All posts filed under “Parasitic lock-in

Swoopo: Irrational escalation of commitment

Swoopo

Swoopo, a new kind of “entertainment shopping” auction site, takes Martin Shubik’s classic Dollar Auction game to a whole new, automated, mass participation level. It’s an example of the escalation of commitment, or a sunk cost fallacy, where we increase our commitment (in this case with real money) even though (in this case) most users’ positions are becoming less and less valuable.

Thee Cake Scraps has a good analysis of how this works:

It is a ‘auction’ site…sort of. Swoopo sells bids for $1. Each time you use a bid on an item the price is increased by $0.15 for that item. So here is an example:

Person A buys 5 bids from Swoopo for $5 total. Person A sees an auction for $1000 and places the first bid. The auction is now at $0.15. Person A now has a sunk cost of $1 (the cost of the bid they used). There is no way to get that dollar back, win or lose. If Person A wins they must pay the $0.15.

Person B also purchased $5 of bids. Person B sees the same auction and places the second bid. The auction price is now $0.30 (because each bid increases the cost by exactly 15 cents). Person B now has a sunk cost of $1. If Person B wins they must pay the $0.30. Swoopo now has $2 in the bank and the auction is at 30 cents.

This can happen with as many users as there are suckers to start accounts. Why are they suckers? Because everybody that does not have the top spot just loses the money they spent on bids. *Poof* Gone. If you think this sounds a little like gambling or a complete scam you are not alone. People get swept up into the auction and don’t want to get nothing for the money they spent on bids.

The key thing seems to be that some bidders will win items at lower than RRP, i.e. they get a good deal, but for every one of those, there are many, many others who have all paid for their bids (money going to Swoopo) and received nothing as a result. The house will always win.

Swoopo staff respond here and here (at Crunchgear).

As is obligatory with this blog, I need to ask: where else have systems been designed to use this behaviour-shaping technique? There must be many examples in auctions, games and gambling in general – but can the idea be applied to consumer products/services, using escalating commitment to shape user behaviour? Can this be applied to help users save energy, do more exercise, etc as opposed merely to extracting value from them with no benefit in return?

Dependence

Karel Donk has some intriguing thoughts on ‘maximising the upside’ of life, by reducing dependence on other people, status and possessions, so that there is less to lose:

So one of the important things in life is to be as independent as possible and rely on very few things. After all, when it comes down to it, the only thing you can really and always depend on in life is yourself. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t want a lot of things in life. Want and have as much as you like, but require as little as possible. This is the simple rule you can use to guide you in making decisions about what you want to depend on in life.

Interestingly, he also hits on the ‘architectures of control’ issue, briefly:

Today’s world, and indeed for a very very long time now, is structured in such a way where people are directed, if not forced, to become dependent. Dependent on the system, or dependent on others. When you do enough research, you will find that this is all by design. I won’t go into details in this post, but certainly will in the future. For now it’s enough to note that this is by design. The reason why things are set up in this way is of course to be able to control people and limit their freedoms. When people depend on you, you can manipulate them into behaving the way you want. Because they depend on you, they have little choice but to go along with anything you say because they fear losing what they get from you. By definition if someone depends on someone else, or something else, that person has something to lose.

I’m looking forward to reading Karel’s future thoughts on this. Creating dependence, or at least creating a need/desire/requirement to consume more, is a fair characterisation of many architectures of control we’ve looked at on this site, from printer cartridge sneakiness to outright chemical addiction; whether a simple razor-blade model (you need to buy more of this, because it’s the only thing that fits) or something more sinister, Karel is right: the common thread is dependence.

To a large extent, I think this is why education is so important. If we understand the systems around us, technical, political and cultural, we are able to make (better) decisions for ourselves. If, however, we ‘leave it up to others who understand all that stuff’, we become dependent on them.

Limiting frequency of cigarette use

Nicostopper - image from Nicostopper.com Nicostopper - image from Nicostopper.com
Images from nicostopper.com and Popgadget

Nicostopper is an electronic dispenser which holds up to 10 cigarettes, and releases them one at a time at programmed intervals, to help pace and restrict the smoker. The screen “will also flash “self-help” messages each time to make you feel guilty as well” (Popgadget). It’s styled fairly discreetly to look similar to a portable music player or phone – the resemblance is accentuated in the photo above right with the extended cigarette in the position of the aerial – presumably so the user will be more likely to feel at home using it in public and social situations.

This is an interesting product, attempting to affect a user’s behaviour to reduce consumption rather than increase it as with so many other architectures of control. Indeed, smoking could well be seen as a battle between two attempts to control/influence users’ behaviour, with vast sums spent on advertising and methods both to promote the practice, and to encourage smokers to give up. We’ve looked before at cigarettes as a parasitic lock-in method, especially in the context of increasing nicotine levels to compound addiction*.

Of course, a device such as Nicostopper does not stop the user asking a friend or someone else for a cigarette, nor indeed taking a full packet along in addition. The actual strength of control is fairly low. The user really must want to control his or her habit, and be determined to do so, otherwise there is no point in buying the device. Even the significant commitment shown by buying Nicostopper, and the expense of it, may help the user to take more control of the situation, and there’s also the factor that, as Uber Review puts it:

If that doesn’t stop you from smoking at least you will have $300 less to spend on smokes after you pay for the device.

I recently mentioned Lee Iacocca’s quote on rationalising major purchases – to the extent that spending $300 on a Nicostopper is a major purchase, this may increase its effectiveness, at least for the first few months, since the user feels guilty about spending $300 on the product, and is thus more committed actually to using it, even if only to justify it to friends and family. Like exercise bikes and home gym equipment abandoned a few months after Christmas, the Nicostopper may ultimately fail in a large percentage of users’ attempts to change their own behaviour, but will surely succeed in some cases.

Interestingly, Ross Anderson comments, at Popgadget:

I distinctly remember hearing, about 30 years ago, that the then Soviet ruler Leonid Brezhnev owned such a device that had been specially built to his specifications.

This is confirmed here by John Negroponte

He had a problem with his smoking. I remember he couldn’t control smoking either, he had a little machine, little cigarette box, with a timer on it that was only allowed to open every so many minutes, so that he wouldn’t smoke to many cigarettes.

…and also in this Time story from 1971:

Brezhnev customarily works late at the Kremlin, sometimes has difficulty sleeping without a sedative. To cut down on his smoking, he is trying a time-lock cigarette case (made in France, he thinks) which opens only after a preset number of minutes or hours has passed. “Yesterday,” Brezhnev told L’Humanité, “I smoked only 17 cigarettes.”

Of course, simply having a smaller standard cigarette case with space for only a few cigarettes might have much the same effect as devices with timers, etc. As with packaging/serving sizes, the quantity which we expect to consume can be affected by the way it’s presented. Maybe smaller cigarettes – getting a little bit smaller each year – would have a gradual effect of lessening dependence on the chemical content of the product, but not on the physical addiction to picking up a cigarette, lighting it, etc.

*As my brother commented, tobacco companies may increase the nicotine, but they don’t increase the tar: a parasite doesn’t want to kill its host.