Kate Barasz, Leslie John, Elizabeth Keenan, and Michael Norton have completed a new study demonstrating that people have an irrational desire/need to complete sets of tasks, purchases, assignments, etc. Barasz says, "People really don't like to leave things incomplete." HBS Working Knowledge describes the implications of their research:
Do you want customers to refer more of their friends to your company’s website? Ask them to refer friends in arbitrary “batches” of five at a time. Looking to increase charitable giving to your nonprofit organization? Ask potential donors to contribute a set of six gifts. Are you and your fiancé struggling to write thank-you cards for all those wedding shower gifts? Try batching the unwritten cards into sets of eight. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of writing one note at a time, you’ll feel oddly motivated to finish a whole set at a time.
In one study, the scholars conducted a field experiment with the Canadian Red Cross. They tested three types of donation request with more than 7,000 donors during the Christmas season in 2016. One group of donors received a request for cash donations. A second group received a request to donate so as to fund the giving of particular items to people in different spots around the globe. A location marker on a visual of the globe indicated where their money was funding a particular item. The third group of donors received a request to donate funds for a "Global Survival Kit" of six items. As they donated each item, a line stretched further around the globe, going around the entire earth if all six items were funded. The prospective donors did not have to donate all six items. They could choose to donate a single item if they wished. Barasz notes, “Who wants to donate six blankets, when you can donate one blanket and feel just as good? But, if you frame it as a set, then there is a reason to want to complete the set and to donate all six of the items.”
What did they find? 21% of the people in the third group chose to donate all six items. That was more than 4 times as many people donating as compared to the second group, and 7 times as many people donating as compared to the first group. In short, framing the decision as a set to be completed has a substantial impact on donor behavior. Presumably, the same type of framing may have a significant impact on customer or employee behavior. It may not seem rational to be compelled to complete a set, but that's the way many individuals feel.