Where Is The Quintessential American Compliance Setting?
Hint: It’s Not The Doctor’s Office
According to Robert Cialdini, writing in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, the quintessential American compliance setting is the Tupperware Party.1 We’ll get to the “why” behind that claim and what the medical community might learn from get-togethers in suburban living rooms dedicated to retailing plastic food containers in a moment; first we need to look at …
Psychology Of Persuasion, Decision-making, Influence, Motivation, Consumer Choices, … And Behavioral Economics
A widely varied group, including philosophers, economists, academicians, salesmen, psychologists, sociologists, retailers, manufacturers, marketing and advertising professionals, and others, has, for the past several years, invested much time and effort into understanding the psychological machinations which determine how an individual reaches a decision to take one or another action, such as determining the brand of blue jeans to buy, whether or not to buckle ones seat belt, which political candidate to support, who to marry, when to trade in the family car for a newer model, whether to attend religious services and, if so, which religious services, … .
Of paramount significance in these efforts is the focus on how these decisions are actually – not theoretically – made.
The primary victim of this obsessively pragmatic process has been the paradigm of the Rational Man – the notion that individuals make decisions by calculating the advantages, disadvantages, costs, uses, risks, and similar factors pertaining to possible courses of actions and then choosing the option that best facilitates that individual reaching specific, predetermined goals at the least cost. 2
Decades of experiments, studies, observations, and sales data convincingly demonstrate that, instead, we routinely make decisions based on unfounded beliefs, unconscious associations, buyer-seller dynamics, and illogical reasoning. In short, in the matter of decision-making, our confidence far exceeds our capacities.3
Back To The Tupperware Party
The Rational Man would, for example, presumably go about meeting his food storage needs by considering the price, warranties, size, sturdiness, experiences of others, and so on for implements available in the marketplace, comparing the findings with his personal preferences and then only then purchasing the items that best match his requirements.
In reality, as shown in a 1990 study by Jonathan Frenzen and Harry Davis, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Tupperware parties were successful in merchandising the product because those attending liked the hostess, not the Tupperware. Fondness for the hostess was twice as important as whether they liked, wanted, or needed the product.
The Reciprocity Effect
Reciprocity, one element of “liking” someone selling an item or an idea, serves as a useful example of the principles underlying everyday decision-making.
The Reciprocity Effect describes the sense of indebtedness felt when someone does something for us or gives us something and our need to reciprocate in order to relieve that sense of obligation.
In a classic, much quoted experiment by Regan,4 subjects are instructed to rate, along with another person (the other person is actually a confederate of the researcher), the quality of a work of art. During a rest period, the confederate leaves the room. When he returns, he is carrying a Coke for himself and one for the subject. There was also a control condition in which the confederate leaves the room and comes back with no Coke for himself or the subject. So subjects in the experimental group receive an unsolicited act of kindness while those in the control group do not.
At the end of the ostensible art-rating experiment, the confederate informally tells the subject that he’s selling raffle tickets and is eligible to win a prize if sells the most tickets. He then asks the subject to help by buying some tickets. Subjects who receive the gift of a Coke buy far more tickets subjects who receive no such gift. Subjects receiving the 10 cent Coke (it’s 1974) buy at least two more raffle tickets at 25 cents each. In fact, the positive effect of the gift (buying more lottery tickets) maintains even if the confederate makes it clear that the Cokes are supplied by the research project so that there is no cost to the giver of the gift.5
If what you give to somebody is meaningful, tailored and unexpected, that’s really the best you can do. All the evidence shows you will be repaid.
Which is why it is important that games were played and prizes awarded at Tupperware parties, why surveys come with a dollar attached, why the Disabled American Veterans organization sends personalized address labels. with its form letter asking for support (the DAV credits the inclusion of the labels with increasing their response rate from 18 percent to 35 percent), and why an especially smart business partner gave me an extensive collection of music he (correctly) guessed I would enjoy before we even began discussing working together.
The Ethics Of Persuasion In Clinical Care
The use of tactics associated with the principles of persuasion does carry with it significant ethical and moral implications that are beyond the scope of this single posting. While I will elaborate on this in a later entry, suffice it for now to note (1) the concepts of behavioral economics, not unlike the technologies of medicine, are intrinsically amoral; it is how they are put into use that is an ethical concern, and (2) casual observation at any clinic demonstrates that patients making decisions about treatment, one of the first steps in determining adherence, do not behave congruently with the Rational Man theory and are, intentionally or unintentionally, subjected to as many influences as the guest at the Tupperware party; the difference is that those influences were effectively applied to reach a goal at the Tupperware party.
Patient Compliance And Tupperware Parties
Non-rational motivations are, incidentally, equally important in the purchase of a car, the choice of pharmacies, and the election of a Senator as they are in buying Tupperware. While I lack the specific data to prove it, I am willing to wager a significant sum (say, all the money I can lay my hands on) that the same is true in the case of patient compliance.
At the least, clinicians should be aware of and be able to address those influencing forces in the context of patient compliance. I also believe a compelling argument can be made (and I will be making that argument in another post) that clinicians not only have the ethical authority to use certain tactics of persuasion in the service of enhancing the chances that a treatment regimen will be successfully implemented but that they have a responsibility to do so.
I’ve long railed against the concept of the Rational Man as it applies to theories of patient compliance. (See, for example, Patient Behavior, Current Patient Compliance Models, Neuroeconomics, The Rational Man, & Noncompliance, and Decision-Making Processes Of Prostate Cancer Patients)) Ongoing readers could well accuse me of beating a dead horse were it not for evidence found everyday in the literature, conversations, studies, and clinical practice that this particular horse is alive and well.
The concept of the Rational Man continues to dominate – and misdirect – thinking in the field of patient compliance.
And that’s a damned shame – because we should know better by now.__________
- It may be helpful to keep in mind that Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion was first published in 1984.↩
- Rational Man and Economic Man are terms used in economics, law, and other settings to stipulate a hypothetical individual that uniformly and inevitably acts logically to achieve the highest possible well-being for himself using whatever pertinent information is available. More formally, The Washington University Economic Geography Glossary defines Economic Man as the “Highly abstract model of human economic behavior based on simplifying but extreme assumptions of perfect information and perfect ability to use such information in a rational way (i.e. to achieve optimal ends)” ↩
- For details, descriptions, and data pertaining to behavioral economics, one can turn to a number of recent books written for the lay public. My personal favorite is “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions” by Dan Ariely. HarperCollins. 2008↩
- Regan, R.T., 1971, “Effects of a favor and liking on compliance,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7, 627-639.↩
- Peter A. Ubel, Free Market Madness: Why Human Nature is at Odds with Economics–and Why it Matters↩