Offering people free stuff can feel like manipulation, and backfire

Last Friday, I met up with 20 of my fellow Fogg-Bootcampers at Stanford – BJ Fogg held a one-day “Refresh” on Behavior Design.   Excellent. Great to see the new concepts and techniques he’s working on.

One idea in particular really struck me:  when companies give away free stuff or play on our emotions in order to make us do something, it often feels forced, manipulative.  But helping people take action doesn’t need to be. If you make the action easier to take, control is still in the user’s hands;  if they really want to take the action, they are more likely to do so.  That’s a core part of Fogg’s Behavior Model.

Consider three different ways to facilitate action [1]:

  1. motivating people with money,
  2. motivating people by appealing to their emotions, or
  3. increasing their ability to act.

I’ll give an example of each one.


Artificially Motivating People with Money (Or Stuff)

Imagine an NGO that is encouraging you to contact your Congressperson about gun control (positively or negatively, depending on your personal politics). The NGO sets up a web site with information about gun control, information on your Congressperson’s stance, and a call to action (contact your Congressperson now!). Check out this version of the site:

  • Mail your Representative now, and you have a chance to win a free iPad!  Yeah, a free iPad!    Type your message below!

How do you react to that pitch?  Personally, I find that one just feels strange and forced. You might do it one time (to get that iPad!), but would you trust the NGO? Would you take them seriously in the future?


Artificially Motivating People with Emotional Appeals

Or, try the next one. If you’re generally pro-gun control, read the “Con” line. If you’re generally anti-gun control, read the “Pro” line, below:

  • Pro:  The Gun control lobby is totally out of control! They are robbing us of our freedoms!  You can’t let them do that.  You’re all that stands in the way.  Act now!  Type your message below!
  • Con:  The Gun lobby is totally out of control! They are robbing us of your safety!  You can’t let them do that.  You’re all that stands in the way.  Act now!  Type your message below!

Now, imagine similar ploys you’ve heard in the media. I’m guessing that feels wrong too? [2]

Increasing People’s Ability to Act

Ok. Instead of appealing to people’s emotions, or tempting them with an iPad, imagine you saw this on the NGO’s website instead:

  • The form below automatically has your Representative’s contact information and a sample message you can edit as you’d like.  Act Now!

Pretty bland, right? But does it feel wrong? Does it feel forced? I’m guessing not. All the NGO is doing is making it easier to act – they are facilitating.

Getting People over the Hump

Here’s the kicker – both approaches can work. Both amping people’s motivation, and making things easier for them, increases the likelihood that they will take actions that they honestly do believe in.[3]   But amping motivation carries baggage – it carries the baggage of pushing people to do stuff they wouldn’t  otherwise do. And, it’s been employed so often and so blatantly, that it can turn people off. That isn’t always the case – there are many situations in which a little added incentive is a great idea. But, if you are trying to help a user over a behavioral “hump”, to take some action they want to do but are somehow blocked, which would you rather do: push them over the hump (with extra motivation), or make the hump smaller and easier to get past? The second option – making it easier for them to act – looks much more appealing.

And that’s what I’ve been chewing on since the flight back from Fogg’s event.

What do you think about motivating vs. facilitating action?





iPad Image by Sean MacEntee.

[1] There are other ways to facilitate action, of course.  I’m just focusing on these three, here.   See Fogg’s Behavior Model for a solid framework for thinking about different ways to facilitate behavior change.   Also, there’s a big debate over whether intrinsic or extrinsic motivation is best, and which one is most sustainable in the long term; I don’t want to get into that here.  Instead,  I’m talking about something different – avoiding the need to amp up motivation altogether.

[2] It’s a little harder to notice with emotional ploys like these, because they are so effective. That’s why I like to look at the opposing camp’s messaging. It’s the same psychology, but we can see it a bit more clearly that way.

[3] It depends on the situation for which approach will be more effective, but both are powerful.