Are there limits to influencing the consumer?

August 1, 2023 – 6:00

It is not acceptable not to recognize the ethical responsibility of companies in designing processes that influence consumer decisions (Credit: Marko Aliaksandr/Shutterstock)

Challenged to propose a set of behavioral interventions that would increase people’s engagement with the credit card app, my team and I realized that the app in question contained pitfalls that aimed to sell credit easily and impulsively. In short, the company used a significant body of cognitive biases and customer behavioral data to sell financial products that posed significant debt risk. We proposed to the company a deep change of the application, removing all the trappings, turning it into a tool to promote the financial health of its customers. They politely told us that they understand our position, but that the debt problem does not belong to the company, but to the people. They said that decisions are the sole responsibility of their customers and that the company’s role is to sell as much as possible. We didn’t do the project of course, but I kept it in mind.

This is not an unusual way of thinking. Therefore, I propose a quick reflection on the moral responsibility of companies regarding consumer choices, especially when applying the Behavioral Sciences to this process.

Vohs and Faber (2011 – inform us, for example, that the consumer is more vulnerable to impulse buying after a day at work or when going to the checkout, tired, after from having walked all over the supermarket. Some of the most used strategies to “take advantage” of this moment of consumer vulnerability are: using physical proximity, placing offers along the path the consumer must follow until they pass the checkout. and making offers for a limited time, in both cases causing several cognitive biases that greatly increase the likelihood that an impulse purchase will occur.

Many companies know that certain physical environments and certain information they choose to convey during the so-called “consumer journey” do not help consumers in their decision-making process. This is because they are deliberately framed so that we make less deliberate, faster and biased decisions. As much as we have shopping lists and resource constraints, we cannot simply turn off the cognitive processes that process the physical context and information we receive. Even experts are swayed by information they shouldn’t be considering. It is very difficult for consumers, regardless of social class or years of education, not to succumb to these traps and let the impulse win. Most of the time, we don’t even realize it’s happening.

While I disagree, I understand anyone who thinks this kind of commercial interference is morally acceptable. We have long been influenced by the idea that we are superior agents – that we can calculate costs and benefits almost perfectly, that we clearly know our needs and preferences, and that we are mindful of available resources. If we believe that we are superior, we will logically think that there is no reason why we should not always make the best decisions, or something close to it. Turns out we’re not like that. The Behavioral Sciences show us a very different reality, giving us back some humanity and showing us how vulnerable we are to the deliberate manipulation of our judgments and decisions.

Considering this, it is unacceptable not to recognize the ethical responsibility of companies in designing processes that influence consumer decisions. There are ethical limits to influencing consumers, voters and citizens, especially the most vulnerable.

The examples I mentioned are part of a well-known set of interventions that worsen the conditions for consumer decision-making. The point is not to prevent companies from selling to or influencing consumers, but to prevent them from making consumer decisions less deliberate and less self-interested, weighed down, obviously, by the impact on society.

#limits #influencing #consumer

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