Food for Thought (Ignore the salad)
On a recent evening, I accessed Amazon Prime to watch one of my guilty pleasures, The Sopranos. As I clicked through the site to pickup where I left off, this message popped up on my screen:
“Would you like Amazon to assist you in making a donation to your favorite charity?”
I clicked “No” and proceeded to watch the video. But while I watched, I was troubled by a couple of questions. Why would Amazon make that offer? What’s in it for them?
It hit me the following morning. I believe Amazon was trying to take advantage of the licensing effect, a concept studied extensively by consumer behaviorists and behavioral economists. In a nutshell, the licensing effect suggests doing something responsible, altruistic, healthy, or virtuous empowers (licenses) you to do something for yourself. At first glance it appears to be part of the mental balancing act we engage in when we reward ourselves with a treat after a workout, a rational internal decision-making system.
But researchers have discovered the principle goes beyond rewarding ourselves for work done, donations made, or virtuous acts performed. Evidence suggests thinking about doing something virtuous is enough to get folks rewarding themselves. Here are some examples:
- Researchers have found the mere presence of a healthier option on the menu increases the chances that you’ll order the least healthy choice on the menu. In essence, salad on the menu increases the chance that fries, not salad, will be ordered. (http://www.nurtureshock.com/Misbehave.pdf and http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090420170915.htm)
- Subjects shown a picture of a hamburger estimate it has more than 700 calories, on average. Add 3 celery sticks to the picture and the average estimate of the hamburger’s calories decreases by more than 100. (http://bit.ly/saladmakesufat)
Did Amazon expect me to make a donation? Probably not, and I don’t believe that was the intent. I think they were hoping to activate the licensing effect. If Amazon prompts me to think about giving to charity, my subconscious may lead me to reward myself with a purchase on their site.
It didn’t work. At least not as they intended. I haven’t purchased anything from Amazon recently. But research suggests this is a pervasive, subconscious effect that crosses areas. I may have rewarded myself in a different arena (Did it motivate my recent trip to a yarn store?) without realizing it was the subtle effect of the popup.
The research is fascinating, and I have a lot more questions than answers. At issue for me and readers of this blog is how the licensing effect might manifest in student behavior and learning.
Can doing well lead to a rebound of doing poorly? Meaning, might students feel licensed to “let up” in a course after doing well? Or might thinking about studying be associated with less actual studying? Or, is doing well in one course associated with licensed behavior (like reduced study time) in another? Does thinking about volunteer work lead to reduced action/effort in academics? How might the timing, availability and amount of extra credit license student learning behavior? Do our syllabi contain “salad” policies that are inadvertently licensing unproductive decisions?
What are your thoughts? Might some of the unproductive learning decisions students make be the result of the licensing effect? If so, what strategies can teachers use to minimize the licensing effect in learning? Please share.
Interested in a little more reading? I recommend:
Wilcox, K., Vallen, B., Block, L. & Fitzsimons, G.J. 2009. Vicarious Goal Fulfillment: When the Mere Presence of a Healthy Option Leads to an Ironically Indulgent Decision. Journal of Consumer Research, 36: 380-393.