The harder we try to be productive, the easier it is for us to be nudged into something against our interests. This started to make itself obvious a few weeks ago when I started to use Day Cost Pro, a personal finance app.
I do not recall buying it. I suspect I may have been nudged to purchase it by a recommendation on iTunes. Because it was priced at Rs 299, it probably sounded cheap enough to just download. But then it stayed unused on my phone. Until two months ago, when a voice in the head began to insist that I record all my expenses and earnings in the app. As the month ended, charts emerged to show in granular detail how I spend and earn. Apparently, I spend disproportionately on digital subscriptions of all kinds.
I knew I wasn’t consuming much of their content. And when I scrutinised the charts for consumption patterns, I found that in most cases either sleep or family time had been sacrificed. Pragmatism dictated that an un-subscription drive follow.
It felt unpleasant because each application promised to make life better by keeping me more informed, more entertained, more educated, more mindful, more fit, and so on. They were priced competitively too. But the charts demonstrated that when the monies were added up, they equalled the family’s annual health insurance premium.
A brutal cost-cutting exercise and post-mortem followed. How did I subscribe to so many services? Clearly I was nudged to purchase much that I knew I would not use. How?
This has been the subject of much research over the years and has fascinated my colleague NS Ramnath. May I nudge you to his most recent column on the theme and an award-winning article he wrote basis an interaction with the globally-acclaimed psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer?
A pointer to how large entities nudge consumers can be found in a public statement by Reed Hastings, the chairman and CEO of Netflix: “You know, think about it, when you watch a show from Netflix and you get addicted to it, you stay up late at night. We’re competing with sleep, on the margin.”
To compete against the human urge for sleep is a tough ask. Which is why this year alone, Netflix has set aside $15 billion to create original content. Apple has earmarked $14 billion for research. Amazon has placed $6 billion in the ring. These are brutal sums.
Yet another pointer emerged on serial entrepreneur Kunal Shah’s Twitter timeline where he posited that, “Any subscription product that’s about improving yourself has massive retention because cancelling it means you’re giving up on yourself.”
His observation struck a chord with many—including me. All of us agreed we aren’t reading the few million books Kindle Unlimited offers, listening to offerings from Audible, learning from courses we have enrolled for, getting around to use motivation and fitness apps that reside on our phones, or even reading up the dailies we subscribed to with the best of intentions.
But what hit harder right away was listening to the chief product officer at an Indian technology company that mines data. His team monitors how people consume content, so that they can craft personalised narratives that will appeal to them. When they think their story is just right, they offer a free trial. The reason is simple. “You see,” he said, “we aren’t very different from cocaine peddlers. The first shot is always free.”
This places in perspective the fierce debate raging in the US around whether Big Tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Netflix should be broken up to curb their dominance over our lives. In India, that debate has not gained public attention yet. But outside the US, India is the largest market for these companies and Indians are among the most vulnerable to their narratives.
It is time we take note. Our time, family lives, sleep and money are at stake.
(This is a mildly modified and expanded version of an article that was first published in Hindustan Times)