Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, August 8, 2022
I confess. I have a bit of ADHD. If I walk into the kitchen and the silverware drawer is slightly ajar, I push it closed. I do all the dishes immediately after dinner. They never sit in the sink.
Well, it turns out that I’m not totally nuts. There is research about finishing things, about completing sets. Allow me to share some research from a few Harvard professors, Kate Barasz, Leslie John, Elizabeth Keenan and Michael Norton. They say that “people are irrationally motivated to complete arbitrary sets of tasks, purchases or donations.”
The value of their research is directly related to “persuading people to finish more tasks, buy more products or donate more money.” My newest company is in the NFT/nonprofit space, and I won’t bore you, but if you want to raise money from people, you need to motivate them to create “the satisfaction of completion and the relief of avoiding an incomplete set.”
The big idea is to not present assignments as an individual unit, but rather as a grouping. No one goes to the barbecue with a box of five beers, you complete the holder and fill all the spaces, even though you can buy the craft beers individually. The way you take advantage of our human nature is to create a “pseudo-set,” which is an arbitrary assignment “manufactured for the sole purpose of creating the idea of wholeness.”
They say, if you want to get people to refer others to your website, ask them to do it in batches of five at a time. Create a bundle, don’t let the donor or the purchaser interact one at a time.
I recently wanted a lounge chair for the patio. I found one I liked, but I had to buy two because they only came as a pair. Down I went. I will use the other one in the front of the house.
A recent study with the Canadian Red Cross did a similar test. Nobody wants to donate six blankets when you can feel just as good only donating one. “But if you frame it as a set, then people had a reason to complete the set and they donated all six.”
The key word here is “framing,” and my favorite Nobel Prize winner, Dan Kahneman, has written tomes on that idea. How you present the puzzle determines much of the outcome.
Another study was done with gambling. There were a set of four gambles, everyone wins the first three. The odds of winning the fourth are terrible and it puts all the other winnings at risk. Thirty-five percent of the participants did it anyway. They felt they needed to complete the set. Folks, we do stupid things, even when it is costly.
Thinking about projects not as individual tasks seems to be effective in achieving results. My little company is about to launch, and we have learned that “donors give more money to cohesive sets of victims,” e.g., a family that has been impacted, rather than any one individual person.
The researchers point out that people like to cross off the items on their to-do-list. They like to finish the list, as long as it is not too long. The size of the set matters. If the task is monumental and not easily broken into bite-size chunks, people just bail out. They give up. However, if it is achievable “with just a little more effort,” then the team consistently goes the extra mile.
Think about the supporters along the way encouraging you to finish the marathon — the crowds along the Tour de France who stand on the steepest climbs and shout at the riders to keep going. We are built to respond to cheering.
Positive reinforcement works magic in your company. “You have completed 75 percent of the task, you are almost there.” I am fascinated by this. I know I am being manipulated, but it still works, I dig in and I finish.
The key here is to understand the correct “stopping point.” How many questions will I answer from a Delta Air Lines survey before I just hit delete? Your employees and your customers need to periodically have a place to stand and feel complete. This is the stuff of real leadership.
Rule No. 724:
My trainer, “One more pushup to get to 10.”