The Winner’s Curse is a term used to describe auctions whereby the winner will overpay because he/she overestimates the item’s actual market value. This tendency to overbid is due to factors like incomplete information or other market participants. Recent research show that people also overbid because of the fear of losing in a social competition. 

A team of NYU neuroscientists and economists conducted brain imaging studies and discovered that the striatum, a part of the brain’s reward circuitry showed an exaggerated response to losses during an auction game. When a group was told that they would lose $15 if they failed to win an auction, they consistently bid higher than others who were told they would win $15.

The difference lies in way the auction was framed. When simply reminded of what they had to lose instead of what they stand to gain, participants responded with higher bids.

While there have been investigations of overbidding which have attributed the phenomenon to either risk aversion or the ‘joy of winning,’ it was the use of imaging data which allowed us to distinguish between these conflicting explanations and actually arrive at a new and different one, the ‘fear of losing.’…We were able to use neuroimaging results to highlight the importance of framing, and specifically the contemplated loss, as an explanation for overbidding during experimental auctions.”

This ‘fear of losing’ seems to be triggered by competition with others and perhaps, attachment to the value of the item. A interesting takeaway point: instead of only highlighting the benefits or promise for a product/service, it would be beneficial to indicate what the buyer might potentially lose by not making a purchase or taking action.

People implicitly understand that they’re  dealing with other consumers because of factors like exclusivity and scarcity. The one who acts swiftly will get to purchase and enjoy the benefits of the product, while others may not. The call-to-action is much intense in an auction, because the actions of others occur in noticeable real-time. Competition is in the forefront of the mind.

This study reminds me of how much competition is almost intrinsic to human society. You see competition between individuals, groups and countries in business or sports. It is perhaps, both an evolutionary necessity and a learned behavior that one develops in order to survive or thrive within a social environment.

We are all familiar with the pleasure of competition. Many of you have bought items from Ebay, an online auction marketplace.  Often, your decision to make or abandon a purchase is rushed along on a subtle but tangible undercurrent of excitement during the process and a feeling of minor elation for having won an item at a favorable price.

Could there be a way to transplant the fear of losing and the pleasure of winning into a non-auction scenario? Perhaps the use of a competition as a backdrop where each consumer’s individual drive can play out against others. Make them interact and challenge one another within a superstructure that helps YOU fulfill specific end goals.

Let the Competitive Instinct Flourish Within a Social Environment

CompetitionImage Credit: Swamibu

Businesses or marketers should think about how to create a social environment which encourages the natural competitive instincts of their audience. Interaction within this sphere motivates each individual consumer/participant. This helps to increase the level of audience engagement and automatically enhances the value of the product/service/site.

Social news sites like Mixx.com proudly highlight their top users by displaying them on a leaderboard or giving them specific awards/badges. This symbolic segregation of a group of users from others and the conferring of exclusive emblems of acknowledgment enhances the visibility/reputation of these individuals. This becomes something others can strive towards.

Not everyone will lust after awards or a higher user ranking. In fact, most casual users won’t care or bother to go after greater recognition. But owners of these communities know that there will always be a segment of hardcore users (the more competitive or goal-oriented ones) that will work extra hard so they can improve their score or rank higher on the leaderboard.

This addicted 1% of users enjoy a sense of achievement and are often enough to generate enough activity to make your site grow. This effect is even more prominent when the community itself is the main attraction. Take the example of video games with online features: players will gladly pay for a monthly Xbox Live subscription or WOW account so they virtually cooperate or compete with other individuals. Inter-user competition becomes an value add-on.

Such a social environment is not very difficult to create: there are a few fundamental elements involved. For starters, users should be able to interact freely with one another, through the site’s main features or separately in an standalone environment. Also, bind user profiles and on-site activity to awards, rankings, points, recognition, rewards and achievements.

Allow people to form sub-groups to pursue a diverse level of interests. Facilitate inter-user contact and interaction by organizing open competitions or one-off events that everyone can join. These special events can be plotted on an established calendar of regular activities which involve the community or its sub-groups.

The general theory is simple enough: Think about creating social environments that are conducive for your overall business objectives. Apart from simply marketing your site, we should look at giving our audience the ability to connect (and compete) with each other.

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Fear of Losing: Using Competitive Instincts to Your Advantage

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