When Rational Solutions Backfire and What You Have to be Careful About

Betting on rational solutions that make logical sense… well, that makes sense. But that doesn’t mean it’s always right. These are just a few of many examples of when reasonable solutions backfired. Learn why this happens and how you can avoid it.

In this article, you’ll discover:

  • How very logical interventions backfired and reduced charitable donations by half;
  • Why motivating people with money can actually make things worse; and
  • What to do to make sure you’ll roll out the best possible solution.
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Imagine your boss just hired a new guy to the team. He’s supposed to be some expert in behavioral economics, or whatever it’s called. But it's the first time you've even heard of such a thing. 

You work for a job ad portal and the first assignment you work on together is to increase the number of CVs sent through your portal. Since you're compensated for every employee a company hires through your website, it’s quite a big one. One of the things you suggest is brilliant (or, at least, you think so). 

How about telling the job seeker that part of the earnings would go to a charity? It makes perfect sense - it costs the candidates nothing and they’ll feel good about themselves, which should increase their motivation. Very logical, very rational. 

The newbie, however, comes up with something ridiculous. He wants to list the number of resumes already submitted for every job ad. Why the heck would he do that? You don’t have to think hard to realize it will drive candidates away because the more resumes that have already been sent, the smaller their chances of getting hired. 

The boss agreed to test both of these ideas, and you can’t help but wonder why he would hire a guy like this. 

When judgment day comes and you have “I told you so” locked and loaded, your smile freezes. Results show that your solution backfired and performed even worse than the control group with no intervention at all. And the rookie? His unreasonable idea increased the number of resumes sent by 138%.

When can a rational solution backfire?

That, by the way, was a real-life example. Both of these solutions were tested by MINDWORX Behavioral Consulting when hired to help job ad company JobAngeles increase the number of resumes sent through their portal.

Social Proof

Social proof is our tendency to be influenced by what others do, how they think and behave. Social proof works particularly well in situations of uncertainty.

Showing the number of candidates that have already applied seems like a no-go, but in fact, it's a well-known behavioral principle called social proof, which says that people tend to behave as others do. If a lot of people do something, then perhaps it’s a good idea to follow suit. And as you can see, it works.

This example certainly doesn’t stand alone when it comes to rational solutions backfiring and on the contrary, irrational ones striking the chord. But why does it happen? 

Simply said, because the assumption that people are rational decision-makers is wrong. It's been proven over and over again, that we fall victim to many cognitive biases. We prefer to use intuitive shortcuts when making decisions instead of thinking hard and deciding based on strict logic. As the social proof mentioned above.

Social Proof: The Undiscovered Power and Hidden Pitfalls of This Well-known Principle
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And your customers are no exceptions. They face too many decisions during their normal day and it’s much easier for them to go with intuition than with a rational mind. What does this mean for you? 

For starters, you need to create solutions that appeal to their intuition, not just to their rational mind. There are multiple examples of how the rational solutions backfired. Let’s go through a couple of them, and at the end, we’ll talk about how you can prevent that from happening to you.

We prefer to use intuitive shortcuts when making decisions instead of thinking hard and deciding based on strict logic. You need to create solutions that appeal to intuition, not just to a rational mind.

An additional contribution to charity didn’t work, the quality of paper did

Let’s stick to the charity for a little bit. This example comes from Ogilvy UK and its attempt to increase charitable giving. 

Every year, volunteers in the UK flood the streets with envelopes they put through people’s doors. A week later, they come back and collect it, hoping people threw some money for charity in. Ogilvy tested multiple interventions, let’s start with the rational one. 

As you probably expect, it was very logical and made perfect sense. On the envelope, Ogilvy highlighted the fact that if donors tick the box Gift Aid, for every pound they contribute, the government adds an extra 25 pence minimum. 

They assumed it would increase overall donations, because...why shouldn’t it? People will contribute even more than they threw in, and will be happy that the state will finally contribute to a good cause as well. 

And the results? How Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of Ogilvy UK puts it, “Was it bollocks?” Well, this solution actually reduced the donation level by about 40 to 50%.

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