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Behavioral Economics and The Bachelor: Why Jake is a perfect example of predictable irrationality


I never thought I’d read a book on behavioral economics and have it stick with me. But Dan Ariely’s brilliant take on the subject, Predictably Irrational, has made quite an impact.

Besides being written in a conversational and engaging style, the facts within are fascinating. Who knew that we were so easily and willingly manipulated as a society of consumers? Since finishing the book, I’ve been noticing examples everywhere of the content covered. Decision paralysis in the grocery store. The Achilles’ heel of arousal. And so on. But one popular television show really demonstrates some of the principles that Ariely covers. And those principles are dramatically and glaringly obvious—in high definition.

The Bachelor is a reality TV phenomenon that continues to capture American audiences each season. Every week millions of viewers tune in to see which woman will get the boot, or how many Mean Girl mini-dramas will break out on set. At the epicenter of the harpy hurricane is the Bachelor. This season, it’s an affable and bland airline pilot named Jake.

Jake, at first glance, has it easy. Get plopped down in a passel of hot women, get to know them, kick out the crazies or less attractive contenders and find your true love. In six weeks. Sounds easy, right?

Alas, poor Jake. In the midst of this bimbo bouillabaisse, he’s being provoked and challenged by some of the very principles of behavioral economics that Mr. Ariely describes. Let’s stop looking at Jake as a milquetoast Ken doll and examine exactly what he’s dealing with on the show.

Arousal is a gimme for a show like this. Jake is a kid in an eye candy store, and all the women seem to own an inexhaustible supply of high-class hooker wear. At the risk of bursting some delusion bubbles, reality shows are regularly manipulated and scripted. Keeping Jake in a constant state of lust behooves the producers; he’s more suggestible and prone to follow their “guidance.” Certain women prove to be better for ratings, so their skirts get shorter and their overtures more overt. The Fantasy Suite is offered up in the Final Three episode so the couples have the option to take each other for a test drive. Let’s face it. The Arousal Factor isn’t just being used on the cast members. It’s also being used on us, to ensure we keep tuning in.

Distraction of Options is a common issue in today’s marketing. And for Jake, too. Presented with so many hot women and so many different personalities, he’s apt to fall into decision paralysis. Just like an acquistion email with too many options, he’s got too many women. The result is a sensory overload, and this can cause lack of focus, pressure of decision and oversight of flaws. In other words, Jake can (and did) fall into the trap of making the wrong decision, simply to make a decision. A lot of wonderful women were sent home, and he made some choices that surprised the viewers.

Relativity is the bread and butter of The Bachelor. Comparing what we already have to what we don’t, or comparing among available choices is something we all do, usually on a daily basis. Ariely uses an effective example of shopping for a house that I’ll paraphrase. Say a person is taken to see three houses. Two are Colonials, one is a Modern. One of the Colonials needs to have the roof repaired and is priced slightly lower to offset that fact. Inevitably, the buyer will choose the other Colonial. Why? Because he has something to compare it to. There isn’t another Modern for him to base his decision on, so he is drawn to the “better” of the two Colonials. Irrational? Yes. Predictable? Apparently so.

Jake pares down his potential brides ruthlessly each week. Heck, sometimes he lays down a carpet bomb rejection and ditches multiple ladies. So the tension really ratchets up when he’s down to the Final Three. And it was while watching that episode (hey, it’s for research purposes) that I saw Relativity clearly in action. Here Jake was faced with three women. One was Gia, a gorgeous brunette swimsuit model with a down-to-earth personality, a New York accent and a wary heart. The other two, Tenley and Vienna, were blonde, presented themselves as saccharin sweet to Jake and seemed much more eager to profess their undying love to him. Bam. Relativity made Jake’s decision easy. Gia got kicked to the curb, because he had nothing to compare her to. And then there were two. The finale isn’t until next Monday night, but when it comes down to the wire, Jake is going to decide based on who has a better roof. So to speak.

So how do each of these principles tie back into online marketing? Simple. From each we can learn some helpful dos and don’ts that can make the difference in your conversions.

Arousal: When appropriate, using titillating imagery or messaging can put your audience into a passive, impressionable mode. The trick is to know when it will work, because it can backfire when used on the wrong demographic. Subtle is more effective than overt, and irreverence is more acceptable than vulgarity.

Distraction of Options: Give your audience too many choices and they’ll most likely abandon your conversion path. If you provide less choices, along with a clear explanation of the benefits of each, you empower the customer to make an educated choice without getting antsy.

Relativity: Using the Final Three method and giving them two similar choices next to one that’s totally different can give you the power to strategically steer their actions. Try three price points; low, mid and high. Make the mid-point price the “preferred” selection in your strategy. Watch how many people choose it, because they don’t want to get the cheapest, nor pay the most.

I recommend that you read Predictably Irrational. Soon, you’ll be spotting the signs of behavioral economics everywhere, too. As for Jake, soon he’ll be experiencing another facet of Ariely’s book: the high price of ownership. Ouch.