Light, dark, black, white, heads, tails, right, wrong – you choose!


There are a few things that I totally adore in my life; and lumped in with the more obvious ones are old sit coms and old adverts. I’m sure that there’s some deep rooted reason for this that harks back to me not being picked for a five-a-side team at some point. But I’m not bothered – and you can stuff your group hugs. It’s my guilty pleasure and it doesn’t hurt anyone. In fact some of the stuff I like could just save your life!

But let’s not bother about sugarcoating the message:

And just to show what happens when things get REALLY DARK:

Now I wasn’t exactly aware of psychology when I first saw that back in the 1970’s, but I can guarantee you one thing – all my friends and I were completely terrified and conflicted with the idea of a fairy godmother telling us to go swimming and Obi Wan Kenobi’s creepy and psychotic brother waiting to kill us all on the river bank!! No wonder we all turned out like we did.

As we grew up we were expected to know right from wrong. To make the correct choices and to act like responsible, mature grown-ups. So no need to scare the living daylights out of us with adverts  – right? Well actually no. Because, once the government of the day got a taste for it, they wouldn’t stop!

Had an accident that’s not your fault?

There – now you love them too:)

All these negatively loaded scenarios were obviously believed to be the right way forward at the time. However it’s worth a bit of contextual information here. This was also a time when throwing blackboard dusters at schoolchildren who were unable to conjugate the french verb ‘impacter’ whilst hopping on one leg was almost encouraged as acceptable behaviour….ahh bring back hangman!

But as times move on and we’re all a bit more media savvy, then advertisers and broadcasters should look to the world of consumer psychology, because there’s more than one way to skin a cat (don’t panic, I don’t have a film for that).

So this negative framing of risk in order to encourage behavioural change, may have had deep society specific roots. But do we really take unnecessary risks? After all, that would seem to go against every instinct we have to protect our physical selves.

In what Schrader et al call the Universal Male Effect, they sited that sex differences exist in terms of participation rates in various extreme activities; with data suggesting that this is overwhelmingly skewed towards male participation.

This propensity for males to take risks seems to appear in every culture and in every era of our species history on Earth. Manifesting itself, not just in the stereotypical male marching off to war. But this Universal Male Effect that draws them toward risk, seems also to be prevalent in male rights of passage throughout history and cultures; usually encapsulating acts that are linked to courage and bravery.

It’s an effect that can be seen throughout the ages and throughout cultures – even in some surprisingly close to home ones. Nuwer 1999 studied hazing rituals in American Universities (the ritual practice of high risk behaviour. Such ritualistic acts included binge drinking (leading to alcohol poisoning), excessive water consumption (leading to drowning), acts of sexual victimization, forced criminality and acts of humiliation, as way of initiating a person into a group or fraternity.

In support of The Universal Male Effect, Nuwer found that of the 60 reported hazing deaths (deaths of people carrying out whilst engaged in high risk hazing behaviour) that 57 were men.


A great film NOT an instruction video

So what’s going on here, surely we have some in-built cognitive function that allows us to weigh-up risk?

According to one school of thought ‘The Expected Utility Theory’ we do. And it suggests that we do consider the outcomes of uncertain events and approach these as ‘gambles’. And as all gambles have two components. That of probability (called p) and that of value (called v), we can formulate an equation based upon the predicted, or expected, value of any gamble we take. Put simply it’s ‘p’ multiplied by ‘v’. So in a monetary gamble where there is a 25% chance of winning £100, the expected value of that gamble is: 0.25 x 100= £25. Which means that people should be willing to pay up to £25 to take part in the gamble, but no more.

Expected utility theory also gives us an indication of how people should rank various gambles. For example, in the consumer world, if we’re to consider the durability of a product would shoppers rather purchase an item for £100 with a 50% chance that it will fail within the next two years, or should they buy the £300 brand with only a 20% probability of failure? Counterintuitively, the cheaper product is the better choice. As, based on the odds, the cost of replacement of the first product is £100 x 0.50 = £50, but the cost of replacing the £300 item is £300 x 0.20 = £60.

allawi cry baby stan laural

I only came in for directions!

The expected utility theory suggests that we rank alternative outcomes based upon what is worst for us, through to what is best – with alternatives with higher expected values dominating those with lower expected values. And that preferences in choice should be transitive – so if you prefer A to B and B to C, then it follows that you will prefer A to C. And that these preferences, according to the ‘invariance principle’ should remain intact, no matter how they are measured, or no matter how decision alternatives are described.

So expected utility theory seems to make lots of sense and if we were that curious, we could possibly leave it there. But we are inquisitive things, so let’s dig a little deeper. In terms of consumerism, every good advertising copywriter, and consumer psychologist, knows that, more often that not, decisions are reached by the way that the salient information is laid out and presented. Or to put you truly in the picture – the way we ‘frame’ things.

As demonstrated by the darkest set of public information films ever created in the history of broadcasting. For your viewing pleasure, here’s another little 8 minute epic, that was shown in schools and cinemas throughout the U.K.

What were they thinking?

The way in which information is presented in a particular context is called the framing effect. Kahneman (2002) suggests that this is because people tend to generate perceptions that are consistent with a frame, that is directly influenced by the information specific to a particular environment.

Considering all of the psychological principles that are brought to bear when we make choices, we can see that framing, in the consumer world, is a really hot and interesting topic.

So as we walk back towards the lighter side of framing, a great example of how framing effect can be seen to be applied in the consumer world, is in Levin et al study where beef was described in two ways to consumers. In the instance it was labeled as 75% lean, rather that 25% fat, it was found to be more favourably evaluated. However this effect was dramatically reduced when consumers actually tasted the product. The proof of the pudding (or in this case the fatty beef) being well and truly in the eating.

Another really nice example of just how easily framing can effect us in a negative or positive way, is in a study by Kimes et al into the perceptions by golfers of just how fair the golf course charges were. They found that golfers believed that it was totally fair for a course to charge a regular price for ‘prime time’ slots and to offer a 20% discount for other less busy times. However, the idea that a course should charge a 20% premium for ‘prime-time’ slots over the normal price of other times was seen as unfair.

As I come to the end of this Blog, I’m compelled to tell you that it’s not all doom and gloom. Well actually, that’s not true. It is all doom and gloom, but nowadays we’ve learnt to dress it up in a positive frame.

Enjoy. Thanks for reading – and keep a special watch for the superglue guy:

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