Never buy a scratch-card before doing your shopping!

August 23, 2015 by Martha’s Dad

luckydog-6161368Supermarkets aren’t stupid.  They carefully position the cigarette counter near the entrance for a number of reasons, not least the ability to buy products quickly on entering or leaving the store.  And of course this usually includes the obligatory lottery terminal, together with the seemingly bewildering array of scratch-cards all temptingly lined up behind perspex at eye-level.

If you are are frequent player of these seemingly innocent sources of quick reward or disappointment, however, do be careful when you actually buy one as a the outcome may have unintended consequences for your shopping trip!  A new study by Wadhwa and Kim in a recent issue of Psychological Science investigated the effects of a “near win” on consumer motivation.  In an ingenious field experiment, 164 US consumers were given carefully rigged scratch-cards just before entering a store or mall.  Specifically, a third of the cards resulted in a win, a third were a straightforward loss, and the final third produced a near-miss (e.g. the player had five-out-of-six correct symbols).  The latter card produced a somewhat surprising side-effect, the consumers who had just missed out on a prize spending more money on themselves in the form of treats (e.g. chocolate bars).  But why?

The authors explain this in terms of Goal Gradient Theory, an idea that’s actually been kicking around since the 1930s.  Playing a scratch-card produces a state of physiological arousal in all of us, but the rate at which this dissipates varies according to the outcome of the game itself.  A win satisfies the motivating effects of arousal quite quickly, with a cash prize being handed over, with a similar effect being seen with the ordinary loss (we just accept it, odds of winning were low anyway).  The near-win is more problematic because we “came so close” and this causes the arousal to persist.  So, as a consequence, we seek out other forms of quick reward/gratification – hence the increased draw of that tempting chocolate bar, cream cake or bottle of wine!

The moral of this story is simple…  If you are going to buy a scratch-card, better to do so on the way out of the store rather than upon arrival, or at very least save playing the card until later when you’ve left the supermarket environment.  If not, you may well spend more than you intended while doing your grocery shopping.