Cognitive biases, loss aversion and your nonprofit marketing

1410734667Last week, I used a magnet strip on a plastic card to buy passage on a giant metal bird. The bird leaders asked me to turn off the thing the size of my palm that connects me to all human knowledge, but I could use my book-size thing.  In two hours, the bird took me to a place that I couldn’t reach in a season by walking.

And yet you and I have the same mental equipment that supported our deep ancestors to decide only the four f’s: fight, flee, feed, and, um, well, when two cavepeople love each other very much (or are just anatomically compatible)…

We may stand straighter with less hair and more clothing; mentally, we haven’t changed as much as we’d like. 

We deal with this by taking mental shortcuts, or heuristics, constantly.  There’s a good, bad, and ugly to these biases.  They allow us to function in a complex world and many of them (e.g., trial and error) are pretty good rules of thumb.  However, many of our worst tendencies are in this primitive coding.  They poison our unconscious mind.  For our ancestors, it was useful to use the heuristic that the more the thing looks like me, the more likely it is a friend.  For us, that’s called racism, sexism, and many other unpleasant -isms.  

Heuristics lead to cognitive biases, where we skip over a number of steps in the thought process  to arrive at conclusions.  That’s what we’re going to talk about this week: cognitive biases and how to either use them or mitigate them in your direct marketing.

One common bias we have is loss aversion.  People hate to lose things more than they like to win things.  This sounds nonsensical, but here’s an example from the literature.

Scientists asked people to imagine preparing for the outbreak a disease expected to kill 600 people. If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved. If Program B is adopted, there is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and 2/3 probability that no people will be saved.  Seventy-two percent of people opted for program A.

They also asked people about two other programs.  If Program C is adopted 400 people will die. If Program D is adopted there is 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and 2/3 probability that all 600 people will die.  Seventy-eight percent of people opted for program D.

The thing is that programs A and C are the same and programs B and D are the same.

The study is here.  All that changes is the framing device.  People hate the option of program C — that 400 people will die.  And they hate the option of program B, where they can’t lock in gains.

The authors conclude that people faced with choices involving gains are often risk averse.  However, we will take risks to avoid losses.

This is partly intuitive.  Picture two gamblers.  One has an early run of luck and is trying to sit on his lead.  Another has an early run of bad luck; she starts wagering more and more to try to get back to neutral.

So, the obvious implication for nonprofit direct marketing is that you aren’t trying to do good things; you are trying to prevent bad things.  People are more likely to donate to prevent a negative than to preserve a positive.

But you can read other blogs to get the obvious implications of things.  There are two other important implications of loss aversion to nonprofits.

The first has a recent snappy acronym: FOMO or fear of missing out.

Something doesn’t have to be as dramatic a loss as death for people want to avoid it.  Sometimes it’s as simple as opportunity cost: the idea that you could be doing something other than what you are doing.  This dovetails with the scarcity/urgency persuasion trigger discussed here

You can trigger this fear by:

  • Having a time deadline on your action.  I’ve done this with matching gifts (which is why I’m only testing the lead gift strategy described here and not rolling out with it).  In both mail and email, these are the only communications I see where the follow-ups do better than the initial communication (because they are closer to the deadline).
  • Having unique benefits that belong to an exclusive few.  This could be an invitation to a gala or access to information before the hoi polloi.  
  • Asking people with exclusive access to information to share it.  You can trigger FOMO if juicy tidbits might be shared with someone’s social network (in the broad and specific senses) before one has a chance to share it oneself.

The second is that dollar signs trigger fear of loss.  There is an excellent study of this on restaurant menus, which is why you see high-end restaurants put 38 sans currency market or cents next to that duck a la orange.  They don’t want you to have a fear of losing your money, but rather want you to focus on what you can get.

The problem is that, in my limited experience testing this, forms and reply devices without dollar signs look a little bit silly.  I’m hoping that we can make this the standard over the long term, but for right now, they seem required.

However, we don’t have to do it in the letter or email copy.  Spelling out dollars instead of putting the currency mark alleviates the fear of the recipient until they (hopefully) have already made the decision to make the gift.*

Tomorrow, we’ll talk even more about ask strings with the cognitive bias of anchoring.


* Why is this section green?  Because after I posted this blog post, there’s now some evidence that many of the money priming studies aren’t able to be replicated.  Additionally, there’s evidence that there were negative results that were not reported.  There’s a good write-up of this at Discover Magazine’s Neuroskeptic blog and I learned about it from Andrew Gelman’s blog here.

I feel I owe it to you both to not change my original post (and thus to admit when I’m wrong) and to let you know about the change, so this is my mea culpa.  If you have other ideas as to what I should do in these circumstances, email me at

Cognitive biases, loss aversion and your nonprofit marketing

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