A Columbia undergraduate travels deep into the bowels of Schermerhorn Hall, home of the Motivation Science Center's underground laboratories. (We would actually prefer to have windows, but what can you do?) He comes here to fill out a few questionnaires in exchange for $5. When he is finished, he's told that in addition to his $5, he can choose a parting gift — an attractive, logo-embossed Columbia mug, or a disposable Bic pen. He is asked to make that choice in one of these two ways:
1. Think about what you would gain by choosing the mug, and what you would gain by choosing the pen.
2. Think about what you would lose by not choosing the mug, and what you would lose by not choosing the pen.
He chooses the mug. (They pretty much all choose the mug, because the pen is deliberately lame.) And then the experimenter asks, "What do you think is the price of the mug?" Here's where it get's interesting.
In that packet of questionnaires our Columbia undergrad filled out was one that measured his motivational focus — whether he tends to view his goals as ideals and opportunities to advance (what researchers call "promotion focus"), or as opportunities to stay safe and keep things running smoothly ("prevention focus"). While everyone has a mix of both to some extent, most of us tend to have a dominant focus. (To find out yours, try this free online assessment).
And as it turns out, if the way you ask him to make his choice fits with his motivational focus — thinking about gains for a promotion-focused person, or thinking about avoiding losses for a prevention-focused person — he thinks the mug is worth more. About 50% more, to be precise.
You might be saying to yourself, "But what if he actually had to spend his own money to buy it? Would he really be willing to pay more? Would motivational fit have such a big effect... or any effect at all?" The researchers wondered that, too.
So they brought in more undergrads, and ran the experiment again: gave each of them $5 just for showing up, and then asked them whether they would prefer the mug or the pen by thinking either about what they would gain or lose with each. Once again, everybody preferred the mug.
Then the researcher did something different. They showed the subjects an envelope containing a fair price for the mug. The researcher explained that the subject could now buy the mug if he wished to, but only if he offered an amount that was equal to or higher than the price in the envelope. (The idea is similar to a silent auction — you make your best bid and see what happens.) If he offered an amount less than the price, he would not get the mug. If he offered an amount equal to or higher than the price in the envelope, then he would get the mug for the price that they offered. The table below shows how much of their own $5 they were willing to pay to get the mug in each condition.
So the answer is yes: Even when people are spending their own money, they perceive an object to be worth much more — this time, roughly 70% more — when they make their decision in a way that creates motivational fit. It's an experience that creates real, honest-to-goodness cash value.
Findings like these have emerged with many other kinds of products, too, as Tory Higgins and I found while researching our book (Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing The World For Success and Influence). For instance, when consumers were allowed to evaluate bike helmets in a way that created motivational fit, they were willing to pay about 20% more for one. In another study, consumers offered to pay more than 40% more for the same reading booklight if the way they made their choice created motivational fit.
Here's the best part: Study after study shows that consumers who choose products while experiencing motivational fit are later significantly more satisfied with their selections. So you aren't just tricking people into paying more — by taking into account your audience's promotion or prevention focus, you are giving them the opportunity to experience of a genuinely better product. It just all depends on how you ask.