Generation Effect

By Ben Ambridge


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Let’s do a little maths quiz on your times tables. What is 6 x 9? I’m not going to say it – you have to say the answer out loud. Or – if you’re watching this on your phone on the bus – at least say the answer to yourself in your inner voice. OK, now I’m going to do one 7×8=56; 3×7=21.

What was all that about? This is all to do with a psychological effect that was first reported in 1989 by two Psychologists called Robert Crucher and Alice Healy. And it’s called the generation effect. What they did was essentially what I’ve just done with you. They gave participants a series of simple sums – for some they gave them the answer, and for some, the participants had to work out the answer themselves.

And what did they find? Well, what did you find. Can you remember the answers to the sums that I gave you a few seconds ago?

If you’re like the participants in Crucher and Healy’s famous experiment, then you will have remembered the answer you generated yourself (45, or – if maths isn’t your strong point – whatever incorrect answer you gave), but you won’t have remembered the answers that I worked out and gave you on a plate: 56 and 21.

There are a few different ways for you to put this generation effect to work on your site. One way, for example, is by allowing customers to customise their products. This is going to make the products more memorable, and it also makes use of something called the labour-love effect or the IKEA effect (basically that you value something more if you’ve had to put work into it).

But if this isn’t feasible for your particular site, then you can ask your visitors questions. In fact, often when you see questions on a site, they’re there for exactly this reason. The site owner isn’t necessarily going to use the answers – it’s just that if participants come up with their own reasons why they might buy from a particular site, they will find them more persuasive than reasons that other people have given them.

So you could ask customers what they think is unique about your site or your offering. You could ask them why they are considering buying from you. And you could even get the best of both worlds by supplying possible answers and asking customers to elaborate on them.

For example, you could say – Why did you choose to shop with us today (e.g., price, range, delivery options) – and leave it to them to spell out exactly what it is about your prices, range or delivery options that they find most valuable.

Finally, if and when the customer has checked out, you could ask them these types of questions on the “thank you” page – why DID you buy from us. This really taps into the memory aspect of the generation effect. If a customer themselves writes “because you were cheaper than the other sites”, then they will remember this next time they’re looking to make a purchase of a similar product.

In short, you won’t go far wrong if you remember this general principle: We’re less persuaded by, and find less memorable, things we hear from others than things that we hear from ourselves.

Ben Ambridge
Hi, I’m Ben. I’m a Reader in Psychology at the University of Liverpool and I lead consumer psychology at Endless Gain. I’m interested in how research findings from academic psychology can be applied in our everyday lives as consumers. And, importantly how psychology plays an influential role in ecommerce. I write a weekly psychology column for The Observer, and my book Psy-Q: You Know Your IQ - Now Test Your Psychological Intelligence has been translated into 15 languages. Check out my TED talk, "Ten Myths about Psychology, Debunked".

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