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FEATURE1 November 2011

Behavioural economics in the pub

Behavioural economics

BrainJuicer’s Orlando Wood on how ideas from behavioural economics were applied to a mass ethnography study on excessive drinking.

Our industry’s approaches rest upon a number of assumptions. But these assumptions are being questioned by behavioural economics. Results from countless psychological experiments show that people are poor at reporting and predicting their own behaviour, and that their preferences are malleable. Our decisions are influenced more than we realise by our frame of mind, the people we are with and our environment.

Knowing that to understand behaviour you really need to understand context, we gave some thought to how we might use behavioural economics in a new mass ethnographic research approach. We took as our subject a social and cultural problem that costs the UK taxpayer £20bn a year: binge drinking. We wanted to know whether an approach inspired by BE could identify hidden influences on behaviour and help us to construct hypotheses and interventions to tackle the problem.

A review of the literature led us to divide the discipline into four key territories: individual factors (e.g. hot states), social influences (peer influence, mimicry, reciprocity), choice environment and local environment influences (physical, visual or auditory influences). We recruited people who were planning to go to a pub, but who had no specific experience of ethnography, to participate in a mass ethnographic research game. We assigned participants to one of four detective teams, each inspired by a famous sleuth whose style embodied the principles of one of four areas of behavioural economics:

  • Miss Marple: individual factors
  • Hercule Poirot: social influences
  • Sherlock Holmes: local environment influences
  • Lieutenant Columbo: choice environment influences

Each team was charged with the task of collecting evidence (observations, pictures, videos) from their pub visits that made the case for their point of view. We briefed our detectives and provided prompts specific enough to give them direction without leading them to a particular observation.

So what did we find? First, the prevalence of choice influences. Participants ordering soft drinks noticed bar staff asking ‘Gin or vodka with that?’ and when taking an order for a spirit bar staff would reply ‘Double?’ This was evidence of staff priming a particular type of drinking behaviour. Furthermore, a minimum spend limit was often imposed on credit and debit card purchases, which meant people bought twice as many drinks as they wanted and drank more quickly – just for the convenience of paying by card.

Social influences also played a role. The British convention of taking turns to buy drinks in rounds meant people bought and drank drinks they didn’t really want.

Environmental influences such as loud music (people sipped their drinks rather than attempt to make themselves heard) and decor (posters featuring words such as energy, vigour, excitement) were offered as suspected influences on drinking behaviour.

Examples of ‘consumption momentum’ – an individual factor – were also seen: you keep drinking because the drink is available, not because you want it.

Our findings enabled us to develop ideas for various nudges that might change behaviour:

  • Reducing standard unit sizes by, say, a half, would mean you had to go to the bar twice as often (a ‘partitioning device’).
  • Cash-only bars would ensure customers were continually reminded of their spending and consumption, doing away with the intangibility of card purchases and minimum spend policies.
  • Express queues at the bar dedicated to customers ordering soft drinks could increase soft drink consumption.
  • Table service would discourage people from buying drinks in rounds, provide natural breaks or cooling-off periods, and so partition consumption. It would also reduce movement and energy levels in bars.
  • Quieter music and somewhere to put down your drink might also slow down drinking.

To reduce demand economists increase prices. But it seems there might also be a behavioural economics solution to binge drinking. Giving ethnography a behavioural economic focus identifies hidden influences on behaviour, and could lead to more targeted and efficient interventions – just one way BE can help us improve our industry’s approaches.

Orlando Wood is managing director of BrainJuicer Labs

10 Comments

8 years ago

Interesting article - sounds like a Utopian dream. Perhaps it would indeed be best for society if Governments regulated pubs and adopt some of the stuff you suggest - but what about all those involved in the selling side of the on-trade business, what benefit would there be for them? Maybe a simpler solution would be to adopt the alcohol pricing of some Scandinavian countries and test demand elasticity.

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8 years ago

Or they could just do what they do in Sweden. Bartenders refuses to serve another drink before the customer has a (free) glass of water in between. Everybody wins. Customer gets way too pissed much later, feels better in the morning, and the bar makes more money. Now that's my kinda behavioral economics ;)

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8 years ago

An answer to the first (anonymous) comment is to look at the niche but thriving craft ale pub sector, which routinely puts many of these suggestions into operation: half measures are common, as is table service; several venues (like the excellent Southampton Arms) are cash-only, and music is a rarity. The rationale for all this isn't behavioural economics or an attempt to reduce binge drinking, but an attempt to focus attention on the product and create a sense of community or (more cynically) elitism among drinkers. But while there were plenty of beer snobs in evidence I don't remember many overdoing it on my visits to such boozers and the pubs themselves are doing fine - proof that even the most apparently hostile business model can pay off.

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8 years ago

Very interesting indeed. I find the social acceptability of drinking (well getting drunk) so at odds with the obvious and numerous downsides of over-consumption. Groups of normally sane, mature, professional people, acting like idiots in a business environment is bizarre, and then compare it to the uproar that would ensue if someone lit up a cigarette - heaven forbid. I think majoring on the cost would have the biggest effect, Maybe there should be a ban on any alcoholic drinks being chargeble through company expenses. People drink more if it's free - now that's worth a study in itself! Why isn't it obvious to all that drinking (too excess) is so much worse in all ways than smoking - but smokers are ostracised while drinkers are hero-worshipped - and non-smokers are smart, healthy people and non-drinkers are "weird" and "not to be trusted". It's amusing as a non drinker to see people's reactions to me not drinking - they normal say one of two things "I don't drink that much" or "I give up every January, Tuesday, weekday" - fill in the blank for yourself! I don't smoke either!

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8 years ago

A great example of why its often difficult to apply BE to practice. There's some seriously questionnable conclusions here. Not only because most of them would be impossible to implement in reality but my particular favourite which is a bit optimistic is: "Express queues at the bar dedicated to customers ordering soft drinks could increase soft drink consumption" I can't say that when I'm out on the beers, I've ever been tempted to drink a soft one because I'll get it faster.

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8 years ago

Comment #5: Yes, the soft drinks one is unworkable - though mostly because it breaks the British cultural norm of round-buying. But as I pointed out, everything else the study suggests not only can be implemented but *is* being implemented by a small but growing sector.

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8 years ago

'Social influences also played a role. The British convention of taking turns to buy drinks in rounds meant people bought and drank drinks they didn’t really want.' On other pages: Pope's a catholic Wilson smoked a pipe Bears: tendancy to defecate in woods unveiled

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8 years ago

Orlando's suggested changes might seem unappealing to bar owners at first glance, but surely there's an opportunity for pubs to sell themselves on encouraging moderation? Wouldn't most people rather spend time in a pub where people are not off their faces and getting into fights? Having said that, I wonder how many specialist/'elitist' pubs, like the ones Tom describes above, the market can support. Anyway, the challenge here is clearly not just changing drinkers' behaviour but bar owners' behaviour too.

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8 years ago

What you are describing Robert is effectively a form of segmentation. But also note that the mood of a lot of town centre pubs changes during the day. Breakfast and coffee for workers and after school drop off, lunch for business folk needing good food served quickly, then evening trade where music kicks in, lights dim, bouncers appear on doors, and the demographics change again. One more thing - why would I buy a round of drinks including one for myself that I do not want to drink? I do recall seeing a documentary years ago where some mindless young girl had Pernod and black even though she couldn't stand it - all because of self-imposed peer pressure. But surely the vast majority have at least one brain cell that makes this point by Orlando a little odd to say the least.

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8 years ago

I think it would depend on what that persons aim is for the pub visit. I know youngsters who drink a strong disgusting wine for example, not because they like it but because they get more alcohol %age for their money! So buy less drinks and/or get tiddly quicker. Drinking a water inbetween each drink could be a negative for some, do you want to be running to the toilet every 5 minutes? Perhaps you wouldn't drink as much but forcing people to have a water/soft drink in between drinks is somewhat military - the more obvious the structure in place, the more back lash these schemes seem to get. I agree with Robert that almost business could pick up in places where the number of drunken groups has reduced - some people would be more attracted to the calmer environment? But some peoples aim is just to go out and get drunk - sometimes due to mental state of mind they are in that day. Perhaps looking at the external environmental/influences would find some interesting considerations? The express queues would actually be interesting to see in play. Surely the target audience we're talking about in this study, and those who crumble under peer pressure - you'd feel singled out if going to that queue (imagining large sign like in a fast food restaurant... SOFT SDRINKS ONLY), and in fact if you do want a soft drink you can order one and easily disguise a coke... friends would think you're still on the voddy's... i know the more sensible person would do that rather than take the banter of beng on the soft drinks... It's worth taking into consideration that some communities it would be deemed more unsafe to encourage people to put your drinks down, especially in a bar environment due to drinks being 'spiked'...

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