groomed maitre d’ bring you a beautifully arranged and colourful piece of lamb while ambient lighting and the faint sound of quiet violins lull you into thinking that what you’re about to taste is really worth a day’s salary before you ever bite into it.

A prepared food critic may be able to train their System 2 to override their initial impressions and objectively, slowly, and methodically deliver a verdict on the food, but most of us are going to be fooled, like the well-heeled guests in this video, that Penn and Teller tricked into thinking that water from a garden hose was worth $7 a bottle.

In the same way, presenting the same value proposition, for the same price, in two different ways, can have drastically different results.

There are a few different ways in which our brain tricks us into mistaking contextual factors for value.

One example of this mental phenomenon at work is the effort heuristic.

The effort heuristic is one of the most immediately recognizable cognitive biases; essentially, the effort heuristic is the mental shortcut that we take whereby we calculate something’s value based on how much effort it required. Calculating the value is hard. Calculating the effort involved is easier – especially when that effort is pointed out to us:

Slow-roasted pork. Barrel-aged whiskey. Hand-made, bespoke tailored suits.

For example, in an experiment establishing the nature of the effort heuristic,  Kruger et al. assigned randomly subjects one of two poems, and told some that the poem had take 18 hours to write, and others that the poem had taken 4 hours to write. The subjects that were told that their randomly assigned poem took 18 hours to write judged their poem to be better, and worthy of more money from a poetry magazine.

That’s precisely why hand-written mail works.

Think about the last donation you made to a non-profit. Maybe it was one that you really believe in, or maybe you had a friend who canvassed you for a non-profit to which they have a personal connection. The average American household gives over $2,500 a year to philanthropic causes, so chances are your donation was more expensive than most products that you regularly buy. It could be considered a luxury purchase – an expensive gift.

A week or two later, you opened your mailbox to find a handwritten thank-you card with some sincerely penned words from someone at the non-profit – a development manager or someone who your gift impacted. You know how much effort goes into writing those cards from your own experience writing them, so you immediately judge the card to be valuable without thinking too much about it. If you were asked, you would probably say that it’s the thought the counts; that you were moved by the words of gratitude.

Now imagine instead that you had received an email message a week or two after the donation was processed, with the identical message. The email is obviously less meaningful an expression of gratitude than the handwritten thank you card, but why?

Because of the effort heuristic, that’s why. Because the medium really is the message. The email was probably automated and very easy to generate and send.

The handwritten card can’t be automated (or so your brain thinks). Our minds trick us into believing that there is an inherent value in something that we believe took a long time to make. Your recipients need never know that you outsourced the hand-cramps to a Postalgia robot.