The Times Magazine has a neat piece last week about how Target and other retailers use psychological analysis of habits to predict and affect people’s buying behavior. In extremely brief summary, your brain has certain habits that it generally follows — what to buy, what to eat, etc. But Target went out of its way to try to find moments when your habits change drastically — usually coinciding with major life decisions. Much has been made of the article’s description of Target’s semi-creepy sending of baby advertisements to pregnant mothers based on their buying patterns, but I find the habit-changing material more potentially useful in the long run:
But when some customers were going through a major life event, like graduating from college or getting a new job or moving to a new town, their shopping habits became flexible in ways that were both predictable and potential gold mines for retailers. The study found that when someone marries, he or she is more likely to start buying a new type of coffee. When a couple move into a new house, they’re more apt to purchase a different kind of cereal. When they divorce, there’s an increased chance they’ll start buying different brands of beer.
Consumers going through major life events often don’t notice, or care, that their shopping habits have shifted, but retailers notice, and they care quite a bit. At those unique moments, Andreasen wrote, customers are “vulnerable to intervention by marketers.” In other words, a precisely timed advertisement, sent to a recent divorcee or new homebuyer, can change someone’s shopping patterns for years.
I was thinking about this in the context of areas other than purchasing goods and services. I thought of this as I played the piano, where bad habits inculcate themselves with surprising ease. One plays something wrong once, and then continues on, creating the stimulus->response->reward feedback loop that develops all those bad habits.
In the realm of education, so many bad habits get ingrained — study habits, reading habits, after-school habits, etc. How can we change our behavior in a positive direction? How can we combat obesity, or get kids to study math? When shifts in kids’ lives happen, good habits can be lost and bad habits can develop. I think this is part of the success of the KIPP schools and their ilk; rather than just changing curriculum, they are trying to create and take advantage of those “unique moments” when people are vulnerable to changes in habits.
In many ways, we have tried to envision people as complicated actors, with deep-seated root causes for our behaviors, which is absolutely the case. But in making decisions about our daily lives, we may be simpler than we thought we were, and that may not be such a bad thing if we know how to use it ourselves.