Behavioural Tech-heads: What technology needs to learn from behavioural science

June 29, 2021

Ellie Jacobs
Research Executive
Alex Holmes
Research Director

Behavioural Tech-heads is a monthly series on Research World looking into what the technology industry can learn from behavioural science. It will cover the biases – both cognitive and behavioural – and psychological principles that offer the greatest contribution to the tech industry.

Messenger Effect

In this installment of Behavioural Tech-heads we’ll be looking at the messenger effect.

What’s it all about?

We’re heavily influenced by who communicates information to us. The source of that information is known as the messenger.

A messenger can be explicit. Such as Lord Kitchener on the recruitment posters used in World War I. The poster resulted in surge in volunteer recruitment.

Or a messenger may be more subtle.  For example, the ‘persona’ of a radio station. This ‘persona’ is made up of a huge number of factors including the station name, its DJs/hosts, and music choices.


How does the messenger impact the communication?

The impact of a messenger boils down to the relationship between them and who they’re communicating with.

  • Value congruence: The higher the congruence between the values of a messenger and their audience, the more impactful the communication. This is key to influencer marketing. The values of an influencer must match the company they’re promoting. Because influencers share so much of their lives online, their audiences are very familiar with them and their values. They will spot a value mismatch a mile off. Both the company and the influencer will be seen as inauthentic and suffer as a consequence.
  • Authority: From a young age, we’re taught that authority figures are to be trusted and obeyed. This powerful norm is deeply established within our society. Typified by the famous Milgram study, the messenger only needs to be perceived as an authority figure. We perceive authority via titles (e.g. doctor), clothing (e.g. suit), and trappings (e.g. car). Authority figures are most useful when communicating a message on something which people have limited knowledge of, or little ability to check the validity of. They provide reassurance through their credibility & trustworthy status.
  • Relatedness: The extent to which we’re related to the messenger affects the impact of the message. Consider the following people recommend a film to you:
  • Your best friend
  • Your manager
  • Your grandparents

You’re more likely to watch the recommended film if the messenger was the one that you’re closest to. The subjective ‘closeness’ of the relationship is what’s important. One study showed that incidence of teenage smoking was increased by 26% if a parent smoked but increased by 1,000% if two peers smoked.

The messenger effect at work (good & bad examples)

Footballer Marcus Rashford took on the UK government when they planned to stop offering free school meals during the 2020 school summer holidays. Coming from a low-income home himself, Rashford relied on free meals as a child. Equipped with his large online following, he campaigned against the government’s decision – and won. His supporters believed his ‘message’ as it was authentic, trustworthy, and credible. On the flip side – inauthentic, untrustworthy, and uncredible – Khloe Kardashian’s promotion of the migraine medication “Nurtec ODT” was less than successful.

What’s the importance for the tech industry?

Trusting the ‘messenger’ has never been more important. We live in uncertain and anxious times – driven by the pandemic. In addition, trust in the media (traditional, owned, and social) and search engines has dropped significantly – as demonstrated by The Edelman Trust Barometer 2021.  

Who are some of the key players in those areas? Tech brands. Therefore, to rebuild consumer trust there are 3 things they could look to do:

  • Amplifying value congruence: As tech brands continue to innovate, they often recede further away from their core brand values. This can result in customer trust eroding. New innovations must be clearly communicated in a way which connects with the brand’s original ethos and values.
  • Take authoritative action: Trump vs. Twitter provides a good example here. As any controversial voice does, Trump drove conversation. For Twitter, this meant usage. However, his voice was very controversial, and, in his own favourite phrase, he was spreading ‘fake news’ on the site. In January 2021, the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, took the authoritative decision to suspend his account. This action demonstrated the site was to be used positively and inciting hate would not be tolerated. Since then, revenues at Twitter have jumped up 28%. Trust breeds revenue.
  • Authenticity: For tech brands, authenticity is a tricky one. Due to the nature of the online world, online behaviour is perhaps not best known for its authenticity. This rubs off on brand personality. Even when tech companies donate money or goods, people generally don’t see these as wholly authentic actions. Tech brands can overcome this by showing that their actions are altruistic, acting in the interest of others, not their own. To do so, they need to get their hands dirty. Let’s go back to Marcus Rashford. During his campaign (at the height of the pandemic), he was delivering food door-to-door. This selfless act demonstrated he truly believed in what he was campaigning for. It demonstrated he was authentic.

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