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How friendship became a tool of the powerful

Economics, Psychology, social media

Imagine walking into a coffee shop, ordering a cappuccino, and then, to your surprise, being informed that it has already been paid for. Where did this unexpected gift come from? It transpires that it was left by the previous customer. The only snag, if indeed it is a snag, is that you now have to do the same for the next customer who walks in.

This is known as a “pay-it-forward” pricing scheme. It is something that has been practised by a number of small businesses in California, such as the Karma Kitchen in Berkeley and, in some cases, customers have introduced it spontaneously. On the face of it, it would seem to defy the logic of free-market economics. Markets, surely, are places where we are allowed, even expected, to behave selfishly. With its hippy idealism, pay-it-forward would appear to go against the core tenets of economic calculation.

But there is more to it than this. Researchers from the decision science research group at the University of California, Berkeley have looked closely at pay-it-forward pricing and discovered something with profound implications for how markets and businesses work. It transpires that people will generally pay more under the pay-it-forward model than under a conventional pricing system. As the study’s lead author, Minah Jung, puts it: “People don’t want to look cheap. They want to be fair, but they also want to fit in with the social norms.” Contrary to what economists have long assumed, altruism can often exert a far stronger influence over our decision-making than calculation.

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