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Free Will: Two for the Price of One?

Emphasizing free will is a “two for the price of one” strategy, which will not only persuade consumers to use your product or service, but will also make for a more ethical, socially conscious, and altruistic consumer base.

Editor’s Intro: The debate over Free Will vs. Determinism is an old one, dating back hundreds of years, with scores of famous philosophers and religious thinkers weighing in. Beyond the philosophical implications, your belief in the source of your own (or others) actions have important everyday impact, as the social psychological literature of the mid-20th century has found. Lindsay Cannon puts an interesting spin on this old debate for marketers.

When it comes to thinking about human behavior, there are two schools of thought. One, labeled free will, endorses the belief that humans have the ability to make their own choices and that individuals continually chose between different actions or behaviors. The other school of thought, called determinism, states that there is no real choice when it comes to human behavior, as the path that is taken is predetermined by a set of preceding conditions and events. Though this debate has proponents on either side, recent evidence suggests that there are benefits to believing in free will.

In a recent study, scientists found that inducing study participants to believe in determinism encouraged cheating on a cognitive task (Vohs & Schooler, 2008). In this task, individuals who were encouraged to believe in determinism were far more likely to cheat by overpaying themselves than individuals who were encouraged to believe in free will. This study suggests that individuals who believe in free will are more likely to behave ethically and think about their impact on society than individuals who believe in determinism.

In another recent work, The Art of Persuasion, Andrew Gulledge argues that individuals’ choices can be influenced, with one particular technique involving appealing to the free will of the individual. Using this technique, individuals can be persuaded into a specific course of action by presenting the merits of that option before closing with a statement like, “But the ultimate choice is yours.” Through this technique the individual is equipped to make the decision, while also deferring to their autonomy and empowering their sense of choice, in turn making them more likely to choose the delineated path.

Now, how can these concepts be integrated? In the marketing world, it is important to persuade the consumer that your good or service is the correct option for them. But, as social, altruistic individuals, humans also have an inherent pull to behave ethically and to think about how one’s own choices impact other individuals. One company has found a way to integrate these two concepts.

Chase Bank offers a prime example of the opportunity to emphasize the free will of consumers by using slogans like, “Choose what’s right for you,” and “Value, flexibility and choice.” Not only does the company encourage consumers to choose the right credit card or banking option for them, but also offers a myriad of perk options to emphasize consumer choice, including the option to redeem points as cash back, gift cards, and more. As such, Chase Bank initially hooks consumers using this language stressing “choice” and “freedom.” This is best illustrated with the company’s credit card offerings, which include the Chase Freedom card, which offers 5% cash back on select purchases, and the Chase Freedom Unlimited card, which offers 1.5% cash back on all purchases.

Beyond highlighting the free will of the consumer, the language emphasizing freedom also encourages altruism, harkening back to the Vohs & Schooler study. In a recent study performed by Chase, the company found that among consumers who were asked what they would do with the 5% cash back earned on the gas charges from their commute, 58% stated that they would spend the money on gifts for their loved ones and 22% indicated that they would spend the money on treats for their co-workers. Not only does this illustrate how the idea of free will can induce ethical, socially conscious behavior, but it also adds an extra layer to Chase’s marketing strategy, by showing how the company can appeal to this sense of altruism to reach additional consumers.

Emphasizing free will is a “two for the price of one” strategy, which will not only persuade consumers to use your product or service, but will also make for a more ethical, socially conscious, and altruistic consumer base. By emphasizing free will, your company has the opportunity to both create loyal consumers and a better society. Who could ask for a better two-for-one deal?

Gullegde, A. (2004). The art of persuasion: A practical guide to improving your convincing power. iUniverse.
Vohs, K. D., & Schooler, J. W. (2008). The value of believing in free will: Encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychological Science, 19, 49-54.

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2 responses to “Free Will: Two for the Price of One?

  1. Ms. Cannon,
    I am not sure how you reached your conclusions about increasing ethical behavior based on the studies you present, but emphasizing choice does not mean that people have free will. Nature is far more subtle. Einstein did not believe we have free will, but he also said that we need to act as if we do.

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