It’s the Fall that’s Gonna Kill You

Butch: I’ll jump first.
Sundance: Nope.
Butch: Then you jump first.
Sundance: No, I said!
Butch: What’s the matter with you?!
Sundance: I can’t swim!
Butch:  Why, you crazy — the fall’ll probably kill ya!

                                     Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – 1969

Last Monday, fellow Insider Steven Rosenbaum asked, “Is Advertising Obsolete?” The column and the post by law professor Ramsi Woodcock that prompted it were both interesting. So were the comments – which were by and large supportive of good advertising.

I won’t rehash Rosenbaum’s column, but it strikes me that we – being the collective we of the MediaPost universe – have been debating whether advertising is good or bad, relevant or obsolete, a trusted source of information or a con job for the ages and we don’t seem to be any closer to an answer.

The reason is that an advertisement is all of those things. But not at the same time.

I used to do behavioral research, specifically eye-tracking. And the end of an eye tracking study, you get what’s called an aggregate heat map. This is the summary of all the eyeball activity of all the participants over the entire duration of all interactions with whatever the image was. These were interesting, but personally I was fascinated with the time slices of the interactions. I found that often, you can learn more about behaviors by looking at who looked at what when. It was only when we looked at interactions on a second by second basis that we started to notice the really interesting patterns emerge. For example, when looking at a new website, men looked immediately at the navigation bar, whereas women were first drawn to the “hero” image. But if you looked at the aggregates – the sum of all scanning activities – the men and women’s images were almost identical.

I believe the same thing is happening when we try to pin down advertising. And it’s because advertising – and our attitudes towards it – change through the life cycle of a brand, or product, or company.

Our relationship with a product or brand can be represented by an inverted U chart, with the vertical axis being awareness/engagement and the horizontal axis being time. Like a zillion other things, our brain defines our relationship with a product or brand by a resource/reward algorithm. Much of human behavior can be attributed to a dynamic tension between opposing forces and this is no exception. Driving us to explore the new are cognitive forces like novelty seeking and changing expectations of utility while things like cognitive lock in and the endowment effect tend to keep us loyal. As we engage with a new product or brand, we climb up the first side of the inverted U. But nothing in nature continues on a straight line, much as every sales manager would love it to. At some point, our engagement will peak and we’ll get itchy feet to try something new. Then we start falling down the descent of the U. And it’s this fall that kills our acceptance of advertising.

2000px-HebbianYerkesDodson.svgThis inverted U shows up all the time in human behavior. We assume you can never have too much of a good thing, but this is almost never true. There’s even a law that defines this, known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Developed by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson in 1908, it plots performance against mental or physical arousal. Predictably, performance increases with how fully we’re engaged with whatever we’re doing – but only up to a point. Then, performance peaks and starts to decline into anxiety.

It’s also why TV show runners are getting smarter about ending a series just as they crest the top of the hump. Hard lessons about the dangers of the decline have been learned by the jumping of multiple sharks.

Our entire relationship with a brand or product is built on the foundation of this inverted U, so it should come as no surprise that our acceptance of advertising for said brand or product also has to be plotted on this same chart. Yet it seems to constantly comes as a surprise for the marketing teams. In the beginning, on the upslope of the upside-down U, we are seeking novelty, and an advertisement for something new fits the bill.

When the inevitable downward curve starts, the sales and marketing teams panic and respond by upping advertising. They do their best to maintain a straight up line, but it’s too late. The gap between their goals and audience acceptance continues to grow as one line is projected upwards and the other curves ever more steeply downwards. Eventually the message is received and the plug is pulled, but the damage has already been done.

When we look at advertising, we have to plot it against this ubiquitous U. And when we talk about advertising, we have to be more careful to define what we’re talking about. If we’re talking specifically, we will all be able to find examples of useful and even welcome ads. But when I talk about the broken contract of advertising, I speak in more general terms. In the digital compression of timelines, we are reaching the peak of advertising effectiveness faster than ever before. And when we hit the decline, we actively reject advertising because we can. We have other alternatives. This decline is dragging the industry down with it. Yes, we can all think of good ads, but the category is suffering from our evolving opinion which is increasingly being formed on the downside of the U.

 

 

Beijing’s Real-Life Black Mirror Episode

In another example of fact mirroring fiction (and vice versa), the Chinese Government has been experimenting since 2014 with a social credit program that rewards good behavior and punishes bad. Next year, it becomes mandatory. On hearing this news, many drew a parallel to the “Nosedive” episode from the Netflix series Black Mirror. The comparison was understandable. Both feature a universal system where individuals are assigned a behavior-based score has real-life consequences. And it is indeed ominous when a government known for being “Big Brother” is unveiling such a program. But this misses the point of Nosedive. Black Mirror creator and writer Charlie Brooker wasn’t worried about Big Brother. He was worried about you and I – and our behavior in the grips of such a program.

In Brooker’s world, there was no overseer of the program. It was an open market of social opinion. If people didn’t like you, you got docked points. If they did, you got extra points. It was like a Yelp for everyone, everywhere. And just like a financial credit score, your social credit score was factored into what kind of house you could buy, what type of car you could rent and what seat you got on an airplane.

If we strip emotion out of it, this doesn’t sound like a totally stupid idea. We like ratings. They work wonderfully as a crowd-sourced reference in an open market. And every day I’m reminded that there are a lot of crappy people out there. It sounds like this might be a plausible solution. It reminds me of a skit the comedian Gallagher used to do in the 80’s about stupid drivers. Everyone would get one of those suction dart guns. If you saw a jerk on the road, you could just shoot a dart at his car. Once he had collected a dozen or so darts, the cops could give him a ticket for being an idiot. This is the same idea, with digital technology applied.

But the genius of Brooker and the Black Mirror is to take an aspect of technology which actually makes sense, factor in human behavior and then take it to the darkest place possible. And that’s what he did in Nosedive. It’s about a character named Lacie – played by Bryce Dallas Howard – who’s idea of living life is trying to make everyone happy.  Her goal is immediately quantified and given teeth by a universal social credit score – a la Yelp – where your every action is given a score out of 5. This gets rolled up into your overall score. At the beginning of the episode, Lacie’s score is respectable but a little shy of the top rung scores enjoyed by the socially elite.

But here’s the Black Mirror twist. It turns out you can’t be elite and still be a normal person. It’s another side of the social influencer column I wrote last week. The only way you can achieve the highest scores is to become obsessed with them. Lacie – who is a pretty good person – finds the harder she tries, the faster her score goes into a nose dive – hence the name of the episode.

As Brooker explains, “Everyone’s a little tightened and false, because everyone’s terrified of being marked down – the consequences of that are unpleasant. So, basically, it’s the world we live in.”

China is taking more of a big brother/big data approach. Rather than relying exclusively on a social thumbs up or thumbs down, they’re crunching data from multiple sources to come up a algorithmically derived score. High scores qualify you for easy loans, better seats on planes, faster check ins at hotels and fast-tracked Visa applications. Bad scores mean you can’t book an airline ticket, get that promotion you’ve been hoping for or leave the country.  Rogier Creemers – an academic from Leiden University who is following China’s implementation of the program – explains, “I think the best way to understand the system is as a sort of bastard love child of a loyalty scheme.”

Although participation in the program is still voluntary (until 2020) an article on Wired published in 2017 hinted that Chinese society is already falling down the same social rabbit hole envisioned by Booker. “Higher scores have already become a status symbol, with almost 100,000 people bragging about their scores on Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) within months of launch.”

Personally, the last thing I would want is the government of China tracking my every move and passing judgement on my social worthiness. But even without that, I’m afraid Charlie Brooker would be right. Social credit would become just one more competitive hierarchy. And we’d do whatever it takes – good or bad – to get to the top.

Influencer Marketing’s Downward Ethical Spiral

One of the impacts of our increasing rejection of advertising is that advertisers are becoming sneakier in presenting advertising that doesn’t look like advertising. One example is Native advertising. Another is influencer marketing. I’m not a big fan of either. I find native advertising mildly irritating. But I have bigger issues with influencer marketing.

Case in point: Taytum and Oakley Fisher. They’re identical twins, two years old and have 2.4 million followers on Instagram. They are adorable. They’re also expensive. A single branded photo on their feed goes for sums in the five-figure range. Of course, “they” are only two and have no idea what’s going on. This is all being stage managed behind the scenes by their parents, Madison and Kyler.

The Fishers are not an isolated example. According to an article on Fast Company, adorable kids – especially twins –  are a hot segment in the predicted 5 to 10 billion dollar Influencer market. Influencer management companies like God and Beauty are popping up. In a multi-billion dollar market, there are a lot of opportunities for everyone to make a quick buck. And the bucks get bigger when the “stars” can actually remember their lines. Here’s a quote from the Fast Company article:

“The Fishers say they still don’t get many brand deals yet, because the girls can’t really follow directions. Once they’re old enough to repeat what their parents (and the brands paying them) want, they could be making even more.”

Am I the only one that finds this carrying the whiff of moral repugnance?

If so, you might say, “what’s the harm?” The audience is obviously there. It works. Taytum and Oakley appear to be having fun, according to their identical grins. It’s just Gord being in a pissy mood again.

Perhaps. But I think there’s more going on here than we see on the typical Instagram feed.

One problem is transparency – or lack of it. Whether you agree with traditional advertising or not, at least it happens in a well-defined and well-lit marketplace. There is transparency into the fundamental exchange: consumer attention for dollars. It is an efficient and time-tested market.  There are metrics in place to measure the effectiveness of this exchange.

But when advertising attempts to present itself as something other than advertising, it slips from a black and white transaction to something lurking in the darkness colored in shades of grey. The whole point of influencer marketing is to make it appear that these people are genuine fans of these products, so much so that they can’t help evangelizing them through their social media feeds. This – of course – is bullshit. Money is paid for each one of these “genuine” tweets or posts. Big money. In some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars. But that all happens out of sight and out of mind. It’s hidden, and that makes it an easy target for abuse.

But there is more than just a transactional transparency problem here. There is also a moral one. By becoming an influencer, you are actually becoming the influenced – allowing a brand to influence who you are, how you act, what you say and what you believe in. The influencer goes in believing that they are in control and the brand is just coming along for the ride. This is – again – bullshit. The minute you go on the payroll, you begin auctioning off your soul to the highest bidder. Amena Khan and Munroe Bergdorf both discovered this. The two influencers were cut for L’Oreal’s influencer roster by actually tweeting what they believed in.

The façade of influencer marketing is the biggest problem I have with it. It claims to be authentic and it’s about as authentic as pro wrestling – or Mickey Rourke’s face. Influencer marketing depends on creating an impossibly shiny bubble of your life filled with adorable families, exciting getaways, expensive shoes and the perfect soymilk latte. No real life can be lived under this kind of pressure. Influencer marketing claims to be inspirational, but it’s actually aspirational at the basest level. It relies on millions of us lusting after a life that is not real – a life where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Or – at least – all the children are named Taytum or Oakley.

 

Reality Vs Meta-Reality

“I know what I like, and I like what I know;”
Genesis

I watched the Grammys on Sunday night. And as it turned out, I didn’t know what I liked. And I thought I liked what I knew. But by the time I wrote this column (on Monday after the Grammys) I had changed my mind.

And it was all because of the increasing gap between what is real, and what is meta-real.

Real is what we perceive with our senses at the time it happens. Meta-real is how we reshape reality after the fact and then preserve it for future reference. And thanks to social media, the meta-real is a booming business.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman first explored this with his work on the experiencing self and the remembering self. In a stripped-down example, imagine two scenarios. Scenario 1 has your hand immersed for 60 seconds in ice cold water that causes a moderate amount of pain. Scenario 2 has your hand immersed for 90 seconds. The first 60 seconds you’re immersed in water at the same temperature as Scenario 1, but then you leave you hand immersed for an additional 30 seconds while the water is slowly warmed by 1 degree.

After going through both scenarios and being told you have to repeat one of them, which would you choose? Logically speaking, you should choose 1. While uncomfortable, you have the benefit of avoiding an extra 30 seconds of a slightly less painful experience. But for those that went through it, that’s not what happened. Eighty percent who noticed that the water got a bit warmer chose to redo Scenario 2.

It turns out that we have two mental biases that kick in when we remember something we experienced:

  1. Duration doesn’t count
  2. Only the peak (best or worst moment) and the end of the experience are registered.

This applies to a lot more than just cold-water experiments. It also holds true for vacations, medical procedures, movies and even the Grammys. Not only that, there is an additional layer of meta-analysis that shifts us even further from the reality we actually experienced.

After I watched the Grammys, I had my own opinion of which performances I liked and those I didn’t care for. But that opinion was a work in progress. On Monday morning, I searched for “Best moments of Grammys 2019.” Rather quickly, my opinion changed to conform with what I was reading. And those summaries were in turn based on an aggregate of opinions gleaned from social media. It was Wisdom of Crowds – applied retroactively.

The fact is that we don’t trust our own opinions. This is hardwired in us. Conformity is something the majority of us look for. We don’t want to be the only one in the room with a differing opinion. Social psychologist Solomon Asch proved this almost 70 years ago. The difference is that in the Asch experiment, conformity happened in the moment. Now, thanks to our digital environment where opinions on anything can be found at any time, conformity happens after the fact. We “sandbox” our own opinions, waiting until we can see if they match the social media consensus. For almost any event you can name, there is now a market for opinion aggregation and analysis. We take this “meta” data and reshape our own reality to match.

It’s not just the malleability of our reality that is at stake here. Our memories serve as guides for the future. They color the actions we take and the people we become. We evolved as conformists because that was a much surer bet for our survival than relying on our own experiences alone.  But might this be a case of a good thing taken too far? Are we losing too much confidence in the validity of our own thoughts and opinions?

I’m pretty sure doesn’t matter what Gord Hotchkiss thinks about the Grammys of 2019. But I fear there’s much more at stake here.

Marketing Vs. Advertising: Making It Personal

Last year I wrote a lot about the erosion of the advertising bargain between advertisers and their audience. Without rehashing at length, let me summarize by simply stating that we no longer are as accepting of advertising because we now have a choice. One of those columns sparked a podcast on Beancast (the relevant discussion started off the podcast).

As the four panelists – all of whom are marketing/advertising professionals – started debating the topic, they got mired down in the question of what is advertising, and what is marketing. They’re not alone. It confuses me too.

I’ve spent all my life in marketing, but this was a tough column to write. I really had to think about what the essential differences of advertising and marketing were – casting aside the textbook definitions and getting to something that resonated at an intuitive level. I ran into the same conundrum as the panelists. The disruption that is washing over our industry is also washing away the traditional line drawn between the two. So I did what I usually do when I find something intellectually ambiguous and tried to simplify down to the most basic analogy I could think of. When it comes to me – as a person – what would  be equivalent to marketing, what would be advertising, and – just to muddy the waters a little more – what would be branding?  If we can reduce this to something we can gut check, maybe the answers will come more easily.

Let’s start with branding. Your Brand is what people think of you as a person. Are you a gentleman or an asshole? Smart, funny, pedantic, prickly, stunningly stupid? Fat and lazy or lean and athletic. Notice that I said your brand is what other people think of you, not what you think of yourself. How you conduct yourself as a person will influence the opinions of others, but ultimately your brand is arbitrated one person at a time, and you are not that person. Branding involves both parties, but not necessarily at the same time. It can be asynchronous. You live your life and by doing so, you create ripples in the world. People develop opinions of you.

To me, although it involves other people, marketing is somewhat faceless and less intimate. In a way, It’s more unilateral than advertising. Again, to take it back to our personal analogy, marketing is simply the social you – the public extension of who you are. One might say that your personal approach to marketing is you saying “this is me, take it or leave it!”

But advertising is different. It focuses on a specific recipient. It implies a bilateral agreement. Again, analogously speaking, it’s like asking another person for a favor. There is an implicit or explicit exchange of value. It involves an overt attempt to influence.

Let’s further refine this into a single example. You’re invited to a party at a friend’s house. When you walk in the door, everyone glances over to see who’s arrived. When they recognize you, each person immediately has their own idea of who you are and how they feel about you. That is your brand. It has already been formed by your marketing, how you have interacted with others your entire life. At that moment of recognition, your own brand is beyond your control.

But now, you have to mingle. You scan the room and see someone you know who is already talking to someone else. You walk over, hoping to work your way into their conversation. That, right there, is advertising. You’re asking for their attention. They have to decide whether to give it to you or not. How they decide will be dependent on how they feel about you, but it will also depend on what else they’re doing – ie –  how interesting the conversation they’re already engaged in is. Another variable is their expectation of what a conversation with you might hold – the anticipated utility of said conversation. Are you going to tell them some news that would be of great interest to them – ask for a favor – or just bore them to tears? So, the success of the advertising exchange in the eyes of the recipient can be defined by three variables: emotional investment in the advertiser (brand love), openness to interruption and expected utility if interrupted.

If this analogy approximates the truth of what is the essential nature of advertising.  Why do I feel Advertising is doomed? I don’t think it has anything to do with branding. I’ve gone full circle on this, but right now, I believe brands are more important than ever. No, the death of advertising will be attributable to the other two variables: do we want to be interrupted and; if the answer is yes, what do we expect to gain by allowing the interruptions?

First of all, let’s look at our openness to interruption. It may sound counter intuitive, but our obsession with multitasking actually makes us less open to interruption.

Think of how we’re normally exposed to advertising content. It’s typically on a screen of some type. We may be switching back and forth between multiple screens.  And it’s probably right when we’re juggling a full load of enticing cognitive invitations: checking our social media feeds, deciding which video to watch, tracking down a wanted website, trying to load an article that interests us. The expected utility of all these things is high. We have “Fear of Missing Out” – big time! This is just when advertising interrupts us, asking us to pay attention to their message.

“Paying attention” is exactly the right phrase to use. Attention is a finite resource that can be exhausted – and that’s exactly what multi-tasking does. It exhausts our cognitive resources. The brain – in defence – becomes more miserly with those resources. The threshold that must be met to allow the brain to allocate attention goes up. The way the brain does this is not simply to ignore anything not meeting the attention worthy threshold, but to actually mildly trigger a negative reaction, causing a feeling of irritation with whatever it is that is begging for our attention. This is a hardwired response that is meant to condition us for the future. The brain assumes that if we don’t want to be interrupted once, the same rule will hold true for the future. Making us irritated is a way to accomplish this. The reaction of the brain sets up a reinforcing cycle that build up an increasingly antagonistic attitude towards advertising.

Secondly, what is the expected utility of paying attention to advertising? This goes hand in hand with the previous thought – advertising was always type of a toll gate we had to pass through to access content, but now, we have choices. The expected utility of the advertising supported content has been largely removed from the equation, leaving us with just the expected utility of the advertisement itself. The brain is constantly running an algorithm that balances resource allocation against reward and in our new environment, the resource allocation threshold keeps getting higher as the reward keeps getting lower.

Minding the Gap: How Amazon Mastered the Market by Being Physical

This week, two would-be challengers to Amazon’s e-tail crown were humbled in one fell swoop. When Walmart pulled their products off Google Express – the position of Amazon as the undisputed owner of online sales was further consolidated.

When Google introduced Express in 2013 and then expanded the delivery service to the primary US metro areas in 2014, they were aiming directly at Amazon’s Prime service. But in the past 5 years, Prime has flourished and Express – well – appears to be expiring. It may join a growing list of other shuttered Google projects: Google Plus, Google Glass, Google Waves, Google Buzz – you get the idea.

Walmart, for its part, has certainly grown their online sales – thanks to a buying spree to help beef up it’s online marketplace – but according to the most recent numbers I could find (July of 2018) Amazon owns 50% of all Retail ecommerce sales compared to just 3.7% for Walmart. What is probably even more discouraging for the Big Box from Bentonville is that Amazon’s Year over Year growth kept pace with theirs, so they weren’t able to make up any lost ground.

Why is Amazon dominating? In my humble opinion, this is not about technology or online platforms. This is about what happens on your doorstep. Amazon knows the importance of the Customer Moments of Truth.

The First Moment of Truth, as they were laid out in 2006 by the former CEO of Proctor Gamble, A.G. Lafley, is the moment a customer chooses a product over the other competitors’ offerings

The Second Moment of Truth was when the customer makes the purchase and gets their hand on the product for the first time.

The Third Moment of Truth is when the customer shares their experience through feedback or – today – through social media.

Since Lafley first defined these moments of truth, there have been a few others added that I will get to in a minute, but let’s focus on Moment One and Moment Two for now. Remember, a marketplace is really just a connection between producers and consumers. It is the home of the Moment One and Two – especially Moment Two. This is where Amazon is re-imagining the Marketplace.

Amazon has out “Walmarted” Walmart at their own game. It has been all about logistics and consumer convenience in the Second Moment of Truth. Amazon has assembled a potent consumer offer that is very difficult to compete against – based on making the gap between Moment One and Moment Two as seamless as possible.

That brings us to another addition to those Moments of Truth – The “Actual” Moment of Truth – as defined by Amit Sharma, CEO and founder of Narvar. According to Sharma, this is the gap in online retail between when you hit the buy button and when the package hits your doorstep. Sharma has some street cred in this department. He helped engineer Walmart’s next generation supply chain before heading to Apple in 2010 where he oversaw the shipping and delivery experience.

Why is this gap important? It’s because it is the black hole of customer intent – a pause button that has to be hit between purchase and physical fulfillment.  It’s this gap that Amazon has grabbed as their own.

Google hasn’t been able to do the same. Why? Because Google failed to connect the physical and digital worlds. Amazon did. They reinvented the marketplace. And they did it through branded fulfillment. That was the genius of Amazon – getting brown boxes with the ubiquitous Amazon Smile logo on your doorstep. Yes, they also ushered in the long tail of product selection, but that is an ephemeral ground to defend. It’s their branding of the moment of delivery that has made Amazon the most valuable brand in the world. And now they can extend that into new areas – seemingly at will.  This is not so much a pivot as a sprawl. It’s a digital land grab.

The final moment of Truth is the ZMOT – The Zero Moment of Truthdefined by Jim Lecinski who was with Google at the time. According to Jim, the Zero Moment of Truth is “the precise moment when they (the customers) have a need, intent or question they want answered online.” This is – and will continue to be – Google’s wheelhouse. But it remains firmly anchored in the digital world, far on the other side of the Actual Moment of Truth.

For Amazon, winning in online retail is all about Minding the Gap.

The Psychology Behind My NetFlix Watchlist

I live in Canada – which means I’m going into hibernation for the next 5 months. People tell me I should take up a winter activity. I tell them I have one. Bitching. About winter – specifically. You have your hobbies – and I have mine.

The other thing I do in the winter is watch movies. And being a with it, tech-savvy guy, I have cut the cord and get my movie fix through not one, but three streaming services: Netflix, Amazon Prime and Crave (a Canadian service). I’ve discovered that the psychology of Netflix is fascinating. It’s the Paradox of Choice playing out in streaming time. It’s the difference between what we say we do and what we actually do.

For example, I do have a watch list. It has somewhere around a hundred items on it. I’ll probably end up watching about 20% of them. The rest will eventually go gentle into that good Netflix Night. And according to a recent post on Digg, I’m actually doing quite well. According to the admittedly small sample chronicled there, the average completion rate is somewhere between 5 and 15%.

When it comes to compiling viewing choices, I’m an optimizer. And I’m being kind to myself. Others, less kind, refer to it as obsessive behavior. This is referring to satisficing/optimizing spectrum of decision making. I put an irrational amount of energy into the rationalization of my viewing options. The more effort you put into decision making, the closer you are to the optimizing end of the spectrum. If you make choices quickly and with your gut, you’re a satisficer.

What is interesting about Netflix is that it defers the Paradox of Choice. I dealt with this in a previous column. But I admit I’m having second thoughts. Netflix’s watch list provides us with a sort of choosing purgatory..a middle ground where we can save according to the type of watcher we think we are. It’s here where the psychology gets interesting. But before we go there, let’s explore some basic psychological principles that underpin this Netflix paradox of choice.

Of Marshmallows and Will Power

In the 1960’s, Walter Mischel and his colleagues conducted the now famous Marshmallow Test, a longitudinal study that spanned several years. The finding (which currently is in some doubt) was that children who had – when they were quite young – the willpower to resist immediately taking a treat (the marshmallow) put in front of them in return for a promise of a greater treat (two marshmallows)  in 15 minutes would later do substantially better in many aspects of their lives (education, careers, social connections, their health). Without getting into the controversial aspects of the test, let’s just focus on the role of willpower in decision making.

Mischel talks about a hot and cool system of making decisions that involve self-gratification. The “hot” is our emotions and the “cool” is our logic. We all have different set-points in the balance between hot and cool, but where these set points are in each of us depends on will power. The more willpower we have, the more likely it is that we’ll delay an immediate reward in return for a greater reward sometime in the future.

Our ability to rationalize and expend cognitive resources on a decision is directly tied to our willpower. And experts have learned that our will power is a finite resource. The more we use it in a day, the less we have in reserve. Psychologists call this “ego-depletion” And a loss of will power leads to decision fatigue. The more tired we become, the less our brain is willing to work on the decisions we make. In one particularly interesting example, parole boards are much more likely to let prisoners go either first thing in the morning or right after lunch than they are as the day wears on. Making the decision to grant a prisoner his or her freedom is a decision that involves risk. It requires more thought.  Keeping them in prison is a default decision that – cognitively speaking – is a much easier choice.

Netflix and Me: Take Two

Let me now try to rope all this in and apply it to my Netflix viewing choices. When I add something to my watch list, I am making a risk-free decision. I am not committing to watch the movie now. Cognitively, it costs me nothing to hit the little plus icon. Because it’s risk free, I tend to be somewhat aspirational in my entertainment foraging. I add foreign films, documentaries, old classics, independent films and – just to leaven out my selection – the latest audience-friendly blockbusters. When it comes to my watch list additions, I’m pretty eclectic.

Eventually, however, I will come back to this watch list and will actually have to commit 2 hours to watching something. And my choices are very much affected by decision fatigue. When it comes to instant gratification, a blockbuster is an easy choice. It will have lots of action, recognizable and likeable stars, a non-mentally-taxing script – let’s call it the cinematic equivalent of a marshmallow that I can eat right away. All my other watch list choices will probably be more gratifying in the long run, but more mentally taxing in the short term. Am I really in the mood for a European art-house flick? The answer probably depends on my current “ego-depletion” level.

This entire mental framework presents its own paradox of choice to me every time I browse through my watchlist. I know I have previously said the Paradox of Choice isn’t a thing when it comes to Netflix. But I may have changed my mind. I think it depends on what resources we’re allocating. In Barry Schwartz’s book titled the Paradox of Choice, he cites Sheena Iyengar’s famous jam experiment. In that instance, the resource was the cost of jam. In that instance, the resource was the cost of jam. But if we’re talking about 2 hours of my time – at the end of a long day – I have to confess that I struggle with choice, even when it’s already been short listed to a pre-selected list of potential entertainment choices. I find myself defaulting to what seems like a safe choice – a well-known Hollywood movie – only to be disappointed when the credits roll. When I do have the will power to forego the obvious and take a chance on one of my more obscure picks, I’m usually grateful I did.

And yes, I did write an entire column on picking a movie to watch on Netflix. Like I said, it’s winter and I had a lot of time to kill.