Why You’d Regret Not Reading This. (What Behavioural Economics teaches us about writing better copy.)

Don't copy when you write copy

The herd mentality is sometimes appropriate.

Behavioural economics is science for non-scientists. A 5-minute flick through of any of the subject’s popular books suggests reasons why apparently rational individuals make apparently irrational decisions.  This new science has suddenly dealt all of us a full hand of get-out-of-jail cards for minor acts of dumb. It can also teach us just a little bit about creating better brand strategies and writing better copy.

Behavioural Economics is being served up at No. 10 dinner parties in the form of Richard Thaler’s book Nudge which talks about ‘decision architecture’ and how the decisions we make are influenced by the order in which they’re presented. Audiences at pop-lit festival are lapping up the new book “HELP!” by Oliver Burkeman, which comes (as all non-fiction books do these days) with a narrative-suggesting sub-title. In this case: “How to become slightly happier and get a bit more done.” Having read it, I am about a tenth of one percent happier. I now know why it’s so difficult to rearrange my diary once I’ve made just one appointment (the Anchoring Bias) or why we’ll reject something new even when it’s clearly better (The Semmelweis Reflex).

There’s also a chapter on regret. As a 47-year old man with thinning hair and a barely controlled longing for age-inappropriate clothing, I am always on the lookout for a personal brand strategy to help deal with Regret.  Oliver writes that as a conscious, intelligent species we anticipate regret inaccurately. Faced with some fear-inducing opportunity (Should I leave my job? Should I marry him?  Or, Even though I’m 47 years old and have thinning hair can I get away with wearing those pedal-pusher trousers for men? *), we believe we’ll regret doing it more than not doing it. In fact the opposite is true.

Oliver dug up research by the psychologist Neal Roese which found that if you do decide to go ahead and do something, it almost certainly won’t be haunting you a decade later: you’ll eventually reframe the failure/crawling humiliation and file it away. But in situations where you fail to act, the consequences are ‘imaginatively boundless’ and we can lose ourselves forever in the finite possibilities of what might have been. But this is much more than a poorly-paid researcher coming up with the conclusion “Shit or get off the pot.”

Roese also noted that irreversible decisions are regretted far less than reversible decisions. Education and career decisions (where it’s fairly easy to decide to chuck it all in and go back to college or change jobs) are regretted highly, whereas family and finances come lower (it’s hard to un-have).

Knowing a little about Behavioural Economics has become increasingly useful in presentations where I’m asked about verbal identity for brands and how they’re affected by Social Media. I’ve talked about the reasons why we do what we see other people do – even if it’s to our own obvious detriment – and I’ve focussed clients on how the recency and flagrancy of other people’s reviews skew our balancing of evidence far more than some carefully researched TV commercial that ran once 3 months ago. In short, if your brand’s posting in Social Media, you need to write often and write in pictures.

And when it comes to actually shoving my knees under the desk and hunching over the keyboard, I’ve found suggesting to the reader that a brand offers minor and reversible changes in their life is actually more effective than suggesting it will radically and irreversibly improve their life forever.

If I’ve nudged you a little bit nearer to Behavioural Economics or writing in social media, I’d temporarily be just a little bit happier to hear about it.


*No, I can’t.