BBC Radio 4 aficionados (I’m not middle-aged, middle-class and middle-of-the-road at all, really) will know of continuity announcer, Charlotte Green, she of the dusky voice and velvet tones. But how tall is she?
This was the question posed by Professor Neil Stewart from Warwick University of Claudia Hammond during her with him interview during All in the Mind, a splendid series on, well, BBC Radio 4. Claudia had never met Charlotte, but before giving her guess Neil asked her if she believed that Charlotte was more or less than six inches tall. The point he made was that the final guess would be less than if he first asked her if she thought Charlotte was shorter or taller than nine feet. How we pose questions can suggest how we think and behave, he proffers.
Research conducted by Neil and colleagues and published in the Journal of Marketing Research shows that showing the required minimum amount to repay on credit card statements, in effect, causes people to pay off less than if they did not have this prompt. In other words, the total amount of personal debt in the UK is higher than it need be if this requirement wasn’t in place.
Giving non-conscious psychological prompts is not new. Supermarkets with orange logos, baking smells at the back of stores, brightly coloured fresh fruit and veg at the front, and blues and purples suggesting luxury to wrap chocolates and treats are all ‘old’ techniques.
There is, of course, a moral dilemma. Should we be using these psychological nudges to get people to do things that perhaps they wouldn’t do if they had information presented differently. Personally, I think helping people make the right decision which is considered right by most people in a societal context is probably the right thing to do, be that in a social context or a commercial one.
Is there a chance to rethink the minimum repayment option? The moral answer must be, if it helps do the right thing, then perhaps there should be.