It seems like only yesterday. There I was, on Saturday 15 May 2004, stuck in my university dorm and frantically cramming for an afternoon exam. A roar erupted from the common room across the quad and champagne bottles began to pop. South Africa had just been chosen as host country for the FIFA World Cup in 2010. Eighty days from now, that dream will come to life.

When everyone began talking of tickets over a year ago, I was pretty nonchalant. The tournament felt too far away. Besides, I’ve never been particularly huge on sport so it didn’t matter much. So, how did I end up here, with double tickets to four games and desperate to get my hands on more? The answer, my friends, comes down to three traps I’ve fallen into, which Robert Cialdini discusses brilliantly in Influence:

1.    Expert Advice

We are more likely to act on the advice of experts, which explains why we opt for the skincare range recommended by dermatologists or the car Jeremy Clarkson raved about on Top Gear. And let’s not forget about the infamous Milgram experiment in which subjects inadvertently “tortured” other participants just because some guy in a white lab coat instructed them to do so. In my case, the expert came in the form of a colleague who’d painstakingly worked out the probable permutations to determine the “not to be missed” games. How could I argue with that?

2.    Peer Pressure

We often find ourselves compelled to do what others do if these are people we want to be associated with or already respect. Besides, it’s contagious and safe to do what everyone else is doing (be it in your choice of career or brand) rather than venture out on your own. So, I did what all my friends and family couldn’t stop talking about and bought tickets. If anyone still questions the efficacy of peer pressure, try explaining why a chunk of the Cape Town population deliberately has their upper incisors removed. Looking cool matters; being able to chew does not.

3.    Scarcity

“In order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to obtain.” – Mark Twain

Being denied something or feeling it will only be available in a limited quantity for a limited time makes us want it even more. FIFA managed to do that quite well by stressing the fact that the limited seats for this once in a lifetime experience could be sold out if we didn’t act fast. I’m sure you can think of many other examples including department store sales that never stop being for “a few days only” or the irrational exuberance (tulips, anyone?) that’s landed us in financial troubles time and again.


One question still on my mind after reading through this month’s special report in Admap is this: What about the ethics? We get noticeably upset when it comes to those in the context of neuroscience but nobody seems concerned about the far subtler tactics of behavioural economics.

Should FIFA and other companies be allowed to continue using these clever (and mostly legal) psychological means to get to their ends? Next we’ll have charities using targeted requests because we’re more likely to donate to people who share our names or added creativity in advertising crafted purely to prevent us from thinking too much. Should we do something then?

It’s a dangerous world out there and even us industry insiders who might consider ourselves immune should take care.

 (For more on behavioural economics, see last week’s post and Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes.)