A few days ago, I found myself mindlessly scrolling on social media. I was only on the platform for a few minutes – I currently limit my social media consumption to 5 minutes per platform per day for the sake of my sanity and productivity – and yet, the platform captured my attention with a sponsored post for a service that was most likely targeted at me because of my creative interests. 

The service – in form of a website and matching app – promises to ‘train your brain to autocorrect’ and ‘remove unnecessary words in sentences’. As a musician and author keen on honing the writing craft, this is no doubt relevant to me, and despite already using a few resources that make the same promise, I lingered. I lingered because I noticed that the post had garnered a lot of comments (especially for an advertisement), and I was curious to see what other people had to say.

This is typical of me; whenever I come across a post online, I’m often more interested in the comments on the post than the contents of the post itself. The comments section on the Internet is probably my favourite place to hang out, passively of course. Picture me sitting still with a bowl of popcorn as drama unfolds on the big screen, often taking the form of people bickering with strangers or swooning over puppy photos.  Sure enough, the comments in question didn’t disappoint. In fact, it sparked the idea for this blog post and provided the threads that weave the ideas together.

Consider the following. A company advertises a service that promises to make your writing more efficient by cutting out unnecessary words. People flock to the post to complain about how unnecessary the service is, writing comments like ‘how else will I reach my 1000 word count?’ and ‘not when I’m trying to write a 5-page paper that’s due’. Do you see the disconnect? Someone promises X. A group of people pipe up to say that what they want is anything but X. Does it sound familiar? Have you come across this before?

 Aside from dismissing the proposition in the sponsored post, the other thing a lot of the comments had in common is that they were made by students on tight deadlines. This got me thinking about the incentives we live by – first during our schooling years and then afterwards – and how those incentives shape our thinking and our actions.

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing course or any sort of program that promises to improve your writing, then you’re likely to have come across the concept of filler words and weasel words – words that don’t convey any extra meaning or don’t add anything to a sentence. These are typically words we use in everyday speech but get in the way once the words come to paper (or screen). They're redundant, they make comprehension more difficult for the reader, and they make one's writing come across as unflattering.

An example is ‘basically’. You can leave this word out of almost any sentence you write, and it won’t change the meaning of the sentence. Basically, ‘basically’ is a filler word (see what I did there?). ‘Virtually’ is another example; this is to say I raise my hand to acknowledge that I’m just as guilty of this as anyone.

 This phenomenon rears its head because we tend to write the way we speak. There’s a temptation to vomit words on paper (or on screen) the way we hear them in our heads, but while this is fine (and even fit for purpose) in spoken form, it often gets in the way of efficient written communication. Different cognitive processes are involved in reading compared to hearing, so our written and spoken words should be adapted to effectively convey the information we please. This is why seasoned writers are trained to cut out these words, the same words that students often consider crucial to hitting their word count goals.  

If we accept that there’s a better way to write, it begs the question, why aren’t we taught to do so as early as possible? Here’s a more salient question: Why aren’t our educational systems set up to train us to be seasoned writers? Why do these systems compel us to operate in line with incentives that are antithetical to the goals we should aspire to?

 Think about this. If we recognise, and agree, that we should imbibe the habit of writing efficiently, then why are students given assignments for which the foremost requirement is to hit a certain word count or page count? Shouldn’t we emphasise the quality of the content, in other words, the efficacy of the message and communication, as opposed to the quantity in words or pages? Shouldn’t we emphasise the form and function of our language as opposed to maximising the amount of space they take up?

 I recognise that this isn’t always binary. It is possible to set a task to write on a topic in 1,000 words (for a term paper), 15,000 words (for a dissertation), or 80,000 words (for a PhD thesis); I’ve written all these. In fact, we probably should set some sort of guidelines for the purposes of expectation setting and time boxing, but this should be the extent of it. Unfortunately, what we have is a system that encourages, or incentivises us to lose sight of what matters – the quality of the prose and the depth of the arguments – and chase metrics that do little to serve the interests of the communication medium.

It has taken me a lifetime to unlearn some bad habits that I picked up in school, and many yet still manifest in my day-to-day writing. Writing is a lifelong pursuit and I’m under no illusions that I’ve cracked the code. I recognise that my writing is virtually far from filler-word-free, basically(?!)

I’ve hitherto used filler words and weasel words as a metaphor for how the wrong incentives can steer us off the paths we should be on. Incentives are powerful, powerful things, just ask any behavioural scientist. They’re all around us, too. For instance, have you noticed how most pop songs you hear on the radio come in at around the 3-minute mark? Or how there’s an entire genre of infotainment videos on YouTube that come in at around the 10-minute mark? How about the posts that go viral on text-based social media platforms? Those posts tend to have something in common, and you probably know what it is. The point I’m making here is there are forces that drive incentives, and we respond to these incentives like moths drawn to light.

I know from personal experience that radio programmers don’t take too kindly to 6-minute songs, especially from independent and relatively unknown artists like me. Airtime is precious, it is like gold to radio stations. It is also a fixed resource, you can’t manufacture more time, you can only price them depending on how many listeners you’re likely to draw, which varies based on the time of day. This is where the concept of prime-time programming comes from, and its existence alludes to the inelastic pricing of the timeslots on the radio.

If you were a radio programmer tasked with filling a (say) six-minute slot, would you sell the whole block as one 6-minute slot, two 3-minute slots, or three 2-minute slots? Would you settle for X amount, or 2X, or 3X? If your incentives were largely financial (as is typical in the industry), why would you choose to play one 6-minute song when you can play two 3-minute songs in the same amount of time for more profit? I know which one I’d choose. 

I should point out that there are exceptions, as with all things. There are songs that have simply stood the test of time, so their duration is less relevant in determining how much airtime they get. Prince’s Purple Rain will always get airtime because of its immutable status as a ‘classic’. It is not just the nostalgia evoking content that get special treatment either. The progenitors of such content can continue to ride the waves because they've proven themselves many times over. This is all to say that once you're established, you can break the rules with impunity. Bob Dylan can release a 17-minute single and be rewarded for it, even by the gatekeepers (some of them at least). Do that while starting out, and you'll get the door slammed in your face.

When radio programmers choose not to air songs of a certain length, they’re merely acting on incentives, incentives that, by the way, they’re not responsible for. The musicians, in turn, respond by writing and recording shorter songs because that’s what the radio promoters are more likely to play. And so it happens, that shorter and shorter songs make it to the radio.

 It doesn’t end there. In time, the radio-listening public get exposed to shorter songs, and by virtue of the exposure effect, they start to like shorter songs more and more. The upshot of this is that the typical person can’t tell you why they prefer to listen to shorter songs. They may not even realise that this preference exists.

 If you run a survey asking people about their music preferences and the factors that influence their attitudes towards music, they’re likely to report that the length of the track doesn’t matter (again, with exceptions, and within reason). But their behaviours will tell a different story. If you observe what people choose to listen to, say by getting your hands on analytics from streaming platforms, you’re likely to see a stark preference for shorter songs, which deviates from the reported attitudes around music preferences.

This phenomenon is what user experience researchers refer to as the attitudinal-behavioural divide. Simply put, what people say (their stated or reported attitudes), and what people do (their observed or measured behaviours) tend to diverge. Ask people how they take their coffee, and they’ll likely express a preference for the authentic, traditional way (i.e. black and strong). Analyse sales data from coffee chains and you’ll see that the most popular drinks are the milky, sugary coffees.

Studies have shed light on this phenomenon. An interpretation of the findings is that we want others to think of us as authentic and original, the kind of person that deviates from the norm rather than conforms to popular trends. In this vein, it is more fashionable to express a preference for the traditional espresso, but when on the high street and in need of a refreshing drink, a caramel frappuccino from a recognisable coffee chain becomes more appealing.

The same phenomenon explains the variation (or at least a portion of it) between poll predictions and election results. Take the 2016 presidential elections in the US for example. It was a two-horse race between Trump and Clinton, with pollsters predicting a landslide victory for Clinton. We know how that turned out; the pollsters were well off the mark. Now, this is a complex issue with multiple factors at play – from the methodologies employed to the challenges with representative sampling – but one factor that had to have played a part, is the paucity of intention-stating, would-be Trump voters in the polling results. Maybe the would-be Trump voters lied because they weren’t comfortable admitting to their Trump-voting intentions, maybe they were undecided and chose to lean towards the more popular candidate, maybe they answered the poll questions honestly and changed their plans at the last minute, we can’t know for sure. If you’d like to read more, there’s a swath of articles that do this subject justice more than I can ever do, like this one.

The point is, much like the Americans who voted for Trump after misleading the pollsters, it is not necessarily the case that we are all liars; more often than not we don’t notice the divergence between our attitudes and our behaviours. We don’t often realise we’re responding to invisible incentives, and they shape our behaviours in ways that we don’t realise, but that’s what makes them especially powerful.

 All of this is accentuated by just how susceptible we are to, and influenced by social proof. The concept of social proof is popular in behavioural research circles. This is the idea that we often look to others when we’re undecided on how to act. There’s a plethora of behavioural data that sheds light on this phenomenon, and just like the situation with election polls and coffee consumption, the behavioural data deviates from the attitudinal data that is reported by the public.

Case in point, consider the following scenario. You’re on holiday in a foreign country, with no experience with the local cuisine. It’s lunch time, you’re starving, and you could do with some food pronto. Outside your hotel in a popular district, you see two food stalls. One of them has a long line stretching around the corner while the other is barely attended. You don’t know anything about these food stalls, not even the kind of food on offer (because you’re in a foreign country). All you know is that you want food, and you want it now. Which one would you go to?

The typical response, on first thought, is to err on the side of logic and go to the empty food stall. After all, you’re starving, you’ll get your food much quicker that way. This is what most people often report, but it is not, in fact, what most people choose to do. Most people would queue up in the long line. The rationale behind this is if there’s a long line, then the stall must be popular, and the food must be good. Plus, who knows what’s wrong with the empty stall anyway? Stick with the crowd and be rewarded. The interesting thing is that we don’t even hear our inner voices laying out the logic like this, we rely on cognitive shortcuts to help us make these decisions in the blink of an eye, and it’s partly why we can’t be trusted to accurately report on our preferences.

 The same is true of e-commerce reviews. People are more likely to purchase products that have more reviews online, even if the reviews aren’t necessarily better than equivalent products with fewer reviews. This is wild. A product with more reviews isn’t necessarily better, there’s just quite simply, something about it that drives people to write reviews. It is possible that it is truly the best on offer, but it could also just be that it has been around the longest and has thus amassed the most reviews. There could also be something polarising and instigating about it, such that people either love it so much or hate it so much that they can’t keep their views on it to themselves.

This is where we come back around to incentives. Ask yourself this: when last did you leave a review of your own volition, without a reminder, like a kind word from the seller, or the prospects of a reward (say, a chance to win a voucher)? E-commerce giants rank products in search results based on the quantity of reviews (among other factors), so the vendors in turn lean on customers to leave reviews to increase the likelihood that other potential customers will find the products in the search results. This creates a landscape where vendors and customers alike benefit from reviews, and we’re more incentivised to leave reviews either because it serves our interests (like winning a voucher or spreading the good word about a friend’s business) or because we feel a sense of injustice (like when something’s gone terribly wrong with an order and the world needs to hear about it).

In other words, it helps when you leave a glowing review, so please write reviews for your local independent businesses, and share the works of independent artists you love. If you’re enjoying this post, or if you enjoy my music or my writing, now’s a good time to share (and come back for the conclusion). Please and thank you!

Of course, the reverse is also, oddly and unintuitively true. When you leave a bad review, it could also help, because it adds to the overall quantity of reviews, or the cacophony of voices shouting about the thing in the proverbial town square. Once it crosses a threshold or tipping point, the quantity of the reviews trumps the quality, and the individual reviews cease to matter. This is a manifestation of that old expression, that there’s no such thing as bad press.

As people that make and consume art, we will forever be responding to incentives. For something so invisible and seemingly innocuous, there’s hardly a stronger force that makes its presence felt in creative crafts. It is the most unfortunate thing to not recognise the incentives we respond to, and even when we recognise them, that’s only the beginning.

It is easy to find yourself mindlessly scrolling online because the platforms employ some of the smartest people in the world to figure out how to keep you on there for as long as possible. The longer you’re on their platform, the more they can learn about you and your preferences. The more they learn about your preferences, the more they can show you things that interest you. The more they show you things that interest you, the longer they can keep your attention. The longer they keep your attention, the more likely they are to sell you stuff that you’ll want to buy, like a subscription to a writing service.

The platforms are designed this way for a reason; it is a business model that works…for them. It is propelled by incentives designed to maximise their profit margins, while I unwittingly spend precious time comparing my everyday life to other people’s highlight reels, at the expense of my sanity and productivity.

 Every now and then, it helps to pause, take stock, and review what matters. I’ve found that it helps to review why I make the art I make, why my processes are the way they are, and whether there are seemingly innocuous incentives – explicit and environmental, or implicit and self-fulfilling – that I’m subconsciously responding to. Take a moment to think about how incentives shape your everyday life. If you could take steps to change things this week, what would you do differently? 

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