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How to increase the odds of people doing what you want them to do

Benjamin Disraeli once said that ‘there are lies, damned lies and statistics’. By which he meant that you can manipulate just about any set of figures to make them sound far more impressive. Over the years, marketing people have exploited this technique many times to beef up a proposition.

For instance, there’s a well-known brand of cat food that eight out of ten owners say their cat prefers. That sounds like 80% of cats prefer it. But, of course, it just means that 80% of the 100 or so cat owners who took part in the survey think their cats prefer it. In other words, less than 0.01% of all cat owners say that their cats prefer it. Not as impressive when the stats are presented this way, is it? Or am I just being catty?

Similarly, like me, a lot of you will be sitting on the edge of your sofa this Saturday hoping and praying for your balls to drop. You’ll no doubt be watching the lottery, whereas I’m just a late developer. Of course, by now, everyone knows that the odds of winning the jackpot are 14 million to one. Yet we still think it’s worth a punt. Statistically, there’s more chance of being eaten by a shark.

Even if you live in Harrogate.

One minute you’re sipping tea in Betty’s, the next minute all the crumpets have disappeared along with your lower limbs. It could happen. And it could be you.

So why do we buy lottery tickets so avidly when, for the organisers, it’s little more than a licence to print money? The answer is because it cleverly exploits a simple weakness in the way the human mind works. Called the ‘availability bias’, it’s the tendency that we have to judge probabilities on the basis of how easily examples come to mind. So it doesn’t matter that the odds of winning the lottery are very long - every week we hear about yet another lucky jackpot winner. Hence, we assume that we’re much more likely to win than we really are.

When I speak at conferences and ask delegates to guess the percentage of UK households consisting of a husband, wife and two children - a boy and a girl as per the photo - they always overestimate wildly. This is because they are so used to seeing the ‘typical’ nuclear family in TV dramas and in advertising they think it’s more common than it really is. The actual figure is less than 4%.

So how can you exploit the ‘availability bias’ to influence the behaviour of others? Well, you can start by reminding them how common it is to benefit from what you want them to do. For example: ‘Join the thousands whose eyesight has already been restored with laser eye surgery’ might be your slogan if you’re a laser eye surgeon. If you’re a tree surgeon this doesn’t work at all.

Of course, there’s always the exception to the rule. Luxury carmaker Ferrari announced recently that it would be managing the high demand for its cars by reducing the number it produced. Most companies would boast of increased productivity to keep pace with demand. But Ferrari’s priority is to protect exclusivity and thereby increase the value of its brand.

The good news is that there’s still more chance of you owning one than winning the lottery.

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