Research just released suggests that when we read words like ‘bye’ or ‘wait’, we automatically think of and act on words that have the same sound, such as ‘buy’ or ‘weight’, especially when we’re tired.
Davis & Herr (2014) From Bye to Buy: Homophones as a Phonological Route to Priming
This is such an interesting and new-found bias!! Indeed, it’s so new that we’ve had to give it a name! What we’re calling the ‘Bye-Now Effect’ all revolves around two separate concepts. The first, and most specific is that of the homophone - a word that has the same pronunciation as another word, but with a different meaning and spelling.
This is twinned with the concept of priming - exposing you to one piece of information affects your response to something else afterwards. We’ll cover Priming in more detail as a separate gem, but for example, if you read a list of words including the word ‘brain’, and are later asked to complete a word starting with ‘bra’, the chance that you’ll answer ‘brain’ is greater than if you’re not primed.
Mashing them together, you get Homophone priming, which happens when your brain can’t ignore the meaning of the other related word. For instance, if I said the word ‘Ewe’ (A female sheep), you might think of the word ‘you’, and its related meaning. Research shows that it’s not only the meaning that goes into your head, but also any judgements you might make, such as what you think of a person’s character (Sela and Shiv 2009), or any choices you might make (Wheeler and Berger 2007).
An experiment done for a name-your-own-price restaurant used either the words “bye bye” or “so long” in a piece of text participants were asked to read before naming their price for the meal. Those whose brains were occupied and heard the words “so long” opted an average price of around $32, whereas those who heard “bye-bye” chose a staggering $45.50. The Bye-Now Effect basically makes us much more likely to buy more.
The power of the Bye-Now Effect depends to some extent on a person’s reading ability - low-skilled readers are more affected (Gernsbacher and Faust, 1991), and the level of demand on the brain - the more distracted you are (i.e. if you’re multitasking), the more effect it has (Shiffrin and Dumais, 1981).
It also doesn’t work in both ways for associated words that aren’t that common. I.e. Saying ‘ewe’ might make me think of ‘you’, but saying ‘you’ is far less likely to make me think ‘ewe’ (Picoult and Johnson 1992).
Takeaways for decision-makers
- This is a new, powerful method of nudging a certain behaviour, and potentially encouraging people to buy more. And though it has solid application in commerce, the Bye-Now Effect can be used for many things, such as a healthy promotion of weight loss (wait / weight) or encouraging people to write longer, or more frequently (right / write), for instance.
- Think about your brand, and how it might be perceived when applying the Bye-Now Effect. A travel company called “Beech & Son”, for instance, may give allusions of the positives of the product you sell (Yorkston and Menon 2004).
- Be mindful about your target audience, knowing that lower-skilled readers are more affected by the bias.
- Following questioning, nobody from the experiments in the research knew they were being primed. That said, be careful with blatant overuse, as it may devalue the brand.
- It’s currently unclear whether the bias works in China, as Mandarin is a less phonetic language (Cheng and Yang 1989; Yik 1978)